A look back on Sunday
Earth_from_the_moon (Photo credit: My American Odyssey)
27All the ends of the earth shall
remember and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
Sunday, for the first time ever, I was uncomfortable with the words of the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer reciting the history of God’s saving work said as we gather around the table for Holy Communion. They are familiar words, the same ones we have been using in this season, and similar to all other such prayers. It talks about God’s creating, God’s call of Abraham and Sarah, God’s bringing Israel out from bondage in Egypt into a new and promised land. Before today I had never considered how those words might sound to people from the Middle East. In what way can this be their prayer?
Western Christians are used to thinking that we are participants in the promise once given to Israel – a promise that has been extended to us not by birth but in Christ Jesus. We see the promise to Israel not just as a promise to one particular people, but as a means to bring blessing to the world. We see the promise to Abraham not as a promise of land and descendants – but a promise of the Christ and the salvation of the world.
Sunday, I heard these words with new ears, for a young person from one of those Middle Eastern countries had come to be baptized. How would she hear this story we tell of God’s work in the Exodus and in the gift of the law? Can she hear it divorced from Israel as a modern nation-state? Can she hear it divorced from our current conflicts of Muslim, Jew and Christian? Does the story sound universal to her or partisan?
Christians have always acknowledged that the God revealed to Israel as seen through Jesus reflected the truth about the single transcendent reality of the universe. But this seems like a Michigan alum having to recite a story of their identity that roots them in the story of Ohio State. I can’t see my daughter doing that. Nor myself, without some discomfort.
The theological term for this is the scandal of particularity: that God chose one people through whom to bear witness to God’s identity and character. We subconsciously turn the Biblical narrative into universal and timeless stories of deliverance, wandering, guidance (laws) and rebellion, but they are not. They are stories of a specific people.
Jesus is pretty deliberate about crossing boundaries – welcoming outcasts, healing foreigners, sending his followers to Samaritans, the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Roman centurion Cornelius, and on to the Gentiles through Paul. Christians look back through the Old Testament and see a god always concerned about all the nations and peoples of the earth. God’s choice of Israel was a tool to bring blessing to the world. And the borders of the people were always open: Ruth, the Moabite woman becomes the grandmother of King David; Naaman, the Syrian, is healed by Elijah; Uriah was a Hittite; when Joshua calls the people to “choose this day whom you will serve” it is clear he is speaking to many more people than those who came through the Red Sea.
This universality is deep in scripture, especially when seen through Jesus. The genealogy in Genesis is a genealogy of all nations. God declares his blessing on Ishmael and his descendants, though the promise to Abraham falls to Isaac. The prophets speak not just to Israel but to nations who have never heard of the God of Israel. Jonah is sent to Nineveh and is not allowed to escape that task. The Persian King Cyrus is declared to be God’s “anointed” (in Hebrew, Messiah). We hear the promises about a great banquet on Zion as a banquet for all the earth. When the lion lies down with the lamb and swords are beaten into plowshares, it is the whole earth that is brought to peace. The New Jerusalem is not a new capital of Israel, but the world made whole. Still, behind it all is the God who first showed himself as the God of Israel.
What if God had revealed himself in the history of Ohio State? What if Woody Hayes were part of that narrative?!! To look past this, to see God in Israel’s story, this young woman has seen God more truly than I ever have.
I don’t know how to change the prayer without robbing it of something essential. But I pray it with much more humility and awareness than I have before:
It is right that we should give you thanks O God,
who by your Word called all things into being
and breathed into us the breath of life.
You called Abraham and Sarah to trust your word of promise
that they might bring your blessing to the world.
You led your people out from bondage and through the wilderness
and with bread from heaven taught them to trust your wise providing.
You met your people with your commandments at Sinai
and through the words of your prophets called them to lives of justice and mercy.
In the fullness of time you taught all people and worked redemption
in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Now in the mystery of this holy table Christ comes to us anew,
offering us the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calling us into the unending song of heaven:
And the congregation sings “Holy, Holy, Holy” recorded in Isaiah as the exclamation of the creatures around the throne of God.
PS The baptism was wonderful, a reminder of the joy of God’s love, and a sign for us all of the promise of a world gathered into one human community when “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”