During Easter Week I enjoyed saying the Easter Anthems in Morning Prayer. This is a set of eight versicles drawn from three passages in Paul; they used to be a weekly option in ASB, but in Common Worship they have been relegated to p 634 and used only seasonally, which is a loss (but that is another story). The verses are as follows:
Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us: •
so let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old leaven of corruption and wickedness: •
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5.7b, 8)
Christ once raised from the dead dies no more: •
death has no more dominion over him.
In dying he died to sin once for all: •
in living he lives to God.
See yourselves therefore as dead to sin: •
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6.9-11)
Christ has been raised from the dead: •
the first fruits of those who sleep.
For as by man came death: •
by man has come also the resurrection of the dead;
for as in Adam all die: •
even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15.20-22)
It is a creative and helpful linking of different but related theological ideas, and celebrates the Easter faith we live the whole year around.
During the week, I have been most struck by the first pair of verse, from 1 Cor 5. It depicts the Christian life as one long, continuous Passover feast, in which we celebrate the sacrifice of Jesus as the one who protects us from judgement and death and opens the way for the journey from slavery (to sin) to freedom in the promised land. The metaphor is not a complete one, since within the Passover story there is no equivalent to Jesus’ resurrection; that is supplied by different metaphorical framework in the following verses from Romans 6, which links Jesus’ death and resurrection to our going into and emerging from the waters of baptism (which does in fact then link metaphorically to the journey through the exodus waters of the Red Sea).
But what has most struck me is that, in the context of the mixed Jewish-Gentile congregation(s) in Corinth, this is a thoroughly Jewish theological idea. It locates the Christian story very specifically within the story of the Jewish people and invites this mixed Jewish-Gentile group to see itself as in continuity with the Old Testament people of God. It also draws on one use of the metaphor of leaven in Jesus’ teaching. In Matt 13.33 (and par Luke 13.21) Jesus speaks positively of leaven in dough as a metaphor for the kingdom of God, whose influences spreads far wider than we might expect, and adds something to the celebration of life (if the large amount of dough suggest some sort of feast). But elsewhere (Matt 16.6, Mark 8.15 and Luke 12.1) the leaven (or yeast) of the Pharisees is the corrupting influence of hypocrisy, which follows the same metaphorical understanding of the unleavened bread of Passover. On a surface meaning, the Passover bread is unleavened because of the speed with which the people need to get ready to respond to God’s deliverance and leave their homes. But it then becomes symbolic of lives cleansed of sin ready for the encounter with the Holy One of Israel.
This must mean that Paul is expecting the Gentile Christians in Corinth to have become thoroughly inducted into and identified with the Jewish religious outlook as a context for understanding the proclamation of the good news of Jesus (articulated in summary form in 1 Cor 15.1–7). It is clear from passages like 1 Cor 6.1 ‘…and such were some of you…’ that many of Paul’s addressees have come from a non-Jewish background. But it is also clear from 1 Cor 10.1–11 that Paul is expecting them to have adopted the OT story as their story, whether Jew or Gentile, and this before there is any sense that the Hebrew Bible has become the Christian Old Testament by its inclusion in a single volume with the New Testament as we now have it. In fact, Paul uses very striking language here: he talks of those who went through the Red Sea on the Exodus journey with Moses as ‘our ancestors’, and it is clear that he is not talking here only to his fellow Jews, since the argument is about avoiding involvement with idol meat, something that would have been an ethical issue for Gentile former pagans, and not for Jewish believers.
There is a similar striking dynamic within the shape of Romans. There is some historical evidence of the tension between the Jewish and early Jew-Gentile Christian communities in Rome, and we are made aware of the division by the rhetorical structure of Paul’s argument in Romans 1–2. He first deploys traditional Jewish critique of the Gentile world in Romans 1, and then deploys an inner-Jewish critique of Jewish devotion to God in chapter 2. The preliminary conclusion Paul comes to as a result of this is that great evangelical memory verse, Romans 3.23 ‘All have sinned…’ but Paul specifically means here ‘all, that is, both Jews (who have been given the law) and Gentiles (who are judged by their consciences) equally have sinned and are in need of salvation in Jesus.’ So Paul is clearly writing to a mixed Jewish-Gentile audience—but he looks to Abraham, within Jewish historical self-understanding, as the ancestor of all who trust in God in Romans 4. Again, he is expecting Gentile followers of Jesus to see themselves as having adopted and been adopted into the Jewish heritage and self-understanding, and makes this explicit in the metaphor of being grafted into the olive tree of Israel in Romans 11.24.
All this then assumes that there must have been a process of inducting Gentile converts into the very Jewish-looking early Christian communities—and this is backed up by two pieces of historical evidence.
The first is that, contrary to common assumptions about the ‘failure of the Jewish mission’, Christianity remained a very Jewish movement and Hellenized Jews continued to convert as late as the fourth or fifth centuries. That is the case made by Rodney Stark in chapter 4 of The Rise of Christianity. He bases this partly on what we know about the way religious movements grow and how people convert, but also from the actual data of conflicts in the early church.
I think examination of the Marcion affair reveals that a very Jewish Christianity still was overwhelmingly dominant in the mid-second century. The Marcion movement was very much what one would have expected Christianity to become if, from very early on, the Church in the West had been a Gentile-dominated movement, increasingly in conflict with the Jews of the diaspora, that it is alleged to have been. (p 64)
And he notes that later anti-Jewish polemic is much better explained as an argument to try and make the church look less Jewish than as a scapegoating of an insignificant minority group. I think Larry Hurtado’s forthcoming book on the impact of the Christian movement on the Roman Empire will also note this—that many of the distinctive features of this movement arose from its Jewish roots and identity.
The second piece of historical evidence is the rise of the catechumenate, the process of detailed instruction of converts into the teaching and disciplines of the church, which we see mentioned as early as the writings of Justin Martyr. By the time of Constantine, this process had become very extended and was often used as a reason to postpone baptism. But earlier on it was closely linked to admission into the community of faith.
This has a direct impact on our context. In contemporary debate about the direction the church should take in a post-Christendom and postmodern context, it is often claimed that the choice is between focussing on discipleship and become ‘sectarian’, or being open and inclusive to society around. But Paul’s example shows this is a completely false antithesis. To be open to and inclusive of those beyond the traditional culture and values of the Church—and to actually induct them into and involve them in the community of faith—will mean having clear and well-defined processes of discipleship in order to help them understand the story that is now their own. Focussing on discipleship is not an alternative to being open and inclusive; it is an essential process in a social context where church and society have moved apart (which they clearly have done) and where being part of the faith community is to actual mean something.
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