Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Easter:
Acts: 10:25-28, 34-35, 44-48
1 John 4-7, 10
Israeli Zionists are no longer God’s people. The Palestinians are. And ironically, the Zionists are their oppressors. That’s the central thought I’d like to leave with each of you this morning. (And don’t worry; you’ll have time to talk back at me after I finish speaking. I want to hear what you think.)
My conclusion about Zionists and Palestinians is based on four considerations. To begin with it could be reached by just paying attention to the news – to what’s been happening in Gaza for the last two years and more. In Gaza the Zionists have created a virtual prison camp very reminiscent of the ones imposed on the Jews during World War II. In Gaza, Zionists have severely limited access to food, water, and medical care. They’ve have attacked private homes, schools and hospitals; they’ve killed with impunity thousands of men, women and little children.
Besides the news, my conclusions are also based on the writing of people who should know. Leading Jewish intellectual, Noam Chomsky lends support here. So does Jimmy Carter in his book Peace Not Apartheid. (Remember President Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Middle East Peace Process). Just this month, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, another Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a hero in South Africa’s struggle against the hated apartheid system of segregation, called for a boycott of Israeli goods. Like Carter, he says the Zionists have created a system of apartheid in Palestine every bit as unjust as South Africa’s before 1994. All three, Chomsky, Carter, and Tutu might agree that enforcers of a Hitlerian system like the one in Gaza, and enforcers of an apartheid system suggestive of South Africa cannot pretend that they are somehow underwritten by the God of the Bible as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
My third reason for saying that Palestinians not Israeli Zionists are God’s people is my own observation. A few years ago I went on a three-week fact-finding tour of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. My own eyes, and the conversations we had with all sides in the conflict convinced me that the Palestinians, not the Zionists deserve our support as Christians.
However my real motive for bringing all of this up this morning is contained in the readings for the Sixth Sunday after Easter in today’s liturgy. That’s my fourth reason for saying Israeli Zionists are not longer God’s people; the Palestinians are. Today’s readings tell us that God is love, that Jesus reveals the shocking meaning of that familiar statement, and that in the light of Jesus’ revelation, God has no favored nation at all – not the Israelis, not German Arians, not white Afrikaners, not Americans like us.
However, please note: saying that God has no favored nations at all is not the same as saying that God is neutral and has no favored people. God as revealed in Jesus is definitely not neutral. (To understand what I’m saying, it’s crucial to distinguish between “nation” and “people.” “Nation” refers to nationality, race, and sovereign states. “People” transcends all of that. “God’s people” could be found in any nation, among any race, in any sovereign state – or in no sovereign state as happens with the Palestinians who have no state of their own.) The (biblical) fact is God favors some people over others. God has made what theologians call a “preferential option” for some and not for others.
To show you what I mean, let’s begin by considering today’s second reading. Today’s selection from the First Letter of John makes two very important statements. The first is that God is love. The second is that the example of Jesus tells us exactly what that means. John is saying that by looking at Jesus we can know who God is.
Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight, can help us understand. “Jesus is not God,” Haight has said. Rather, “God is Jesus.” That might sound confusing at first. But here’s what he means. To say that Jesus is God presumes we know who or what God is. But, of course, we really don’t. God is invisible. No one has ever seen God. However, to say that God is Jesus addresses our lack of knowledge and the nature of “the incarnation.” It means that Jesus’ example lifts the veil of ignorance between us and God. By looking at Jesus, considering his words, deeds, life’s circumstances, and choices, we get a clear idea of who God is and the nature of his love. Jesus is not God. God is Jesus.
And what is it that Jesus reveals concerning the love of God? To reiterate, he tells us that it is partial. God’s love favors some and not others. Even before Jesus, the whole idea of “chosen people” supports that, doesn’t it? Apart from that, however, we have Jesus’ words. He clearly did not approve of his day’s religious establishment or its leaders. He called them “hypocrites.” In Luke’s version of the Eight Beatitudes, he says, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich.” Those are statements about whole classes of people, and about whom it is that God approves and whom he rejects. In the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, Jesus talks specifically about rewarding those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and show concern for the imprisoned. Those who don’t do such things are clearly rejected – and quite definitively.
Besides all that, the very choices that Christian theology tells us God made in presenting God’s Self in Jesus tell us much about whom God favors. God didn’t choose to incarnate God’s Self in the rich and powerful, though we might have expected that God would. God didn’t appear as a king, a priest, an intellectual, or even as a respectable person. Rather, Jesus as God’s fullest revelation was the son of an unwed teenage mother. He was homeless at birth. According to Matthew, he was an immigrant for a while in Egypt. The religious people of his day said he was possessed by the devil. They cast him out of their houses of worship – in effect excommunicating him. Jesus’ enemies called him a drunkard and friend of prostitutes and other sinners. The occupying Roman authorities considered him an insurgent and terrorist. (If they had “drones,” they would have killed Jesus that way because he met their “profile” of a terrorist.) In any case, Jesus ended up a victim of torture. He died a victim of capital punishment.
Those choices on God’s part as revealed in Jesus tell us who God is and where God is to be found. God’s chosen people are the unwed mothers, the homeless, the immigrants, the mentally ill, the excommunicated, those identified by empire as terrorists and insurgents, the tortured, and executed. That’s hard for us to hear, isn’t it? It runs so counter to what we’ve always been taught and believed about God’s impartiality.
That sort of shock puts us in good company. And that brings us to this morning’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There the Spirit of Jesus forces a reluctant Peter to draw unexpected and very uncomfortable conclusions about God’s choices, and about his own religious identity. Peter has just been visiting a man called Cornelius, a gentile – a non-Jew who has shown interest in Jesus. (At this point, it’s worth noting, Peter is not himself a Christian. In fact, as Elaine Pagels has recently argued, Peter never was a Christian. He and James and Andrew were Jews who thought they had found the Messiah in Jesus.) So for Peter, there was no salvation outside what he understood as the Chosen Nation – Israel. And yet, in Cornelius’ home, Peter has witnessed unmistakable signs that these non-Jews (Cornelius and his family) have received the Holy Spirit of Jesus. The whole family, Peter finds, is speaking in tongues and prophesying.
In the face of such evidence, Peter is forced to draw an uncomfortable conclusion: every nation is acceptable to God. There are no chosen nations. Israel is not God’s chosen nation. What a bitter pill that was for Peter to swallow.
In today’s final reading – from the Gospel of John the Evangelist – Jesus tells us swallow that same pill. John’s Jesus tells us that we are to follow his own example – to love with the kind of partial love Jesus embodied. Realize, Jesus says in effect, that the people we tend to despise are really God’s specially favored ones: those unwed mothers, the immigrants, the poor, the imprisoned, tortured and people, like Jesus, on death row. In the Middle East, God’s favored ones are the Palestinians even though our whole culture, the media, and our preachers and pastors tell us the opposite.
Accepting that means informing ourselves, reading outside the culture. It involves telephone calls to the White House and to Congress. It involves voting. Bishop Tutu says it involves boycotting Israeli products. It involves prayer and reflection.