By Rev. Peter A. Pettit
We have just navigated our way through Reformation Sunday once again and many in the church will have wrestled with the appointed texts of the Revised Common Lectionary. Jeremiah’s “new covenant,” Paul’s “faith apart from works of the law,” and John’s “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” all lean into the problematic posture of the church’s millennia-long anti-Jewish rhetoric. Few among us want to go there; any echo of that rhetoric in our preaching and teaching is usually unintentional. The ELCA in 1994 spoke explicitly, in “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community,” of “our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people.” That means we need to learn to step clearly away from even unintentional offenses into which the lectionary and long-standing theological habits might lean us.
A 56-page guide that has recently been published on the ELCA website lays out steppingstones for taking those deliberate steps of understanding, respect, and authentic representation in relation to our Jewish neighbors and their faith traditions. The guide distils decades of recent research into accessible sections focused on ten key areas of textual, historical, and theological significance. Prophetic language, Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day as well as Jewish diversity then and now, Jesus and the Torah, gospel contexts, Paul among Jews and Gentiles and Martin Luther’s reading of Paul, law and gospel, promise and fulfillment, old/new language regarding covenants, and the dynamics of lectionary constructions all gain clarity through the explication of core principles and numerous examples. Indexes to both scripture and the lectionary calendar aid in locating relevant discussions.
The guide was developed by the ELCA Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations with input from many ELCA colleagues, consultants in the Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian churches, scholars from around the world, and Jewish partners. Dr. Phil Cunningham, a leading Roman Catholic expert at St. Joseph’s University, admitted to a measure of “holy envy” when seeing the guide published. (Of course, he was quoting the Lutheran bishop, Krister Stendahl, with that phrase!). Prof. Ruth Sandberg at Gratz College and Prof. Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski at Boston College have already committed to using it in courses on “Post-Holocaust Theology” and “Un-doing Anti-Judaism in the Church.”
Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious advisor to the American Jewish Committee, plans to use it in a local dialogue group in Florida. He cheers it as “most useful on a ‘retail’ level (congregational clergy and laity) because it clearly focuses on many of the neuralgic issues present in authentic Christian encounters with Jews and Judaism.” Abel Bibliowicz, author of Jewish-Christian Relations: the First Centuries (4th ed., 2022), has called the guide “thoughtful, courageous and paradigmatic…, a groundbreaking and admirable effort.”
As a handy reference to support weekly preparation, a study document for a clergy or adult study group, or the focus of a retreat or learning series on thinking as Christians in relation to Jews and Judaism, the guide can provide resources for a wide range of settings in the church and beyond. It can be accessed as a downloadable PDF on the ELCA Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations resource page and through tinyurl.com/ELCApreachingguide.
Peter A. Pettit is teaching pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport IA and a member of the Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations. For 20 years he directed the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College.