Re-Imagining Jesus (Part IV): Synagogue: Cradle of the Church

October 6, 1996


Synagogue: Cradle of the Church

We have come this morning to the fourth and final sermon in a series called “Re-Imagining Jesus, and the major thrust of this one is that we miss the real Jesus when we take him out of his first-century Jewish context. You would be surprised at how many Christians manage to forget that the founder of their church was Jewish, just as Jewish as Moses, Mendelsohn or Einstein. He was born of Jewish parents, circumcised on the 8th day according to Jewish law, and given a name as common in his day as Bob, Jim, Bill or John in ours. I look out at this audience on a given Sunday morning and quickly notice half dozen men named John: Carraway, Conlee, Danby, Koppenhaver, Lahti, Neice. The young man known in Nazareth as the son of Joseph and Mary was called Yeshua, a name so popular in Israel that even in his own small village there would have been others who shared it.
Like his playmates, the life of this Yeshua was closely tied to the synagogue, at that time the most important institution in Judaism. The great temple was in Jerusalem, and a poor Jew from as far north as Galilee would not have made that trip often, but Jesus was in the synagogue on almost every day of his life. His growing years were centered in his home, where he seems to have worked in his father’s shop, and in the synagogue, which was his school as well as his “church.” The synagogue was also the local court, with its elders sitting as judges. They sometimes punished people by flogging them right on the premises, something Jesus undoubtedly saw and which he mentions once (Matt. 10:17). The elders might sentence a man wanting forgiveness to do all sorts of humiliating things; Jesus as a boy may have watched as some remorseful sinner laid down across the door of the synagogue so people could step on him as they entered.
But if it had its harsh moments, it also provided security for a Jewish child like Jesus. As the sun began to set each Friday he would hear, and sometimes surely watch, as the Chazzan, the servant of the synagogue, climbed to its roof to blow the ram’s horn that signalled the coming of the Sabbath. On that day normal life would be suspended while every devout Jewish home scrupulously observed the rules. There would be several hours of study and worship at the nearby synagogue. And even as a very young man, Jesus would almost certainly have been one in a group of males who read a few lines from the law and the prophets. This reading was such a significant part of the service that the converted Jews who later made up the early Christian church continued the practice of having an official “Reader.”
Not much reading is done in modern churches, probably because many people speak well before an audience who do not read well in public; the two art forms make different demands. A minister friend of mine has told me that one of his most memorable experiences at Princeton Seminary was a course in reading , taught by a gifted teacher of actors who came in from New York once a week for this special class. The first thing he did was to assure the mostly Presbyterian candidates for ministry that it was important for them to be skilled at reading the Bible aloud, so they spent their weekly sessions practicing with the Sermon on the Mount. “Since the teacher came from a theater background,” my friend said, “I expected him to be a little too dramatic, but he was interpretive instead. ‘You can’t read it right,’ he would tell us, ‘until you know what it’s saying.’” I knew only one professor in the years of graduate study who insisted that strongly that we were not ready to teach any literature until we had shown proof of skill in oral interpretation. His final exam included having us first memorize Milton’s long, difficult poem entitled Lycidas and then recite it in his office in such a way as to prove that we understood clearly what was being said: pauses at the right times, key words given proper weight. We all thought it was a terrible imposition — we even tried out that worst of all slanders: “No other professor makes people do this!” — but I’m sure there must be others from that long-ago classroom who have had reason in their public careers to bless his memory.
“You can’t read it right until you know what it’s saying” — the ruler of the synagogue must have said it more than once to the young man Jesus. He would allow only those to read publicly who had learned to do so effectively in the daily school. Jesus must have learned well; it seems nothing unusual for him when Luke mentions how he “entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.” Someone handed him the scroll of Isaiah, he unrolled it and read a favorite text, and then sat down to explain how the words of scripture applied to his audience. It seems odd to us that one would stand up to read and sit down to speak, and I am not sure of the reasoning behind that custom, but it may have gone like this: one who reads the exact words of the holy text must honor it by standing up, as one would do in the presence of majesty; afterwards, during the human interpretation of it, one might sit down in the midst of others. Although the mother of Jesus would have been seated separately, perhaps behind a screen, and along with the other women allowed no leading part, among the men there would be vigorous discussions about how the reader had chosen to interpret the scripture he had just read.
Where the great temple in Jerusalem was for ritual and sacrifices, and controlled by the priesthood, the synagogue was much more democratic, a kind of teaching institution where visitors might be invited to speak if they happened in. While there was one temple in the holy city, there could be a local synagogue wherever there ten heads of families — so throughout Israel there were hundreds of synagogues according to the Jewish historian Josephus — small enough to function as family units, more like modern day “house churches” than the huge physical plants where hundreds, even thousands, may assemble on Sundays. As you can see, the synagogue influenced the shape of the earliest Christian churches where converted Jews kept the reading, teaching and discussion fellowship, with no priesthood in control. No wonder that Alfred Edersheim, the great Christian scholar who was himself a Jew, wrote: “The synagogue became the cradle of the church. Without it, the church universal, humanly speaking, would have been impossible.”
We need a reminder at times of how great our debt is to the Jewish people, especially since Christians have so often been guilty of tragic anti-Semitism. We forget all too easily that Jesus lived and died Jewish, and that the church founded in his name must have looked for a long time, in many ways, like the synagogues in which he grew up. One great difference was that remembrance of the Last Supper which became what we know as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. On this first Sunday in October, we join Christians all around the world in celebrating that enduring ritual in church life. This is a fitting day for completing the sermons on re-imagining Jesus, because communion only has meaning for people with active imaginations who are willing to put other concerns aside for a few minutes and remember in this quiet time the beauty and goodness of the life we are celebrating. We believe in “open” communion; if you wish to honor the life of Jesus in this way, you are welcome to join us.

Go with us now, Eternal God, from these moments of special
communion with Thee into a world of service….where, because
we have been here, together, we can more perfectly do Thy
will. Amen.