By Daniel Malakowsky
Apprenticeship to Jesus has become increasingly more involved with a growing initiative called Wittenberg 2017. The focus of this initiative is on the unity of the Body of Christ, with a specific recognition that October 31st, 2017, the 500th anniversary will occur of Luther offering his 95 theses and the spark that launched the fire that swept the Western world called the reformation. While this day will be a day of great celebration in commemorating the life and fruit of Luther, it is also a day of embracing the numerous and destructive divisions that have driven those who claim the name of Jesus from one another. In this it is both a day of celebration, but also a day of lament. A lament of the necessity of the Reformation, and also a lament of the exponential divisions that have now occurred in both its light and shadow.
Originally focused on bringing church leaders from various traditions and nations together to offer prayer for the global church, the Wittenberg 2017 initiative has been expressed as a movement focused on reconciliation prior to and beyond this historic date. In preparation for a gathering in Wittenberg in the days and week following the celebration on in 2017, a developing community of international leaders from various ministries in Europe, the United States, and even Messianic Jews from Israel, have been gathering to grow in sharing their personal and ecclesial contrition through acts and teachings of honoring and repentance. These meetings have grown from times in Ottmaring and Volkenroda in Germany, to two more recent gatherings in the historically significant cities of Trento, Italy (Trent), and the eternal city itself, Rome.
The movement of these meetings has been clear, especially as Catholics have taken initiative to pave the way in their own repentance, recognizing and lamenting the unfortunate need for the reformation. A clarion call has been rung in our times noting that Malachi 4:6 in speaking of turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and children to their fathers, may be as much about historic streams and traditions of the faith as it is about the individual family unit. In this way, those who represent the fathers of the Western tradition, have through their humility paved the way for their spiritual children to reciprocate in those representative of newer streams and traditions birthed out of the reformation itself.
As we have done this, one significant undertaking has been embracing one of the core foundations at root in many of these divisions, and that is the division of the church universal from its Judeo roots. The late South African scholar, David Bosch, speaks of this unrooting in his book Transforming Mission in the following way:
"The Christian church may never forget that it developed organically and gradually from the womb of Israel and that it may therefore not, as an outsider, lay claim to Israel's historic prerogatives. This is, unfortunately, what happened all too frequently as Christians boldly (even rashly) designated themselves as the 'new Israel.' With the ascendency of Gentile Christianity and the virtual disappearance of Jewish believers in Jesus, generations of Gentile Christians have ignored their dependence on the faith of Israel and often boasted of their new faith over and against the Jews...Gentile Christianity did not, however, replace the Jews as the people of God; rather, in the wake of Pentecost thousands of Jews, after embracing in staggering realization that their sacred customs are to give way before the 'impartiality' of God, became what they truly were - Israel...Into this renewed (not new) Israel, Gentile converts were incorporated...The church may never in a spirit of triumphalism arrogate the gospel to itself and in the process turn its back on the people of the old covenant."
Historically this unfolded in an accelerated way following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in year 70 A.D. It must be understood that these historical realities made this division in many ways unavoidable and it would be anachronistic to assume otherwise. The complexity of the situation, sociologically and politically, makes any attempts at blame for this undoing nearly impossible. The rising anti-Semitic tendencies of the growing Gentile church is found nearly at its onset in some of its earliest writings, such as the Epistle of Barnabas and a few of the works of Ignatius of Antioch. The Jewish rejection of both its Messiah and Roman rule gave fertile ground for the rebellion which would occur in 66 A.D. and the swift wrath of then general and eventually emperor, Titus. Years of animosity and anger erupted on both sides and the end result was the turning over of every stone of the building that once stood as the symbol and reality of God's presence in the world.
While not ignoring the significant debates of eschatology and preterist interpretations, it is also true that Jesus spoke and warned of this destruction in his final sermon recorded within the Gospel of Matthew. As many wrestled with the significance of this destruction, one of the earliest interpretations of it was from Origen who attributed his view to the historical writings of Josephus. It was believed this destruction was brought upon through the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, who was then head and patriarch of the Messianic church gathered in the city of Jerusalem. His death by decree of the high priest and Sanhedrin was thus understood to be the initiating act that led the God of Israel and Jerusalem to then allow its destruction. If this were so, then the God of Israel was expressing his frustration at its present disobedience in that time and once more using Roman hands to express that wrath. In a way similar to the death of Jesus though, the Roman's were ruthless, brutal, and thorough in their violent acts against the city and its people. Their violence arose from their arrogance and that arrogance would soon be celebrated within the city of Rome itself.
While interpretation gives way to speculation and it is unknown how God was at work in the unseen during this period, the combined hatred of Rome for the Jew, and the Jewish rejection of Roman rule culminated in a series of events that saw Titus' destruction of the city in 70 A.D. This led to the utter annihilation of Jerusalem and the temple and it was this act that was commemorated by Titus' successor and brother, Domitian, through the construction of an arch memorializing the conquest in 82 A.D. The arrogance of this monument is seen in the celebration of Jewish spoils depicted on it and the appropriation of the divine in claiming Titus and his father, Vespasian, as such.
The church in many ways has stood equally in arrogant triumph over Israel, forgetting that it is, as Bosch stated, birthed out of the womb of Israel. While in the first century many Jews rejected their Messiah, the increasingly Gentile church grew to reject its Jewish heritage and foundations. In addressing the divisions that have occurred since it is important to recognize that this misappropriation has been a foundational element. The false dichotomies, the cultural arrogance, and the redefinition of authority, polity, and administration can trace their own lineages to this original division.
Since the founding of Israel as a nation once more following the second great war in 1948 and a growing movement of Jewish followers of Yeshua within the Messianic movement, the church has become increasingly more aware of this arrogance appropriated within itself. Vatican II brought this to light in Nostra aetate acknowledging the shared guilt of the crucifixion and the anti-Semitism of the church's history. While controversial, those involved in mainline and evangelical circles have been influenced by scholars in the new Pauline perspective, such as E.P. Saunders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright. This has done much to initiate scholarship and conversation on the Jewish roots of the faith and pull it beyond the narrow apocalyptic eschatologies that had previously dominated such conversations. Now for the past half century it appears there is a greater work being done in the body of Christ to acknowledge its own unfortunate history and pride, and embrace the foundations it arose out of.
And so we found ourselves with this community of leaders as a part of the Wittenberg 2017 initiative standing before this arch just outside the forum gates in Rome. Overlooking the Coliseum, the arch of Constantine and the forum complex itself, we stood being led by a German Lutheran nun with a simple banner. Upon the banner was a cross with the star of David at its center and the inscription INRI at its top. The INRI, that acrostic placed above the head of Jesus in his crucifixion by the Romans, in Latin stands for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." There we stood at what is now a museum of the remnant of an empire that gave way 16 centuries before proclaiming that the king of the Jews was still seated upon his throne. The arrogance of Titus and Domitian in appropriating the divine gave way to the historical reality that their lives and works are now gone, only now filling history books and drawing tourists, while the eternal purposes of God are still being revealed in the life and work of the son of David, the son of man, the king of Israel, Jesus the Messiah. The arrogance of the church gave way to honoring its Savior as King of the Jews.
The triumph of the church is not its triumph over Israel. It is its triumph of INRI, that in Israel God was bringing forth his covenant and promise to be fulfilled through his son, the king.
For more on the Wittenberg 2017 initiative - www.wittenberg2017.org