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God Squad: Jews, Christians' connections

Q. Paul's contention that the "New Covenant" essentially replaces the "Old Covenant" with the Old Testament Hebrews seems to fly in the face of Jesus' statement that he was here not to abolish but to fulfill the law of the prophets. Did Jesus intend to say that all the Old Testament laws (Leviticus, Ten Commandments, etc.) still apply in full?

-- P., River Bend, N.C., via email

A. I've always loved Paul's metaphor from Romans 11:16-22 that imagined a great olive tree of Judaism to which the great branch of Christianity was grafted on. The older Christian sources like Paul are closer to the place where the new branch began and therefore are the place where ancient Judaism and ancient Christianity are the closest.

Paul was engaged in the first great dispute with the Jerusalem Christians over the role of Jewish law in the new faith of Christianity. Paul believed that the law, primarily the ritual law of Judaism concerning keeping kosher and also concerning circumcision, was no longer binding upon Christians because Jesus was the culmination of the law (Romans 10:4).

The Jerusalem Christians disagreed with Paul about setting aside Jewish ritual law, but over time Paul's views prevailed, and the split between Judaism and Christianity grew wider. You are correct: The moral law of Judaism was and is obligatory upon Christians with its supreme commandment being the Golden Rule requiring us to treat others with the respect we want for ourselves.

It's this common belief in the moral law that was first revealed in the Hebrew Bible that still constitutes the bridge between Judaism and Christianity -- and, indeed, the bridge between all faiths. We don't share the same rituals, which are intended for only those within our particular covenants, but we do share a common and world-changing commitment to moral virtue, justice, compassion and forgiveness that has changed us and changed the world.

After 2,000 years of separation as two distinct and different religions, it's important and comforting to remember that Jews and Christians are connected, root and branch, with a common moral vision of how to serve God in a broken world. This common rooting gives me hope that our disputes and differences will both be respected and preserved, but also put into a larger context that Paul spoke of so eloquently: "As Scripture says, 'Anyone who believes in Him will never be put to shame.' For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile -- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on Him. For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' " (Romans 10:11-13).

Q. I'm a practicing Methodist. A while ago, I attended the Catholic funeral of a close friend. I am aware that non-Catholics are not allowed to take Holy Communion in a Catholic church. However, I chose to take Communion at the funeral because I felt that not doing so would be disrespecting Jesus, whom I love very much. A Catholic relative of mine was very annoyed that I had "disrespected" the Catholic Church by going against its beliefs. I explained that I felt stronger about honoring Jesus than disrespecting the Catholic Church. Your thoughts?

-- T., via email

A. I respect your love of Jesus, but your friend is correct. Taking Communion is not just an act of respect. In the Catholic faith, it's an act of belief that the wine and the wafer have been transubstantiated into the body and blood of the risen Christ, the Messiah whose atoning death and Resurrection saved humanity from the stain of original sin.

The Eucharist is not a metaphor of respect for Jesus, but a foundational sacrament and mystery at the heart of Christianity. If you don't believe this, you should not take Communion at all, and if you wish to do so in a Catholic church, you should, indeed, be Catholic or belong to a church in communion with Rome. There are other ways to show your love of Jesus that don't usurp the sacred beliefs of Catholicism.

Being a respectful guest is more holy than creating your own version of the sacraments. I would suggest you write to your Catholic relative and explain that what you did was unintentionally wrong. I'm certain that your good heart will convince your relative to accept your apology. We don't have to do what our friends do to show our love and respect.

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