+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Due to last Sunday having been a principal celebration of the Church, namely the Feast of the Transfiguration, we missed our weekly dose of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which is a shame, because one of the central assumptions underlying the universal nature of the Christian mission assumed in this week’s lesson was not reckoned to be a given, but required an argument, at least insofar as Paul understood his audience’s assumptions. So we need to back up a bit and catch up.
Paul admits in what would have been read last week had it not been for the holiday to being in great sorrow and unceasing anguish for his own people. He even goes on to say that he would accept being “accursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of the Jews, from whom came up the law and the prophets and a man named Jesus of Nazareth. And it seems that “here endeth the lesson”. But, in reality, there’s much more to be said.
Our first response might be that Paul’s sorrow regards the failure of the law to produce righteousness. Paul immediately counters this assumption by insisting that the Word of God (which spoke through the law and the prophets) cannot possibly fail. Rather, he says, the “children of Israel” is not an entirely ethnic or racial reality but a spiritual reality: those Gentiles who accepted the consummation of the Law in Christ are to be reckoned “children of Israel” and those Jews who rejected said consummation were not “children of Isreal” in this most important, spiritual sense.
Paul again anticipates a possible objection to this line of reasoning: namely the suggestion that this would make God out to be unfair. He did, after all, promise Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants would be God’s chosen people, and this business about spiritual rather than actual descendants being “the children of Israel” seems too clever by half.
Paul gives what might strike us at first as an unsatisfying answer. God, he says, has mercy on those whom he wants to show mercy, and we’re not God. This might strike us as unsatisfying, because it seems to gesture toward a sort of Calvinistic “double predestination” which I mentioned briefly a couple of weeks ago. That is to say that God has chosen those whom he intends to send to hell and we have no part in the matter. But, if one were to read Paul closely here one would find that that’s not what he’s saying at all. That God has decided to be merciful to the Gentiles does not imply that He has chosen to reject the Jews. Rather, God has mercy on the faithful, whether they be faithful in Christ or faithful to the Law. It is simply that those who had pursued the latter seemed by-and-large to have failed in their pursuit. It is in response to this failure that Paul is “in great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for the sake of his kinsmen, and it is why he laments “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved.”
Finally, Paul comes to the “twenty-four thousand dollar question”, the question which his argument in the preceding two chapters of Romans makes unavoidable: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” He is swift in his response. “By no means!” Paul himself was an Israelite. Jesus himself was a Jew. And what’s more, Paul says, while the majority of his kinsmen had stumbled, they have not yet fallen. “As regards election,” he puts is “they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” You will forgive my use of a phrase which some of you might find a bit too evangelical, but it is appropriate and true. Paul’s deepest desire is that his people may come to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.” The joy obtained from such a relationship predicated on God’s Grace is greater than any joy that could be obtained by other means. Even so, Paul is insistent that God is not a liar and he doesn’t take back gifts he’s given. The Jews are saved, but Paul wants his kinsmen to experience Grace as he has come to experience it. This is why, with regard to the missionary impulse we find in this morning’s Epistle, Paul has to remind his audience that it is, indeed a mission to all: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek [he writes]; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”
So that, in a nutshell, is how Paul’s argument develops in the central chapters of Romans, but one question remains, and it is the answer to this question from which we find something applicable not just for the Christians in ancient Rome, but for us as well. Why did Paul spill so much ink into addressing this question specifically?
To answer that, we need to recognize who Paul’s initial audience was. The church in Rome was a remarkably diverse group. It was situated in the capitol of the most powerful Empire in the world, so this little church would have likely counted among its members people from all over the known world. The most important distinction, however, as you no doubt know, was the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, of which there were many of both in the Roman church.
Paul’s letters were always occasional, which is not to say infrequent, but rather that each was written to respond to a particular issue within the local church. The distinction between Jew and Gentile and how this distinction effected the mission of the church had become controversial. Paul had already had to justify his practice of preaching to Gentiles before the council of the apostles in Jerusalem, and he had convinced the apostles that the Gospel was meant for all, not just for Jews. But just because the apostles had been persuaded by Paul to open up the church to Gentiles, local churches still had that most pernicious of problems which we see still see today: namely, the division of the world into “our kind of people” and “those people”.
It is safe to say that this very issue had caused dysfunction in the church in Rome, just as it had in other churches. Jewish Christians might have seen themselves as elite, being the inheritors of word of God as it had been passed down for centuries. Gentile Christians might have seen themselves as superior, since it was not their forefathers but the forefathers of the Jews who had botched things up by not following the Law. There may have been heated arguments within the church in Rome about who really deserved to be there. Paul’s discussion about Jews and Gentiles, then, would have been an attempt to combat the elitism and sense of superiority each group likely held.
I hate to burst anybody’s bubble, but this still happens today. We still divide ourselves according to race and social class and where one’s “people” are from and all other sorts of distinctions which we spend far too much time thinking about. If you don’t believe me, consider the sad business that happened in Virginia this weekend. It’s a hard thing sometimes to realize that while (I hope) most of us try to behave as if there really is only one race that matters (that is, the human race), we can’t just assume that everybody’s figured that out yet.
Indeed, each of us, no matter how enlightened we think we are, can build these walls between ourselves and others by making even subtle, unconscious assumptions. I know I do. Probably one of the most important experiences in my life, as silly as this might sound, was spending the first several years of my ordained ministry in the rural South, and getting to know people who spoke with rural southern accents who were smarter than I am. I was relying on this sort of easy prejudice that if you sound like Larry the Cable Guy, you’re probably dumb or something. First of all, that’s not that guy’s real accent, but more importantly it’s just not right. I can’t claim that that lesson in humility completely stuck; I know that’s still a prejudice I have deep down that I need to work on and (at least) be aware of. Anyway it’s very easy to make those kinds of assumptions and thereby create barriers between one’s own sort of people and “outsiders.”
The Gospel and the love it is meant to stir up in us for God and each other does not recognize these walls we build between people. The Gospel, Paul reminds us, is for everyone: Jew or Gentile, black or white, prince or pauper, native or newcomer. May we set aside our proclivity to divide the world between “us” and “them” and see each and every human being as somebody whose heart is a proper place for the living Christ to take up residence and to receive the love which God has given us and expects us to share.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.