A sermon on Romans 9:1-5
s was the case a couple of weeks ago, with the forecast suggesting that this was going to be a hot and humid night, I decided to craft a slightly shorter sermon than usual… Oh I know; if I were a properly earnest preacher, I’d just have us plough through the heat, and perhaps give you an even longer sermon than usual. Happily, I’m not that earnest.
So, as we continue to chip our way through excerpts from Paul’s letter to the Romans, for tonight the designers of the lectionary have actually given us a fairly short reading of just five verses. That should make a ten-minute sermon a snap, right? Except that these verses find Paul bumping up against what for him is the most challenging of issues, and one that causes him what he calls, “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart.” His agony—and it quite clearly is an agony—is that his own people have for the most part not accepted Jesus as messiah.
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There’s no question that this is a deeply personal issue for Paul. He had been a pretty virulent opponent of the Christian movement in his earlier days, prior to having his head spun around through his experience of an encounter with the risen Christ. That experience is often referred to as his “conversion,” but really he isn’t so much converted as he is reoriented and redirected into a new calling. He was a devout Jew of the Pharisaic movement, carefully and faithfully following God according to the traditions and theology of his heritage, and suddenly he is reoriented by God to recognize that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact messiah. This is the same God, and Paul is still very much a Jew. He is renamed—from Saul to Paul—and he is redirected, but it is not so much that he is converted as it is that his understanding is transformed. He is to serve the same God—how could it be otherwise?—yet with utterly new eyes. Ironic, then, isn’t it, how his experience of being met by the risen Christ leaves him physically blind for several days? A new way of seeing that literally blinds him for a time.
For years he’s been hard at work in response to the calling he experienced that day on the road to Damascus. He’s worked tirelessly to proclaim the good news, and he’s really the one who has carried it beyond the borders of Judaism and into the whole of the world. He is the apostle to the Gentiles, yet no less a Jew for all that.
Which is why he is in agony. Paul is increasingly aware that he is out of step with his own people, his own heritage, and his own deep history. “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ, for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh,” he writes, and it is pretty clear that he’s not kidding. This is more than just feeling that he’s lost touch with his roots, and it is certainly not something that is going to be remedied by doing a Google search of his family tree. This is about a fundamental identity of a whole people, of which he is a part. “They are Israelites,” he says, but he just as well could have said, “We are Israelites.” That’s how deeply this is felt.
“…and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”
At heart Paul’s question is whether God’s past promises—the covenant made with this particular people and nation—matter for God’s future. It is a question of the character and trustworthiness of God. Paul actually seems to be thinking that if the history of God’s dealings with God’s people has been voided, then he might be inclined “to wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ, for the sake of my own people.” Far from passing judgment on his own people, who apparently are for the most part not going to follow him in turning to Christ, he will ultimately try to make theological sense of the whole works. As the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner observes, “The question driving this section of Romans (9-11) is “What’s God doing?” It’s not “What’s wrong with these unbelievers?”
In his typically provocative manner, Robert Capon once said to me that “in the circumcision of Jesus, the whole world is made Jewish,” which is his way of picking up on an image that Paul will use just a couple of chapters down the line. The gentiles—that’s us—are the wild olive shoot, grafted onto the “rich root of the olive tree” that is Israel. (Romans 11:7) We don’t replace it; we are grafted on to it. In case anyone might miss the deeper meaning of that, Paul adds, “do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” (Romans 11:18)
Extraordinary, then, isn’t it, how quickly the church began to define itself as a new Israel to replace the old? How quickly the church went from being the persecuted to being the persecutor? We look with horror at what Nazism stood for, yet the Holocaust is merely the logical outcome of close to two thousand years of anti-Semitism. For centuries we have been the wild olive shoot, madly trying to convince ourselves—and God—that we have supplanted the root. Not a chance, for God is faithful.
And I actually think that one of the more frightening faces of this is to be found in a stream within North American Christianity, which has allied itself with the modern state of Israel—and therefore effectively against Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian—so that the temple might be rebuilt and the world brought to its end. That’s not an ally; that’s just a sorry attempt at manipulation, almost bound to result in more violence and more division.
No. We need instead to stand with Paul, as he affirms the trustworthy character of God, and to perhaps seek a new humility in our identity as the wild olive shoot, grafted by grace into a much deeper and older story.