Sermon – Paul’s midrash

A sermon on Romans 10.5-15

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arry Campbell claims that in the church in which he grew up, his Baptist pastor preached on the Epistle to the Romans for eight consecutive years; eight years. The very idea simply boggles my mind. While I’m not going to begin to suggest that I’ve done justice to all that this rich biblical book holds for us, I’m winding up my series of sermons on Romans after just six weeks. The next two Sundays will find me away on vacation, and I would not presume to dictate to Helen Manfield the focus for her sermons over those weeks—for all I know, you might get Romans next Sunday—and when I return we’ll have begun to make our way through a series of readings from the book of Exodus.

My instincts as a preacher tend to lean toward story and narrative, whether from a gospel, the Book of Acts, or the Hebrew scriptures. I believe that story shapes and forms our imaginations in a very particular way, which is why Jesus himself so often used parables to stretch the minds and hearts of those who came to hear him teach. And you know, when a story is read aloud, we tend to be able to really hear it.

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In contrast, when a portion of an epistle is read in public worship, it can be tougher to digest. The reader begins, some phrase catches your attention—or maybe not—and then your eye wanders up and you find yourself thinking that there is an awful lot of dust up there on those arches and doesn’t the light look wonderful filtering through the stained glass and man I wish I had one of those cushions… All of sudden the reader is saying “The word of the Lord,” and as you respond “Thanks be to God,” you’re not entirely clear as to what it is that you’re thankful for.

That might have been particularly so tonight, because in the section that was read aloud Paul weaves together a series of quotes from the Old Testament in order to demonstrate something he needs us to hear. But the way in which he does that is not particularly natural for us, so it can be very hard to follow. And in my estimation, the designers of the lectionary cycle decided to start today’s reading one verse too late. I think we need to back up that one verse, to hear Paul’s starting point: “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4) Christ is the end of the law, which doesn’t mean the law is irrelevant and therefore has been ended, but rather that Christ is that to which the law—the torah—has been directed all along. The word in Greek is telos, which means purpose or end point, which is quite a different thing from something being merely finished or done with. What is it that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount? “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

So that is the context for Paul’s series of references from both the torah (Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 30:11-14) and the prophets (Isaiah 28:16; Joel 2:32), which in itself demonstrates this point about these sources being not abolished in Christ, but fulfilled. Frankly, had they been abolished or over-ridden or declared over and done with, Paul would hardly have been quoting them, right? And he’s dealing with them in a specifically Jewish manner known as midrash. The New Testament scholar Matt Skinner offers the following:

“What we discover in these verses is not a scriptural ‘proof’ meant to convince us. Rather, Paul collects biblical voices to provide resonance for his theological assertions. As a skilled midrashic deejay, he remixes a scriptural conversation for the Roman churches to hear, a conversation in which — in Paul’s arrangement — Christ sits at the center of the voices. All the words gravitate around him, thus acquiring new meaning as they express God’s work through Christ.”

Skinner’s point is that Paul is not proof-texting here—drawing select verses out of context to try to hit his audience with indisputable proofs for why they should believe. Instead he’s acting as “a skilled midrashic deejay,” drawing from ancient voices to create a whole new song. And because for Paul this new song has been at work from the very beginning—“Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16)—his sampling of those ancient voices has a basic integrity.

The point to which he wants to take his original audience, that small circle of Christians trying to make their way in the world that was ancient Rome, is this: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” “Everyone who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” which is his midrashic sample from the prophet Joel, pointing beyond a works-based understanding of righteousness and justification toward one of grace. Birthright is of no consequence, nor is a scrupulous observance of the law. The whole tradition of the law and the prophets is claimed by Paul as what the biblical scholar Paul Achtemeier calls a “summons to trust in God to uphold (our) relationship (to God) as an act of sheer grace.”

Again, Paul is anything but cavalier in his attitude to the torah, and he is not dismissive of the riches of the tradition in which he was formed. As I emphasized last week, he is passionate in his belief that in Christ he has not met a new God, nor has he joined a new religion. His conviction is that through Christ he has been placed in a new relationship with the God who he had been seeking to serve from his youth, even in the days in which he was an active opponent of those who followed Jesus. And his great and agonizing question is why so few of his Jewish sisters and brothers have been able to make the move to embracing Jesus as the messiah of God. He can only trust that in the end God will be faithful to the sons and daughters of Israel.

And in the meantime, he will do all that he can to tell the good news to any and all; male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. No one can engineer their own redemption, but that is just fine, because, “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Rather than getting tangled up in issues of who is saved and who isn’t, and rather than preaching an ancient version of the revivalist’s hellfire and brimstone sermon, Paul’s framework here is entirely positive. You know those sometimes lurid billboards that dot the prairies? The ones facing drivers with questions like, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” Paul would not have known what to make of such signs. Instead, he is utterly convinced that to be caught up in the grace of God is sheer joy, true freedom, perfect liberty, and he will do everything he can to tell that story.

And each in our own way, so should we.

Amen.

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