Paul’s deep lament

Paul’s deep lament

Jamie Howison’s sermon from August 6  on Romans 9:1-5 and Matthew 14:22-33


There are moments in the gospels where the disciples experience Jesus as quite utterly transcending his human nature. Almost dreamlike, these experiences are all but mystical in their textures, in which they see more deeply into who and what Jesus truly is. The Transfiguration is one of those, as is tonight’s account of Jesus walking on the water. On the lake, battered by waves and far from the shore, they see a figure coming across the water toward them. “It is a ghost!” they cry, but immediately are reassured. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

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It is interesting that in both the transfiguration and in this story Peter figures so prominently. Always quick to jump and try to do something—sometimes leaping before he looks—here Peter eagerly steps out on the water to meet his Lord… but then he realizes just what he’s done—“he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” Ah Peter, why did you doubt?

In many ways I think that is the most important piece of the whole story; to see, to step out, and then to keep going. As it was for all of them in that boat, Peter’s seeing was a kind of gift. His stepping out was so typical of his personality, but also of someone whose faith is still very much being formed; almost like the enthusiasm of a new convert or young Christian, who might make big decisions, big commitments, and take great risks, only to find that their roots don’t go quite deep enough to sustain them. The “keep on going” isn’t quite possible yet; it is too risky, too hard to trust, too demanding.

To see, to step out, and then to keep going; it is something Paul works with a whole lot as he tries to shape and nurture the young church communities he’s planted. In some respects, that’s what his letters to the Corinthian church are all about. Through his ministry and by grace, they’ve seen—they really have—and after he’s left them, they’ve stepped out… but apparently madly off in all directions. Issue after issue has surfaced in that community, and in his letters to them Paul’s real goal is to help them see the direction in which they should be headed, and to try to help them set the kind of roots that will help keep them growing in that direction.

Here in his epistle to the Romans he’s working at something of a parallel task, and as chapter 9 begins he’s got a very particular matter he wants to work through. Chapters 9 through 11 are a distinct unit in this epistle, and tonight we heard just the introductory words with which Paul sets the stage. Over the next two Sundays we’ll be dealing with passages drawn from this section of the epistle, so for tonight I really just want to show you why Paul wants to root those Roman Christians so firmly on what was a critical challenge of those times.

Let me read this passage to you again:


I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For 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. They are Israelites, 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. (Romans 9:1-5)


This is an act of lament—an expression of the deepest sorrow—and it sets the stage for what will follow over these three chapters. This is a moment of deep seeing, from which Paul will then move and step out, wrestling with critical theological and spiritual questions. In short, here’s what he wants his readers to see:


  • Paul believes powerfully that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, the promised one, for whom Israel has been longing and through whom Israel has been redeemed.
  • Paul is also the apostle who saw most clearly that the messiah of Israel is also the messiah for the world; that through him the ancient promise made to Abraham—that God would make of him a great nation, and that through this “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3)—had been fulfilled.
  • Yet while the movement was spreading throughout the Gentile world, the majority of Jews who heard this message did not embrace it.

So what does that mean for Paul, for the church? Much as Paul has this enormous heart for his mission to the Gentiles, he is not about to take a position that says of the Jews, “well, you rejected him, so good riddance to you.” As he says so clearly, it is to them that “belongs 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…” And they don’t see it, or can’t yet see it, or have apparently rejected it. Yet it is the promise. This is how God is redeeming the world, but if the descendants of Abraham don’t accept it, what does that say about God’s promises, God’s word? As Paul Achtemeier summarizes it,

What is at issue is the surety of God’s grace for anyone who trusts him, because what is at issue is nothing less than the reliability of God’s word and its ability to bring God’s plan to fruition.

It is a real lament, and most certainly not a dismissal of the Jews as having lost their inheritance as the chosen covenant people. He needs to sort out what it is that God might be doing in all of this—how God’s purposes and promises are still being fulfilled in spite of what looks like a rejection. As Matt Skinner puts it, Paul “wrote as a Jew trying, like the prophets of old, to make theological sense of the dynamics of disobedience and restoration among Abraham’s descendants.” He laments like a prophet, and he will go on to wrestle and critique like a prophet, but as a Jewish prophet who never loses sight that Jesus was born a Jew; that in the incarnation, the Word became Jewish flesh and dwelt among us. Paul will go on to offer an image that pictures Gentiles as being the shoots of a wild olive tree that have been grafted onto the olive tree that is Israel, sharing now in its strong nourishing root. He does not for a moment say that the growing Gentile church is a new olive tree that replaces the old; by no means. The new only grows by virtue of being grafted onto the old.

We’ll hear him wrestle though these matters over the next couple of weeks, but for now just let me leave you something to think about. Paul, who sees and grieves and laments so deeply; how much more deeply would he grieve the long, sad, violent history of anti-Semitism that century after century was fuelled and carried out in the name of Jesus Christ. Not only is that a horror in its own right, but when the wild branch forgets the root from which it is actually drawing its life, isn’t it also forgetting a whole part of its story and meaning and heritage?

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