I am telling the truth in union with Christ-I am not lying, for my conscience, confirms it in the Holy Spirit. I have deep sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart, for I could wish that I myself were condemned and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my relatives according to the flesh. They are Israelites. 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, Christ descended, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
“Faith is passion!” It was Soren Kierkegaard who said it first, or if he didn’t actually say it first he certainly made the statement famous. Either way it makes for a fitting heading to this short soliloquy from the Apostle Paul, who himself was a very passionate man.
Some of us have been brought up steeped in the teachings of St Paul, though the passages I was read from my youth tended to be the more long and dry passages that begin with a ‘therefore’ and developed into a tangled argument about law and faith, along the lines of the often obscure logic of the Rabbinical system that St Paul had been educated in.
This short outburst from the Apostle actually comes in the middle of one such long and complex argument, and indeed it is found in the middle of St Paul’s longest and most complex letter – his letter to the Romans.
This is the letter where St Paul laid out his mature conclusions about God and Christ more systematically than in anything else he ever published – the letter that went on to become the key focus of so much academic theological speculation – most notably perhaps in the writings of Martin Luther, who attempted to use Paul’s letter to the Romans to reform the theology of the Medieval church!
And yet here in the middle of this complex and often esoteric work we find this passionate outburst from the Apostle, who speaks of the “deep sorrow and unceasing anguish” that he feels in his heart, and who goes so far as to say, “I could wish that I myself were condemned and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my relatives according to the flesh.” (Romans 9:3)
This is a passionate outburst, and, interestingly, it’s not simply an outburst of passionate faith on Paul’s part but equally one of passionate patriotism, and that’s what I find really confronting in this passage, for I must confess that patriotism is generally something that makes me feel rather nervous!
I’ve just come back from the USA, as you know, and that’s a land where patriotism takes on a dimension that we are just totally unfamiliar with Down Under.
To some people there patriotism seems to mean that you don’t criticise your government, or at least that you don’t tell your government which countries they can invade and which people they should choose to target as enemies (and be warned that this is particularly off limits if you’re a foreigner)!
I read a disturbing article by an American while I was there that resonated with me, where the author noted the way military personnel were given an elevated status in the community. He noted the way in which servicemen and servicewomen were given preferential treatment by shop-owners and even at the post office where he watched a clerk falling all over himself to attend to the needs of a man in uniform.
‘Why should we honour this profession above others?’ the author asked, especially when we are aware that so many of the actions carried out by the military in recent times have been morally dubious at best? It’s as if it doesn’t matter who they kill or why they kill them so long as they kill in our name, because that’s what patriotism is!
Of course there’s supposed to be a distinction between patriotism, nationalism and tribalism, isn’t there, but those lines very quickly become blurred.
As I understand it, the proper point of distinction is that patriotism means taking pride in the good things we have accomplished as a nation, rather than pretending that all the things we have done as a nation have been good things. And it means taking pride specifically in those achievements, rather than simply taking pride in the fact that we are powerful or that we have a certain superior skin colour or anything ridiculous like that.
At any rate, if this is a decent definition of patriotism then St Paul was a true patriot, for his pride in his people was entirely based on the wonderful history they had enjoyed as special recipients of the benevolence of God:
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, Christ descended, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:5)
Paul is a Jew and he is proud to be a Jew. He takes great pride in all the good things that have happened in the history of his people – from the promises made to Abraham to the handing down of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai to coming of Christ, Himself a Jew.
But all that pride has now simply become a source of pain for Paul as he grieves over a failure on the part of his people that threatens to eclipse all of their achievements – the failure of the greater Jewish community to embrace Christ. “I could wish,” Paul says, “that I myself were condemned and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” .
Clearly St Paul was not one of those who considered all religions to be the same! Is that right? Perhaps that’s not a very good way to put it, for I’m not at all sure that St Paul at that stage would have considered ‘Christianity’ to be an alternate religion at all.
When you read the larger letter of Paul to the Romans or any number of his other writings it is clear that St Paul saw faith in Christ as being the natural extension of the faith of his forefathers and not as an alternative to it. Moreover, I don’t think Paul for a moment foresaw faith in Christ as being something that would evolve into the massive monolithic institution soon to become the institution of the church!
Did St Paul think of faith in Christ as a religion at all in the traditional sense? That’s a question that is worth addressing, I think, but not within the confines of a Sunday sermon being delivered by a rather jet-lagged preacher. Let it suffice this morning simply to probe a little more deeply into the nature of Paul’s grief.
It’s because he believed all his fellow Jews were going to burn in hell!
That’s a knee-jerk response that might come immediately to minds of any number of us? It’s not what St Paul says of course. Indeed, St Paul never uses the word ‘hell’ in this passage (nor anywhere else in his writings for that matter) so that’s probably not the best way to describe his anguish.
It’s because his fellow Jews were labouring under the law, rather than celebrating the life of freedom and grace experienced in Christ!
That’s a far more Biblical response, I think, and one that far more accurately reflects Paul’s own broader teaching. It is indeed one of the key themes of this letter to the Romans that any attempt to get close to God through the path of legal obedience is one that is doomed to failure.
It’s not that we don’t want to do the right thing, and it’s not that we don’t try to do the right thing, but the truth is that we don’t do the right thing. This, sadly, seems to be our nature and our destiny. We are hence the fellowship of sinners that live by the Grace of God in the cross of Christ, and that fellowship includes us semi-righteous along with the thoroughly unrighteous, though there remains something of a question mark over the self-righteous.
The bottom line though is that God loves us all the same, and we’ve got to keep reminding ourselves of that as it is very religiously counter-intuitive. Our religious intuitions keep telling us that God has a special place set aside for good people, whereas the Gospel tells us that God has a special place for the poor, for the weak, for those who struggle, and for those who know they are struggling.
Was that what distressed Paul so deeply – thinking about his countrymen slavishly trying to please God through a rigid obedience to the Torah rather than through a living relationship with God through Christ? That has to be a significant part of Paul’s pain, I think, though we make a mistake if we try to separate the issue of legalism from the issue of race which it was intricately bound in with.
What was it that first turned the young Saul (before he became ‘Paul’) against the Christians? Was it their apparent neglect of the law, as demonstrated in their openness to those who were ethnically outside of God’s chosen community, or was it the other way around? Was it initially just a gut-reaction to the presence of non-Jews that got Paul all riled up, and the issue of law was really only introduced secondarily so that he could rationalise his prejudices?
Either way, this was the point at which Paul experienced liberation through Christ. Christ both freed him from the law and freed him to embrace his non-Jewish neighbours – people he would have previously despised because of their pagan ways and religious insensitivity, let alone their primitive culture, bad manners and revolting eating habits!
Christ liberated Paul from his narrow ethnic enclave so that he could enter a bigger world made up of many different sorts of people from a variety of different cultures and social strata. And no doubt it must have irked Paul considerably to think of his relatives and boyhood friends still slaving away in their tiny ethnically-monochrome communities.
This all has to be an essential part of the equation, I think. Even so, when you read the rest of this chapter in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and when you read not only this letter but the surrounding letters as well, I think you see clearly enough what was the fundamental source of the pain for St Paul, and it’s not just the legalism and it’s not just the racism, and it’s not just the two combined together either. It’s the fact that since Paul’s Jewish sisters and brothers could not accept Christ this meant they were no longer ‘God’s people’ in the way they once were!
God had chosen the Jews for a special work in the world – Paul was abundantly clear about that – and God had acted through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through Moses and through those who came after him – through Jewish monarchs, priests and prophets over many generations, and yet in Paul’s own time God had moved in a new way and was now reconciling the whole world to Himself through Christ. And if the majority of the children of Israel (ethnically speaking) were not moving with God in this regard they were no longer the people of God.
If you read the rest of Romans 9 you’ll see how Paul develops his argument. He says that membership of God’s chosen people had never been an issue of simple ethnicity. Abraham and Isaac had had lots of children, but not all of them had been the ‘children of the promise’. It was never just a blood connection that made you a part of the people of God. It was inheriting the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that counted, and in failing to embrace Christ Paul’s people had failed to be true Jews where it counted
Does this mean that we should therefore disrespect Jewish people because their role in the historic plan of God seems to have come to an end? By no means! Indeed …
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, Christ descended, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
There are plenty of reasons to respect the Jews for their role in the history of the People of God. There is no excuse whatsoever for anti-Semitism of any sort. Even so, it is the community that gathers around Christ that continues the work of the people of God, and hence Paul refers to the church elsewhere literally as the ‘Israel of God’ (Galatian 6:16).
Should this then make us proud – that we, the church, have got it right where God’s historic people got it wrong? On the contrary, says St Paul, instead of getting arrogant we should take all this as a warning. For if the historic people of God are capable of getting it fundamentally wrong we are all capable of getting it fundamentally wrong.
And this is where the rubber hits the road for us in this passage, I believe, for we all know full well that just as God’s historic people lost the plot at various points in their history, we, the church, have likewise repeatedly lost the plot – forgetting the Gospel of grace and losing track completely of what God is doing in the world.
I don’t know whether any of us have read Desmond Tutu’s latest book, provocatively entitled, “God is not a Christian”. And yet even a cursory reading of history shows us that the former Archbishop of Capetown is entirely correct. God is not a Christian any more than God is a Jew. The church with its history of power-struggle and institutionalised violence has failed God just as radically as God’s people of old ever did. And just as Paul grieved over his people so we too should grieve over the church.
Part of the privilege of travelling is that you do get to see the church in action in a variety of different contexts, and Ange and Jim and I have indeed had the privilege over the last two weeks of being part of three different worshipping communities, as well as meeting with numerous other church people from a variety of different cultures and contexts.
And while indeed we did experience the unmistakeable presence of the Spirit of God in the beautiful Catholic community of St Thomas More in San Francisco, for example (certainly the most ethnically inclusive church I’ve ever had the privilege of worshipping with). And while I did indeed experience the unmistakeable presence of the Spirit of God in the small meeting of Protestant pastors in Orlando, Florida, that I joined in on – pastors who were meeting to see how they could best work together to address the needs of the extraordinarily large number of homeless people in their area. And while we did indeed see God at work in individuals and faith communities wherever we went, it has to be said that the big picture for the church is pretty dismal.
Like the people of God of old we have failed to keep up with where God is moving in the world. We have got all caught up in being people who don’t smoke, drink or chew or go with girls who do and we have forgotten the Gospel of grace. We have once again formed ourselves into exclusive communities and used our faith pedigree as a basis for arrogance rather than humility. We have indeed failed in all the same ways that our spiritual fore-fathers and fore-mothers did, and sometimes it’s hard to know what to do about that, except to grieve.
But that’s not a bad place to start. It’s ok to grieve, and to grieve passionately, as St Paul grieved passionately, but to grieve in faith – believing that God has not finished with His people yet. Amen.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, July 31, 2011.