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Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Human history is like a river: a massive, flowing body of water, coming from a source that is murky and indistinct. It moves inexorably, flowing, shaping the world around it, each droplet contributing to the massive flow, all drops inconsequential without all the others. As it flows, other, smaller bodies of water flow into it, contributing to the great mass, adding to it, changing it, bringing other elements into the greater whole. We are caught up and flow in this river, small in our individual parts, but each of us contributing to the sweeping flood. We have a poor sense of history. For many if not most of us, our sense of our family history probably ends in a generation or two. Many of us have traveled far to live in different places than we were raised, effectively severing at least some part of the threads that bound us there, the context that made us who we are today. When we do read history, we often bring prejudices, ideas of how things were that we are already committed to, and are unable to embrace the complexity of the river, the breadth and depth of it as a result. In a word, the river rages, but we think we’re in a cup, isolated and observing.
I am talking about this here because I think this is part of what makes it hard for us to understand just why Paul must spend so much time in this letter arguing about why God is not unrighteous to the Jews, unfaithful to his promises. Because to the Jew, Paul included, they very much saw themselves as caught up in this grand story of humanity, this river of history, as individual droplets being swept along. The source, and all the subsequent lives that followed, are ultimately what make us who we are. They did not forget events or people or divine promises that were made millenia beforehand (think of that, millenia), but saw themselves just as much the recipients as Abraham, as Moses, as David. They were told they were God’s people, and that the promises were theirs. They saw themselves as part of the river, and so passed down by word, by writing, and by practice the remembrance of that promise. The enormity of seeing the Gentiles receive those same promises, then, was not only confusing but even confounding, infuriating, unthinkable. That is why Paul must answer.
The answer is this: God is faithful to work out salvation despite human failings.
“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” Paul says. Not because they are accepting what God has done, what he has offered. Despite Israel’s unbelief, God’s purposes to save all have not been perturbed. He explains that yes, some of Israel even in his time were saved, a remnant, just like those in Elijah’s time, but by grace, not on the basis of works. Even for the Jew, it is not the Law that saves, but grace, received by faith.
But Paul delves further, sees an even deeper meaning to Israel’s rejection of God (read 11-12): Israel is not condemned as a whole, but used in the divine economy of salvation to lead Gentiles to Christ, and then in a circular way to make Israel jealous so that they too might be saved. And if their failure means riches, what more will their full inclusion mean! God will not forget his chosen people, but through their lack of faith he will make his gospel spread throughout the Gentiles and perhaps even use it to draw Jews back. Despite the failure of his chosen people to believe, God’s promises will be fulfilled. He was at work in this millenia long series of events, from Abraham to Israel, Moses to David, the prophets to Jesus. Through long years of inhabiting a land, then exile, then return, and then being conquered. Through lives, deaths, harvests and seedings, days and nights, all of it led through to Jesus Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension. And it led to Israel, yes, as a people largely denying Jesus, and multitudes of those outside Israel to embrace with joy the gospel of hope.
And so, God used the flow, the river, directing all towards this end. Why? Not to deny his people Israel their promises, but rather to let the abundance of those promises go to all people. As he goes on to say, “Now I am speaking to you gentiles. Inasmuch as I am an apostle to the gentiles, I celebrate my ministry 14 in order to make my own people jealous and thus save some of them.15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.”
As it turns out, perhaps there is even more awaiting us than we had realized. If Israel’s rejection due to lack of faith resulted in the blessings we receive from Christ, then their acceptance will mean even more. And there will be more. God has not abandoned Israel, but in our historical future at some point there will seemingly be some great blessing to them, one that will broaden even the blessings to us. Even the failure to believe of God’s own elected people will not, can not stop him, but even that failure is used to bring blessing to the world.
Paul then goes on to say, this is all the act of God’s grace, all given from his overflowing love. But faith does matter. God will not abandon us, but as Paul goes on to say, God’s people must have faith, which means total allegiance to God, to walk in the way of Christ in humility, self-giving, and enduring all for the sake of God and his gospel. And if the branches that are native to the tree (Israel) can be taken off to make room for alien branches (Gentiles, us), then of course the alien branches too can be removed. “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you, if you continue in his kindness.” God does not change, but we do, and the Church must remain in faith.
I believe a judgment is and has been on the church of our country for a long time; perhaps it was even tainted to begin with. I am resistant to interpreting providence; it is not our place to speak of the significance of historical acts from God’s perspective unless it has been revealed, like in Scripture. But I think the current condition of the Churches: empty; full of strife, gimmicks, and fear; used as a social club; used as a political lobby; a place to hide abuse; twisted with hypocrisy; all of this is of the making of our churches, our making. If the churches of the apostolic age could struggle with unbelief, abuse, heresy, contempt for the weak, complicity with the powerful, then of course ours can as well.
As in every age, the plight of the Church is its own fault. We have valued order and peace instead of justice. We have valued reputation over contrition and owning our wrongs. We have valued wealth over holiness. We have idolized power, instead of seeing the true strength of humility. We, left or right or whatever, have placed ideologies alien to Christ and the Scriptures over following Christ into the self-giving love that defined his mission. This is not an issue of not doing good enough works; it is an issue of faith, of not believing what Christ has said is actually true, and by so doing, we lose the strength to live out our faith.
But that is okay! Not that the Church has failed, because eventually it always does; but because God is good, and faithful, and has, and will, will ever more do what we cannot: by grace, make a people of his own, and bring them into fullness of new life in a new creation. God is faithful to work out salvation despite human failings. The Church in Africa is immense, as it is in Asia. The gospel grows. It doesn’t rely on us, and it never did.
And we, individually as well as corporately, need to also take comfort in this, that it is only by grace that we too are saved. It isn’t for us to make up new and harder rules to discipline ourselves by, but to simply return to the truth: we are saved by God’s grace, and receive it by faith. We do not need to fear anything, nor despair for any reason, because no matter what happens, God will be faithful. The kindness of God is abundant, and his severity, well that is only for those who do not believe. Believe, trust, and receive the grace promised to all, Jew first and then Gentile, new life in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. Amen.
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