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Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
As we have progressed through Romans, we have seen the universality of sin, that it is pervasive for both Jew and Gentile, and yet that Christ has saved us by his going to the cross, rising again, and ascending to intercede for us at the Father’s side. We can walk by the Spirit, and not by the flesh, because the Spirit of God dwells in us, bound to us in baptism. Finally, in chapter 8, we see the climactic declaration that in Christ all who believe are saved, definitively, adopted by God and under no condemnation, and nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love as shown through Jesus Christ’s life and work. This to make clear that God is righteous.
Now, we come to Romans 9-11. This is a single literary unit, very carefully composed, that switches from the elevated praise of chapter 8 to turn back to a question of utmost importance: If all of this is true, if God is the God of salvation, and if God has included the Gentiles in his plan of salvation…then what of the Jews? Not only does it seem like being a Jew, the chosen, the people God elected, means nothing; as Paul’s time as an apostle went on, it became more and more apparent that more Gentiles than Jews were believing and becoming the new people of God, those who believe. Furthermore, there was apparently tension in Rome between Jews and Gentiles, with Gentiles seemingly acting with arrogance towards Jews. And so Paul sets out to respond to this first by expressing his anguish over their failure to respond in faith, and then to defend once again the righteousness and faithfulness of God.
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own brothers and sisters, my own flesh and blood.” A truly christ-like statement. Paul would forsake his own salvation if it meant the salvation of his brothers and sisters, his people, the Jewish people. There is no anti-semitism here, just an aching, an agony that his own people that he loves are unable to trust in the Messiah they had waited for so long. One of the unique elements of Christianity is this particularity, the scandal of God’s reaching out to one people, sending his Son to one people.
And yet, despite reading the whole history of Israel, all the promises, the covenants, the favor shown to them by God, they as a nation rejected their Messiah, and the benefits of believing him have gone to whoever believes, Jew OR Gentile; despite all that, Paul says, “It is not as though the Word of God has failed.” How is this so?
“not all of Abraham’s children are his descendants, but “it is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.” God has not revoked his promise to Israel, because it was always offered to those who received it with faith, starting with Israel, but Paul does a bit of classic rabbinic interpretation here, shifting the promise from merely children by blood to children of the promise. And if it is rooted in the promise, it is for anyone who believes the promise.
This does not mean God has thrown off his people, Israel. He has not revoked his promise, but it was always intended for all people, through Israel first, but then to all. The issue is this: God’s election is always freely given. And he is not bound to it; he is God. Which is why Paul uses an example, quoting Malachi. “She (Rebecca) was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” 14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” This is not about individuals and their salvation, but about God’s freedom to extend grace to whatever people he wills to.
Jacob is archetypal of Israel, as Esau was of Edom, a nation that was condemned in the passage from Malachi Paul is quoting. God chose Israel, Jacob, over Edom, Esau, even though he was the younger brother. Theologically, Paul is speaking about corporate groups, about the inclusion of people other than Israel in salvation. Why has Israel not believed in God? Why is God welcoming in Gentiles, those who were not chosen? Because “it depends not on human will or exertion but on God who shows mercy.“ Because God is a God of abundant mercy, abundant grace, abundant love.
Why were the Gentiles accepted in, in addition to the Gentiles? Because God’s abundant, overflowing love is accepting of all humans made in his image. And Israel, having rejected God’s Messiah, has only illustrated the way in which God’s grace roves like a spotlight, finding who it will, those who desire to receive it.
Those who believe are counted as descendants. This is not to be a source of pride, but of humility. We, the church, are not by ethnicity or human inheritance those who are “God’s people,” those elected or accepted into his kingdom. We are welcomed in by grace, pure grace. God’s rejection of Israel the nation is not because he has done away with them, rejected them, forgotten about them; it is because Israel refused to believe what was true of them, that God’s work was to flow through them to the nations. This should lead us to two truths of supreme importance:
First, that we remember we are saved by grace, through faith, but faith in Israel’s God. God spoke, and acted, and came to them first, and it is the abundance of his love that it was always destined to not only go to Israel, but through them to all of humanity. We, stuck in history, are recipients through faith of that which was given first to a people who rejected it but through whom we are able to receive God’s grace.
Second, this gift is not to be received in arrogance. If we expand this beyond Jew and Gentile to our own day, we can face that the grace of God is offered to all people, even or especially those whom we most doubt it is given to. If God’s salvation expands beyond Israel, surely it expands beyond those we limit it from. Despite their best efforts, southern slaveholders could not keep Christianity from their slaves; despite persecution, China could not keep the true church there from growing; despite our efforts to limit salvation to those we would readily receive, God extends it to all people. We of al people should never be arrogant, because it is not by human, earthly works that we have received God’s grace; it is by his freely given gift, which not a one of us deserves, but all of us, regardless of our sins, failures, insecurities, and sorrows, has received by the God whose nature is love and whose desire is grace, given to all without reserve, world without end, Amen.
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