Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
Reading: Romans 9:1-5
We have reached Romans chapter 9. The next three chapters form a distinct section within the letter and need to be read and understood together. Last week, we saw how St Paul brought his argument in chapters 1-8 to a dramatic conclusion by asserting that there was absolutely nothing in all creation, seen or unseen, that could separate us from God’s love. Even pain and suffering, he wrote, ‘worked together for the good of those who loved God’. How to follow that!
The way that St Paul follows it comes as a bit of a let down for most readers of Romans. St Paul begins by talking about his fellow Jews, and then goes on to discuss what God’s purposes are for them. As this is not all about us, we are not really all that interested. To make matters worse, when there are bits that do seem to apply to us, we don’t much like the sound of them. They seem to suggest that it is God who chooses us and not us who choose God. That can’t possibly be true, can it?
Shockingly, some people in the past have thought that it can and that this is what these chapters teach us. This only makes these chapters even more suspect in our eyes. After all, we all know as a self-evident truth that when St Paul says we are ‘justified by faith’ what he means is that we get to choose whether or not we believe the Gospel. What St Paul should be doing in these chapters, then, is pitching God to us and explaining why God would be lucky to have our worship. What he should not be doing is telling us, as he does, that God is like a potter with clay who can do with us whatever he likes (Romans 9:21).
We find frankly abhorrent the suggestion that some have made that this means that God rejects people even before they have had a chance to reject him first. We resent the idea that God chooses us before we have decided for ourselves whether we want to believe in him or not. We are free autonomous beings with a will of our own, not lumps of clay to be molded into something over which we have no say.
This negative reaction to these chapters isn’t just one had by readers who don’t really understand them or who don’t like them when they do, but one shared by scholars who have taken a long time studying them. Many commentators in the past have just quickly passed over them and moved on to the practical stuff St Paul has to say in chapter 12. Who cares whether the Jews believe in Christ or not?
Thankfully, there is a greater realization in scholarship today that while these chapters may not seem important to us, they were clearly important to St Paul, whether we agree with him or not. In his mind, they clearly were a crucial part of what he felt he needed to say to the Roman Church to get their support.
Part of our problem in understanding these chapters and their significance is that we approach them from the wrong side of history. We have well and truly moved on from the days when the main controversy in the Church was whether you and I, as Gentiles, could be church members and, if we can, on what basis. For most of the Church’s history, the issue hasn’t been the ‘Gentile Question’ that so occupied St Paul and the other early church leaders; if there has been a question, it has been the so-called Jewish Question. This is a question that the Church has answered in such a way that it finally resulted in the holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and the like. It was the religious antisemitism of the Church that made possible the secular antisemitism of the Nazis.
Sadly, both types of antisemitism are still with us. We see it in the present day attacks on Jewish people and property in the major cities of our world. We are seeing it being played out in the disputes taking place in the British Labour party at the moment. It is also still very much with us in the Church, which is one of the reasons why it is so very hard to find a Church leader with anything good to say about Israel. Attacking the state of Israel has become for many an acceptable way to express their antisemitism.
So, although we approach the Jewish-Gentile Question from this point in history, we still need to hear what St Paul has to say about it from his own very different point of view. But what was that viewing point?
We need to remind ourselves of a few basic points. St Paul was a Jew. He tells us this repeatedly in his letters. We often think that his experience of the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road meant he became a Christian and stopped being a Jew. He certainly was converted from violently not believing in Christ and from being an opponent of the Gospel to believing passionately in Christ and to becoming an advocate for the Gospel. He did not, however, cease to be a Jew.
We can perhaps be forgiven this particular misunderstanding, if not some of the others, as there were many in the Church at the time who thought that St Paul really had turned against his people. Indeed, it is because he had gained this reputation of having abandoned his people and their customs that St Paul needed to explain his understanding of the Gospel at such length in this letter.
Which brings us to these chapters. St Paul, so far in Romans, has written at length about his attitude to the Law and why he takes what is seen as such a negative attitude to it: the righteousness we need does not and cannot come by the Law. St Paul doesn’t blame the Law for this, he blames both us, as humans, and sin. Sin, he explains, has taken control of both us and the Law. God has had to do for us what neither we nor the Law could do. This was all out of his love for us; love which was expressed above all in the death of Christ for us. Having loved us so completely and absolutely in Christ, God is not going to stop loving us now whatever happens.
But how do we know that we can trust what God says? God might mean what he says, but doesn’t the example of Israel show that things can go wrong? Given St Paul’s reputation as having abandoned his people, St Paul, in writing Romans, would have had to explain his attitude to his own people anyway. Indeed, he has already said something about it in chapter 3. Given, however, all that he writes in chapters 1-8 and the way he finishes chapter 8, it has now become even more urgent.
Doesn’t the Jewish people’s failure to respond to the Gospel mean that God’s word to Israel has failed? And if it has, why should we think his word to us won’t also fail? How can we trust a God whose word we can’t be sure of?
We need to pause here and note that not all in the Church at the time St Paul is writing would have agreed with St Paul’s assessment of the Jewish people’s response to the Gospel. St Paul’s own assessment of the situation is clear. His experience of preaching the Gospel has convinced him personally that the Jews, as a whole, are not going to respond positively to the Gospel: quite the reverse. And this causes him much pain and, as he puts it in this week’s reading, ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ in his heart (Romans 9:2).
We tend to forget that although St Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, he still believed that the Gospel was ‘to the Jew first’ (Romans 1:16). This provided the strategy for how he went about preaching the Gospel. Whenever he visited a new place, he went first to the synagogue and only when they didn’t respond there to his preaching did he go directly to the Gentiles. Even when eventually he arrived in Rome as a prisoner, he ‘called together the local leaders of the Jews’ (Acts 28:17).
Despite this commitment to the priority of the Jews, St Paul suffered greatly at the hands of Jews both in and out of the Church. While Gentiles responded positively to his preaching the Jews, on the whole, did not, and often turned on St Paul, violently at times.
It was in the light, then, of this negative experience that St Paul formulated his understanding of why the Jews would not accept Jesus as their Messiah and Saviour.
St James and the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, however, had a somewhat different experience and perspective. When St Paul he arrives in Jerusalem shortly after having written Romans, they tell him:
'You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.’ (Acts 21:20)
We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that St James was held in high regard by Jews in Jerusalem. This very different experience to that of St Paul convinces them that there are grounds for optimism. The question that St Paul asks about whether the Word of God has failed if the Jewish people do not respond to the Gospel and believe in Jesus as the Messiah simply hadn’t arisen because they were, in fact, responding, not all, by any means, but a significant number.
In AD60, then, whether or not the Jews as a whole would respond to the Gospel was still an open question. There was evidence both ways. The leaders of the Church in Jerusalem would still, at this stage, have seen some grounds for optimism. St Paul, however, was convinced that they were not going to respond to the Gospel – at least, not yet.
For St Paul, the question that has to be answered is the Jewish Question and why Jews as the people of God are not responding to the Word of God in the Gospel. For St James and the Jerusalem leaders the question that has to be answered is the Gentile Question and where the Gentiles fit in to what God is doing for his people the Jews.
In whatever way the question is framed, St Paul fully realizes that this is an urgent issue for the Church, which is why he spends so much time in Romans addressing it. What is so amazing and controversial about what he writes, especially given his own Jewishness, is that he makes the Jews the problem. The question that has to be answered for St Paul is not why the Gentiles are responding, but why the Jews are not.
Our problem is that we don’t see the problem! For us, the Gospel is about believing in Christ whoever you are. It doesn’t matter, we think, if you are a Jew or a Gentile, or anything else for that matter. Our response to the problem is: ‘What’s the problem!’
This is where being on the wrong side of history comes in. Living when we do in a Church that is almost 100% Gentile, we just don’t see how big a deal this all is. We believe in the Gospel, why is it such a big deal that the Jews do not?
St Paul begins chapter 9 by telling us why it is such a big deal. He describes the status and privileges that belong to Israel as the chosen people of God. Israel is uniquely God’s and Israel is special.
What St Paul writes then in chapters 9-11 is his answer as to why, as he sees it, the Jews, even though they are God’s people, are not responding to the Word of God in the Gospel and certainly not to his presentation of it. It is also in many ways a prediction that they will not respond to it and that this is all part of God’s plan for them.
The reason that St Paul gives for the Jews not responding to the Gospel, either in the present or for the foreseeable future, is that God himself is preventing them from believing it. This, he believes, is so that the Gentiles can be given time to become part of the people of God. God has not forgotten his people, Israel, and at some point in the future, when the full number of Gentiles have come in, ‘all Israel’, he will tell us, will indeed be saved as St James and the other leaders of the Church in Jerusalem hope.
The sheer brilliance of St Paul’s explanation of what God is doing is that it answers both the Jewish and the Gentile Questions at the same time as well as explaining why God’s Word has not failed despite some appearance to the contrary.
Brilliant or not, while St Paul may have offered an answer to the Jewish-Gentile Question, which itself is not a problem for us, his answer makes statements that certainly are a problem for us and for how we understand the way salvation works.
Ironically, and it is ironic, while we today do not have a problem with the whole Jew-Gentile issue, we do have a problem with St Paul’s response to it. It comes down to a simple question: How can God choose to save some and not others? And how can he deliberately ‘harden’ some, as St Paul puts it, so as to prevent them from having faith and finding salvation? This really does not fit in with our view of God. Many would prefer to be circumcised rather than believe such an idea!
So, in the commentaries, books, and sermons on these chapters, there is what is known today as a ‘trigger warning’: ‘These chapters contain material that some may find offensive’.
Others immediately begin what they have to say about these chapters by answering the problem that what St Paul writes causes for them rather than with the problem that St Paul is actually writing about.
The result is that it is almost impossible to read or hear anything about these chapters today without from the start being told that these chapters are not about individuals and their salvation. St Paul, we are assured, is not saying that God chooses some individuals to be saved and some to be damned, he is talking instead about ‘groups’, even though he refers to individuals such as Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Pharaoh to do so. The individuals, we are told, are representatives of groups.
That’s alright then, except, of course, groups are composed of individuals and if God hardens the heart of someone to prevent them joining a group, as St Paul says God does, then the issue of individuals is back on the table. If God chooses the group which is to be saved, but acts to prevent some people getting into that group, then that sounds very much like God chooses which individuals should be saved after all.
The way that most people approach these chapters today is to see salvation as being like one of those group tours you go on when on holiday. The tour is visiting a famous tourist site and it’s up to you whether you want to join. The destination is of the group tour is chosen in advance, but whether you go on it is up to you.
The problem is that St Paul seems to suggest that God acts in such a way as to prevent people from joining the tour. St Paul concludes his initial response to the question he is answering:
‘So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.’ (Romans 9:18)
St Paul himself is very much aware of the questions that this gives rise to. He writes:
‘You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”’ (Romans 9:19)
The fact that he expresses it in such specific and individual terms suggests that maybe he is not indulging simply in group speak in the way we may think. So how does he answer his own question? He basically tells us that it should not be asked. God, he writes, is free to do whatever he chooses and with whomever he chooses. St Paul isn’t too bothered about human freedom; he is far more concerned about God’s freedom. He knows that humans are not free, we gave up that freedom to become ‘slaves of sin’ a long time ago in our history.
St Paul began Romans by telling us that our problems as a race all began when, although we knew God, we ‘did not honor him as God or give thanks to him’ (Romans 1:21). We will never find the answer to our problems either as a group or as individuals until we are prepared to honour God as God and give thanks to him. The road to salvation begins here.
And yet, still we cling to the idea of our freedom. Why is it so important to us? Speaking for myself, if I were to be given the choice between allowing God to choose for me or having the freedom to choose for myself, I would go with God choosing for me every time. I am not able to get even the simplest of things right. I have trouble controlling my diet, let alone my life. People spend millions of dollars every year going to therapists to get help in understanding themselves and their actions and still they are none the wiser. God, however, knows us better than we know ourselves, and better than we can ever know ourselves.
This doesn’t mean that self-knowledge is unimportant. Quite the reverse, it is vitally important. Unfortunately, however, we don’t want to know the things that really matter about ourselves: that we are separated from God, slaves to sin, dying and destined for wrath; that in us, there dwells no good thing, and that, as a result, we are incapable of doing even the good we may want to do; that our freedom is an illusion and delusion; and that we are subject to powers and forces we cannot see or control.
Instead, we cling to the idea that we make the decisions and call the shots; that we choose who we want to be and that we mold the clay of our being. We ourselves, and no-one else. This pathetic attempt to delude ourselves into believing that we are our own creator is no more than a desperate attempt to assert our independence from God. What’s our problem? Our problem is that we are rebellious and idolatrous. But, and this is what St Paul teaches us in these chapters, even in our rebellion and hardness of heart, God remains in control. That’s what it means to be God.
So how does God make decisions about us? St Paul doesn’t dwell on this question in these chapters as this is not the question he is answering. He does, however, tell us the basis on which God makes his decisions for us who have faith in Christ, and it is mercy. As we will see in the coming two weeks, ‘mercy’ is at the heart of God’s plan for both Jew and Gentile, you and me.
You show mercy to someone who is not in a position to help themselves; to someone who admits their need and pleads for help; to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
God wants to show us mercy, but we will never experience it until we are willing to surrender our pride, abandon our claim to freedom, and honour God as God. This means admitting that we are creatures, that this means we don’t and can’t understand some things, and that we must trust God to do what is right.
Why should we trust him? Because he has shown us what he is like and what his plan for us is in starkest of ways in the death of Christ for us on the Cross. As we look on him who died for us, we see God’s love for us and know with certainty that his plans for us are for good.
We may not be able to answer all the questions, but one thing I know is that left to myself I would be not able to come to know God. I cannot find God; I need him to find me.
Thankfully, I know that in Christ, he has.