Monday, August 17, 2020

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32

We come this week to the third and final passage from Romans 9-11 in this series of sermons on St Paul’s letter to the Romans. Again, as in the past two weeks, just a few verses are given in the lectionary for our reading from the letter, but, as we have been seeing, it is not that easy. Romans 9-11 is a detailed and carefully argued part of the letter dealing as it does with an important issue that has arisen from what St Paul has written in Romans 1-8. It simply won’t do to select a few verses that we like the sound of. These chapters are far more important and significant than that.

These chapters concern the place of ethnic Israel in the plan and purposes of God and with what I have described as the ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’. The term ‘ethnic Israel’ describes those who are Jews by physical birth. While we may feel all this is no longer a major issue for us today, ironically, we only feel like this because the Church in the past has failed to heed St Paul’s warning in these chapters. It is a warning that we too are reluctant to take seriously.

Last week, we closed with St Paul’s series of questions about ‘calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved’ (Romans 10:13). St Paul asked how anyone can call without believing in the Gospel, and how anyone can believe without first hearing the Gospel, and how anyone can hear unless someone tells them, and then, he asks, how anyone can be told unless someone is sent to tell them. We saw from this that God is in control at every stage of our salvation.

After making this plain, St Paul then asks, as is his way in Romans, another series of questions that again rise naturally out of what he has said. If faith comes from hearing and hearing comes by the word of Christ being preached, have people, in fact, heard? Yes, says St Paul, people have heard. The Gospel has gone out into all the world. But where does that leave those who belong to ethnic Israel? Surely they haven’t heard or else they would have responded, wouldn’t they? No, says St Paul, quoting Scripture, although they have heard, they have instead been disobedient and have refused to obey the Gospel.

Where, then, does that leave ethnic Israel? Have they now been rejected by God? St Paul refuses to accept this as even a possibility. After all, he is himself ethnically a Jew, and he has believed. St Paul, however, realizes that the majority of his fellow Israelites have not, and that they are not going to any time soon.

In order to explain this appalling state of affairs, St Paul draws on Scripture, and uses the concept of ‘the remnant’. He gives the example of Elijah and the 7,000 who refused to ‘bow the knee to Baal’ (1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:4). While it was undoubtedly the case that most in Israel were unfaithful, some, those whom God had chosen by grace, remained faithful. God, at the present time, writes St Paul, has chosen such a faithful remnant from ethnic Israel.

This all might seem quite defeatist and pessimistic, except that St Paul believes it is all part of God’s plan for his people, and that plan, St Paul writes, still involves ethnic Israel. St Paul acknowledges that ethnic Israel has stumbled, but he refuses to accept that they have fallen away permanently from God. God is now using the disobedience of ethnic Israel and their refusal to believe the Gospel to bring salvation to the Gentiles.

St Paul, at this point, addresses the Gentile believers in the Roman Church. Given that earlier he has spoken specifically to Jewish believers, it is clear that the Roman Church is made up of both Jew and Gentile believer. The ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’ that St Paul deals with at such length in these chapters is an important question anyway. It is one that rises inevitably from St Paul’s explanation of the Gospel; it is, as a consequence, one that he needs to address.

It is, however, particularly important that St Paul addresses the question in this letter to the Roman Church, if he is to get, as he hopes, the support of the Roman believers for his preaching of the Gospel in Spain. How he answers the question will also be important for what he has to say later in the letter concerning a pastoral problem that has arisen as a consequence of St Paul’s churches being mixed communities of both Jews and Gentiles.

Addressing Gentile believers directly, then, he tells them of his hope, as an apostle to the Gentiles, that the way the Gentiles are responding so positively to the Gospel may actually make ethnic Israel jealous. This is the reason he makes so much of his ministry to the Gentiles.

St Paul, however, knows there is a real danger here, and it is to do with Gentile arrogance. He describes the people of God as an ‘Olive Tree’ (Romans 11:17). Some of the branches of the Olive Tree, those representing ethnic Israel, have been broken off and some wild branches, representing Gentile believers, have been grafted in. St Paul says to the Gentile believers who have been grafted in:

‘… do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.’ (Romans 11:18)

St Paul is aware of how Gentile believers might respond having become the ‘adopted children of God’ and having received so many blessings, seemingly at the expense of those whose blessings, originally, they were (Romans 9:1-5). St Paul writes that ‘branches have been broken off so that they, as Gentiles, may be grafted in’ (Romans 11:19). This could make those grafted in feel special and superior. So St Paul explains that those of ethnic Israel who were broken off were broken off because of their unbelief. The Gentile believers are now where they are only by faith. Rather than feeling conceited, they should be afraid! If God has not spared the natural branches, that is, ethnic Israel, he certainly will not spare the unnatural ones, that is the Gentile believers. St Paul warns:

‘Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.’ (Romans 11:22)

Well, that’s telling them and telling us!

It is a warning which, if it had been heeded by the Church in the past, would have avoided great pain and suffering. But before I talk about that, St Paul still hasn’t finished what he wants to say on the question.

Ethnic Israel’s failure to believe in their own Messiah was itself something of a surprise, and St Paul’s explanation of it as God using it to bring salvation to the Gentiles is another. St Paul, however, hasn’t finished with the surprises. His final surprise is one that, even today, many in the Church refuse to accept.

St Paul tells them – so that they won’t think themselves too clever – that a ‘partial hardening’ of ethnic Israel has taken place until the ‘fulness of the Gentiles’ has come in (Romans 11:25). Once they have, and here’s the surprise, ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26). Many just cannot accept that this means what it says. The explanation that is often given of the phrase, ‘all Israel’, is that ‘Israel’ here means all those who believe, both Jew and Gentile. This, however, would mean St Paul suddenly changing how he has been using the word ‘Israel’ so far in chapters 9-11. Up to now, he has used it of ethnic Israel. That he is still using it to refer to ethnic Israel is confirmed by what St Paul goes on to write. He explains why ‘all Israel will be saved’, and his explanation makes clear that he is still talking about ethnic Israel. After again quoting Scripture referring to ethnic Israel, he writes:

‘As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29)

Why, then, the resistance to what seems so obvious? It is because, historically, many in the Church have viewed the Church as replacing ethnic Israel. The Church, they have believed, is now God’s people on earth, which means that the Jewish people are not. The Jewish people are, of course, welcome to join the Church, but they do so, or so it is argued, with no special privileges. You will sometimes hear this idea that the Church has replaced ethnic Israel described using the word ‘supersessionism’. It is the view that ethnic Israel has ceased to be the people of God and the Church has become the people of God in their place with no future place for ethnic Israel in the plan of God. Sadly, this view has had catastrophic consequences that we are still living with today.

But what, more precisely, does St Paul mean when he writes that ‘all Israel will be saved’?

Especially since the holocaust, some have reacted strongly to the antisemitism of the Church, and have argued that it means that God has another way of salvation for ethnic Israel that will lead to their salvation without the need for faith in Christ. They can’t have been reading Romans. For St Paul, it is by faith in Christ, and only by faith in Christ, that the way to salvation can be found.

Even so, there are many ways of understanding the phrase, ‘all Israel will be saved’. I think the most satisfactory way, and the one that fits best with St Paul’s argument, is that ‘all Israel’ refers to both ethnic and believing Israel. At some point in the future ‘all Israel’, that is, both ethnic Israel, who in the present time do not believe in Christ, and the remnant who, like St Paul, do believe, will be saved.

This means that, at some time known only to God, there will be a coming to faith in Christ of the Jewish people. Our Lord himself, in Luke’s Gospel, spoke of this (Luke 21:24). This is part of our hope for the future. It should also be in the present, in the way it was for St Paul, our ‘heart’s desire and prayer to God (Romans 10:1)’ that the Jewish people may indeed come to faith in Christ and be saved.

St Paul concludes by describing the paradox of obedience and disobedience that he has been writing about. The Gentiles, who were disobedient, have been shown mercy because of Israel’s disobedience. Now because of the mercy that has come from Israel’s disobedience, Israel too will be shown mercy. All this, writes St Paul, is from God whose purpose in it all is to have mercy on all both Jew and Gentile.

St Paul closes his discussion of the ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’, and indeed the first eleven chapters of Romans, with a doxology in praise of the wisdom and knowledge of God. No-one can ultimately know or understand God’s ways. God remains absolutely and completely in control of all things.

Amen to that. But what does it have to say to us today?

1. We need to repent of our arrogance towards the Jewish people

If you pick up a book written recently about Jesus of Nazareth, you will inevitably come across this statement: ‘Jesus was a Jew’. This is something that has in recent years dawned on New Testament scholars as if they have discovered something that has been kept hidden since the birth of our Lord himself. The mystery is not that our Lord was a Jew and that this has now been revealed to scholars; the mystery is why something so obvious has come as such a revelation.

The Gospels themselves make clear that not only was Jesus a Jew by birth, he lived as a Jew. He was not in any way uncomfortable with being a Jew. Indeed, he saw his ministry as being entirely to do with his own people. In our Gospel reading this morning, he says quite bluntly to a Gentile woman who sought his help: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24)’.

The apostles were also all Jews and the Gospel they preached was a message that came out of their belief that Jesus was the ‘Messiah, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David (Matthew 1:1)’, whom God had promised to his people. As we have seen, however, not all believed by any means, and this set up real tensions between the emerging Jewish sect and mainstream Judaism. St Paul, before he became an apostle, may be an extreme example of the attitude of many Jews at the time, but he was by no means alone. As the new sect grew and took on an identity of its own, and as it became increasingly Gentile, it broke away from the family which had given it birth and, as it did, it renounced its heritage.

Worse still it turned on the Jews. They were seen as guilty of the ultimate crime, ‘deicide’, killing God, or, at least, the Son of God. The Church was now the people of God and the Church had replaced the people of Israel. The persecution of the Jews by Christians has been systematic and severe. We all know of the horrors of the holocaust. And we have all seen pictures and films about the ghettos that the Nazis established in places like Warsaw with those who were confined to them forced to wear badges to identify themselves as Jews. What we perhaps do not know is that the Jewish ghetto was the idea of the Church.

To take one example. In 1555, approximately 2,000-3,000 Jews lived in Rome. Pope Paul IV found their presence offensive, and decided to segregate the community, establishing a walled Ghetto. The Jews in the Ghetto lived in incredible poverty and cramped conditions, which only grew worse as their population grew. Jews were technically allowed to leave during daylight hours, but outside the Ghetto they had to wear clothing that identified their religion – yellow hats adorned with bells and a horn for men, and two blue stripes across the chest (the same mark donned by prostitutes) for women. The Nazis had good teachers.

This is not to suggest that it was just the Roman Catholic and not the Protestant Church that was antisemitic. The protestant reformer, Martin Luther, wrote about the Jews in language to rival that of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. Indeed, many Nazis looked to Luther as having been supportive of their ideology. In many ways, he was.

Antisemitism passed through the Church into society as a whole, and it is still very much with us. We see examples of it on a daily basis in the media. But surely not now in the Church? There are many good Christians who have utterly rejected antisemitism and who work to show love and support to the Jewish people. But, sadly, far more do not.

There are 14.7 million Jews in the world according to the latest figures. There were 16.6 million in 1939 before the beginning of the second world war. There were 5.11 million Jews in the world in 1948 on the eve of the establishment of the state of Israel. The maths are not hard to do to see the effect of the holocaust. It is estimated that had it not been for the holocaust, the number of Jews in the world would now be double what it is. Today, 6.7 million Jews live in Israel, that is 45% of the world total. If you want, then, to attack the Jewish people today without appearing to be antisemitic far easier just to attack Israel. [Source of Statistics: Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics]

Now Israel as a nation should be subject to the same scrutiny as other nations, and criticising Israeli policies and actions is not in itself antisemitic, but it does seem strange that Church leaders are very quick to speak out against Israel, but rarely a word is said in criticism of those who oppose her.

As followers of the Messiah, Romans 9-11 at the very least should challenge our attitudes to the Jewish people and encourage us to look upon the Jewish people with the same love and concern that St Paul, himself a Jew, showed towards them. And we should do this knowing, as St Paul writes, that ‘as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29)

2. We need to note both the kindness and severity of God

St Paul told the Gentile Christians not to become proud and reminded them that they stood now only ‘by faith’. If they ceased to be faithful, St Paul warned that they too would be ‘cut off’. We have seen that St Paul in chapters 9-11 addresses groups. We have also seen that, at the same time, it is impossible to ignore the implications of what he writes for individuals. Groups, after all, are composed of individuals. When St Paul warns the Gentile believers that they will be ‘cut off’ unless they continue in God’s kindness, he is writing still about both groups and individuals. His warning today, however, falls on deaf ears. We just don’t think that it applies either to groups or to individuals.

Most Christians simply think it is inconceivable that that God would cut them off or cut anyone else off for that matter. Now the motivation for this conviction is often a good one. It comes out of a belief and certainty in the love and mercy of God, something that is a major theme in these chapters. However, for St Paul there was no contradiction between the kindness and the severity of God.

Personally, on a human level, I would very much prefer the company of someone who thinks God loves me and forgives me whatever I may do, than someone who thinks God wants to punish me and see me burn eternally in hell. The trouble is that having got rid of the embarrassing teaching of our Lord and the New Testament about judgement and punishment, many in the Church have felt able to change other aspects of the faith without worrying too much about the consequences.

I will be looking a bit more at this on an individual level next week. This week, in closing, however, I want to talk about us as a group, that is as a Church and Churches.

The Church in the west and in westernized societies, such as our own here in Hong Kong, is currently responding to a decline in belief in society by reinventing itself for the times we find ourselves in. Everything is up for consideration: the way we worship, what we believe, and how we live. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. The Church should always be being reformed and renewed. But this reformation and renewal should always be in response to the Spirit and not in response to the world. We are not called to be popular or successful; we are called to be faithful.

The abandonment, then, of some of the central teachings of the faith and the embracing of ideas and attitudes of contemporary society, not least in the focus on self and identity, amount, I believe, to idolatry. Those Churches that are embracing such idolatry need to be very careful that they don’t find that they too will be cut off.

This is a challenge to those who still hold to the orthodox faith as revealed in the Bible and the Creeds to be faithful and not to bow the knee to the modern day baals. While in some churches orthodoxy may become the faith of the few – has become the faith of the few – we can take heart that God works through the few, through remnants.

St Paul finishes these chapters by praising the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (Romans 11:33). His ways are beyond our understanding. God still has many surprises in store for us both collectively and individually. This world can seem a very scary place and often it feels like those against us are greater than those who are for us. If, however, these chapters teach us anything, it is that God is in control whatever the appearances may be to the contrary.

‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.’ (Romans 11:36)


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