Our travels through Paul’s great letter to the Romans began with the bad news about human beings; that our lives are ravaged and blighted by sin. Not just the hardness of our own hearts but those of others especially people of power and influence who make bad choices. We also learnt that this sin drives a wedge between us and the loving God who made us for himself. The great truth we then learnt was that God does not allow that wedge to separate us. In Jesus Christ, he bears the pain and consequence of sin, so that through faith, we may find forgiveness and share eternity with God. In the last chapter, we marvelled at how God gives us his own Spirit, a Spirit of adoption, a Sprit that allows us to call the God of the universe daddy, abba, our Father in Heaven. As Jo reminded us last week, chapter 8 concludes on a high: ‘Who will separate us from the love of God? Answer: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.35&39)
The opening words of today’s reading from chapter 9 remind us of Paul’s conviction about God’s love, a conviction that the Holy Spirit in his conscience confirms as true. It’s not just Paul. Christians through 2 millennia in good times and bad, persecution and hardship, sickness and health, death and life have declared the same: the God who in Christ suffers on the cross is their Father who’s love never fails. With such great truths to affirm why does Paul then say that he has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart? Well, it’s all about the Jews?
Few of you listening to me will be Jews or even know many Jews. Compared with other groupings of people such as Muslims or Arabs or Chinese, they are a minority. Yet, no one can engage with the bible for long without coming across the Jews. The old testament is their scripture as well as ours. Jesus was a Jew as of course was Paul himself. The Jews are a key part of who we are and what we believe as Christians. We cannot simply class them as another religion.
If nothing can separate us from the love of God, then Paul had a problem. So many of his own people were rejecting this love of God shown in Jesus through his death and resurrection. They had failed to recognise Jesus as their Messiah, as the one prefigured by the prophets. In these verses, Paul is really beating himself up. He writes: ‘For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.’ (Romans 9.3) Yes, Paul even contemplates giving up his own relationship with Jesus, the most precious thing he has if would mean that they, God’s chosen people, would know the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. He is that desperate for them to share his faith in the risen Jesus. This really matters to him.
He uses the rest of the today’s reading to remind his readers of the rich spiritual heritage enjoyed by the Jews, the Israelites. ‘…to them belong the adoption, (when God called Abraham and said that he would build a nation from his descendants) the glory, (the tangible presence of God when giving the law to Moses, resting between the cherubim of the ark of the covenant and in the temple) the covenants, (with Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with Moses) the giving of the law, (on mount Sinai) the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. (Romans 9.4-5)
The Jews have such a rich heritage. They are still here two thousand years after Paul wrote about them in Romans. Still, opinions of them divide the world and divide the church. There are many who take the view that all that was promised to the Jews in the past still stands. They are God’s chosen people and that to be born a Jew is to have assurance of a place in heaven no matter what. They have their faith which still awaits the Messiah and God honours that. On that basis it is said, Christians should not reach out to them and share their understandings and experiences of Jesus but simply respect Jews as being on a different pilgrimage. Such a view fits well with a society which values diversity.
The other view is that of which we have heard much lately and has been part of the recent travails of the Labour party. The view of the antisemitic. The antisemitic takes a dim view of Jews. It believes that they not to be trusted and they act together to protect their own interests. Antisemitism has often reared its head in the life of the church from the early fathers to Nazi Germany. That it was Jewish leaders who orchestrated Jesus death has often been used as the justification for appalling statements about Jews emanating from the church and its being complicit in the holocaust.
There can be no place for antisemitism of any kind. While we cannot deny the part of Jews in the death of Christ, we must be careful when we speak of the cross to remember that it was gentile Romans who banged in the nails and it was the sin of us all that held him there. As the contemporary hymnist Steward Townsend has put it: ‘It was my sin that held Him there until it was accomplished’ (How Deep the Father’s Love for us, Stewart Townsend 1963 -)
Neither of these views is the one Paul takes of his own nation and people. He does not accept that all Israel is saved whether they chose to accept Jesus or not. Neither does he display hatred or distrust of them. All he hopes for is that they will recognise Jesus as their Messiah, the one through who both they and Gentiles can be drawn into the love of God. He spends the remainder of chapter 9 trying to help his readers understand a little more of God’s purposes using old testament passages. God’s word has not failed, he says, because some have chosen not to accept. That’s how it was with Esau and Jacob. God will have his way just as the potter does with clay. Not all Israel will be saved but those who reach out in faith. Later, he will speak more of how that believing remnant will grow and have a special place in God’s plans.
Paul is not being antisemitic as he debates these things and nor should we be accused of being so. As Christians, we should uphold and support the rights and freedoms of Jews as we should for all people, but that ought not to stop us sharing Paul’s concern in these chapters that they share in Christ’s love.
A couple of weeks ago, Chris asked the question: ‘What do long for most in life? I want to ask a further question today: What do you long for most for those you love? For your family, friends and work colleagues. Do you share Paul’s burning ambition that they find faith in Christ? It would have been easy for Paul to have said of his people: they have the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship of the temple and promises so I don’t need to trouble them with Jesus. No. he even contemplates losing Jesus himself if that might make them find him! At the beginning of the next two chapters, he will express a similar sentiment. The people in your life will not necessarily be Jews, they may have another faith of some kind or none at all. They may well kick back against what you might share with them of your convictions to Christ and of course, they have an absolute right to their beliefs as you have to yours. This is not an issue of compulsion but of love. Do you love your friends as Paul loved the Jews? Do pray and long for them to know the love of God in Christ as much as he did?
Here in lies the challenge of the verses we have read today. May the Holy Spirit move all of us to have such a compassion and longing for those we love to find the depths of God’s love in Christ as Paul found out for himself when the risen Jesus confronted him on the way to Damascus. Amen
02.08.2020. Trinity 8