Monday, August 04, 2008

what about israel? (romans 9-11)

A few years ago, in a former church, I got to know a wonderful young man. He was very involved in the ministries of our church—in youth fellowship, on mission trips, retreats for students, he volunteered in vacation bible school, he was an eagle scout in the church’s troop. When he graduated he received one of the college scholarships that the church gave to young people.

He was accepted and went off to a very fine school in our state. We stayed in touch a little, but like most college students he was making his way in a new place. About nine months later, in the spring, I received a very long and passionate letter from him. In a early part of the letter—it was several pages-- he described the church he was attending in his college town. In the second part of the letter—he described all of the ways our church—his church—was falling short. It was a long letter, and he was very articulate! And in the last part of the letter, he outlined the ways that I would be held responsible, before God, for I was, in his words, “the shepherd who was leading the sheep astray”.

My relation with the young man had always been a good one, I thought. And once I got over the ego part, and the personal part, and once I stopped trying to analyze the puzzle that was the letter, I decided, after sleeping on it a few days, to write him a letter, one that would be equally long, and one that would be equally passionate. The Bible was very important to this young man, and the Bible is very important to me. And so I walked him through Romans 9-11, our passage for this morning. And here is the simple insight I shared with the young man.

I said, you are like a branch of the tree, and the church, your church, the church you are so critical of, the church, is the root system. You cannot be who you are apart from all of the experiences you have had in this church---and for him this would have included the nursery, Sunday school, vacation bible school, youth choir, retreats at Junaluska, united Methodist youth fellowship, not to mention worship, sermons, visits to his mother when she was hospitalized, anthems, scouts, I went on, I went into detail about people, people who loved him, youth leaders who had shared the faith with him but just as importantly mentors who had lived the faith with him.

I said, very simply, your very life as a Christian, as a young man of faith, would not be possible without this community of men and women. They are your spiritual mentors, your ancestors, your family. They are the root system that takes in life, and they have spent years sharing it with you. You are the branch. And something is about to bear fruit in your life. But do not, I urge you, do not, I beg you, do not cut yourself off from them. And then I used these words: I find your letter absurd. I find your letter arrogant. I wanted to get his attention. What you are doing, saying, thinking is not in the interest of your own spiritual well being, and it is not the truth. These people need you. But you also need them.

Most biblical scholars see two large purposes in the Letter to the Romans. The first is the struggle with the question of salvation, and faith and grace and works. We have focused on these matters over the last few weeks, in the first eight chapters of the book. The second is the issue before us this morning: what about the empirical fact that the Jews, the chosen people of God, do not seem to be embracing the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The children of God do not seem be claiming their inheritance. This was my young friend’s struggle. And for Paul this was a crisis of identity and faith.

This was a crisis because Paul himself was Jewish. He writes in Philippians: I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Philippians 3).

And yet Paul had counted all of this as loss for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ as savior. For Paul, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law, and for this very reason he is God’s gracious response to the law. And yet, Jesus comes to his own people, and his own people do not accept him. In response to all of this, Paul says, “I would give up my own salvation if it could be different”.

Early in the ministry I heard of an apocryphal experience that happened at a meeting of Presbterian clergy, who had gathered to examine (that means “grill”) a candidate for ordination. The meeting had gone on, it was warm that day, the questions were pointed, the stress level was rising, the candidate getting put out with the interviewers and vice versa. Finally, one of the crusty older ministers, with a deep drawl asked the question that is a favorite in Calvinist circles. “Would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?”

The candidate was silent for a moment, and then he looked around at his situation, he thought again about the question, “Would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?, and then he responded. “I can do better than that. I would be willing for this entire room full of people to be damned for the glory of God!”

It is an odd, even funny question to us, but Paul was there. He says, I would give up my own stake in any of this, if my own people could know the salvation that God has for them. You see the salvation has come from them and it is for them. To them, Paul says, belongs the adoption, the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises; it is their (our) family story and from them the Messiah has come.

And so it is a family story. Through history we have always been most in danger when we have tried to divide this family story, when Christians have distanced themselves from the Jews----In the second century, Marcion tried to remove all Jewish influences in the New Testament scriptures and was declared a heretic. And in the twentieth century there was the tragic history of the holocaust, and the church’s complicity in that those horrors.

We are one family, and yet there is a separation. From the Christian side, this has everything to do with the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God. Mid-way through the New Testament, in the Book of Acts, this had to do with table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. Many of the Jews could not bring themselves to eat with unclean people—for them this was a violation of the law. Jesus, the rabbi, caused problems by crossing these boundaries and meeting with sinners. When he was criticized---why would a rabbi do such a thing?---he told parables, the best loved and most remembered of these being the story of a prodigal son.

And yet, despite the separation, from the Christian side, we are still family. We have a great deal in common. Pam and I lived for nine years in Greensboro, and at the urging of a very active member of our church there I became involved in interfaith work. A part of this was taking groups of Christians and Jews to Israel once every two years.

These pilgrimages were experiences in my life. I came to love Jewish people. Like Christians, some take their faith seriously and some do not. Some are supportive of what is happening in Israel and some are not. Some have a sense of humor and some do not. Some of grace-filled and some are not. In traveling to Israel we would see the Garden Tomb and Golgotha and the Jordan River and Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee, but we would also see the Knesset and the Holocaust Museum and have a Shabbat (Sabbath) meal with a Jewish family. We met with the Palestinian Christmas Church in Bethlehem and we had dinner with Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Our Jewish friends watched as we renewed our baptisms in the river and they celebrated. It reminded them of the mikvah baths outside the temple, where people would cleanse themselves. And all of this reminded us, if we had forgotten, that John the Baptist and Jesus were Jewish. We were a family.

All of which takes us back to the scripture. Paul the apostle, Paul the rabbi, Paul the believer in the risen Lord is struggling, grieving over the reality of this family separation. To the Jews, his own people, who are separated, he says, “we honor the tradition, the history, the promises”. And to the Gentile Christians, who are growing, who are flourishing, he says, “don’t get to puffed up about this, do not become proud…stand in awe (11.20)”….they are the natural part of the tree, you were grafted in. Remember, they are the root system, you are the branches, you get your very life, all of it, from them, God is not abandoning them, in fact, God is going to graft the separated part of the tree back in. It is unnatural that there is a separation. It is natural, organic that there will be a reunion. And then Paul boldly says, in Romans 11.26, “all Israel will be saved”.

Why should we care about all of this? You see, we are all a little like the young man whose story I shared. He and I did sit down in the summer for a meal. We worked through a number of issues. And I will admit that even as he may have learned something from the experience, I learned something from him. We all tend to take our origins, our traditions, even our families for granted. As one of my teachers at Duke put it, bluntly, “without Judaism there is no Christianity”. Earlier in the summer I talked about God’s desire to salvage us. Someone has said that Romans 9-11 takes up the theme of salvation in Romans, but whereas most of the book focuses on the individual, 9-11 looks at the whole sweep of history. In other words, here Paul is talking about salvation not in retail terms, but wholesale. The salvaging of a people is for an even grander purpose: the salvaging of the human family. The mission of Israel is to be, in the words of Isaiah, a light to the nations (49. 6).

How is all of this going to happen? There is so much tragic history between Jews and Christians, there is so much that is of importance to each of us that cannot simply be brushed aside. What is this salvation going to look like? Paul concludes the three chapters by leaving that question in God’s hands, and simply giving thanks for the power and mystery of the One who creates us, who delivers and saves us, who draws us into the future. We read in Romans 11. 33-36 (tniv):

O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and
And his paths beyond tracing out!
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to God
That God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To God be the glory forever. Amen.

Sources: N.T. Wright, “Romans”, The New Interpreter’s Bible; Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel.


Blogger Talbot Davis said...

That was a really good post.

I normally don't read long posts by anyone, but that one drew me in.

I'd hate to get a letter like that.

But the Romans 9-11 analogy was superb. Thanks for a good reading of a hard passage.


9:22 AM  
Blogger ken carter said...

thank you, Talbot. I really respect your reading of the Bible,and am grateful to hear your response to this.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Raffi Shahinian said...

Awesome post. Speaking of N.T. Wright and Romans, I thought you might enjoy this one.

Grace and Peace,

8:55 AM  

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