Text: Romans 9:1-5
Growing up in rural North Carolina is in many ways like living in a closed system. Apart from television, until I was sixteen, I had never seen in real life someone who was not white, black or hispanic. It may come as a surprise to some of you that I did not meet someone who was not a Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian until then! Not even a Roman Catholic, a Lutheran or an Episcopalian, much less a Jewish person!
When I was a kid, my grandmother had a set of World Book Encyclopedias which I loved to thumb through and see pictures from around the world and of cultures ancient and modern. When I had gotten to the “I’s,” I inevitably stumbled across the entry for “Israel.” To my astonishment, I discovered quite by accident that all those places I had heard about in Sunday School were real. In the mind of a child, the difference between stories of fact and fiction are rather indistinct on some levels. Looking at this encyclopedia and its map of the nation of Israel triggered a lot of questions about all these stories … “This is a real place? There really are Jewish people? Israelites? We can actually GO to places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Egypt? All of these stories are supposed to be real?” I have come to call this moment, “The Encyclopedia Epiphany,” as it was one of the things which caused me to try and find a deeper meaning within the stories I heard on Sundays.
When I first met someone who was Jewish, I have to admit I held them in a bit of awe. Like all good Southerners, I had a good appreciation of history, and I have to admit I’m quite honored that my maternal family extends back to colonial days, but here is someone whose grasp of personal history extended back through literally thousands of years to a time before there was such a thing known as “Western Civilization.” And also, here was someone who claimed to worship and follow the same God that I did, but rejected the notion that Jesus was the Messiah.
In his letter to Romans, St. Paul tackles this quandry, but from a different perspective. He met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was changed from the early Church’s most fierce opponent to its most ardent evangelist. St. Paul, in fact, with all of his notions which cause us some angst these days, could be called our first inclusion activist for he advocated the Gospel be spread to the Gentiles without them having to observe Jewish practices of circumcision, temple worship, and so on. In the middle of all this, it soon became clear to St. Paul that the Jews by and large were not buying into the fact that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus Christ.
After Paul’s exalted affirmation that nothing can separate anyone from God’s love in Romans 8, he turns to this serious matter, which caused him great distress, and even calls it “great sorrow and unceasing anguish. (v1).” Does this mean that since God’s great salvation plan was first and foremost for Israel, that God has failed? Has he rejected the people he called to be His own because they rejected their Messiah? Not at all! Even with this rejection, Paul claims that their calling, their vocation as a particular people of God is irreversible and irrevocable. The ironic thing is that their rejection in some way means that God’s Great Big Hairy Audacious Plan of Salvation has now become available to all of humanity … while still retaining the promises and benefits of their relationship with God. They have received great gifts which are still theirs and no one else’s to claim as their own. St. Paul says emphatically, “They are ISRAELITES, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, 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.” (v.4-5)
The Church through the ages has at various points tried to claim that we have now replaced Israel as the heirs and children of God, but St. Paul emphatically says this is not the case. Of all the Church’s interfaith relationships, it is with our Jewish cousins that we have arguably done the least amount of good, when it could be argued that relationships should be the most friendly. Of all the things that the Church has to atone for, I dare say it is not the inquisition or the Crusades, but it is the fact that we sat by while 6 million Israelites met their death and suffered all sorts of torture in the heart of Christian Europe less than 100 years ago. The Body of Christ does not replace Israel or strip Israel of its favour with God. For out of Israel came the came the Messiah, the “Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” It is impossible to separate the RIsen Lord from the history of Israel and the life of humanity.
When I first met a Jewish person, I saw the divine at work in the world and in the flesh. Forget theology and esoteric ramblings about atonement, justification, propitiation and the Trinity, the Jewish people are a concrete reminder of the reality of God and that God acts on our behalf in love and mercy to redeem us. In the middle of everything the world throws at us, God is faithful and true. In his novel, The Moviegoer, one of the characters, Binx Bollings, explores a search for meaning which becomes a search for God. He says, “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something … I have become acutely aware of the Jews … Jews are my first real clue … Whean a man awakes to the possibility of a search [for God] and when such a man passes a Jew in the street for the first time, he is like Robinson Crusoe seeing the footprint on the beach.”
As we follow the Israelite’s stories in the Bible, we learn that they become our story, as we Gentiles are adopted into that same family of God which began with the calling of Abraham. We do not replace the roots of the family tree, but are grafted in. Through this particular and peculiar people, and specifically through one man born of this family, God has reached out to grab the entire human race as part of his Big Hairy Audacious Inclusive Plan of Salvation.
The Good News of Romans 9 is that the Jews are indeed the footprints of God we see on the beach. They are reminders that we are not part of the family of God by any of our own efforts, but by God’s own love and mercy. So many people today quest to find a greater meaning in life and look to this or that religious person or spiritual guide because they think that they might be onto something. The Good News of the Gospel I hope to share today is that neither they nor anyone is really “onto something.” Some One is actually onto us.