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Sermon for Proper 13/Ordinary 18 A Romans 9:1-5

July 20, 2014

irrevocable“the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” – words of Paul to the Romans

“A Lutheran, a Roman Catholic and a Baptist were discussing which church would Jesus join if he returned to earth. The Baptist was quite sure he’d be a Baptist. The Roman Catholic was just as confident that he would never be anything but a Catholic.

The Lutheran concluded the discussion with, “I don’t think he would change.” “That’s right;” the local rabbi butted in, “he’d still be a Jew!” A. Dudley Dennison

Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania went to Athens to dispute with the Greek philosophers. They asked him: “Where is the centre of the earth?” Rabbi Joshua pointed with his forefinger to a spot on the ground where he stood and said, “Here.” They said to him, “How do we know that you are right?” He answered, “Bring your measuring rods, and measure it for yourselves.”

The Greeks believed that Greece was the centre of the earth. They divided humanity into two; either you are a Greek or a barbarian. In the Delphi Temple in Athens, they had a sacred object known as the omphalos or the navel of the earth. The Jews also believed they were the centre of the earth. Like the Greeks they also divided the world into two. You are either a Jew or a Gentile. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem there is a wooden structure known as the navel of the earth.

Logically there can be only one centre of the earth. If it was true that the navel of the earth was located in the Delphi Temple, then the Jewish claim that it was located in their Jerusalem Temple was false, and vice versa. By pointing to the ground on which he stood, the wise Rabbi was saying that the centre of the earth was not just Athens or Jerusalem but any spot where a human being stood.

In our second reading, Paul is discussing God’s dealings with humanity and the place of the Jewish people. He did not have any doubts in his mind about Jerusalem being the centre of the earth. He believed that the Jews were the chosen people of God. The Jerusalem Temple he believed to be the one house on earth where God literally lived.

Something happened to make Paul question these neat assumptions. On his conversion to what later became called Christianity he saw that the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, were equally loved by God and called to be God’s people.

Paul had belonged with the Jews who claimed that they were God’s only beloved people. Later he belonged with the mainly Gentile Christians who claimed that the Jews rejected Jesus so they were now rejected. So the Christians had become the new chosen people of God. Paul was not satisfied with this either-or approach to God’s covenant. He reminds the Gentile Christians that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable(Romans 11:29), so God could not have rejected the Jewish people.

Paul had come to realise that being people of God was open to everyone, Jew or Gentile. No one is qualified by national or religious affiliation alone, and by the same token, no one is excluded either.

Unfortunately, there are too many people in our world today, 2000 years after Paul, who still believe that God is their exclusive possession. They still believe that they alone have access to the mind and blessings of God. These narrow-minded believers are found in practically all religions. Such people oppose dialogue, believing that anybody who does not share their religious convictions is either a heretic or an infidel to be corrected or even punished.

Sadly, they have many of the early fathers of the church on their side:

St.  Gregory: “ Jews are slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, enemies of God, haters of God, adversaries of grace, enemies of their fathers’ faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men of darkened minds, leaven of the Pharisees, congregation of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of goodness.”

 Origen: “Their rejection of Jesus has resulted in their present calamity and exile.  We say with confidence that they will never be restored to their former condition.”

St. Jerome: “….serpents, haters of all men, their image is Judas … their psalms and prayers are the braying of donkeys….”

This view had had tragic results:

 “I believe that because of the anti-Jewish narratives of the New Testament, the Jews were hounded from one country to another, denied to live as human beings, denied to work as other people worked, denied to play as others played, were in no country at peace, in no era at peace and finally persecuted and massacred.  This was all because of…..Christian bigotry and hatred in the name of Jesus…..The tragic existence of the Jews during 1900 years in the Diaspora, the hatred they experienced, the pogroms, persecutions, murders and the destructions they suffered, must be mainly attributed to anti- Jewish statements in the New Testament.  Christianity introduced contempt for the Jew and is thus responsible for what happened in the Second World War at……… Auschwitz …..  What was started at the Church Council at Nicaea in 325 CE was duly completed in the concentration camps and crematories of Christian Germany where six million Jews perished.” Moses BazesJesus the Jew, the Historical Jesus,”

Twenty years ago, the Lambeth Conference tried to set the record straight: ‘…..this means, first of all, recognising that Judaism is still a living religion, to be respected in its own right…. We firmly reject any view of Judaism which sees it as a living fossil, simply superseded by Christianity.’ Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Way of Dialogue (Appendix 6 of the Lambeth Conference 1988)

Paul was writing against Christian-gentile exclusivism. In Rome, gentiles are being tempted to consider Jews excluded from God’s purpose (Rom. 11): Israel has rejected the gospel; God has rejected Israel. Israel has now been replaced as God’s people by gentiles who believe in Jesus. Paul was “a good Jew,” a Jew shaped by his belief that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, he did not break with the basic truths of Judaism. He was not in dispute with righteous Torah-observant behaviour, as though Jews were trying to earn God’s favour. Paul knew that Torah was God’s gift to the covenant people of Israel and that Jews observe the law in response to God’s grace. What he objected to was exclusivism, and in Rome it was gentile exclusivism that had to be addressed.

 

He is writing in a diatribal style, intended for the benefit of the gentile Christian audience.’ “We overhear an exchange between Paul and a Jewish partner in discussion”

 

The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Dissertation Series (Society of Biblical Literature) – Stanley K. Stowers. In that conversation, the Jew cooperates with Paul, moving the conversation along by answering Paul’s rhetorical questions.The situation resulted from shifts in the population of the Roman congregations, as Jews and Jewish Christians exiled from the city under Claudius returned, under Nero.’ They had suffered the confiscation of their property and widespread homelessness, the difficulty of securing kosher food and restrictions on assembly. The gentile Christian population in Rome were tempted to share in anti-Judaism. Paul warned against cloaking racist contempt for the weak (14:1—15:13) in theological finery, as if “God has rejected his people” (ll:l) “Israel has stumbled so as to fall” (11:11), or “God has broken off branches from the tree of Israel” (11:17—21).

Paul countered these slogans by reiterating the faithfulness of the God of the covenant (11:1—2) It was the Jews whom God chose to be his chosen people.

As Paul so aptly puts it in verses four and five of our second reading: To them belong the adoption, the glory, the revealed light and truth of God, the covenants (which are everlasting), the giving of the law (which is the foundation of Western civilization, the worship (which had a profound influence in shaping Christian liturgies), and the promises (of which, by faith we too, along with the Jews claim to be inheritors); to them belong the patriarchs (and, I would add, the matriarchs, from whom we too claim inheritance through faith), and from them according to the flesh, comes the Messiah (whom we believe is Jesus the Jew).

 So what has this got to do with us? Two pleas: We should resist calls to convert Jews to Christianity and engage in dialogue with them through groups like the Council of Christians and Jews.

We should resist those who seek to drop Old Testament readings or leave out the difficult ones. And I would prefer them to be introduced as the Hebrew Scriptures or the First Covenant, not as Old Testament as if out of date.

Two warnings: First: Verse 4 ‘to them belong …..the promise’ is sometimes used to buttress unequivocal Christian support for the state of Israel. Given the current environment in the Middle East, the biblical mandate for justice means we need to be critical of the government of Israel while not encouraging hatred of Jews as a people or religion.

Second: when Paul approaches the question of Israel, he’s also raising the question of the church. The church faces the same temptations as Israel. As members of the church, we can be tempted to think that we have it all sewn up. We know what we have believed and are persuaded that we are right. But in the end we can be in the same position as Israel who thought that because they had the law they were OK.

We need to remind ourselves that we stand under the judgement of God. All our present knowledge of God is like sand that slips through our fingers before we can properly grasp hold of it. The promise of God doesn’t fail simply because Israel fails or the church fails. God’s promises have not been forgotten. As Christians, as the members of a fallen Church, we, like Paul and the Jews, need to be aware of our own limitations, our own failings, knowing that his mercy has guaranteed us a place with him in eternity.

“the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”

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