Sermon notes for Proper 14 A, 2014
Scripture: Romans 10:5-15
Last week we considered Romans 9:1-5, where Paul opens his consideration of the fact that the bulk of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as Messiah. In part, I took the occasion to unpack some of the themes introduced in that section, that flow throughout chapters 9-11 of the letter to the Romans. If I were to summarize this whole section briefly, I would do so by quoting Robert Jenson’s statement that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having before raised Israel from Egypt,” and I would add that, having raised Jesus from the dead, God will not now allow Israel to perish, for Jesus is the seal of the promises and covenant, and not their abrogation.1
The question then, is how the good news of Christ is to be proclaimed to those who have nor heard, or who have heard previously and rejected it. This is a concern that committed Christians must deal with in regard to all those who are not believers in Jesus Christ, but with whom we would like to share the gospel. Strangely enough, I believe that Paul encourages us to see humility as our watchword in these endeavors. More on what that looks like later.
To call Jesus the end of the Law, is not to say that Christ makes the Law null, but rather, it is to say that every word of the Law points toward Christ, the Messiah, God with God’s people, as the Telos, the end or purpose of the Law.2
There is no sugar coating the disagreement between Christians and Jewish people on the person of Christ. This was the source of Paul’s great anguish. But religious folks who are honestly seeking to follow God, and be faithful, owe one another honesty and fidelity to their own traditions. It is only from such a place of honesty and fidelity that true dialogue and unity of purpose can emerge. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist of the 20th century, the difference between traditions is more like a pie than a continuum. Those who move deeply into their own traditions–that is, those who move more deeply to the center of the pie–will find, somewhat paradoxically, that they are closer to ardent believers from another tradition, than they are to the semi-committed members of their own, who are at the fringes. Lewis, of course, was thinking about this in terms of various Christian traditions, but there is, I believe, a sense in which is also true between the great monotheistic traditions. It doesn’t completely map, but it conveys a truth: those who seek to be faithful and love the Lord God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves, will find that they are inhabiting a place where a fruitful exchange of ideas is possible, and where Paul’s vision of outdoing one another in righteousness, and holiness can really come into play. 3
Paul clearly views the rejection of Jesus’ messiahship by his fellow Jews as extremely problematic and based upon a misunderstanding of the Law. However, and this is of critical importance, he does not view this rejection of Jesus to entail God’s rejection of the Jewish people, including those Jewish people who fail to believe in Christ. Instead, Paul emphatically writes about God’s continued faithfulness, exhibited not only in the fact that a remnant, of the Jewish people do believe in Christ, but, through the emphasis on mercy, that God continues to be the God of those who have rejected Christ, as surely as he has always been the God of the Gentiles, even when they were unaware of it. For Paul, this question becomes caught up with a fundamental question of monotheism. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (10.12-13, citing LXX Joel 3.5 [Masoretic Text Joel 2.32]). If this were not the case, then either the same Lord would not be Lord of all, or else that Lord would not be faithful to his entire creation. It is, once again, As Paul now sees it, monotheism itself that is at stake (compare 3.29-30).4
Paul sets up the formula of the Law having been delivered to the people of Israel, so that they might share the truth of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the world, give rise to the Messiah who has recapitulated in his life the entire history of the people of Israel, and has fulfilled the Law, only to have the bulk to Israel reject him, while at the same time providing an opportunity through their hardness of heart, for the gentiles to be grafted on to the cultivated Olive Tree of Israel. In turn, the gentiles are to inspire through their holiness, those Jewish people who have not believed, so that they may call upon the name of Jesus, and in so doing return to obedience and proper interpretation of the Law. Of course, the question naturally arises: did God harden the hearts of those within Israel who have not believed? This is the same thorny issue that comes up with the language around the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Exodus. There are certainly those who argue just such a scenario: that God intentionally hardened the hearts of the portion of Israel so that the Gentiles might come in. As one commentator noted, this need not necessarily imply that God is capricious. The potter, one ancient commentator noted, must be free to fashion different forms of vessel from the same batch of clay. Yet there is a more satisfactory answer, and “In this case Chrysostom was surely on the mark when he suggested that Paul’s meaning is that the vessels have prepared themselves–that Pharaoh, for example, was ‘Fully ripe indeed, but to be sure, from his own resources and by himself’ (Homilies on Romans 16.8). What matters in any case, is that the divine patience surrounds Pharaoh and all those others of whom Paul speaks. Thus the entire phraseology with which he describes their sin is really only a foil whereby he may make clear the miracle of that patience, and the grace that follows it.”5
For Paul, then, the hope for everyone, not only Gentiles and not only Jews, is simply this: faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ as the end–that is the purpose–of the Law. Paul sees Christ as that toward which the Law had been pointing, most especially the forgiveness of sins, and the incorporation of all people into the Kingdom of God. And while be begins these musings by speaking specifically for his concerns for his Jewish brothers and sisters, his remedy is the same for all people, regardless of their ethnicity or station in life: They need to hear the good news of Christ, and learn of God’s love for them. The calling of those who profess Christ is this: to take the good news to those who haven’t heard it. To give all people the opportunity to learn about God’s love. This focus provides all the more reason to lament the fact that this section of Paul’s letter has been so misused over the centuries. As one commentator pointed out, the messengers Paul is speaking about were evidently special messengers sent to share the good news with Jewish people and others who had not heard of, or who had rejected, Jesus as messiah. For Paul, this was in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 52:
Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:6-10).
This interpretation doesn’t soften the difficulties arising from issues of proselytism. There’s no doubt that Paul sees it as incumbent upon Christians to share the story of Jesus with Jewish people, as with all others. The sensitivity around such conversations, it must be remembered, have come about because of Christian misapplication and misinterpretation of Paul’s meaning. Where, I believe, Paul was setting up the situation for an ongoing dialectic between sister faiths, striving to outdo one another in holiness (and what might the world look like, even now, if this became the goal?), Christians attained power and succumbed over succeeding generations to the temptation of the sin of pride, which expressed itself in the ongoing oppression and persecution of the Jewish people. We are still confronting this history, and it should make us particularly humble when in conversation with our Jewish brothers and sisters. This doesn’t mean we let go of our convictions, but it does mean that we should always be more ready to hear than to speak, learning the lesson of the teacher in Ecclesiastes 5:1-2. Dialogue among the religiously uncommitted isn’t much of a religious dialogue, but we Christians have to deal with the chastisement of history in regard to our misdeeds. Repentance is a first step, but amendment of life and restitution require better behavior and humility toward our Jewish neighbors and others.
Repentance, of course, always begins with humility. It takes humility to admit when we’re wrong, and it takes humility to admit that we don’t have everything figured out, that we can’t do it on our own. On a spiritual level, coming to a place of humility begins with confronting the human inability to achieve God’s righteousness. Paul believes that one of the primary errors of those Jewish people who have rejected Christ (and, in fairness, a number of Jewish Christians who attempted to impose the observance of certain Laws upon the gentile converts to Christianity), in addition to resting comfortably because of their ancestry,was that they were trying to achieve their own righteousness. They were, in the most literal sense, self-righteous, and self-justified. No doubt we’ve met many people in our lives who would fit into those categories. Horror of horrors, most of us do, or have fit into those categories for an embarrassing percentage of our lives. Paul’s lesson is both extraordinarily simple, and extraordinarily difficult.
From the beginning of our lesson today, Paul is emphasizing the difference between the righteousness that comes from faith, i.e. the righteousness that God provides, vs. the righteousness that comes from law, i.e. the righteousness we try to attain for ourselves. The righteousness that comes from faith is intrinsically related to the recognition that we cannot achieve our own righteousness, followed by calling out to God for aid. Paul is not trying to downplay the importance of human behavior, but he is instead emphasizing that behavior comes as a response to God’s grace, it cannot earn God’s grace. “This response, while in essence ‘near’ and ‘easy,’ is perhaps more difficult to wring from human beings than any commitment to a program of action no matter how arduous (cf. John 6:28-29). It is one which Israel, on Paul’s analysis, failed to confront (cf. 9:32-33).”6
Of course, humility is a lesson that we can apply in all interactions. Paul himself was a fantastic representative of a zealously committed evangelist. Yet, if you take the time to examine how he actually shared the gospel, as I’ve noted in previous sermons, he was extremely respectful of the people to whom he was speaking. Oddly enough, the respect he offered them with the message of Jesus led to a great deal of success in spreading the good news. This is a lesson we should be reminded of quite often. If we are, perhaps those we share the gospel with will be able to say “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15).
- Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63″ [↩]
- As Bryan notes in A Preface to Romans: “Greek telos (like Latin finis and English “end”) commonly bears a range of meaning all the way from “fulfillment, completion, consumation” to simple “finish, termination” (as in telos echein, “to be finished”) (LS τέλος, BAGD τέλος). The older Greek interpreters were generally clear that Paul intended the former of these senses at Romans 10.4–notably Origen (who in Rufinus’s Latin paraphrase says of 10.4, Finis enim legis Christus: hoc est perfectio legis [Migne, Patrologiae 14.1160]); John Chrysostom, who compares the phrase ‘Christ is the telos of the Law” with the notion that “health is the telos of medicine” (Homilies on Romans 17.2); and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who notes that “the Law led us to our master, Christ [ton Despoten,] of the Law” (Migne, Patrologiae, 82.164). No doubt this unanimity of interpretation was in part a result of the influence of Matt. 5.17 (so Eusibius, Demonstratio Evangelica 8.2.33), but it remains impressive.” p. 171 [↩]
- Matthew 22:37-40, as cited in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 324). [↩]
- Bryan, Christopher A Preface to Romans, 175 [↩]
- Bryan, 161 [↩]
- Byrne, Brendan “Romans,” Sacra Pagina, vol. 6, Daniel Harrington ed., 319. “”The emphasis here upon faith and simple confession might seem at first sight to represent a playing down, in a ‘quietistic’ kind of way, of the importance of human behavior and relationship to God and life in the world. Paul has, however, already confronted this issue in [Romans 6:1-8:13] and insisted that the new era of grace involved ‘obedience’ no less demanding–though more realistic–than that of the old dispensation. If for the moment (cf. already 9:11, 16) Paul moves away from a stress upon action, this is simply to pinpoint and establish what is most basic in the response God requires of human beings. Prior to any good works, the response of faith entails admitting that one has no ‘works’ to offer to God, no righteousness of one’s own, that as a human being and a sinful one at that, one can only ‘submit to’ (v 3) and humbly receive the ‘gift’ of righteousness offered in overflowing abundance by God (cf. 5:17). This response, while in essence ‘near’ and ‘easy,’ is perhaps more difficult to wring from human beings than any commitment to a program of action no matter how arduous (cf. John 6:28-29). It is one which Israel, on Paul’s analysis, failed to confront (cf. 9:32-33).” [↩]