JULY 30, 2011 - YEAR A

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 15
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21
Homilist: Halcyon Wilson

The book of Romans is not one of Paul’s typical letters. It was a statement of his faith. He heard about the church in Rome, but had not been there., nor had any of the other apostles. He was completing his three month ministry in Corinth, on his third journey, when he decided to go to Spain via Rome. But first he was delivering to Jerusalem a contribution for the needy Christians there. (Romans 15:22-28) Evidently the church in Rome was started by Jews who had come to believe in the Christ during Pentecost (Acts 2). They spread the faith on their return to Rome and the church grew. It consisted mostly of Jews, though there were a good number of Gentiles also.

Although many barriers separated them, Paul felt a bond with these Romans. They were his brothers and sisters in Christ, and he longed to see them face to face. He had never met most of the believers there, yet he loved them because he loved the God who loved them. He sent this letter to introduce himself and to make a clear declaration of his faith.

In this presentation, which we call the Book of Romans, Paul emphasizes the good news. Salvation is available to all, regardless of a person’s identity, sin, or heritage. All are saved by grace, which is unearned, undeserved favor from God; through faith which is complete trust in Christ and his finished work. Through him all stand before God justified, “not guilty” (3:21-5:21). With this foundation Paul moves directly into a discussion of the freedom that comes from being saved (6:1-23), freedom from the domination of the law (7:1-25), freedom to become like Christ and discover and experience God’s limitless love (8:1-39).

Speaking directly to his Jewish brothers and sisters Paul shares his concern for them and explains how they fit into God’s plan.

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  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.  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 forever. Amen.

Paul was an intelligent, articulate, and committed man. He was true to his calling. Like a skilled lawyer, he presents the case for the gospel clearly and forthrightly. Yet here, in this short passage, he gives us a rare insight into the depth of his love for people. These were his kindred, his flesh and blood. He was concerned for their salvation and the way they regarded themselves. He worried that they saw themselves as superior.

With the Jews he clearly understood the promises to be for the Jewish people. The favored ones. The chosen ones. Jesus lived among them. He was the answer to the promises given since the beginning of time.

We must remember that the promise of redemption was given before the creation of the world! Before this world was created, there was a plan in place! Grace existed before creation. What love! The Godhead chose to create us humans in spite of the possibility of sin! With full knowledge that one of the Godhead – the only begotten Son – would have to die for these humans. Maybe even an eternal death? The Godhead chose to create anyway. It was worth it to them. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .

What a rich history the Jewish people had! They could recite the stories from Abraham on through David and the founding of Jerusalem – the favored city with the beautiful temple in which they worshiped -- when they could. All Jewish people knew the promise of a king who would free them from a yoke they despised.  Yet most of them did not recognize the king when he came.

However, in the New Testament story we understand the beginnings of Christianity. More and more a group of Jewish people were accepting the idea that Jesus Christ was the Redeemer with a different mission than they had expected. As they believed, they spread throughout the world, and they started group churches and worshipped together. That is what the church in Rome was. But it wasn’t that easy!

Somehow the Gentiles also believed! Were they to enjoy the promises just as the Jews? Did they have to become Jews? Be circumcised? It certainly didn’t make sense to them.  Why should they have to become Jews? Couldn’t they just be Christians? Weren’t the promises for them also? Didn’t the Christ die for them just as much as for the Jews?

Paul is preaching this. He lives it. And he obviously is frustrated that the Jews don’t understand. As Moses (Exodus 32:32) long ago pleaded with God “… forgive their sin--and if not, blot me, I pray out of the book which you have written,” so Paul is expressing his frustration in the same way. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  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.”

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? He willingly gave up his own life, not sure it was accepted at the time, for the love of his creation. And this included the Gentiles – and us today. I think we relate ourselves to the Jewish heritage. Do we think of ourselves as the descendants of Abraham? In many ways we do, of course. We consider the promise for us also. But we are the Gentiles, are we not?

The people in this church were “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.

The entire argument – whether the Gospel was for all, not just Jews – seems so simple to us today. However, is it really? Do you and I believe the Gospel is only for those who believe in Christianity? Do we honestly think God doesn’t work and save people in other cultures and religions? Are we Christians the only chosen ones?

Every once in a while I dig up the old book “Your God is too Small” by J. B. Phillips. The title of the book is almost the best part of the book. But he does warn that it is easy for us to hold our ideas of God largely static. Is that what the Jews did? Do we today? Do we forget the big picture and make our God too small?

Several years ago, my stepdaughter Laurie spent a couple of years in Sudan as part of an ADRA work force. She was amazed and surprised at the love and friendship which she enjoyed with some of the Sudanese women who were totally devoted to their style of worshiping the same God she did. They honored and accepted her viewpoint, how could she not accept theirs? Did God not live among them also? Yet they did not live her lifestyle nor obeyed the same commandments she believed were important.

Did God manifest himself to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews, even as he was born and lived as a Jew on earth? Paul believed so. And I like to believe that we do also.

Paul’s point was that since the Jews were God’s chosen people they should be among the heirs of this salvation. But instead, it stirred most of them to bitter opposition. He believed that because the gospel was for both Jew and Gentile, it was for the Jew first to share. Later in the chapel he speaks of the salvation of “a remnant according to the election of grace.” (ch. 11:1-10) and of the acceptance of the  Gentiles (vs 11-22) all of which is evident of the wisdom and glory of God (vs 33-36).

The covenants of promise to which the Gentiles were strangers the Jews seemed to regard as placing God under obligation to favor them with divine protection and blessing. They considered it a matter of great merit to be descended from such noble ancestors as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. At the same time they ignored their own obligations and failed to fulfill the conditions upon which the covenants were based. The greatest of all privileges granted to the Israelites was that the Messiah sprang from their race. It was toward this most exalted privilege that all the other blessings had pointed.

We as parents wish (sometimes) we could die or live for our children, especially the ones who seem to need it the most. We know it doesn’t work that way. So did Paul, and Moses, and Hosea. Only the Son if God could and did so for all his creation – good and bad – Jew and Gentile -- Christian and nonchristian.

As Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life, Rome was the world’s political, religious, social, and economic center. There the major governmental decisions were made, and from there the gospel spread to the ends of the earth. The church in Rome was a cosmopolitan mixture of Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free people, men, women, Roman citizens, and world travelers. Therefore it had potential for both great influence and great conflict.

Paul had not yet been to Rome to meet all the Christians there, and, of course, he has not yet met us. We too live in a cosmopolitan setting with the entire world open to us. We also have the potential for both widespread influence and wrenching conflict. We need to listen carefully to Paul and apply his teaching about unity, service, and love.