Christ Walks on Water, Eero Järnefelt, 1891, Pori Art Museum (Wikipedia)
Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
August 9, 2020
Last week we concluded our reading of Romans 8 with its ecstatic hymn to the power of God’s love to reach us: “(nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord .” (Rom. 8:39b). Paul had already assured us that by our Baptisms we were chosen by God. (Rom 8:29-30) and so the Romans, and we ourselves, should ask “What about the Jews?” Were they not chosen? Have they been abandoned by God?
This would have been particularly important to Paul’s original audience, the church at Rome. As we have seen repeatedly throughout this letter, that through their commercial interests many members of this community were closely connected to Jerusalem. Their Christianity would also have had a distinct Jewish flavor. Not all however had these same ties and some were not born Jews. Although all professed belief in Jesus there would have been tensions. These tensions were so great that the emperor Claudius around 45 AD expelled the Jews who followed “Chrestos” from the city of Rome. By the time Paul is writing to the Romans, “gentile Christians” were moving to Rome. Paul would need to explain himself and he did not have the best reputation on this issue.
In Galatians, his most volatile letter, he discovered that Jewish Christians wished to circumcise gentile converts to Christianity. This would effectively mean that they would have to become traditional Jews to become Christians. He exploded in anger and famously wrote: “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves! “(Gal. 5:12).
It is understandable that the Romans would have been wary of Paul.
This is not only a topic personally important to this community but raises a wider issue. God promised Abraham that his posterity would be God’s chosen people and he would never leave them. Is God a liar or at least untrustworthy?
I will give to you and to your descendants after you
the land in which you are now staying,
the whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession;
and I will be their God.
He reminds them of this many times throughout the Old Testament and even makes it more specific that he will never abandon not only the Jews but the line of David.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.
(2 Sa. 7:16)
This is not a matter of reason.
It was because the Lord loved you and
kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors,
that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and
redeemed you from the house of slavery,
from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Paul’s response is also one of love, indeed anguish.
Paul speaks of his sorrow. This sorrow is great that although he has told us that it is impossible to be separated from Christ, he would will it to be separated that “(his) “kin according to the flesh” be united with Jesus.
He lists the great gifts given to the Jews by God:
They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory,
the covenants, the giving of the law,
the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Messiah.
Notice he still says “are” not “were” He does not believe that the Jews were expendable, that they did served their purpose and were cast aside. Forever means forever but it does not mean unchanged.
God’s love is unconditional, but it is not uncritical. God gave them life but life without a purpose is merely existing and a condemnation to futility. Their purpose is best expressed as being “the light for the Gentiles”
It is used 4 times in book of the Prophet Isaiah. To take one example:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Although there were many great prophets and leaders, they could not fulfill this mission. This should not come as a surprise. Paul spent chapter 8 telling us that we cannot be justified without “new Life,” being “in the Spirit”.
Paul knows this by experience. Following the law, he persecuted the Church and needed to be blinded by Jesus on the way to Damascus to finally see. He was literally transformed by the power of God and became a new creation.
He reflects on this in Galatians.
May I never boast of anything
except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which the world has been crucified to me,
and I to the world.
For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything;
but a new creation is everything!
As for those who will follow this rule—
peace be upon them, and mercy, and
upon the Israel of God.
He is a new creation and that those who follow this rule are the “Israel” of God. A significant choice of words. Remember the story of Israel. Jacob fought with a man, most likely an angel who in God’s name changes his:
Then the man said,
“You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob,
but as Israel, because you have contended
with divine and human beings
and have prevailed.
Paul in this section refers to his people not as Hebrews or Jews but as Israelites. People who have been changed.
Paul develops this in Romans:
For in the first place the Jews were entrusted
with the oracles of God.
What if some were unfaithful?
Will their faithlessness nullify
the faithfulness of God?
God will always remain faithful to his promise. The Israelites will fulfill their promise and not be abandoned. But just as Paul himself fulfilled his role as an individual Jew the wider community will not be fulfilled in the way they imagined.
Fulfillment “in the flesh” as Paul taught us throughout chapter 8 is impossible both for individuals and communities. We need to be transformed and live “in the Spirit” The “Israel of God” is a transformed and expanded Judaism. This is one of Paul’s most difficult ideas and many have tried to explain what it means in our day. My Jewish Aunt thought that St. Pope John Paul 2 had a satisfying answer. I am not as certain. I have found none which answer all my questions. Yet the basic idea is clear. When God fulfills a promise, he does so by breaking apart human understanding. Our thoughts and loves are always smaller than God.
We must always fit into God’s actions and not demand that his actions fit into our expectations. That was true for the Jews of Paul’s day and it is true for us in Brooklyn today as we re-found and rebuild St Charles. Will we accept the need to be transformed, will we accept Jesus’ invitation to be the “Israel of God”?