Romans 9: 1-5
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people,[a] my kindred according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah,[b] who is over all, God blessed for ever.[c] Amen.
What stands out for me from today’s readings, is Paul’s cry of sorrow and anguish in Romans chapter 9, at the refusal of his fellow Jews, his people, to see the hope that has transformed his life.
By the time Paul is writing Romans, it is clear that, whilst many Jews in the early days of the church embraced Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah, the Jewish establishment, and behind them the mainstream majority, opposes the new movement.
Last week we heard about the execution of James by the Roman governor Herod Agrippa: what I didn’t mention was that this was part of a campaign of persecution of Christians aimed partly at finding favour with Jewish leaders. So their enmity towards the early church was already entrenched, 10 years before Paul wrote this letter.
This is what Paul finds so sad. What would he give for this not to be so? He declares that, if the price for his own people to see the truth was for him personally to be cut off, to become a cursed one, then he would gladly pay it.
There are few things more tragic, than when people you love the best, when presented with the opportunity for happiness, fold their arms and turn away, when you know them so well, that you have such a tangible sense of anticipation at the joy that is before them, but they refuse it.
Much has been written in the ensuing centuries about the Jews as those who rejected Christ. But I question this narrative. For all of the disciples were Jewish. And more than that, the early church was initially made up of Jewish people, including all of those present at Pentecost – they came from many different countries, but they were all Jews, who had travelled to Jerusalem for the festival. As an aside – is it not curious that it was those Jews who were away from home, who embraced the message of Pentecost?
No, it seems to me that the distinction here is not between Jew and non-Jew but between the powerful and the powerless, the establishment and those who live under it. And this distinction between those who rejected the gospel and those who embraced it was true of the Jews and gentiles alike. To echo Paul earlier in this letter, “There is no distinction.”
As so often in life, it is those who have little to preserve whose hearts are open. It is those close to the powers of the establishment, who see threat instead of opportunity.
Jesus’ followers were from the little people. Those sitting on the hillside in our gospel reading were not attended by servants. They needed his help and he gave it without reserve. The bread is not only practical food but a metaphor for the giving of himself.
But Paul, unlike Jesus and his fisherman disciples, came from the heart of the Jewish religious establishment. He was sent away by his family in Tarsus to be trained in Jerusalem in the religious school of Gamaliel, the pre-eminent Rabbi of his age. You might say that if there was a first century Jewish equivalent of having been to Eton and Oxford, he was it. And so he feels the rejection of this privileged group, his former peers, much more keenly.
Wait a minute, you may ask, is it really OK to recast Paul’s anguish in terms of the religious establishment versus the poor? Am I deviating into some Marxist re-reading of Paul’s letter?
At this point I turned to no greater authority than Karl Barth, and his magisterial commentary on Romans. And this is what I found in his opening remarks about Romans 9: He describes the subject of Paul’s lament as “Israel, the Church, the world of religion.”
So for Barth this is absolutely about establishment religion. And for him, the vested interests of the established church are amongst the most stubborn. He goes on:
The church… is the place where the eternity of revelation is transformed into a temporal, concrete, directly visible thing in this world. In the church, the lightening from heaven becomes a slow-burning, earth-made oven, loss and discovery harden into a solid enjoyment of possession.”
Paul’s anguish resonates still for me in today’s world and our response both to the current pandemic and to the Black Lives Matter movement which has accompanied it.
What seems evident to me are the same twin impulses: On the one hand the cautionary desire of the established order to get back to normal, to protect the economy, to gesture towards new movements, while quietly seeing them as a threat, keen to avoid enduring structural change. On the other, there are those earnest voices pleading for a new hope, a real new beginning.
And I see the established church desperately torn between these two impulses, embracing neither with wholehearted conviction.
But let me not point the finger. For I too am conflicted.
And yet in my heart I want to be on the side of hope, even if the doorway to that hope is vulnerability and risk, what Barth calls the journey of loss and discovery.
Towards the end of his discourse on the Jews, in chapter 11, Paul dares to express a continuing hope for those Jews who collude in the persecution of the church.
“A hardening has come on part of Israel” he says, but God’s covenant with them is unbroken - they “remain beloved, for the sake of their ancestors.” And one day “all Israel will be saved.”
I pray, today, amidst much swirling anxiety, that this hope will inspire us, not to recklessness, but to deep, enduring change.