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Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

If you’re writing an email to someone you’ve not met, or someone that you may have only had limited contact with, you usually tread very carefully with your words. Paul is, to put it mildly, different. In this letter he addresses a group of Christians in Rome, many of whom he has never met, and hopes to share his vision of the gospel with them so that they might become ministry partners with him in his mission to Spain (Rom 15:22-29). Rather than choose his words and topics delicately and diplomatically, he jumps right into the kinds of things one is usually cautioned to avoid as conversation topics at the dinner table: religion and politics! But for Paul, the table is precisely the problem in the churches at Rome (see chapters 14-15) and religion and politics have everything to do with what has gone wrong at the dinner table. Understanding the importance of this passage, and the broader context of Romans 9-11, depends on understanding these issues.


It’s helpful to know what stands in the background of Paul’s letter. In 49 CE, according to Suetonius, the emperor Claudius expelled Jews from the city of Rome. Many of the Jewish Christians at Rome were forced to leave (see Priscilla and Aquila’s story in Acts 18). Even when they were allowed to return five years later when Claudius died, their social position remained tenuous and their church leadership probably looked very different from what they remembered when they left. The key issue Paul addresses in Romans is the question of how Jewish and gentile believers in the Messiah Jesus could worship together, despite significant differences in practice and mindset.


The answer to that issue, according to Paul, is God’s universal grace and redemption. All through the letter, Paul makes clear that all have fallen under the power of enslaving sin. In some mysterious way, God has been the agent of giving all humanity over to this power. Three times at the end of Romans 1, concerning gentiles, Paul says “God gave them up” or “handed them over.”[1] In most cases, this language refers to an agent handing over someone to the custody of another. In Romans 5, Paul makes very clear that sinful humanity has been handed over to the enslaving rulers Sin and Death (Rom 5:12-21). It is likewise made clear that humanity has been handed over in order to be retrieved back, because Christ himself was also handed over in order to redeem all who were handed over (see 4:25; 8:32 and the corresponding but incongruous “all” of both Adam and Christ in Romans 5). The logic goes something like this: God has placed all of the eggs in one basket, the basket of Sin and Death, then has placed Christ himself in that basket, in order to save the whole basket. This pattern continues in Romans 8, where God subjects the creation itself to futility and the slavery to decay in order that the Christ’s redemption of humanity might liberate all of creation (8:18-25). God subjects the creation under the power of Sin in order to bring it through to total liberation through the Messiah.


The same logic is at work in this week’s lection. Those preaching from this passage should really read the entirety of the chapter and pay close attention to the movement of the entirety of Romans 9-11. Paul, in the first eight chapters, has spelled out a vision of the universal condition of enslavement to Sin and the universal redemption accomplished by the faithfulness of the Messiah Jesus. Immediately he begins testing the boundaries of that vision with a wrenching issue for him: the rejection of the Messiah by most of his Jewish brothers and sisters. Throughout this section he pushes to the outer limits of this question: “has God rejected God’s people” who have not responded in faith to God’s rescue operation in Christ Jesus? Though he often teeters on the cliff’s edge of answering with a yes, the response is always a consistent “no.” He asks if some of the Creator’s creatures have simply been destined for wrath all along (9:19-24). It takes him a long time to come to the answer to this conundrum, and he spends the rest of the next two chapters getting to it, but the answer is finally no.


The entire section is too complex to tackle in depth here, but Paul turns to a remnant theology (9:27-33). But it is not the remnant alone that is saved. The remnant’s purpose is to bear witness to God’s welcome to the gentiles (10:18-20). And yet, the majority, as he admits throughout chapter ten, have continued to reject God’s gift in Jesus (10:21). He then arrives at the question in our reading for this Sunday: “Has God rejected God’s people?” The very fact that Paul continues to refer to them as “God’s people” tells us the answer will be a “by no means!” This is the beginning of his attempt to answer the question about the Creator creating vessels meant only for wrath. And in doing so, he returns to the remnant theology (11:2-10). The remnant has been rescued “by grace” while the rest have stumbled. But, Paul insists, they have not stumbled beyond rescue. Again, the remnant has enabled the salvation of the gentiles, so now the salvation of the gentiles is for the purpose of provoking the stumblers back to God (11:11-12, 25-26). Again, all are rescued by the gift of Jesus. The gentiles, by gift, have been grafted onto the vine of God’s people, those who have rejected Jesus are intended to still be re-grafted in by gift (11:13-24). Again, this is all by gift, so that no one can boast against the other. All have been placed in enslavement to Sin and Death so that all might be rescued as a gift (11:25-27). Paul is so confident that this is God’s character and intention that he declares “and so all Israel will be saved.” He says this not because he’s tracking data or trends, or because he thinks his brothers and sisters are on the verge of making a new decision. His confidence is not based on the evidence of what he can see, but rather on who he believes God to be.


This is the crux of the final part of our reading for Sunday. It is not ultimately something about Israel that will save all of Israel, it is that God’s gifts[2] and election are irrevocable. This is not irresistible grace, response matters (Paul has been wrestling with the lack of faithful response on the part of Israel for three chapters now!), but what ultimately matters for Paul is God’s determination and persistence to rescue all.[3] The crux of this discussion is the same logic we’ve traced throughout Paul’s entire letter to this point: handing over in order to reclaim and redeem. Paul writes, with a sense of utter confidence, “for God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32 NRSV).


The rest of the letter spells out the implications of God’s indefatigable will to rescue and how, therefore, to live toward fellow Christians, whether Jew or gentile, and how to live toward outsiders. “In light of God’s mercy” they are to devote themselves entirely to God’s purpose, to love each other, to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed them, and to never retaliate with violence but owe only love to all people (thus reflecting the character of God toward enemies). In this way, the church of Jewish and gentile believers in Christ can thrive together, and live out the human vocation of worshiping God and caring for God’s creation (15:5-6; 16:20). Preaching this text should focus on mission, but not in the sense that we have something that others lack. Our mission is never based on our status or something we possess. Nor is it based on an interpretation of statistics and trends within the church or within culture. What fuels our mission, as elucidated by Paul’s letter to the Romans, is our confidence in who God has revealed God’s self to be in Jesus the Messiah, the one who desires and is able to rescue all people.[4]

 

[1] Much of this paragraph is indebted to the work of Beverly Roberts Gaventa in her chapter “God Handed Them Over,” in Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 113-123. The chapter is worth the price of the book itself.

[2] Notice that throughout this essay I have been using the word gift for grace as Paul does. See John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[3] Much of my discussion of this section of Paul’s letter is indebted to Gaventa’s chapter “Consider Abraham” in When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 47-74.

[4] I was recently reminded on social media of the quote from Phineas Bresee on the monument dedicated to the golden anniversary of the founding of the Church of the Nazarene: “We are debtors to every [person] to give [them] the gospel in the same measure as we have received it.”

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