“Being a true Israelite and true Christian.”
Can we really believe what Paul says in Romans 9? He stacks up several phrases to persuade us he is telling the truth. He first contends he speaks the truth “in Christ.” Next, he plainly says “I am not lying.” Then he attests that the Holy Spirit confirms his truthfulness in his conscience. Can we still believe that the sorrow in his heart leads him to say “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people”? How do we feel about those who reject Christ? What might our concern lead us to do?
While Romans 9 focuses on what it would mean for someone to be a child of God, it begins with Paul’s concern for those of his people or race who have rejected Christ. He calls them his “kindred according to the flesh.” How much anguish do we have in our own heart for those of our people who reject the gospel? During the last school year one of my students lost her grandfather, a common occurrence at her age. Since her grandfather was close to my age, I thought about my three-year-old grandson. I will be lucky to be living when he is in college. He will live most of his life without me, only carrying with him a few memories of our living together. What can my wife and I do today to influence him for Christ when we are no longer with him?
We understand Paul’s concern for people of his own race, but how do we feel about the stranger or others that are different from us? While we would expect Paul to have concern for his people we ought to remember they also attacked and opposed him. Moreover, he spends most of his ministry in evangelism to the Gentiles instead of the Jews. In our world we have often been divided by race, nationality and social class. Writing in Galatians, Paul lets us know that the divisions of the world should be bridged by the gospel. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [3:28] The essence of being an evangelist or missionary has often been that of one leaving their own home to live in another culture in a different country with people of a different race. One might also contend the essence of being a Christian has been to transcend these differences. Yet, in spite of Paul’s call in Galatians 3:28, Christians have too often allowed their home congregations to be divided along racial, national or cultural differences to the extent that Christians have not created a community where everyone feels welcomed. Christians should be taking the lead in issues like racial reconciliation and women in ministry.
In verse 4 Paul lists the benefits of being an Israelite. “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises.” “Adoption” recognized them as the children of God. ”Glory” meant they had the presence of God among them, particularly in connection with the glory of God in the temple. God also made a covenant with Abraham. Through Moses came the law that shaped how one lived with God and one another. Worship taught them about God and provided opportunity for communion with God. And in all of these flowed the promises of God regarding the promised land and the promised life. Verse 5 noted the ultimate promise: “to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh comes the Messiah.”
Much the same could be said about Christians. We too live in community. We call ourselves by names like Catholic or Orthodox or Lutheran or Anglican or Wesleyan or Calvinist or Baptist or Methodist or Nazarene but we are united in being Christian. Like true Israelities true Christians understand themselves as also being adopted into the family of God. We experience the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. Christians claim to be part of the new covenant. Scripture provides a guide as to how we should live. In worship the preached word conveys the message, and our testimony of faith comes through singing and participation in the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. We have the promises of the resurrection concerning salvation in this life and the future victory over death.
One would think that these benefits would lead to salvation for the Israelite or Christian. In verse six Paul states that something can go wrong but it is not God’s fault: “It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants.” [6-7] As with the Israelite, something can go wrong with the Christian who lives within a community of faith but does not possess true faith. We see this in the late medieval and early reformation period. Holiness and true Christianity became for many the professional practice of faith by the monks. The average person would observe them doing acts of worship and consider the monks holy. Luther reformed worship by putting the service in the language of the people so the average person could understand and participate. For example, congregational singing becomes the norm instead of choirs so that the people could proclaim their personal faith. Holiness takes on a different understanding when seen as being expressed not merely in acts of worship but as lived out as part of ordinary life. Mothers and fathers would be holy as they took faith into their ordinary tasks of daily life.
Romans 9 focuses upon what it means to be a true believer. One becomes a follower not simply based upon performance by carrying out all the requirements of the law or following the dictates of a particular community. At the end of the chapter Paul lays out what had been missing: “What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel who did strive for the righteousness that is based upon the law, did not succeed in fulfilling the law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works.’’ [30-32]
So, in this passage Paul conveys the care we should have for the evangelism of the lost. He also stipulates the essence of evangelism as bringing one to personal faith. We become true Israelites or Christians in personal trust or faith in God. The benefits or practice of the faith must yield transformation rather than mere performance of the religion. Instead of being children of God through the flesh we are children of God through the promise. Everyone can become one in Christ. Being a true Christian causes us to care for all those of the flesh including the stranger and the one different from us.