Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beloved, today we see the true heart of a pastor and a priest revealed in St. Paul. Indeed, we see enfleshed that which has been made known of our Father by His only-begotten Son, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners [enemies of God], Christ died for us” (Rm. 5:6, 8, 10). St. Paul confesses openly and does not hide the deepest longings of his soul regarding his estranged brethren of Israel: “[M]y heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel,” he declares, “is that they may be saved.” It’s in chapter 9, however, the chapter just before the one read this morning, that we see revealed his true Christian yearnings. Like the Prophet Moses of old, St. Paul seeks to stand in the breach between his wayward brethren of Israel and their God (Ek. 22:30). Indeed, like Moses, he is willing to sacrifice his salvation, to be written out of God’s Book – if it comes down to it – for their sake (Ex. 32:31-32)! “I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart,” he confesses. “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, . . . .” He offers himself in exchange for them if it means their salvation! His is a great act of faith and of sacrificial love for a stubborn and willful people – an act we can only hope one day to emulate ourselves. How many of us here would be willing to trade our salvation if it meant the salvation of others? Maybe for a good man one might dare to die, but for a scoundrel (Rm. 5:7)? That becomes the test of the love of God.
What makes Israel’s situation more perilous and the Apostle’s inner churnings for his people more powerful is the very fact that they are “Israelites, to whom,” he says, “pertain the adoption, the Glory, the Covenants, the giving of the Law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, Who is over all, the eternally blessed God” (Rm. 9:2-5)! Israel alone, from among all the bigger and better nations of the world, holds the distinction of divine election, of being adopted by God (Dt. 14:2; 26:18-19). To them and to them alone, God entrusted His divine revelation and His divine relationship of favor and grace. To use someone else’s phrase, Israel was a “community of privilege,” a people of divine distinction, all because of one thing and one thing only: the love of God for them and His covenant faithfulness (Dt. 7:6-8). This is the gist of that “faithful saying” recorded by St. Paul:
For if we died with Him [Christ], we shall also live with Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself (2 Tm. 2:11-13).
The tragic reality and truth is: despite the fact that, as our Lord once stated to the Samaritan woman at the well, “’[S]alvation is of the Jews’” (Jn. 4:22), the Jews – Israel – is in need of salvation! Israel gave us “according to the flesh” the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour of the world, as St. Paul testifies, and yet they are outside the New Covenant of God because they refuse to “see and believe” the Messiah has come. St. Paul goes to great lengths here in three chapters (Rm. 9:1-11:36) to demonstrate to us Gentiles who were once outside of the Covenant of God’s grace and mercy that Israel’s unbelief opens up for us a place at the Kingdom table, so to speak, in fulfillment of what our Lord said last week to the Roman centurion identified by Him as having “’great faith’” unlike any He has seen in Israel. “’And I say to you,’” declares Jesus,
‘that many will come from the east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. But the sons of the Kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Mt. 8:5-13).
It is the Apostle’s fervent hope that, in the end, our inclusion as Gentiles in the Covenant of God with His people will act as a catalyst to make Israel “jealous enough,” if you will, to return in faith to the Faith of our Fathers and theirs. We are cautioned not to become cocky regarding the Covenant of God and negligent regarding our salvation in Jesus Christ. For, if God can displace those who were rightful heirs of the Kingdom and its sons, how much more can He do so – and will do so – for us “outsiders” who also may dare to presume upon the grace and mercy of God? “Now all these things happened to [Israel],” Paul says, “as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cr. 10:1-13).
“For I bear them [Israel] witness,” Paul says, “that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” Here is proof positive that our zeal or our emotion or, shall we say, our sincerity, is not sufficient and cannot be the ultimate standard of our faith nor our relationship with God. Paul in his earlier days was as zealous or moreso than any of his contemporaries when he was a Pharisee. He burned with a fiery devotion and piety in his gut so much so that he stood head and shoulders above any other pious believer in the God of Israel. He describes himself as “being more exceedingly zealous” toward God for the Law than nearly anyone else (Ac. 22:3; Ga. 1:14; Pp. 3:4-6). And yet, he, too, had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” His zeal and fervor, his belly fire for God and His Law, was misplaced, misguided, misdirected. Or, as we might put it nowadays, he was sincere, but he was sincerely off-base. Like so many of us, he was so focused on the letter of the Law that he completely missed the spirit of the Law and the Spirit of our God Who had given it! He lacked the knowledge of God that can only come by faith to faith, and not by meticulous adherence to the Law. God help us if we ever think that what’s important in Orthodoxy – the heart and soul of Orthodoxy – is a legalistic fasting and almsgiving, among other things, that Orthodoxy exists for the sake of those things. Let us never forget that these are but divinely given tools to bring us to God, to stoke the fires of a holy devotion and piety, not to replace the knowledge or experience of God that is necessary and can only be ours by faith. How easy is it for us, like our brethren of Israel, to mistake such zeal for the true love of God from the heart and faith in Him? That is, of “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tm. 3:5)? “[F]rom such people,” says Paul, “turn away!”
Israel, so it seems, confused the divinely revealed Law of God for God Himself and so, in some sense, idolized it. They failed to see by faith how Jesus the Messiah was the fulfillment of the Law, the Law’s purpose and goal and destiny, thus bringing the Law to an end in the sense of wrapping it up and completing it or perfecting it. In the words of some of the Fathers by way of analogy, “What health is to medicine, Christ is to the Law.” They tried to establish their own righteousness – apart from God – by obediently keeping all the minutiae of the Law, erroneously thinking that that was what made them righteous, instead of submitting to the righteousness of God that comes through faith, “to everyone who believes.” Israel lost sight that the Law of God was to set them apart in order to be light for the world, to invite the world into a living Covenant with God in order to be saved. But, they chose rather to see the Law as an end in itself and themselves as the sole beneficiaries of the Law. No matter how much a Gentile wanted salvation, a Gentile could never be a Jew in the fullest sense of that ethnic identity and so would always be sub-standard, a dog, if you will recall the exchange between our Lord and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30). “’[S]alvation is of the Jews,’” to be sure, but it is not solely for the Jews. For God our Saviour “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tm. 2:2-7; 2 Pe. 3:9).
Beloved, we cannot do any more than what God has already done for us unworthy and unmerited sinners in Jesus Christ. Nor do we need to! We can’t bring Jesus down from Heaven – God has already accomplished that! And, we can’t raise Him up from the earth – God, too, has already done that “for us men and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed)! What we – and all – must do is found so very near to us, Paul says. In fact, it’s in our mouth and in our heart, he says. It’s faith in the slaughtered and risen Son of God and our confession of Him as Lord and Saviour of our lives – the very stuff of the Mystery of Holy Baptism.
[I]f you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
Such believing and confessing are possible for both Jew and Gentile between whom there is now no distinction, “for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For ‘whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Rm. 10:11-13).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!