When we want people to be like us – only in the Gospel
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:5-17 ESV)
We continue our roaming through Romans. Having come from the heights of ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8), Paul then addresses what this means for the people of Israel and in chapter 9, he begins a line of argument that God isn’t fickle, casting aside the people of Israel – those who don’t follow Jesus as Lord and God – nor has his Word failed because life with God in the Old Testament was always based on his Word – his promises – and the foundational relationship is always faith. God’s plan is that his people are to be from every tribe and nation and not from a certain DNA or family tree. The people of Israel were selected – as were individuals in each generation – to provide the links in the chain by which the Messiah would come into the world.
So Paul can now see that the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, all the promises given to the people of Israel are fulfilled in Jesus. The goal of the Torah is Jesus for our righteousness. Jesus is the salvation of the world but also the stumbling block when we turn what God has given into something in our own image or something we deign to do to fit our version of religion. Today we might see this in the changing faces of Jesus – the hippy Jesus, the revolutionary Jesus, the non conformist Jesus, the social justice Jesus, and so on – our construction of a version Jesus that is palatable to us.
Before we talk about us, let’s return to Paul’s desire for his fellow Jews. He wants them saved but he sees – I suspect with amazing clarity as he looks at what Saul was like before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road – the problem those who follow Moses have is that they desire to establish their own righteousness; in effect to become their own god.
From the garden to the promised land to Solomon’s time and the eventual separating of the kingdom with all its false worship and the corruption of the temple, through the calling out of the prophets to return to God, and even with the rebuilding of the temple and the Hellenisation of Judaism, through to Jesus cleansing the temple court yards – wherever we look, we see again and again, the desire and the action of sinful humanity – and take note, such people have zeal for God – to make God and religion in their own image; to live according to their rules.
We have a remarkable ability to self delusion which is often what self justification is all about. The people of Israel were reminded – warned – as they entered the promised land – and again when Moses was departing from them that God’s promises, God’s grace is the basis for life with God.
So for the day they entered the promised land Moses declared a message from God: “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. (Deuteronomy 9:6-7 ESV)
When the covenant is renewed in Moab – to go alongside the covenant at Sinai – blessings and curses are presented – obedience and disobedience are called for – but the people will be scattered and the land itself scorched and suffer when people have run after other gods. But then God still gives promises and he will call out of the nations his people and bless and restore them. Repentance and forgiveness are foundationally word events, reliant on God’s promises which then produces fruit – or in Old Testament terms ‘obedience’ – to which God says: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 ESV)
Paul’s point about God’s salvation – about the coming of the Christ – is that it isn’t going to be determined by someone coming along with a badge saying ‘Hi, I’m the Messiah’ but it might as well be that if it is left up to our interpretation! What is necessary is to hear God’s Word – this brings revelation – this creates faith – as it always did among the people of Israel in each generation, no matter their circumstances – the wilderness, trouble with oppressive neighbours, peacetime and prosperity, besieged, in exile, under foreign rule – God’s promises are as close as a whisper – a still small voice – to bring life to the heart and speech to the tongue – and now Paul is saying the Word made flesh has come and is drawing people – Jew and Gentile – out of shame and death to life with him.
God never abandoned the people of Israel for they can call on him – they can believe because the prophets have spoken and now the apostles are speaking – because God keeps the words close to them – that is the quality of words, their ability to stay with us – comfort, encourage, haunt, challenge us – because God sends people to preach in each generation – and the mystery and wonder and joy is that people do come to faith. That people don’t come to faith is not because God has abandoned them but is the mystery of sinful rejection, stubbornness, and resistance to God’s grace. It doesn’t follow however that those who cease rejecting, are no longer stubborn or resistant can claim credit for their faith for it comes about through hearing the word of Christ.
The word of Christ is not a story we construct; we are not the authors and God is our creation on the page, our subject matter, to be fashioned according to us. Paul’s ministry in the synagogues and in the congregations had a basis of ‘reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God’ (Ephesians 19:8). In other words, he took the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms and showed how Jesus of Nazareth, the one crucified and risen, fulfilled them. He didn’t change the message for the Gentiles but his points of contact with them could be different as you can see when he was in Athens so that whether in the synagogue or the marketplace or the Aeropagus he is preaching Christ crucified and risen but entering the world of his hearers as best he can so that they can understand his message.
Because Jesus is not fiction and he shouldn’t be subject to our editorial glosses and personal preferences, it becomes important when speaking the word of Christ to listen and to understand the world of the hearer so that you can better transmit what has been handed to you in terms of the Faith.
We live a long time after Paul wrote to the Romans. The Jew – Gentile tension is not the same issue today as it was. Judaism is still around. Christianity is coming up 2,000 years and while the theological and creedal truths of ‘one holy, Christian, and apostolic church’ remain, the organisational face is very different in the 21st century than the 1st century. We stand on the shoulders of our predecessors having been gifted by the Holy Spirit with the New Testament so that we now have a canon – authoritative writings or the foundations of the prophets and the apostles – which convey the word of Christ. It hasn’t stopped disagreements, different teachings flying around, apologetics, and a continual confessing the word of Christ but now we’re much more aware of hermeneutics – how we see and read the word of Christ and the glasses we use to find order and make sense of the message. Lutherans say that it is justification by which the Church stands or falls; others nod in partial agreement but instead put the sovereignty of God centre stage; others the justice of God; still others the Holy Spirit; while others find that the mystery of worship is the apex of the word of Christ – and all followers of Jesus are not necessarily in outright disagreement on many of these points rather we want to reframe or emphasise things differently. We have the Lutheran Confessions precisely because the Lutheran Reformers needed to state agreement and disagreement with Roman Catholicism and then later among themselves.
Our human nature hasn’t changed though – our desire for control – and so we also are aware of the Church and the state being intertwined for centuries in some places and that produces its own issues depending on the country and the migration of people. Confessional statements multiply – and generally get longer – as we clarify, testify, confess – why others who might even use the same words as we do are wrong. The danger is always that claim for truth can be hijacked to produce, in the end, a church of one – it’s all about us and our being right – which is not part of our history but of our news. My point is not to rewrite history or to somehow return to a simpler time but to acknowledge that we are the people of God today – and unless we Lutherans – and who is that? ELCE Lutherans? – honestly believe we are the only people of God on the planet – then we need to be prepared to listen to the hearts and tongues of others and their confessions and respond according to the full word of Christ – according to what is written in the Bible. That is what keeps ecumenical and inter Lutheran dialogue possible – not that we have ascended to theological purity or plumbed the depths of theological complexity – but that we don’t sit opposite each other as enemies but instead hopefully sit together pouring over the word of Christ so that we hear how others hear it and we share that full Word as we hear it. Of course in the pragmatics, polemics, and politics of current church life just getting around the table can be difficult!
It is the same with sharing the word of Christ with those who do not claim to be followers of Jesus. It is easy to see them as targets or scalps but we rarely are in places where people have never heard that there is a Jesus! We live in places where I think it would be very hard to find someone without some idea of Christianity, God, the Trinity, the church, and Jesus. We are much more like Paul in Athens who needed to listen long before we speak the word of Christ – not being shy about the faith – or timid even – but to not presume that people are actually ignorant for these days in these lands people have heard something – and the question is – what have they heard? Is Jesus, or God, or the Church their version or the one that is found in the word of Christ? The end point remains us gathering around the Bible so that we hear what it says – not cherry pick our favourite verses – to the Church today and to the world.
The focus must remain on Jesus – not on us. So as we constantly look to the Redeemer of our sins, to God on the cross, and hear his words from and about that cross, accompanied with water, bread and wine, and written in the Bible which is used as the basis of preaching and teaching we need to listen, to hear this message – this word of Christ that is close to us – and rely on it, nothing else, nothing more – and then turn to the Jew, the Gentile, the neighbour, the wife, the husband, the child, the family member you’re close to, the family member you can’t stand, the friend, the enemy, the fellow Lutheran, the spiritual person, the atheist, the Christian of a different denomination, whomever it is and serve them in Jesus’ name by listening, by speaking this word of Christ, and by loving.
- Romans 10:5 - 17