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It Depends Not on Human Will But on God

  • October 15, 2017
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for October 15, 2017 (Proper 23 REV, Year A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Romans 9:1-16; Psalm 106…; Matthew 22:1-14

Title:               “It depends not on human will but on God.”

“So it depends not on human will or exertion but on God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16).

Today, my friends, we come to the last piece of Paul’s theological argument, his grand explanation of the Good News Message that he proclaims.

And this last piece once more homes in on the relationships between the people of Israel and the Gentiles, between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, between the insiders and the outsiders.

Have you ever felt proud of your nation, proud of your people and your identity, and yet somewhat ashamed of it all at the same time?

Well, that is Paul! He loves his people. AND he is frustrated by them.

What makes his anguish even more poignant is that it follows immediately after one of the most glorious, heart-raising verses ever to flow from his mind.

“In all these things,” Paul said, – do you know it? “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

Amazing! And then immediately he says, “I am speaking the truth in Christ— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Romans 9:1)!

What a juxtaposition! How does a person hold such amazing joy and inspiring hope in his heart while also carrying “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” – all at the same time?

This is what it means to be human, isn’t it? So much joy AND suffering in life – all mixed up together.

To understand Paul’s situation, we have to remember what transpired in the first few decades of the Church’s life.

Jesus was a Jewish man living in a Jewish society. The Twelve apostles were all Jews. All of the early leaders of the Church were Jews, including Paul, who was proudly Jewish!

The Church began as a movement within the Jewish world. And yet, by the time that Paul wrote this Letter to the Romans toward the end of his life – 20 years or so after the Lord blinded him on the road to Damascus, it was obvious to all that the Church was quickly becoming dominated by non-Jews.

And so Paul is forced to defend his people, his heritage, because even then the first hints of anti-Semitism began to surface! It was subtle then, but it did not take a genius to see where these lines of thought could end up.

“Oh, they rejected the Lord and let him be crucified, so the Lord has rejected them.” We don’t know, for sure, but it seems likely that someone somewhere in the Church at Rome was saying something like this.

So Paul has to defend his people. “It is not as though the Word of God had failed!”

A bit later, as he continues this same line of thought into chapter 11, he writes, “I ask then, has God rejected his people [Israel]? By no means!” (Romans 11:1).

The danger exposed here is an idea called supersessionism. There are some variations of this idea, but the basic thought is that the Church has superseded Israel as the heir of God’s promises, as the chosen vessel of God’s mercy to the world.

Supersessionism states that God no longer needs Israel, since the Messiah has come and the door of faith is now open to all people.

In 2 weeks, on 29 October, we will host a special ecumenical time of worship to mark the Reformation launched by Martin Luther exactly 500 years ago.

But the sad reality is that this gathering cannot be called a celebration. There will be celebration involved, because we give thanks to God for the profound truths that Luther stood for and which he refused to recant.

On the other hand, there is great sadness over the divisions that resulted from the Reformation – and that still persist today.

But what is worse still is that Luther eventually became a strong proponent of this idea of supersessionism. In fact, near the end of his life, Luther wrote a small book called “The Jews and Their Lies” (in 1543).

Sadly, it was widely disseminated because of the printing presses. And that was a tragic failure. In this treatise, Luther expresses profound hatred toward the Jewish people and advocates for violence against them. This text was used as a primary reference by the Nazis.

Here is the sad irony of the situation. Paul’s letter to the Romans was Luther’s primary inspiration – the source from which his proclaimed faith alone as the door to salvation.

And yet, somehow, he ignored THESE chapters of Paul’s Letter – chapters 9 through 11, in which Paul defends his fellows Jews as God’s chosen people who will never be forsaken.

Sadly, Luther was unable to see the truth of Paul’s words, and unable to understand Paul’s fundamental question: who are the true descendants of Abraham?

And a close corollary: How can Gentiles be included as part of God’s covenant people?

Paul’s final answer to these things is that God does whatever God wants to do. God is the potter and we are the clay. God is Creator and we are creation.

Let it never be said that there is any injustice in the works of God, for that would be impossible. Like water that is not wet, or fire that is not hot, so God can never do anything unjust.

If things seem confusing or unclear or if they appear to be unfair to us, then the problem is not with God, it is with our vision – with our ability to understand.

So Paul concludes this entire section by saying, “Oh…how unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable [are] God’s ways” (Romans 11:33).

My friends: if you remember just a few things from this series on Romans, then I pray that one of them is that this old idea of supersessionism is patently false.

No, the Church has replaced not Israel. The people of the new Covenant have not superseded those of the Old Covenant.

For, as Paul clearly stated, “the gifts and the calling of God [to the people of Israel] are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Please remember this.

And remember that all things depend of God and the will of God. “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16).

I think that is quite difficult for most of us. We live in an age which continuously throws the spotlight on human effort and endeavor.

This is surely not a bad thing. But for those of us who seek to live and move and have our being in God, we need to be reminded again and again that God is the initiator of all. God is the primary actor. In everything that we do, we are always responding to God’s initiative.

This is the great illusion that we need to overcome! We like to think that we’re in charge, that we’re in control. We plan our days by thinking on what we want to accomplish, on the basis of our human will and exertion. But in reality, at the core, all things depend on God who showers the earth with mercy.

Finally, my friends, remember that we are children of the promise. Without a doubt, the end of Matthew’s parable today is frightening, as is the idea that God loved Jacob but hated Esau.

Don’t we all fear the idea of being hated, rejected, eventually thrown out by God in the final analysis?

The ways of God are beyond our understanding, but this much we know for certain: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).

And Baptism is a sign of this promise. The Prayer Book tells us that “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 298).

Indissoluble. Incapable of being dissolved. Just like irrevocable. Incapable of being revoked.

My friends: if you are here today, it means that God has called you. You received the invitation and you responded. Congratulations!

However, there IS work to be done! Like the one at the banquet without the proper robe, there IS something required of us.

We are here at God’s party, God’s celebration. It is all a gift of grace.

But God’s invitation to us is confirmed by the fruit of our lives. By what we do. By the choices we make, by what we prioritize. By how we clothe our lives in actions that reflect the kingdom of heaven.

Do you want to live with full confidence that you are welcomed by God at the banquet?

Then remember that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ! And then make the choice to build every part of your life on that promise. God’s promise of mercy and grace without end. Amen.

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