Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 16th July 2006
The New Testament reading this morning gave us the ending of the Acts of the Apostles. The story which began with the exaltation of Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Nazareth, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, like fire, on his twelve Jewish disciples in Jerusalem ends with Paul preaching and teaching 'with all boldness and without hindrance' amongst the Gentiles in Rome. When Paul first came to Rome, we are told that he did what he always did in all the major cities he visited: he sought out his own people, the Jews, and explained to them why he had come, telling them why they should, like him, become Christians. We heard how a whole day was set aside for this and how from morning till night Paul testified to the kingdom of God and 'tried to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Jesus and from the prophets'. How I would love to have heard what he said, what passages he chose, and what he said about them! What would Paul have said about this morning's reading from the law, and what would he have said about the reference to the prophet Isaiah in the second lesson from Acts?
The reading from Deuteronomy was all about blessing. The verses we heard were about the blessing that the Israelites would experience in the Promised Land: in their cities, in their fields, in bearing children, in the increasing size of their herds of cattle and sheep; in buying and selling and travelling, and amongst all the nations. Amongst all the nations of the earth Israel was to be blessed, given security and prosperity, in a unique way. What is easy to miss in reading this passage is that all these blessings are conditional. They are conditional on Israel's obedience to the law that God has given them. Three times this is repeated in the passage that we heard - and we didn't read on to hear about the curses that would come upon Israel if she did not keep the law.
I guess Paul would have reminded the Roman Jews of the blessings promised to them if they obeyed the law and the curses that would come upon them if they did not. And he might have reminded them that even within their scriptures there are stories about how the people were exiled from the Promised Land and taken away to captivity in Babylon, because they did not obey the law which God had given them. God had warned and warned them but in the end he had done exactly what he threatened to do, allowing them to be conquered, allowing their leaders and many of their people to be deported from the Promised Land and held in captivity for a generation. Paul might well have made the point to the Roman Jews that in their day the land promised to them was under occupation and they themselves were living in exile in the capital of the occupying power, presumably because they had failed faithfully to keep the law of God.
I guess Paul would have gone on to remind the Roman Jews that the God who kept his promise by giving them a land was also the God who kept his promise of blessing, and to tell them that God's greatest blessing to Israel had been the coming of Jesus Christ: that in Jesus Christ all the promises of God were fulfilled; in Christ the whole religious life of Israel came to perfection. Jesus had obeyed and kept the law in precisely the way called for in the Book of Deuteronomy. He had brought the blessings of the kingly rule of God to all who would receive them, and he himself had been exalted by God to rule over the nations just had God had promised. I think Paul would certainly have invited the Roman Jews to see him the one who would save Israel from exile, gathering together a renewed Israel that would once again experience the blessings promised by God.
One can almost hear the responses Paul would have got. Some were really interested in what he had to say and readily accepted what he told them about Jesus Christ; others thought he was making a nonsense of the faith they had received from their fathers and their fathers' fathers and wanted nothing to do with it. As Luke describes this disagreement, he quotes a passage from Isaiah that may well reflect how the argument went. He quotes from Isaiah 6, where the prophet had a vision of the Lord in the temple, seeing him high and lifted up' so that the mere hem of his garment filled the temple. Isaiah saw the creatures of heaven, the seraphim, attending on God and calling to one another, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.' Isaiah's response to this vision of God's holiness was to be acutely aware of his sin and the sin of his people, and to cry out in distress, 'Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.' As the story goes on, one of the heavenly creatures, one of the seraphim, brings a burning coal from the fire of the altar and touches his lips, telling him his guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. Then the Lord asks, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' and Isaiah responds, 'Here am I? Send me.'
I think Paul might well have spoken of his own conversion in these terms. When he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians, he had a vision of the risen Christ, high and lifted up, who asked him, 'Saul, Saul, Why are you persecuting me?' and he fell to the ground blinded by the vision. Clearly, he was appalled by what he had been doing. He knew he needed to be forgiven, to be cleansed from his hatred of the Christians, and to make a fresh start. This is what the fire of the Holy Spirit and the baptism that followed meant for him. So when the Lord asked, 'Whom shall I send and who will go for us?,' Paul was ready, in effect, to say, 'Here am I, send me'. He wanted to go to his people and bring them God's message, both of blessing through the Risen Christ and of warning.
Paul's attitude to his own people, the Jews, leaves us with a question. How should Christians think about Jews today? [I am not asking that in the context of the terrible events now unfolding in Gaza and Lebanon, which seems to me pure tragedy both for Jews and Arabs.] Can Gentile followers of Jesus Christ still share Paul's attitude towards his own people? Do we still think of the Jews as God's chosen people - or has God in some way rejected the Jews because they have not as a people recognised in Jesus Christ the promised Messiah? In answering this question we have to be very careful, since it was precisely because in the past Christians believed that God had rejected the Jews, or was punishing the Jews because they had rejected Christ, that Christians have felt free to engage in terrible anti-Jewish persecution, culminating in the unspeakable shame and horror of the Holocaust. And some of that sickening rhetoric is coming back again, fuelled by militant Islam. We should be clear there is nothing in the Scriptures of the Old or New Testament which speaks of God rejecting the Jews. It is through the Jews that the blessing of Christ and Christianity has come into the world. Christians more than anybody should be aware of that. Paul's consistent attitude is summed up in the Letter to the Romans when he asks, 'Has God rejected his people?' (Rom 11:1) and straightaway answers, 'By no means!,' going on to list all the things that make him proud to be a Jew, before he says again, 'God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew' (Rom 11:2). Though he had a special calling to bring the gospel to Gentiles - that is to most of us - Paul always had a special place in his heart for his own people, the Jews. 'My heart's desire and prayer to God for them,' he says, 'is that they may be saved.' It was to the Jews he always went first, seeking to bring them the good news of Christ and when he turned to the Gentiles it was always with the hope that Jews would respond to the gospel as well. Paul's vision was for a future in which it didn't matter whether you were by birth a Jew or a Gentile, but by new birth you were a Christian, and for those who had been born into Christ there would be neither 'Jew' nor 'Gentile' but that all would be one because all would be in Christ and Christ would be in all (cf. Col 3:11).