“Weird Way to Save”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, September 17, 2023
Reading: Romans 9:1-5; 11:25-32
I’m so glad to be back preaching with you, friends. Summers are a fine thing, but it’s good to be back to work. Especially when you have a job as wonderful as this one.
We’re going to spend this fall with the apostle Paul. Please forgive the alliteration, Paul in the fall, we preachers can’t help but be cheesy. This is our focus for a few reasons. One, Paul is a blast. He’s a thrilling thinker. Not always clear. Far from it. Already in scripture folks are complaining that Paul is hard to understand. Second Peter 3:16: “Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand.” That’s the Bible complaining about the Bible. C.S. Lewis said, “It’s a shame that the Lord who gave St. Paul so many gifts neglected to give him the gift of clarity.”
There are some things that have to be clear: IKEA assembly manuals, traveling directions, instructions to defuse bombs. But some things in life just are unclear. Like when you’re talking about what it means to be human. Or when you’re talking about God. Or the world. Paul is on about those big-ticket things. They’re hard. A true portrait of something unclear will be unclear. When you read the book of James in the Bible, it’s clear. Give to the poor. Don’t gossip. Don’t be arrogant. We’re not doing these things. But it’s clear what we should be doing. Paul is less clear. But he’s good. And the more you understand, the more there is to understand. Like any mystery. Like God.
Another reason to study St. Paul together is that he’s a villain in some quarters. Some of the books in our New Testament with Paul’s name on them are used to deny pastoral leadership to women. This is silly: Jesus and Paul have many female coworkers on whom they’re dependent for leadership, but it’s one reason some churches avoid Paul. His words are used to sideline queer people from church and from civic life. And the black church in particular has often had trouble with Paul.
Howard Thurman was one of the great consciences of the 20th century. His student, Martin Luther King Jr, carried Thurman’s meditations with him on his person at all times right beside his Bible. Thurman’s grandmother was enslaved. And she said she would hear no more sermons from Paul. When slaveowners trotted out preachers for their slaves, the texts were always from Paul: slaves obey your masters. Here’s the thing. Black churches tell that story. But then they go ahead and preach Paul anyway. He’s too good to drop entirely. A new book from a black female scholar is 600 pages of African American and Canadian sermons on Paul. Professor Lisa Bowen of Princeton says we quote Thurman against Paul, but then we go ahead and preach Jesus from Paul. So, we will too this fall. Paul has been used to clobber people. But his intent is to bless people. The answer to abuse is correct use. If someone murders someone else with a car or a prescription medicine or a banana peel, we don’t ban those things. We ban the act of murder. Paul is an apostle, and a glorious one, let’s sit at his feet together.
But Paul also used to be a murderer, I mean technically he still is—a forgiven one. He was proud of defending his version of faith by suppressing this dangerous new movement called Christianity. Paul had been a devotee of religious violence. Then Jesus met him one day. Struck him blind. Paul had to be led by the hand, fed by a spoon. Paul went from a conquistador to a helpless babe. If you’re online, you can see an image of this—with our screens you will be able to in here soon too. One Christian miraculously restored his sight. Others patiently taught him. And a sort of 13th apostle was added, who carried the gospel to places no one else wanted to go. Careful with Paul. You too can be struck blind. Made a newborn babe. Taught the basics all over again even though you were already a learned scholar. Sent out into the world not with violence to fight, but with tenderness that lays down your life.
Here’s another take on Paul: Some European philosophers who are not Christians at all argue that Paul has the most radically egalitarian vision for society there is. For Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou and others, no society has come close to catching up to Paul’s deep democracy. Paul says that in baptism, our distinctions of race, gender, class, economic status, are all drowned. Washed away like Pharaoh and his soldiers. And we’re made a brand-new humanity. This is one reason oppressed peoples love Paul. So, baptism erases slavery. Yes. Drowns division. Mm hm. Blots out inequity. Check. Okay I want that. It’s superficial Paul who’s a clobber-er, still a murderer of souls. Deep Paul is a friend to every human being.
When I was first taught the gospel as a teenager it was with something called the Roman road. A pastiche of verses from the book of Romans. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20. “For the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23. “If you confess with your lips ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9. A clear presentation from one person to another about how to become a Christian. Like one beggar showing another where the food is. We hurt one another. God heals. Believe and be changed. It’s basic, beautiful, and true.
But what does it leave out? A lot. The gospel is a lot more than a few verses. The Bible has more than 31,000 verses. It can’t just be tweeted or summarized on a cat poster. The Roman road is a start, but it is no place to finish. Lots of people spend the rest of their lives rejecting a version of faith they learned when they were children. There is so much more, and it grows with you. One ancestor of our faith said the gospel is a river where the lamb can stand, and the elephant can swim. There is infant milk for new babes. And for those growing mature, there is the finest wine, the sweetest meat, a party with Jesus as host and guest.
One thing missing from that Roman road is the calling of Israel. When we humans break the world, does God respond by wiping us out? Nope. By sending three verses? Or 31,000? No. God sends a family. Israel is all the daughters and sons of Abraham and Sarah. A family that is God’s means of blessing and repairing the world we’ve ruined. This church loves the people of Israel, you can see our stars of David here and there, I preach above another. Lots of Jewish people in our families, and one or two of you here today are proud to say you are Jewish, not were, but are. Now is Judaism a perfect family? Far from it. Even a good family? Yeah, but it’s a mixed bag, like all families, with even more dysfunction I’d wager than your family or mine. But it’s God’s family. Through which God heals and repairs the world.
Now hear me: this is how God saves. Through a people. Not through ideas. But through flesh.
All religions are tempted to think God’s blessings are only for us. We’re good, everybody else is bad. Nope. God’s blessings are not for us. They’re through us, for everyone else. Do you hear the prepositions? Through, not for. God’s blessings are shaped like a womb. Every human person gestates and receives life in a womb, but you can’t stay here. You have to come out and live on your own. Or God’s blessings are Israel-shaped. Through us for others. We can try and keep God’s blessings for ourselves. But they’ll rot like manna. We can try and block the garden hose with which God showers blessings on the world, baptizes it with grace, but eventually the hose explodes. This is the good news of Israel. God doesn’t save his people from the world. God saves the world through his people.
And eventually, God doesn’t just choose a people. God becomes a person. God has fingernails, eyelashes, and a Jewish mom. God first chose a beloved, a firstborn, a bride: Israel (the metaphors sort of tumble after each other). This God is not far away, distant, keeping hands clean. No, God gets involved in the world, chooses sides. And then God becomes one Jew: Jesus Christ. And we murder him. No, no, no, God, we can’t stand you this close. We want our world back to run it our way. Here’s a cross for you. Stay there. And die. But Jesus is also God. He can’t stay dead. His resurrection showers the world with more blessing than ever, more than anyone has yet imagined. The crucified God saves his crucifiers. There has never been better news. That’s why we are a Christian church. Because the resurrected one forgives and restores his betrayers and crucifiers. That’s how God makes all things new.
But here’s a problem. What about God’s first choice of Israel? Is that over now? Did God even choose Israel in the first place? Lots of Christians have said no. That was a misstep. A first draft, torn up now that the final draft is done. Some have even said that maybe God’s election of Israel is a lie. A falsehood. I mean, not many Jews are interested in the resurrection we preach. And can you blame them? The church’s treatment of Jewish people is one of the most appalling things in our history, and we have a long list. Most of those who carried out Adolf Hitler’s attempted genocide were baptized people. Nazism was not Christian it was a pagan revival movement. But most Christians couldn’t resist being great again. We went along. And lots of Jews worry we could be hoodwinked again. I was in church with an older Jewish friend once, a holocaust survivor who honoured me by attending, and the text was a particularly bad one about the Jews. She turned to me and said, “Jason, why are they reading that? They know there are little kids here right?” She was transported right back to Poland. We in the church also claim to be God’s chosen. But then those paying attention notice: wait, there’s another people who also claim to be chosen by the God of Israel. We’ve often said, right, they’ll be gone soon enough. God forgive us. And strike us dead if we ever fail like that again.
And this is why I love Paul so much. Paul is not a former Jew. He is a Jew forever. Just like Jesus. And he’s trying hard to work out okay, my beloved fellow Jews don’t believe in my beloved Jesus. I only do because I got struck blind by his resurrecting light. Now how do I understand my fellow Jews who haven’t had that and don’t believe? And in Romans chapters 9-11 he wrestles hard with that question, you can feel his anguish, his searching, asking God why? Here’s a way to put it. Has God forsaken his people? Paul asks that very question. Has God left Israel behind? And Paul has to say no. No way. No chance. Never. God cannot forsake his people. Not only has God not. God cannot. We human beings forsake one another. We’re flighty, fickle, and pathetic. But God can’t break his word. God has to keep his promises.
Sometimes we Christians have presented the gospel like this. God loves you so much he left his people Israel for you. Right, now why would I trust a God like that? It’s sort of like the man who says to his mistress, ‘I love you enough that I’ll leave my wife for you.’ Right, won’t you just leave me too one day? If you’re the sort of man who breaks promises? Why would she trust a man like that? This is the selfish reason we can’t say God abandoned Israel. Israel is the trunk of the tree of which we, the church, are a branch. If we cut down the trunk, we, the branches, go down too. If God can abandon his people, he can abandon us too, church.
My kids were arguing in the backseat one time whether God can do anything he wants. Sure, one said, he’s God, what can’t he do? Jaylynn and I are listening in. But one said, “I know something God can’t do.” Okay, what’s that? “God can’t stop loving us.” Ooh. That’s good. That kid’s had some good preaching. From his mother. He’s right. God has no choice but to love us. Even if we abandon, betray, deny, crucify, God relentlessly pursues us. Claws his way out of the grave to get to us. Strikes us blind and leads us by the hand back to tenderness.
Okay, what about Israel not being interested in Jesus or his resurrection? Israel might not be interested, but God still loves. That’s who God is. Promise-keeper. Relentless forgiver. Can’t help it. That’s God’s deepest character. To stay faithful when we’re faithless. Are you hearing me? Nothing you can do can make God leave you. Nothing. Ever.
So, Paul concludes “all Israel will be saved.” Romans 11:26. Did y’all hear me? “All Israel will be saved.” Chapter and verse, that’s in the book, check me if you don’t believe it. Wait, didn’t you mean all Israel will be condemned? No, the opposite. You mean some tiny portion of Israel will be saved? No, again, look, “all Israel will be saved.” This wasn’t in the Roman road I learned. But it’s in the Bible. Say it with me. “All Israel will be saved.” When we in the church have been bad to the Jews, or to anyone, we have betrayed our own Bible, our own God. Because “all Israel will be saved.” It’s us human beings who abandon, betray, crucify. God resurrects. Restores. Forgives. Heals. Saves. We give one another nails. And God gives us back a tomb with an escape hatch.
But you can see why Paul is worried. Wait, does God have two people now? Israel and church? No, that can’t be right, any more than a person can have more than one spouse. No separate but equal covenants. There is only one covenant: God with humanity, through Israel and church (the “and” is awkward). Okay, what if one of those covenant partners wants out? What if we’re unfaithful? Doesn’t matter. God’s covenant doesn’t depend on our faithfulness. It depends on God’s faithfulness. And that never ends no matter what we do. Paul’s not clear how this can be so: one covenant, two peoples. He wrestles mightily with this question for all of Romans 9-11, the heart of his most important letter. But he’s convinced all Israel will be saved. God will have it no other way. Paul’s words in 11:32: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so God might have mercy on all.” The word “all” appears a lot in this chapter. What a weird way to save.
One of the great things about Judaism is they’re less hung up on believing correctly. You’re still Jewish even if you don’t believe the stuff: it’s a faith of practices more than doctrine. This is also more true of Christianity than we think. Annie Dillard, one of the great Christian writers of the last generation, as a precocious teen told her preacher she wanted out of the church. Take me off the roll. I don’t believe that stuff. Okay, fine, you’re not a member anymore. She wheeled to leave. As she exited, he called after her “you’ll be back.” What? How dare you! Sorry, you’re baptized. And God has a way of gathering his own.
We’ve had a lot of funerals around here recently. If you want to be a better person, go spend more time in cemeteries. Write your own obituary. And whatever worry you’re facing, ask yourself: will it matter when the hole in the ground is for me? No? Okay, then it doesn’t matter. Not at all. Lots of obituaries are really resumes. Like we’re auditioning for a job. He accomplished this. She was recognized as that. Fine. But death isn’t a job interview. Here’s what really matters at the graveyard. Did he love? Was she loved? And the tears and songs and prayers say yes. We don’t ask ‘Were they perfect?’ By no means. Were they good? Sure… some of the time. Were they bad? Uh, yeah, but this is no time to say that out loud. Someone wise said ‘live your life so that the preacher doesn’t have to lie at your funeral.’ None of our resumes, none of our moral accounting, matter on the day when we gather at the grave and everyone goes home except you. Here’s what matters. Is God merciful?
Here’s Paul’s answer. Yes. God is merciful. In fact, God is altogether mercy. Nothing but mercy. Especially to his beloved Israel. Then to us, church. And to humanity. Even to every atom in creation God bothered to make in the first place.