A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 10, 2014.
Suppose St. Paul were alive and well today and living – well, maybe in Tel Aviv, maybe in Istanbul – and suppose he were still writing letters. Of course, today I think that he would use a computer and a voice dictation program; a good scribe is hard to find these days. But if he were working today, I think he might write a series of letters to American cities: Washington, Dallas, San Francisco, New York. And he would have a number of issues to deal with, but I think the one we would all be waiting for would be the letter to Washington – probably a pretty long letter, covering all sorts of subjects.
To be honest, I’m thinking about this because I have a book coming out next month which is a collection of the letters I would write today if I were St. Paul and there are two letters to the Californians to replace the two to the Corinthians. (I have to admit that I wrote those before I had moved to California or even thought about it. They might be different if I were to write them now.) There is, of course, one to Washington, the capitol of the modern empire to replace the one to Rome, the capitol of the old empire. Some of the advice Paul gave the Romans would still be relevant: “Owe no one anything,” he wrote to the Romans, “except to love one another.” That’s a message for the members of Congress to ponder! But I’ll leave that for others and move on to inter-faith relationships.
When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he used much of the letter to write about inter-faith relationships. He wrote specifically about the relationship between Christians and Jews. He agonized about it. That there should even be a division between them was a grief to Paul. It seemed so clear to him that the ancient purpose of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. Everything the Jews had been waiting for had been fulfilled in Jesus. So for three complicated chapters Paul wrestles with the issue and last week, this week, and next week we get brief excerpts from that passage in which Paul is agonizing about why the great majority of the Jews probably 90% have not accepted the Messiah and how it could be that God would have let it happen.
If God had been planning for centuries to do the most dramatic thing in history, how could God be satisfied with a 10% approval rating? Even the United States Congress gets better ratings than that! (Not much better, but some!) But now the long-awaited Messiah had come. God had come into this world in Jesus of Nazareth and most of his people had rejected him. So what happened? What went wrong? Why this division? Paul had had years to think about it and in writing to the Romans he gives them his theory. And it’s all set out in Chapters 9-11 of the Epistle to the Romans.
Now, the readings we are assigned skip over some of the best parts of the story Paul tells, but the gist of the argument is simple: God is wiser than we are and God has a plan. God’s plan is to take that rejection and use it to accomplish far more than God’s people could ever imagine. Did the Jews reject Jesus? Yes, but look at the result: the result is Gentiles turning to God in record numbers. Because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus the apostles turned to the Gentiles and look at the result. If Paul were writing now he could feel even more justified in his logic. Look it up on the web, there are now about 13 million Jews in the world, but 2 billion Christians. That’s what God accomplished out of human failure.
So what could God do for an encore? When Paul wrote to Rome he imagined a time when Jews and Christians would be brought back together, separate branches with a common root, and all to the glory of God. And you can really begin to imagine it today with Jews and Christians talking together at more depth than ever and with a greater desire to understand each other. But if Paul were writing to Washington now, I don’t think Jews and Christians would still be his priority. I think he might feel that his projection about Christians and Jews was on target and no need to worry, but he would also certainly see, looking at the world around him and the world around us, that there are bigger issues, bigger problems, bigger questions.
Two thousand years ago it seemed so obvious that when the Messiah came God’s purpose would be fulfilled. All that might remain would be the job of getting the message out. But that was far from simple. What remained to be done, in fact, was a world-wide mission, still only one-third complete. 2000 years later there is still a long way to go: there are hundreds of millions who have never heard the gospel or even about one Creator God. So, OK; in God’s timing it will take a little longer and the reuniting of Jews and Christians is still to be done. But who in Paul’s day would ever have imagined that a whole new form of monotheism would come on the scene and even for awhile seem destined to replace both Judaism and Christianity.
Do you know that five hundred years ago, there were more Muslims in the world than Christians and Jews together? How does that fit the picture? What was God doing in that? Well, if Paul were writing to Washington today and felt that the people there needed some guidance – and surely they do! – he could certainly begin with the same analysis he brought to the question of Christians and Jews 2000 years ago. We’ll hear a little more about this next week but you really ought to read chapters 9-11 of Romans yourself to get the full impact. In brief, what Paul says is that God has used the Jewish failure to accept Christ to make the gospel known to the Gentiles. His own words are: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved . . .” God has, so to speak, put 13 million on hold until billions more are gathered in.
But now go back to the 7th century. Christianity had been established in the Roman Empire but the Roman Empire had fallen and Christianity in the west was struggling to survive in what has been called “the Dark Ages.” It really wasn’t clear that the church in the West would survive at all. And in the East, the eastern church, centered in Constantinople, had become the established church of the Byzantine empire with all the problems that go with establishment: a comfortable existence, certainly, but not much missionary zeal. And the Byzantine Empire was crumbling anyway. So the prospects for Christianity weren’t all that bright. And then, into this situation, came a man named Mohammed with enormous energy and organizational skill and a vision of one God and a pattern of life centered in prayer and alms giving, and concern for the poor. And, no, they didn’t know Jesus but they did affirm one God and prayer and alms giving and carried it to millions who had not yet learned any of that.
So why doesn’t that fit into God’s purpose? If that vision and zeal in less than a hundred years could carry this new monotheism from Spain to India and bring into its fold millions upon millions why could that also not be fitted into God’s final plan? Jews and Christians in Paul’s day were utterly irreconcilable. Christians and Muslims from Mohammed’s time to our own have been utterly irreconcilable but Paul had faith that God could do more than even he could imagine and bring together people who had much in common already. Why can’t the same faith be ours?
Listen again to today’s epistle:
There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Now, there’s a simplistic version of this that you often hear: stuff about “all roads lead to Rome” and “we all believe in the same God” and “we’re all going to the same place eventually” and so on. I’ve had to argue with Vestry members about the importance of mission. I’ve been asked. “Why should we try to change other people to our beliefs?” That’s not what St. Paul was saying. It was certainly not St. Paul’s opinion that it didn’t matter what you believed. If it had been, he could have stayed home and been a successful rabbi. Instead he gave it all up to endure enormous hardship:
Thrice was I beaten with rods,” he writes, “once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
Paul didn’t endure all that because he thought it made no difference. It did make a difference. It still does. Christianity today, for all its divisions, for all its failures, is light years ahead of Islam in terms of dealing with the 21st century world, light years ahead in terms of working through issues of sexuality and human relationships. Not that we are doing all that well, but at least we are working openly on these issues and making progress. Islam by and large has yet to recognize these problems at all. And I believe we are working on these issues simply because at the heart of the Christian faith is a knowledge of the triune God and a belief in the incarnation that requires us to approach this world in a very different way and a way that makes a vitally important difference.
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have been called religions of the book but Christianity is not fundamentally about a book though lots of Christians forget it. Christianity is a religion of God incarnate, God known to us in human life, not distant, not only in a book, but here beside us and in us. We come not simply to hear a word read but to take that word in our hands. So would it have been better for the world if Islam had never come to be? I can’t see that it would. As it is, the vast majority of the world’s peoples have come to believe in one God, a merciful God, a God who works to give all people a knowledge of the God who created us and cares for us. That’s a lot to have in common. I think St. Paul could write to Washington today that “There is no distinction in God’s sight between Jew and Greek, between American, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Afghan; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”
Well, but isn’t the present state of the world a messy way for God to be working? Is God really at work in the current events in the Middle East? Yes, of course, absolutely. That’s not to say that God would have deliberately chosen Plan A or Plan B as worked out in the Pentagon as the ideal way to proceed; no, maybe not. But it is to say that God is able to bring out of this chaos as out of many previous chaotic worlds far more good than any of us could ever have imagined. Now for the first time Christians and Moslems are forced to take each other seriously: not as an enemy to be overcome but as human beings who see life differently, who understand God differently, but with whom we need to learn to live – and who, in living together, must come to a deeper knowledge of the God who calls us all and is at work in us all.
If the one at war with us is simply a terrorist, no, we have almost nothing in common, no easy way to begin a conversation. But if the deepest reality of that person is Islam, is faith in one God, then we do have something vital in common, a place to begin a conversation. And that’s what’s hopeful about where we are. The fifty-year confrontation between east and west over politics and power, communism and capitalism, has been replaced by something far more important and yes, oil, and politics is still very much at the center but so now is faith, so is faith.
When the television news shows us again and again pictures of Muslims at prayer that demands our attention. Faith matters. Faith may divide, but only faith can bridge that divide. Only faith, only a deep understanding of who we are and what God calls us to be, can ever unite us. And it still can. It still can. God is able to use even this for the unity of God’s people and the glory of God. That’s the hope Paul held out to the Romans 2000 years ago and it’s the hope still held out to us today.
© 2014 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
The Bible readings can be found here: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp14_RCL.html (Track 1).