Frances wries on this weekend Readings :- I want to focus on why St Paul is so distressed, (Romans 9:1-5) over the loss of the Jews to belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, or as he has just put it in Romans 8, the one, sole being who can unite us indelibly to the love of God. It is Christ, says Paul, who is superior to all powers, both earthly, demonic and above the heavens; he is greater than any earthly ruler or state, the only one party to ‘the mind of God’.
Today, it is fashionable, even charitable to other faiths to suggest that Christianity is but one manifestation of God, and to suggest that this is the only way to brush along with other peoples of faith because the alternative lies in fanaticism and all its brutal consequences, as we are seeing in the Middle East. It is therefore difficult for us to grasp the true significance of precisely what Paul was meaning. It is however well worthwhile our making the attempt; for what he believed was on offer, nay absolutely fundamental to humanity, is and remains critical to the survival of the human race.
Romans 8 is the clearest and most succinct statement of Paul’s belief in the uniqueness of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is well worth reading this chapter of his mature thinking and his fine theological development – so very early in the history of our faith – on what Christianity teaches. What we have to understand is that Paul was not into one-upmanship, point scoring against the Jews. Paul was, and remained fundamentally, a Jew throughout his life; and our passage from Romans 9 reflects his despair and his deep personal sense of failure to convict his fellow countrymen and devout believers in God that Jesus Christ was the final and unique fulfilment of all God’s promises to the Jews ; that Jesus was and is what Judaism was and always had been looking for, God’s revelation of himself.
In this revealing, as we know, the Father does not merely show himself to his people, as indeed he did to Elijah the prophet on Mt Horeb, (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13) but he becomes one of us. With Elijah, when the prophet was fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and thought he was near to death, the important clue for the future of God’s relations with humanity lay, not in the noise and power with which Elijah had to contend – the terrible storm – the earthquake and the fire – all of which most probably is a reference to the storm god of Canaan and the early peoples of Syria and Turkey – not least Jezebel’s rage and power. No, the manner in which Elijah met God was in the words of the Jerusalem Bible ‘a gentle breeze’, or even more surprisingly, in the Revised Standard Version, ‘in silence’. That quietness and unobtrusiveness is surely God’s way in the Incarnation, where he actually becomes human in the womb of the insignificant Mary and is born at Bethlehem. It is also a mark of Jesus’ career, in which he responds to the needs of the outcast and the sick and does not seek the contact of the rich and powerful. Jesus, as we see in the Gospels, comes as one of us to be with us; and, living alongside us, God in Christ enters fully into our human lot.
The point is that in doing so God in Christ is not simply some awfully decent bloke who shares himself with humanity; he truly is God, one of the Trinity, taking us into God’s life eternally. God in Trinity is an eternal relationship of love out-poured between each of its three members, Father, Son and Spirit, whose sole delight is in giving to the other members of the triad and receiving love from them in return. And when, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:17, we become children of God through his grace in Jesus, we also become heirs, sharers in the life of the Trinity itself through their gift. Now we see the reason for Paul’s anguish, as he realises that his fellow Jews, who reject Jesus, have turned their backs on their true heritage and on God’s intention for them, and have stuck to their beliefs in the power of the Temple and the Torah – the Jewish Law. There they were, so well equipped to understand God’s quiet way in the incarnation, and yet it was at this fatal moment that they baulked and, as Paul sees it, threw away their birth-right; and with that terrible omission brought down on themselves generations of retribution and death.
Our Gospel, (Matthew 14:22-33) reflects something of those earlier scenes. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod – the man of power – and Jesus goes off into the hills alone to pray, to converse in the silence with his Father. The rest of this scene – the walking on the water of Jesus and Peter’s bravado attempt which ends in failure – is a reflection on this need to trust in the quiet and the silence of God who acts in his Son to raise us to the heights.
We, like Peter, could easily be full of bravado – ‘I’ll walk on the water too!’ – only to become unstuck as we rely on our own importance and not on God. For it is God in Christ who calls us to believe in and think the unthinkable: that God became a man in Jesus and thereby unites us indissolubly with the Father of our eternal salvation. Without this great gift – never given in other faiths or philosophies – we are doomed to go our own weary ways, ways which inevitably result in strife and dissention, in wars and death; and we spurn what Jesus prayed for in John 17, that we be One, as Father, Son and Spirit are One. It is this total unity that we are offered, and that we seek above all other things. It is a unity, given only by and with and in God, which has the power to save us from ourselves and from the delusions of power which lead us to destroy others, be they our fellow Europeans or other foreigners, or even the members of our own families. God’s vision for us is not that we be nice or good, but Godlike.