3rd August 2008 - "I suffer endless anguish of heart"

Stephen Fielding - St Mary's
Romans 9:2

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit the House of Commons. We were a party of Christian visitors. During the day, we talked to our MP, and while we were doing this, there flashed up on the screen the fact that prayers were about to begin. Grant Schapps explained that every day the speaker’s chaplain leads prayers before the session for the day. The MP said that, even though he is Jewish, he joins in the Lord’s Prayer because it is a Jewish prayer. I admired him for that. Of course the Lord’s Prayer is a Jewish prayer.

Earlier this week, the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, addressed the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops. The older brother in the faith addressing the younger brother. What a wonderful sight! The representative of one Abrahamic faith addressing the chief representatives of another Abrahamic faith, all of them sharing a belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I mention this relationship of Christians and Jews as the background to our reading of St Paul this morning – chapter 9 of his great letter to the Romans. And the issue for Paul is as profound as it is simple. What is the destiny of non-Christian Jews. And here, as you heard, Paul is voicing a heartfelt regret and anguish. ‘I suffer endless anguish of heart’. What is the endless anguish of heart which Paul is suffering?

It’s not the personal anguish that, before he became a follower of Jesus, he was a zealous persecutor of the Christians because they were bad Jews, though no doubt he did regret this phase of his life before his conversion. He must have thought, looking back, that he was wrong to join in that persecution of his fellow Jews who had turned to Jesus Christ.

No. Paul’s heartfelt regret and anguish is very different, much more profound. It is that the Jewish people – God’s chosen people, through whom the whole world was to be blessed, to whom God made his covenants, whose prophets had been the inspiring witnesses to the promise of God that he would save his people – it is that the Jewish people were cutting themselves off from their lasting inheritance, their salvation, by their failure to acknowledge Jesus as the world’s true Lord and their Messiah.

And this isn’t just rhetoric – he isn’t just saying it. He is a Jew from the top of his head, to the tips of his toes – a Jew in every way, with that attachment and fidelity to the Jewish people and inheritance which marked out every good Jew. He again thinks that his fellow Jews are being bad Jews – this time because they’re not following Jesus.

And his utter conviction is that, if they fail to recognise the raising of Jesus from the dead as the Lord’s Messiah through whom all the promises of God have been fulfilled, then they are doomed, and are no different from the pagans who fail to recognise that Jesus is the world’s true light. It is this condemnation – this cutting off – of the Jewish people which cuts him to the quick. It is, I think, unbearably moving.

And it’s not just the present or immediate benefits that the Jewish people are missing. It is not just that the hope of heaven is lost by their unbelief according to Paul. It is also, and perhaps primarily, that the wonderful future that God has promised – heaven on earth – when all pain, suffering and injustice, every heartache, every anguish, will be done away, the glorious future that God intends for all humankind will be closed to them. And Paul wants all his fellow Jews – as well as the Gentile Christians in Rome – to be part of that wonderful future. In other words it is because he is taking seriously what God has promised through Jesus Christ that Paul has such heaviness of heart for the exclusion of his own Jewish people from their promised inheritance.

Anyone who follows Paul in this conclusion today must follow him with a heavy heart too, for the exclusion of the Jewish people from God’s promised future must be unthinkable. Happily there are many theologians at work today who are urging us to see the many ways in which the Jewish people are brought into the sphere of God’s saving work. Beyond the detailed theologies, there is of course the observation of the great Moltmann that even if we usually think that God has given us free will to exercise, and that he respects our right to exercise it, it cannot be the case that God’s will can be subordinated to my will indefinitely or permanently. In the end it is open to God to overrule every resistant will and to say: ‘you will come to the party; MY will be done’. At any rate, I hope and pray that it is so.

Meanwhile the call to Christians and Jews is the same – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, unite us in his saving purpose.