God gives, we receive
In the beginning, the Christian Church was almost exclusively Jewish. Controversially, the apostles took the Gospel of the Jewish Jesus to non-Jews. Peter goes to Cornelius. Christians scattered by persecution head to Antioch preaching “to Greeks also.” And Paul: apostle to the Gentiles.
Over time, the demographics of the Church shifted from mostly Jewish to mostly Gentile. As that shifted, so did the Church’s attitude toward Jews. Almost forgetting that Jesus was Jewish, the Christian Church saw Jews as the great enemies and opponents of all things Christian. Most famously, or, rather, infamously, Jews became viewed as deicides, “God-killers,” “Christ-killers.”
I’m not here to blame anti-Semitism (or the Holocaust) on the Christian Church. The Church didn’t invent racism. We can’t deny, though, a line of this particular racism running through Church history. The Second Vatican Council, a meeting of Roman Catholic bishops in the 1960s, had to formally define that calling Jews “Christ-killers” wasn’t good. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, received harsh criticism for its portrayal of Jews and the line, “Let his blood be upon us and our children.”
I wonder, though, if perhaps this infects us too. Over the years I’ve dealt with the “Christ-killer” charge now and again, mostly in forms that wouldn’t end up in ghettos, pogroms, and mass killings, but still, trying to pin the blame on “the Jews,” forgetting what even Mel Gibson remembered: we killed Christ. Remember, Gibson appeared in his film as the soldier nailing Jesus to the cross, a gesture saying, “I’m guilty too.”
We would be best served to remove the phrase “Christ-killer” from our vocabulary, and replace it, as we look at the Jews, with the awestruck whisper, “Blessed art thou among nations! Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!”
For this reason, Paul says in Romans 9, that “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.” He sees what God hath wrought through the Jews: “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all.” Earlier, in Romans 3, Paul had, after denying the superficial value of circumcision, asked the natural question, “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God!”
Think of it. God chose them: “Jacob I have loved!” The glory of the Lord guided them out of Egypt, dwelled among them, went ahead of them in smoke and fire. God made his covenant with them: “All nations will be blessed through you.” No one else got a Mt. Sinai moment. No one else had the Ark of the Covenant. No one else had the Temple and her sacrifices. No one else has the fathers they have: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc. To them first did God speak his promises, the gospel. We have those glorious words of God, God’s beautiful good news recorded in their language, Hebrew. In Hebrew tones did God promise a son to crush the devil, a servant despised and rejected, but bearing sins, crushed for us, bringing us the light of life and justification. Just as Paul said about women in 1 Timothy, “They are saved through childbearing,” so can we speak of the Jews: “for out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel!” Blessed is the fruit of the Jewish womb, Jesus, our Jewish Messiah!
No wonder this hangs so heavy on Paul’s heart. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” Everywhere Paul goes the sad truth confronts him: the Jews reject the fruit of their womb, Jesus. From city to city, from synagogue to synagogue he sees and hears almost nothing from his countrymen but rejecting. They even follow him around, fighting rabidly against Christ, rejecting the righteousness of God in Christ and exchanging it for a righteousness that is by works, by obeying the law.
While lamenting this sad development, Paul then goes on to talk about grace. A necessary talk. For the Jews grew proud in their heritage, “We are sons of Abraham.” John the Baptist and Jesus deal with this. Paul too, reminding the Romans, “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Already in the desert outside the Promised Land, God reminded Israel not to get cocky: “Don’t think that you’re here because you’re so good and wonderful and righteous. You’re not. You’re here because I picked you and chose you, I, the Lord your God, I who will have mercy on whom I have mercy and compassion on whom I have compassion.”
Throughout Romans 9-11, Paul drives this point home using Isaiah. “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.” And again, “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” And once more, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
God’s grace met with rejection. The Jews, zealous as they were for salvation, turned from God’s grace and to their own self-chosen works, not to mention the worship of false gods and depraved sinful living no different than the other nations. They tried to give themselves grace instead of receiving it from God.
Yet God still poured out his grace. Paul picks up today’s Old Testament lesson in Romans 11. Driven into exile by Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah says not, “Curse me and save the nation!” but, “They have driven me out, no one loves you, kill ‘em all!” And God says, “No. There is a remnant. I reserve 7,000 to myself.” More, as we heard in 1 Kings, God lined up kings and prophets for his people, to preserve and expand this remnant, but for all that, “a remnant chosen by grace”; as Paul says, “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”
Sadly, we know that Israel, God’s root and branch, gets cut off. So God grafts in the Gentiles, He grafts in us, bringing the good news of the Jewish Messiah Jesus to the world. We must both learn from our Jewish predecessors – to treasure this gift we’ve been given – and also be wary of treating Jews with contempt, as Paul says in Romans 11, “You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” And again, “…how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree.” Remember: we are NOT the natural branches on this tree, the Holy Christian Church. God came to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. And God still wants the Jews. Paul says his mission to non-Jews, to us, has as one of its purposes – along with bringing God’s grace and forgiveness to us – the goal of arousing Jewish jealousy, so that God might graft them back into the vine.
Again, it’s grace, grace alone. The Jews gave God no reason to choose them or give them anything. Neither did we. In Corinthians, writing to some wildly behaving Gentile believers, Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
The Jews grew proud of being chosen and all those things Paul said they had. They forget that they had them by grace. So easily we forget as well. We have nothing that was not given to us. Our being here this morning gives nothing to God. Our being members here gives nothing to God. Our offerings give nothing to God. Our Baptism gives nothing to God. The purity of our doctrine gives nothing to God. The proper observance of the Sacrament gives nothing to God. We treat them like they do, “Look at me, God, I’m one of your chosen ones!” We forget that God gives us everything, that God mercies whom he will, and in so doing, we can just as easily be cut off as Paul’s Jewish brothers, if we turn grace, faith, and righteousness from God from gifts into merits earned.
Repeatedly in his writings, Luther compared the preaching of the Word to a passing rain shower, and “when it’s gone, it’s gone.” And then you have nothing. And, having nothing, perhaps like the rich man in hell, you begin to beg for just one drop of water, one refreshing taste of the Word, crying out, “I want that!”
And as he said to the Jews who went before us, he still says now, “The Word is near you.” All those “advantages” the Jews had, God gives them to us in Christ: the adoption, the glory, the covenant, the law, the worship, the promises, and, most vitally, bringing all those things to fruition, the sum that is greater than the parts, “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!”
The threat of removing the Word calls us to reach for it all the more. We heard Isaiah speak God’s promise, “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost!” We see Paul laying out that wine and milk in Romans. The wine and milk his Jewish brothers spurned we still have before us, for God’s Word does not fail; it does its job, bringing us God’s grace, giving us what we need to receive: Christ and the love of Christ. It reverses things from arrow up: “Look at what I’m giving you, God!” to arrow down, “Here’s what I have to give to you, my dear children!”
And what God gives is glorious: wine, milk, a glorious rain of grace. He gives the bread of life, upon which we eat and live forever. He gives the water of life that becomes a spring welling up within us to eternal life. For He gives, gives, gives, not owes, but gives us His Son, not sparing Him, but spearing Him to the cross. For us and for our salvation. Choosing us, adopting us, cleansing us at the font, feeding us forgiveness at his altar, preaching us forgiven in his word, saying as Paul said, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off…for the sake of my brothers.” God gives that. He cut off his own Son for the sake of us. He raised Him to life for the sake of us. For all men, first for the Jews, then the Gentiles. God gives. We receive. And, in Christ, are saved. Amen.