Part 11 of our sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans focuses on evangelism. Who needs it? The answer: everyone! The gospel, which literally means “good news,” is good news for the entire world. If we’ve experienced it as such, why would we not want to share it with others?
Paul felt “great sadness and constant pain” as he thought about how his people—his flesh-and-blood fellow Jews—had rejected the gospel. Do we feel at least a little of that same sadness and pain as we consider “our people”—whoever they may be?
Who do we know within our own circle of friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students who need to experience the gospel as good news in their life? What is the Holy Spirit calling us to do about it?
Sermon Text: Romans 9:1-5
The following is my original manuscript.
I recently heard an episode of public radio’s This American Life, whose theme for that week’s episode was break-ups. The romantic kind of break-ups—breaking up with someone you love or used to love, and how difficult it is. A young writer named Starlee talked about how she had her heart broken—she was utterly devastated—when her boyfriend—the person she was made for, her soulmate, the person with whom she should be spending the rest of her life—dumped her. She was head-over-heels in love with the guy. Looking back on the relationship, she said, “It was hands down the corniest relationship I’ve ever been in. And by ‘corniest,’ I mean ‘greatest.’”
Among other things, the two of them developed a love for singer Phil Collins. It started as sort of an ironic thing, but after while they were convinced that Phil’s many love ballads were practically written to describe their love. If you like ’80s music, you’ll appreciate that when her boyfriend dumped her, the last words that Starlee spoke to him were, “How can you just let me walk away? I’m the only one who really knew you at all”—paraphrasing lines from his song “Against All Odds.”
After the break-up, she took great comfort in listening to break-up songs. She said, “Before the break-up, I had no idea how much break-up music was out there. For example, every song ever written! Or at least every third. But once you’re heartbroken, you notice it everywhere. You find yourself in the supermarket hearing a song you’ve heard before, but never really heard—thinking to yourself, ‘It’s just so true.’” Because of her broken heart, in other words, she was able to hear something that she couldn’t really hear before because it now affected her personally.
Something like this is going on in today’s scripture. If Romans were a symphony that Paul were composing, Romans 8 would be a dramatic crescendo, summarizing all that has come before, and leading up to this climax: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And we shout “Amen!”
But in the midst of this otherwise joyous music, Paul is also hearing a sad counter-melody that his Gentile listeners at the church in Rome were unable to hear—in the same way that Starlee was unable to really hear all that sad music before her heart was broken. Paul’s heart is broken. Listen to Paul’s anguished words: “I’m speaking the truth in Christ—I’m not lying, as my conscience assures me with the Holy Spirit: I have great sadness and constant pain in my heart.” Why? Because his flesh-and-blood relatives, he writes—most of his fellow Jews, in other words—have failed to believe in Jesus as Messiah. That matters a great deal to Paul, and he wants it to matter to the Gentile believers as well.
In the late-40s of the first century, a group of Jews rioted in the capitol city of Rome. The riot might have been set off by this strange little sect of Jews known as Christians and their bizarre preaching, which got people all stirred up. Regardless, most Romans were already very prejudiced against Jews, and the emperor Claudius used the riot as an excuse to expel Jews from Rome. This meant that those Jewish Christians who started the Roman church would also have to leave Rome. In their absence, the little Roman church continued to thrive under Gentile leadership.
Claudius died in the year 54, and his successor, Nero, lifted the Jewish ban. Jews returned to Rome for the first time in several years. It’s easy to imagine that a lot of Romans, including Roman Christians, didn’t like the Jews returning. They had gotten along just fine for several years without them. Anti-Semitism was alive and well, you see, even among Christians, even back then. One Bible scholar writes that it would be very easy “for the Gentile Christians who remained in Rome through the early 50s to imagine that God had somehow endorsed, at the theological level, what Caesar had enacted at the political level and that God had in fact written the hated Jews out of the covenant altogether.”1
Paul wants this church to know that that’s not at all what happened!
In many ways, our historical situation today couldn’t be more different from the one Paul was facing. Anti-Semitism—prejudice against Jews—obviously still exists. But one thing that’s changed is World War II: we fought a world war in part because of how unspeakably evil anti-Semitism can be when taken to its horrifying extreme. Hitler, by his own words, was not a Christian. But Germany in the 1930s was as big a, “quote,” Christian nation as there’s ever been, split between Catholics and Lutherans. Many of these Christians participated in the deaths of six million Jews; many more stood by passively and watched it happen. Throughout its history, the Church has too often either propagated or tolerated anti-Semitism.
Because of this shameful history, we Christians today are rightly very sensitive, very careful, and very concerned about how we relate to our Jewish friends. We love them. They are our friends, neighbors, and classmates. Also, in a community like ours, which offers so much religious diversity, we feel a special kinship with a people who share so much in common with us—whose tradition gave us most of our Bible, and who worship, along with us, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
We love Jewish people, but is it possible that most Christians—including us Methodists—don’t love them enough? Because we usually don’t love them enough to share with them this unbelievably amazing good news that we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ. Now, I know what many of you are thinking: we don’t need to share our faith with our Jewish friends because they have their covenant with God, and we Christians have our covenant with God, and both are equally valid and equally true.
And here’s the thing: I totally get it! I also want to believe this popular idea that Judaism and Christianity are fully compatible—two parallel paths to the same God, to the same salvation, to the same eternal life, to the same life in the resurrection. I want to believe it, but I can’t, because, among other things, God has given us this Bible to guide our faith and practice, and it’s crystal clear from Paul’s letter to the Romans, from the New Testament overall, and from nearly 2,000 years of Christian thought on the subject that this gospel of Jesus Christ, this plan of salvation, is for the whole world—everyone, regardless of their religious background. Including even our Jewish friends.
After all, what is the source of Paul’s “great sadness and constant pain” if not his conviction that unless his flesh-and-blood Jewish relatives believe the gospel they risk being left out of God’s saving plan. Do we 21st-century Christians know more than Paul? Do we have some special insight that Paul didn’t have?
If we think we do, we misunderstand our own faith—not to mention what Paul has argued throughout Romans: that God didn’t inaugurate a new covenant through Jesus, leaving the old covenant with Israel in place. Rather, as Paul argues (and as Jesus himself taught), the covenant that God made with Abraham finds its joyous fulfillment in Jesus—and through Jesus to the entire world, including Gentile believers like most of us—just as God planned all along. It’s true that right now most Jews have rejected the gospel, but Paul tells us later in Romans that God hasn’t given up on them. And the Church shouldn’t either! It’s not disrespectful or, worse, anti-Semitic, to want our Jewish friends, along with everyone else in the world, to hear and believe this good news. How we go about it certainly can be disrespectful and unloving, as it all too often has been!
But this isn’t mostly what I want my sermon to be about. My focus is on a far larger and more personal problem that this text raises for most of us. We know that Paul feels “great sadness and constant pain” because so many of his people—his fellow Jews—have rejected the gospel. What about are our people? Do we feel that same sadness and pain for our people—whoever they may be—who have not yet entered into a saving relationship with God through Christ, or have gotten so badly off course and lost their way that they need help finding their way again?
Who are “our people”? Are they people we work with? People we go to school with? Our neighbors? Our friends? Our family members? Our boyfriends or girlfriends? Our spouses?
Maybe you’re afraid to broach the subject of religion with people who practices a different religion… I understand that fear. But I’m not even talking about those people right now. I’m talking about our people—a majority of people around us—who may even profess to be Christian, and yet rarely if ever set foot in church and live their lives as if it doesn’t really matter? Not to mention those who used to go to church, but dropped out and don’t really know what they believe. Aren’t those our people?
Years ago, even before I started seminary, I had to go to something called “License to Preach” school. Laypeople can get licenses to serve small Methodist churches as something called a “local pastor” without being ordained. When I was in seminary, I served a church as a local pastor. Anyway, we had to take this week-long crash course on being a pastor. One of our teachers was Warren Lathem, who pastored Mt. Pisgah United Methodist for many years. He later became a District Superintendent in Marietta. And he has a reputation for not mincing his words.
I’ll never forget one thing he told us. He said, “Last Sunday, 81 percent of the United Methodists in my district didn’t go to church. Eighty-one percent! Here’s my question: Are they lost?” And we didn’t have to answer the question because we knew what he was getting at: yeah! Some of them are! We can assume that some of those 81 percent are lost and need to be found by Jesus—even though they’re nominally Methodists, nominally Christians, even though they are members of a church somewhere, even though they’ve been baptized at some point and maybe even gone through confirmation class, even though if you asked them if they were Christians, they would say ‘yes.’ Some of them are lost and need to be found.
We may struggle with the question of how to reach the Jews for Jesus, but I’d be happy right now if we could just reach the Methodists for Jesus! It is increasingly the case in our community and country: Americans are growing very comfortable calling themselves Christian without bearing any of the marks of discipleship. Where did they learn this from? When did they decide that that was O.K.?
You’ve probably heard it said that a preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. So in this case, I need to afflict the comfortable. Including me and you!
Does it break our hearts to imagine that people we know and love, right now, are living their lives apart from Christ, ignorant of the gospel and God’s life-changing love, and they might even die and face judgment without being in a saving relationship with God through Christ? If we love these people, how can we not feel at least a little bit of Paul’s “great sadness and constant pain”?
If we love them, do we love them enough to want them to experience this wonderfully amazing good news that we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ? Because it is nothing less than a question of love. We are failing to love our neighbor if we fail to pray for their salvation, fail to invite them to church, fail to witness to them through both actions and words.
Even Elaine Benes, on an episode of Seinfeld, understood this. Now, the theology that Seinfeld presents is terrible, filled with caricatures and misunderstandings of Christianity. But there was some truth in it, too. In this episode, Elaine accidentally discovers that her boyfriend, David Puddy, was a Christian—and all this time he hasn’t said anything to her about it. Even worse, he believes that she’s going to hell, and yet he hasn’t done anything or said anything to try to change that. Elaine says, “I’m not going to hell, and if you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell!” And by all means, what we believe about heaven and hell comes into play here, which is why I’m going to begin covering that topic in two weeks, in a two-part sermon series called “Heaven and Hell.”
But for the time being, think about this: Is being a Christian important to you? (You probably wouldn’t be here this morning if it weren’t.) Have you experienced the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news in your life? If you have, how can you not share it? [Braves example] We share our good news with people! How can you not want your people—your friends and family and neighbors and co-workers and classmates—to experience it as well?
In his new book Love Wins, Rob Bell says something that I very much agree with. He writes: “When you’ve experienced the resurrected Jesus, the mystery hidden in the fabric of creation, you can’t help but talk about him. You’ve tapped into the joy that fills the entire universe, and so naturally you want others to meet this God. This is a God worth telling people about.”2
[Invite members to think about “your people.” Pray for them. Love them enough to pray for them. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom and guidance about how to help them discover this good news for themselves.]