PENTECOST 9 – August 2, 2020
Romans 9:1-5 – The Radiator Cap and the Horizon
I grew up on a family farm. That sounds very appealing, conjuring up images of togetherness, cooperation, and shared work. Indeed, those experiences were rich and rewarding.
But I didn’t like all the kinds of work that we had to do on the farm. For example, I would have been happier if I didn’t have to clean the dairy barn after the cows occupied it for several hours. Use your imagination just a bit and I think you would concur!
On the other hand, I did enjoy working with machinery, especially driving the tractor. Dad knew this, so he fanned the guttering candle of my half-hearted interest in farming by assigning to me field-work on the tractor, which incidentally also freed him up to attend to other responsibilities. Of course, along the way he had to train me with practical tractor skills and appropriate attitudes.
The most important thing was the radiator cap and the horizon.
Whether harrowing at the beginning of the growing season, or raking the freshly mown hay, Dad wanted me to drive in straight lines. There was a practical reason for his insistence: efficient use of machinery and fuel. And it was also about a sense of pride in one’s work.
Since the tractor’s radiator cap was positioned dead-centre on its nose, he taught me to line up that radiator cap with some feature on the horizon. It might be a distant barn, or a rocky outcropping on a mountain, or a distinctive tree on a nearby hill. The point was to produce a straight line … and to press on toward the goal.
Of course, I still had to glance behind me occasionally to ensure that the implement that I was pulling was doing its job. It was also useful to gauge my overall performance by assessing the field behind me. But what I needed to focus on was what lay ahead.
It was an important lesson in farming. And ever since leaving the farm and taking up my own calling life, I have come to realize that it wasn’t just about farming.
The Radiator Cap and the Horizon is also about life. And faith.
Prayer of the Day
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
Such a poignant, heart-felt cry from St. Paul in our Second Lesson for today: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
It comes as a bit of a surprise. St. Paul is typically so sure of himself. He regards himself as God’s Apostle to the Gentiles, and he is utterly resolute in proclaiming Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. This he does throughout the eastern Mediterranean world, and beyond. His goal is to evangelize the entire known world, establishing Christian congregations in cities that are located strategically on established routes of transportation and commerce.
There was little holding Paul back. He was not married and thus had no wife or family to support or to tug him from his mission. Money didn’t seem to be an issue, either. If ever he lacked for funds for his mission travels, then he would revert to his trade of tentmaker in order to earn the necessary cash to keep going.
And while initially he had to struggle to convince the leaders of the church in Jerusalem of the legitimacy of his status of Apostle, and of his message of the sufficiency of God’s grace in Jesus Christ apart from adherence to the Law of Moses, finally he was able to get their blessing and commission.
But through it all, Paul remained keenly aware of his origins. He was a Jew … and not just an ordinary layperson but a Pharisee. He had been trained in the Law and the traditions of the faith.
There had been a time in his life when he had tirelessly devoted himself to suppressing the Christian faith. He had travelled the territories at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, seeking out Jewish people who had begun expressing faith in Jesus Christ, and prosecuting them under the Law. For at that time he was utterly convinced of the exclusive righteousness that came by adherence to the Jewish faith.
All that changed when he was on his way to Damascus to seek out and prosecute Christian Jews living there. The resurrected Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision and cried out to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?!” That marked the beginning of a process of transformation that lasted at least three years. God’s Spirit worked on Saul-now-renamed-Paul to create, develop, and nurture the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul’s transformation into an Apostle of Jesus Christ had included careful thinking-through of the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. He understood it eschatologically. What that means is that he believed it marked the end of the old creation and the beginning of the new. In Paul’s thinking and teaching, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ is the First Being of the New Creation that is breaking into the old order and establishing a new standard of righteousness: faith in God’s promise in Jesus Christ.
A new era has dawned. Because of the New Creation, righteousness is reckoned by God because of faith, faith in the promise of the New Heaven and the New Earth that God will one day create. No other standard of righteousness means anything. And that includes the Law: no longer is adherence to the Law of Moses the standard and measure of righteousness.
It’s hard for us to imagine what this cost Saul/Paul of Tarsus. After all he was a Jew … and not just any ordinary Jew, but a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law … and not just any Pharisee, but “a Pharisee among Pharisees.” The emotional tug on his heart is almost beyond our imaginations. He forsook his traditional and spiritual heritage because God had slayed the old creature in order to raise up the new.
Was he subjected to pressure to return to the tradition of his forebears? Did members of his parental family and his broader social network plead with him to give up on this new path in religion and life? Was he tempted to compromise and give in just a little to those Jewish Christians who taught that the Jesus-movement was really just a new way of being Jewish?
We don’t know the answers to those questions. What we do know is that Paul remained resolute in his belief that what God now wanted was the righteousness of faith – faith alone! – in the divine promise invested in Jesus Christ. His letters to the Christians in cities throughout the Mediterranean world bear witness to his persistent convictions. God has poured out divine mercy through Jesus Christ, so that now all may belong to God by faith.
But precisely because of his faith in God’s trustworthiness, Paul remains clear-headed about his own people: “They are the Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” God does not renege on God’s promises. Israel remains God’s Chosen People even though a new era has dawned, an era in which God’s mercy in Jesus Christ reigns supreme.
You and I are heirs to this mystery. Paul passionately yearns for all people according to faith in Jesus Christ, and at the same time he acknowledges his own people’s unique status in God’s plan for creation and redemption.
And so the church sometimes ponders this question: Should you and I evangelize Jewish people?
I think that depends on what we mean by “evangelize.” If what we mean is “convert” them, “change” them, then I say No. I say No in part because of who they are, but also because of our role in God’s good purposes for this world. Our role is to live faithfully, without apology, and understand at the same time that it is God and God alone who possesses the authority and the power to change people. I think a prayer in our Lutheran liturgy for Good Friday expresses it well:
"Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God." (Silent prayer.)
"Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and your teaching to Moses. Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."
Together with St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, let us learn from The Radiator Cap and the Horizon. By the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit, let us persistently trust in God’s promise in Jesus Christ, in whom you and I are created anew.
Let us trust that in God’s good time Christ will return. That will happen when all things are subjected to him (as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28), so that Christ himself may hand back his lordship to God the Father, “so that God may be all in all.”
Peace be with you.