Tag Archives: Gentiles

Even failure can be useful.

What use is failure? It seems that God can recycle most things. We know that we learn through our mistakes (if we deal with them properly). We know that our own need of forgiveness may help us learn to forgive others. And in Romans 11, we get a glimpse of God’s purposes as Israel seemed to have rejected its promised Messiah. (Our Sunday reading is Romans 11:1-2a & 29-32, but you may want to read more).

Paul has been struggling with this question in chapters 9, 10, and 11 of the letter. It causes him considerable and continuing pain, more so as his mission to non-Jews is seen by some as betrayal. Yet here he makes sense of his experience, of offering the gospel to Jews first in any place, but then to any who would listen if the Jewish community would not. He explains (in the body of the chapter, of which we read two short extracts from beginning and end) that the blindness of Israel has made an opportunity for the Gentiles.

However, it may be that some non-Jewish believers in Rome have seen that as a cause for boasting – not a good thing. Paul uses his example of the olive tree. If the cultivated olive tree is failing to produce, it may be pruned and a graft of wild olive introduced to re-invigorate it. (Apparently a known technique).

Of course, the “roots” of the tree are Jewish – the promises of God recorded in the Old Testament. If the “wild” olive (Gentiles) benefit, well and good, but they should be aware what they are benefitting from – and of the ease with which they could be removed!

Paul tells us that the success of the Gentile mission is part of God’s purpose, and will in God’s time provoke faith among Jewish people. We can wonder at this, and perhaps remember those who take faith in Jesus to share with Jewish people, greatly hindered by a history of injustice and prejudice. Perhaps we also need to give thanks for God’s mercy, which has included us!

Is there more? It may be fanciful, but perhaps we should look at the failing churches of the western world, and wonder if the livlier faith found in some parts of the developing world has something to teach us. Are we in danger of complacency? Are we more proud of our history than what we are doing now with our resources, education and freedoms? Do we need a pandemic to remind us that life is more than social media and materialism?

Paul grieved for his own people, and served God where he was sent. Perhaps in the west, Christians should have a greater grief for their own culture, while being ready to share – and receive – from others?

Not good news?

Paul, preacher of a wonderful gospel, is left with an agonising problem. Romans 9 opens with pain – we read Romans 9:1-5). A Jew (more observant than most – look at 2 Corinthians 11 etc) and one-time persecutor of Christians, he has been chosen as the apostle to the gentiles. His career has met with success (by grace), and a large number of churches look to him as founder. Corinth, in Galatia, Philippi, and others.

The problem? He knows, only too well, that the faith of these non-Jews, “outsiders”, has been won against the opposition of some Jews, who would have stopped them if they could. He knows that he is seen as a traitor, and there are numbers of people who would gladly kill him as a religious duty. He knows that Judaism doesn’t want to know about Jesus; there are exceptions, thank God, but the majority won’t listen.

In one sense it’s not a problem. The Christian church has made the decision – Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, – gentiles who become Christian believers do not have to become Jews, only to keep the Christian faith and avoid some things particularly offensive to Jews. History will show that the offspring will overtake the parent, spreading further and becoming far larger. But for Paul, there remains the pain of seeing people he knows, and others he understands so well from his former life, refusing to accept what God has done and is doing.

Are we past the issue? Many of us – perhaps all of us? – know the difficulty of friends and close family, about whose faith we have no confidence. We can’t always be sure: faith is not about words, but attitudes (and I suspect the faith of a depressive or someone with little confidence is less obvious than that of the opposite personality type – but even then it needs action, reality).

How do you cope with the fact that parents or children may live, by choice, outside Christian faith and hope? I hope you pray for them – for it is a serious matter. To live without faith is to live in danger of the judgement of God, to live without the assurance of heaven. And so we pray, and take what opportunities we can to encourage faith, to explain, to take them to places where they might hear the gospel in ways that would strike a chord. We listen, to hear what they think and feel, to check for ways in, for books or films or experiences that might help.

We may be seen as traitors, “letting the side down”. We may even find religious people trying to prevent people coming to living faith. You know the sort of phrase that begins “We don’t do that here” . . We will certainly find people who will lie and cheat, to prevent the message about Jesus being taken seriously (by themselves or others). But in the end, we have to wait for God. Knowing that we don’t understand more than a tiny part of his purposes. Knowing that, while he can work in amazing ways to turn people right around, he so values their free response that he will not force, nor let us do so. No nagging, no blackmail. We have to use the methods of Christ, and offer love, knowing it may be refused.

Paul’s concern for his fellow Jews shows his human side. How will we be seen for our concern for non-Christian friends?

Telling the story

How would you tell the story of Jesus? Or, for somebody who knew parts of it, but not the significance, how would you order it? These are important questions if faith is to reach two or even three lost generations in the West. Acts 10 tells the story of Peter’s visit to the non-Jewish Cornelius, and the section we read today (Acts 10:34-43) covers what he said to the gathered household.

First, he does not confuse the issue with his own feelings. The event is of enormous importance to Peter, as he goes takes the message of Jesus outside the Jewish world for the first time. (Read Acts 10:9-17 to understand something of the struggle it involved). Yet his two verses of explanation (vv33,34) are directed to explain his presence to his audience, not to chart his own journey and new insight!

Secondly, Peter makes clear that God’s message is about Jesus, and delivered through the events of Jesus’ life. There is reference to the events at his Baptism (also read today), but verses 39-41 go straight to the death and resurrection. This is central to Christian faith, and Peter wastes no time in making that clear.

His stress on the importance of Jesus, and the corresponding lack of self-importance, or demands for institutional affiliation, are also a great help in the search for unity among Christians. Faith is shared by those who follow Jesus as Lord. They have a variety of leaders, organisations, and traditions – some of lasting value, but none of these are definitive. When we tell the story of Jesus, it is not to increase attendance at our preferred place or worship, or to add donors to its finances, but to share the faith which brings life and hope. New believers may “join” other groups – but we must rejoice if they are joined to the faithful!

If Peter spoke along these lines – it seems likely this is a summary, and he used more words than are written here – we should notice how effective this was. Verses 44-48 show the power of God breaking out, reminding us that the Holy Spirit is not under control. (This is one time when the Spirit came before Baptism with water). It doesn’t need a great speaker to manipulate an audience; a humble person who will tell the story of Jesus as something of importance can release the power of God to help and heal.

If you wonder how to tell the story of Jesus, make sure it is just that – the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection. For those who come to believe, expect God’s power to show in changing lives – but lives that change in God’s agenda, not yours or that of your congregation!

Is Jesus doing it right?

It is always important to ask the right questions. But I might not ask the questions other people would. They might hear Mark 7:24-37 and ask, “Is Jesus doing it right?” – and think not. Jesus seems reluctant to help – well he has tried to get away for a break with the disciples (in this part of the gospel he is spending more time teaching and preparing them for the cross to come). The idea that he ought to be healing people because that is what he does fails to understand that Jesus is much more than a miracle worker.

What is going on with the Syro-Phoenician woman? The clue is in the name. She doesn’t have the Jewish background that would help her see Jesus’ actions as the fulfillment of God’s promises (like those we read about in Isaiah). How can she see healing as a sign of God’s Kingdom? The answer seems to be, by Faith. Her dialogue with Jesus, far from taking offence and going away, shows that she is not only willing to engage with him, but to trust him. He sees that she has that gift, and it opens the way for her daughter to be cured. (Faith of the sort James would approve – very practical, not just words).

As through the Old Testament and into Jesus ministry, God dealt with his chosen people, who were prepared and taught for his plans to be put into effect, so there were always exceptions of those willing to join that hope and movement. This nameless woman adds to the list.

The second part of the reading is another story, about a deaf man who also had difficulty speaking. Notice how Jesus takes him away from the crowd. It seems to be concern for his understanding of what is happening, and that he not be assaulted by the noise of the crowd. He is healed (Isaiah 35 fulfilled!) He orders people not to speak of it – but that fails, for there is talk, and celebration. Jesus might worry that people will think he is building a celebrity reputation to run for power; or simply that people will not understand his Ministry and purpose.

The question “Was Jesus doing it right?” is not my question. I assume that the way Jesus chose was the one set by God. I suppose to begin with we have to be sure that Jesus is worth paying attention to – that he is doing things we think worthwhile. But after that, don’t we get to a point of wanting to learn how he does things – to imitate it? He’s not just about “doing good”, but very much “doing God” -as in bringing God’s Kingdom, fulfilling his promises. So, if in this or other passages, you find yourself asking Why? Or What’s going on? Please go on asking till you find answers. Jesus doesn’t always do things the way we would – but that may be because we need to learn His ways, as well as because we haven’t understood.

At the beginning of this reading, He was trying to get away and spend time with the disciples. Perhaps they learnt through these events. Perhaps we can too.