A Letter to Us

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 20, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

NOTE:  This sermon supposes St. Paul writing letters to American DearFriendscities.  Those letters have been written and published in “Dear Friends:  Letters of St. Paul to American Christians” available from Amazon and other book dealers.

Suppose St. Paul were alive today and suppose he were still writing letters. Of course, he would use a computer and I think he would write a series of letters (e-mails, of course) to American cities: Washington, Dallas, San Francisco. I think the one we would all be waiting for would be the letter to Washington. That letter would cover all sorts of subjects – some I will not get into – and one of them, I think, would be inter-faith relations.

Almost 2000 years ago Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome, the Washington of the ancient world, and he didn’t write about the emperor but he did write about inter-faith relationships. He wrote about the relationship between Christians and Jews. He agonized about it. That there should even be a division was a grief to Paul. It seemed so clear to him that the ancient Paulpurpose of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. Everything the Jews had been waiting for had been fulfilled in Jesus. For three chapters Paul wrestled with the issue and last week, this week, and next week we get brief excerpts from a passage in which Paul is agonizing about why the majority of the Jews have not accepted the Messiah and how it could be that God would have let it happen.

By the time he wrote that letter, Paul had had years to think about it and in writing to the Romans he gives them his theory. That’s what we’re reading for these three weeks. And what Paul says is, God is wiser than we. God is able to take that rejection and use it to accomplish far more than God’s people could ever imagine. Did the Jews reject Jesus? Yes, but look at the result: Gentiles turning to God in record numbers. And if Paul were writing now he could feel well justified in his logic. Look it up on the web, there are about 13 million Jews in the world today, but about 2 billion Christians. That’s what God accomplished out of human failure.

So what could God do for an encore? Paul thought about that and when Paul wrote to Rome he imagined a time when Jews and Christians would be brought back together, separate branches with a common root and all to the glory of God. And you can really begin to imagine it today with Jews and Christians talking together at more depth than ever and a greater desire to understand.

I think that if Paul were writing to Washington today and felt that the people there needed some guidance – and they might – he could certainly begin with the same analysis he brought to the question of Christians and Jews 2000 years ago. We’ll hear a little more about this next week but you really ought to take time with your Bible to read chapters 9-11 of Romans yourself to get the full impact. In brief, what Paul says is God has used the Jewish failure to accept Christ to make the gospel known to the Gentiles. His own words are: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved . . .” God has, so to speak, put 13 million on hold until billions more are gathered.

But now go back to the 7th century. Christianity had become the established religion of the Roman Empire but the Roman Empire had fallen and Christianity in the west was struggling to survive in what have been called “the Dark Ages.” But into this situation came a man named Mohammed with enormous energy and organizational skill and a vision of one God and a pattern of life centered in prayer and alms giving, and concern for the poor. Paul didn’t know about that, of course, but if he had, I think he might have fit that also into his vision. If that Islamic zeal in less than a hundred years could carry this new monotheism from Spain to India and bring into its fold spaceearthmillions upon millions, why could that also not be fitted into God’s final plan? Jews and Christians in Paul’s day were utterly irreconcilable. Christians and Muslims from Mohammed’s time to our own have been utterly irreconcilable but Paul had faith that God could do more than even he could imagine. Why can’t the same faith be ours?

Listen again to today’s epistle: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Now, there’s a simplistic version of this that you often hear: stuff about “all roads lead to Rome” and “we all believe in the same God” and “we’re all going to the same place eventually” and so on. If Paul thought that, he could have stayed home and been a successful rabbi. Instead he gave it all up to endure enormous hardship: “Thrice was I beaten with rods,” he writes, “once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.” Paul didn’t endure that because he thought it made no difference. It did make a difference. It still does.

Christianity today, for all its divisions, for all its failures, is light years ahead of Islam in terms of dealing with the 21st century world, light years ahead in terms of working through issues of sexuality and human relationships. And I believe that’s true simply because at the heart of the Christian faith is a knowledge of the triune God and a belief in the incarnation that requires us to approach this world in a very different way and a way that makes a vitally important difference.

But would it have been better for the world if Islam had never come to be? I can’t see that it would. As it is, the vast majority of the world’s peoples have come to believe in one God, a merciful God, a God who works to give all people a knowledge of the God who created us and cares for us. That’s a lot to have in common. I think St. Paul could write to Washington that “There is no distinction in God’s sight between Jew and Greek, between American and Arab; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

Well, but isn’t the present state of the world a messy way for God to be working? Was God really at work in the American invasion of Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan? Absolutely. Not to say that God would have deliberately chosen Plan A or Plan B as worked out in the Pentagon as the ideal way to proceed, no; probably not; but it is to say that God is able to bring out of this chaos far more good than any of us could ever imagine. The fifty year confrontation between east and west over politics and power, communism and capitalism, has been replaced by something far more important and yes, oil, and politics is still very much at the center of it but so is faith, so is faith. When the television news shows us again and again prayer13pictures of Muslims at prayer that demands our attention. Faith matters. Faith may divide, but only faith can bridge that divide. Only faith, only a deep understanding of who we are and what God calls us to be, can ever unite us. And it still can. It still can. God is able to use even this for the unity of God’s people and the ultimate glory of God. That’s the hope Paul held out to the Romans 2000 years ago and it’s the hope still held out to us today.

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