Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Praying for Mercy

I’ve been thinking for months about St. Paul’s comments in Romans about his feelings for his people of origin, the Jewish nation.  In Romans 9, Paul says, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience through the Holy Spirit bears witness that I mean what I am about to say.”  What was such a big deal and so unexpected that Paul had to say three times that he means what he says?  He goes on to say, “I have great sorrow and unceasing, consuming grief” because many of his people of origin, the Jews, have hardened their hearts against accepting that Jesus is their Messiah.

“I kept on wishing (and even praying) that I myself would be a sacrifice, even set apart from Christ, for the sake of my kinfolk according to the flesh.”

As a child of missionaries, I totally understand people wishing to make sacrifices and even be a sacrifice for the sake of another people who do not know the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Jesus Christ.  My parents and many other missionaries sacrificed relationships with their families of origin, the life they were familiar with, and most creature comforts in order to spread the Good News.  Many missionaries gave their lives in this cause.

But I have never heard a missionary say that their calling was so strong, they would give up their own salvation, give up their place in Jesus’s atonement, for the sake of the people they care about. This illustrates the depth of Paul’s love for his Jewish kinfolk and his willingness to risk separation from Jesus for their sake. 

Paul goes on to discuss the theology of “the chosen people”; the evidence he examines leads him to conclude that the promise of God is sure and for all time and that Jesus’s sacrifice is the only necessary atonement for both Jews and Gentiles.

The following summarizes Paul’s discussion (Romans 9 and following):

God adopted Israel, made a covenant with them, gave them the Law and the temple service, made promises to them, and sent Jesus the Messiah through them.  However, (as Jesus also said) not all who are Israel by birth are the real Israel.  The real Israel are those who trust in God’s promise. 

God chooses who will receive mercy and compassion, and thus birth origin does not determine whether a person is included or excluded from God’s love.  God decides.  Paul anticipates the objection that this doesn’t sound very fair, and he replies that the created can’t hope to understand or overrule the Creator.  Further, he adds that it is possible that God, though God intends to demonstrate his wrath and power, has chosen instead to be patient and to carry the burden of those who invite such wrath and destruction. God’s patience demonstrates instead God’s abundant glory on those who invite mercy, both Jews and Gentiles.

Gentiles, who did not run after God’s approval, attained God’s approval through faith. Jews, in contrast, tried to earn God’s approval by works and rejected God’s Messiah and the message Jesus brought. They do not understand God’s good character and do not submit to God. 

Anyone who agrees with God that Jesus is Lord and thinks it true that God raised Jesus from the dead will be kept from destruction, and in this there is no distinction made between Jew and Gentile. Indeed, God uses the inclusion of Gentiles to express to the Jews that God has not rejected them.  And God uses the error made by the Jews to make space for the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s deliverance.  God sent Paul to the Gentiles; Paul hopes that his work among the Gentiles will catch his Jewish kinfolk as well. Indeed, he says that the hardness of the hearts of the Jews is partial and temporary, just to make openings for the Gentiles to come in.  God will save all of Israel because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 

Both Jews and Gentiles begin in disobedience and God chooses to show mercy to both.  Therefore, by that very mercy, Paul beseeches Jews and Gentiles to turn over their whole selves, soul and body, to God as a living and holy sacrifice; to think of themselves realistically; and to exercise the faith God has given them. He asks them to recognize that each one who belongs to God is not just like anyone else and does not serve God in exactly the same way as another.

Mercy is what Jesus asked for when he was dying and prayed, “Father, forgive them; they have no idea what they are doing.” 

I find myself often in the place of not knowing what I’m doing.  I don’t know the harm I cause others on a daily basis, and I don’t often want to think about it.  I find thinking about it ties me up in knots of inaction, which also does harm.

Paul and Jesus challenge me by their confidence in the character and power of God.  God chooses to have mercy, God chooses to be patient so those who appear destined for destruction can instead be filled with mercy, God chooses when to reveal God’s passion for justice and integrity and obedience.  I want to join Paul in his willingness to go to all lengths to bring deliverance to the people he loves, the people he comes from.  I want to join Paul as well in his confidence that the calling and gifts of God are irrevocable.  I believe God called and calls Quakers, my own people, and God has given and is giving Quakers the gifts of living in and by the present teaching of Jesus Christ.

In our disagreements, I can often see that both sides believe that God is both just and merciful. I acknowledge that my own system of belief may cause others harm, either in this life or the next. I feel that we are caught in an impossible situation. I pray for myself, “Father, forgive me; I have no idea what I am doing.”

I don’t think this is the most important prayer, however.  I think the most important prayer is “Father, forgive those who are doing it wrong. Please have mercy on them and be patient.  Please give them faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Please save them.” Please join me in praying this prayer for all who are “getting it wrong.” May God in mercy include them and us in the Kingdom.

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