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Redemption for Jew and Gentile

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Throughout the first eight chapters of Romans, Paul has repeatedly stressed the inclusiveness of the gospel. This emphasis is one that resonates with most of us. As tolerant, accepting, and open-minded readers of Paul’s letter, we rejoice in the announcement that the gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Paul’s proclamation that “righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom 3:22) rings beautifully in our sensitive ears. We would offer a hearty “amen” to the news that through Christ comes “justification that brings life for all men” (Romans 5:18) – with the gender inclusive wish that the translators had chosen a word other than “men”.

In Romans 9, however, we are brought face to face with some of the problems the inclusiveness of the gospel would have created for Paul’s Jewish readers. After all, they were the chosen ones. They were the true followers of God. What about the specific promises that God made to the Jewish people? Did those promises to Abraham’s descendants still stand? Had God changed his plan? Could it really be true that even Gentiles could be credited with righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ?

I am a Gentile, but my affiliation and identification with Seventh-day Adventism helps me to resonate with the basic issues that Paul must deal with. Jews felt privileged. They had a special history and a special part in God’s divine plan. An Adventist, as a part of a prophetic movement with a special history and a special part to play in God’s divine plan, feels similarly.

To religious groups that feel uniquely honored, the news of God’s wide mercy leads to questions. If righteousness is credited to all those who believe, then what is the benefit of worshiping on the correct day each week? If God saves all who believe, then why must I resist the allure of sizzling flesh on my neighbor’s barbeque? Why not eat, and drink, and adorn, and dance? If God welcomes even Gentiles, then why maintain the behavioral and doctrinal markers that I thought made me special in God’s eyes – favored, somehow?

Yes, the inclusivism of the Gospel creates questions. It also creates problems. It is easy to see the problems when we focus on exclusivist first-century Jews or fundamentalist Adventists. Such groups are an easy target. It isn’t too difficult to poke fun at people who feel holy at least partly because they are vegan and don’t wear lipstick. [1] What is more difficult is to acknowledge that God’s inclusiveness is a problem for all of us, even the readers of this Sabbath School blog.

In one of my early pastoral assignments, I found myself in what I would still consider a traditional, conservative Adventist church. Over time, I discovered that there was a group of members within the church that I believed was more open-minded and tolerant than many of the other members. I resonated with their concerns and enjoyed the time we would spend together. We would talk about the inclusiveness of the gospel, the beauty of grace, and then lament the petty legalism of others in our community of faith. I am ashamed to admit that it took me a long time before I realized, with great horror, that the most judgmental group in the church was the “open minded” and “tolerant” group that I had aligned myself with! I, the self-described champion of God’s mercy and grace, was an accuser of the brethren.

Just two weeks ago, a Spectrum blog entry reflected on the Toronto Vegetarian Association (TVA) and their decision not to allow the Ontario Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to have a booth at the TVA’s 2010 Annual Vegetarian Food Fair. [2] Adventists had rented a booth previously, and the Executive Director of the TVA stressed the fact that “our objection is not to those who have tabled at the Vegetarian Food Fair in the past. We have every reason to believe that those present at the fair on behalf of the Ontario Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have provided helpful information and shown respect for all members of the public.”

According to the Executive Director’s letter, TVA is an organization which seeks “to provide an environment and services that are free of racism, sexism, discrimination and bias, where all individuals are treated with respect and dignity.” So, why was the Ontario Conference’s application denied for 2010? Because the TVA was made aware of the official Adventist statements on homosexuality. In the minds of the TVA, they could no longer allow Adventists to participate.

We could summarize the TVA’s position is as follows: “Thank you for your help in years past. You were respectful of everyone. But we are so tolerant and so inclusive that we cannot tolerate or include you. It’s not for what you have done, but because we disagree with what you believe. Have a nice day.”

My point, here, is the same one that the apostle Paul has already made repeatedly in Romans. We are all sinners. At whatever point we judge the other, we are condemning ourselves, because we who pass judgment do the same things. When it comes to the law, and when it comes to inclusion, mercy, tolerance, love (and any other virtue we may aspire to), there is indeed no one righteous, not even one. Not the Jew or the Gentile. Not the progressive or the fundamentalist. Not the administrator or the scholar. We may obsess over different things, but we all fall short of the glory of God.

If we could grasp the full measure of God’s compassion, the full measure of his mercy, I am convinced that even the most broad-minded, the most inclusive and tolerant among us would wince and wish God would show a bit more discretion in choosing those he will save.

All this prepares us for something Paul says in Romans 9. There, Paul informs us – challenges us, even – with the reminder that God is Sovereign. “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy,” Paul tells us (Rom 9:18). God “will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people” (Rom 9:25). He has a place for the Jew, and for the Gentile, for Democrats and Republicans. It may even be that members of the Toronto Vegetarian Association and members of the Seventh-day Adventist church will eat at the heavenly table together. God is in charge. He doesn’t consult us as to who he should save. We cannot pick who our neighbors will be in heaven. God will decide. And his mercy makes it possible for all sorts of surprising people to be there. It’s a problem, yes. But it is also rather hopeful news for an outwardly tolerant and inclusive but secretly judgmental and shockingly prideful person like me.


NOTES

All biblical quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible. Also, in all cases, emphasis is supplied.
[1] I trust that my readers are able to identify the use of hyperbole in my argument
[2] See Alexander Carpenter’s “Conference Health Ministry Banned from Vegetarian Fair Due to Church Statement” (accessed August 17, 2010)

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