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Romans 11 (Not the Ref)

November 3, 2019

So today we have two fancy terms and one fancy dress. Raise your hand if this dress is white and gold? blue and black? About equal percentages see it both ways. Now in real life, the dress is blue and black. But scientists who have studied the photo conclude that the dress was photographed in a very yellow light such that there are, indeed, shades of white and gold in the photo. Can two opposite things be true at the same time? Here are my two fancy terms:

Cognitive dissonance: discomfort at holding contrary beliefs

Antinomy: the ability to hold together two contradictory truths

People who meditate frequently show a movement toward antinomy—holding together two seemingly opposing truths. What’s also amazing is that more and more antimony is being found in nature. For example, one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century is that light can be a particle and a wave at the same time. But here’s an antimony from Scripture:

  • Romans 11:7 NIV: What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened,
  • Romans 11:1-2 NIV: I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.

Does salvation come through Christ alone? Absolutely. Will the Jewish people be saved? Absolutely. This is what I see the Scripture saying; tell me if you disagree, and we’ll talk about it together, but that’s how I read Romans. So how can this be true? The images Paul uses are mysterious. 

  • Romans 11:16 NIV: 16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

It’s as though those of the children of Israel who do accept Christ make all Israel holy. I do not pretend to understand these verses; I’ve read different interpretations, but none of them is entirely satisfying. I do not believe Christians should stop in sharing our faith with our Jewish neighbors and friends and even family members. Yet we know that God will not go back on his promises to his people Israel, and that should give us great comfort.

  • “God never made a promise that was too good to be true.” ~Dwight L. Moody

Move from cognitive dissonance to antimony. Hold together two seemingly opposing truths. We don’t understand God; and that’s a good thing, because if we understood God, we would have no need for him.

Paul moves from reflection on God’s relationship with Israel to reflection on how Christians are called to react. And this is of great importance in my view; because so many Christians who deal with this chapter never deal with Paul’s ultimate conclusion, and that is that we should be humbled by what God has done in redeeming Gentiles, grafted-in branches like ourselves. 

  • Romans 11:17-18 NIV: If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 

We’re branches grafted in. We don’t support the root—but the roots support us. We should not lord ourselves over the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism does not come from God and Paul rejects that attitude emphatically here. We have no reason to boast, because “grace would not be grace” if it is based on who we are. We didn’t earn salvation.

This egregious handball by French soccer player Thierry Henry cost a nation a trip to the World Cup. But what makes Henry unlike most athletes who benefit from a bad call is that he admitted the handball. He said, “I admit it was a bad call. But I’m not the ref.” Isn’t that the truth? You and I have benefited from God’s grace. We won the game despite the handball. Today is All Saints Sunday. When I am honored to preside at a funeral or memorial service, I pray a traditional prayer of commendation: Accept, Lord, we pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Sometimes it’s hard at a funeral to pray that prayer; to acknowledge that the one we loved and lost was a sinner. But yet, in the very same prayer, we acknowledge that the sinner is also a saint. In the same way,  you and I who are sinners are promised we will be counted among the saints. Why does God desire to save Israel, and why does God desire to save people like us? God knows. But we’re not God. We’re not the ref. It’s not our call. And thanks be to God, always and ever, for that. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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