Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans was not written to the general population of the city of Rome or to the Roman emperor, or to the citizens of the Roman Empire. The Letter to the Romans was written for Jews who lived in Rome, some of whom who had accepted the revelation of God in Christ, and others who may have not.
Understanding this makes a difference, because it helps us to make sense of the particular emphasis St. Paul places on the relationship of Jew to Gentile and Israel to the Church. This all might seem difficult for us to understand, but understand we must, if we are ever going to appreciate what St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is all about.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul is presenting an argument, he is making the case for his conviction that the God of the Israelites has done something extraordinary and unexpected in Jesus Christ- and what God has done has changed Israel forever and brought into existence this new reality called the Church.
In today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul is insisting that as a result of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ how Israelites understand God and their own identity as being a people chosen by God should change. This was an assertion that was as controversial then as it is now. St. Paul believes that God in Christ has created a new Israel called the Church and a new kind of Israelite called a Christian and this new Israel and new kind of Israelite will include people who were Jews and many people who are Gentiles. God has in Christ created a new kind of people and these people have a new mission that complete and complements the way of being an Israelite before the revelation of the Lord Jesus.
St. Paul insists that, though this transformation of Israel has happened, God’s love for the Israelites remains. God has not abandoned the Israelites, but he has done something new for them, and not only for them, but for the world. The revelation of God in Christ is not that the Israelites have been rejected, but that a new way of being an Israelite has opened up for everyone.
What I have just described to you is how the Church understands herself- her own identity and mission. The Church is a new kind of Israel and being a Christian means that you are a new kind of Israelite.
Thus, when you might hear the Church described as “the people of God”- that is a term that Biblically is used to describe the Israelites, but that now the Church uses to describe those baptized in Christ Jesus.
Being new Israelites is not meant to be an honorific title or kind of ethnic identity. Instead it means that if you are a new Israelite that you have a mission from God and your life is all about this mission. The mission of a new Israelite is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to share a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in his Church. This mission will effect how you think about the meaning and purpose of your life and the kinds of decisions that you make about how you are going to live. The mission of a new Israelite means that you share with others a unique way of life.
Many Jews did not accept what St. Paul presented to them as the revelation of God, but he was clear that this refusal did not mean that God would reject the Jews or that Christians should persecute those Jews who did not accept the revelation of God in Christ. Instead, St. Paul made an act of faith that one day God in Christ would sort things out and bring Jews and Christians together as one Israel. Until then, his mission was to introduce his Jewish brothers and sisters to Christ, not to coerce or threaten them into accepting the revelation that he believed to be God’s revelation.
Faith in Christ is a gift that some may not accept and this may sadden us, but faith in Christ is always an act of love, and as such, it cannot one cannot be compelled to believe just as one cannot be compelled against their will to love. In the end, Christ will measure our mission as new Israelites, not in accord with how many people either accepted or rejected the invitation we extended to people to know Christ. Instead, Christ will judge us in accord with our fidelity to our mission. St. Paul’s categories were never based on standards of worldly success or failure, but on his own fidelity to Christ and his own willingness to love what Christ loves and serve what Christ serves. So may it also be for us.