Dr. Bethany Christiansen: Who are God’s People?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 8A, Sunday, August 2, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17.1-7, 16; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, Oh Lord. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

Good morning, St Augustine’s! And welcome to the month of August, which means you never know who’ll be preaching on a given Sunday. 

You may be wondering how I was blessed with the peculiar joy of preaching for you all today. Well, it turns out that Fr. Kevin had his heart set on someone preaching on the Romans passage from today’s lectionary, and lo and behold, no one wanted to preach on these meager verses. I think I was his fifth or sixth choice. And why did I say? Well, being the overeducated nincompoop that I am, I misread the schedule and thought I was preaching on last Sunday’s verses from Romans. Last Sunday, you’ll remember, we had an excellent sermon from Fr Phillip on how nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. That’s an easy one! I thought. Nothing can separate us from God’s love: even could write a sermon on that. 

Then I found out what I was actually preaching on: five verses from the beginning of Romans 9 that read: 

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. 

And I thought… Hmm. That’s tricky. 

But as I contemplated these verses, I realized that there was something I wanted to talk about buried here, and that something can be summarized in the title of my sermon today: “Who are God’s People?”

Maybe you’ve heard this phrase that the young folks use: “She’s my people.” People here refers to your close circle, including the family members you actually like, your close friends, and maybe people that you feel responsible for but wouldn’t call your friends. And if someone is not to your liking, you say, “He’s not my people,” as in, “I would just as soon ignore him forever.” 

So who are God’s people? Who does God say he cares about? 

Paul says that his heart breaks for “his people,” his own race, the people of Israel. He is so pained by their separation from the risen Lord that he would even be willing to forego his own relationship with Christ if it meant that they would be redeemed.

Are there people in your life who are lost? people for whom you pray with “great sorrow and unceasing anguish”? A loved one, a family member, a dear friend who always comes into your heart when you pray? Perhaps a brother who left the faith; a friend who’s mired in broken relationships; a neighbor who struggles with addiction, feelings of unworthiness, lack of purpose, lack of meaning…? Paul feels that pain, struggles with the same sense of desperation that his people come into relationship with Christ.

In the next verses, we hear Paul’s sense of frustration with his Jewish brethren. He says: Hey guys! YOURS is the adoption as heirs; YOURS is the divine glory. YOU have covenants, YOU received the law, the temple worship and the promises. YOUR lineage produced the prophets, and ultimately, the Messiah.

He’s saying: “You were given EVERYTHING – how are you missing the most important piece, the arrival of the Christ??” You know that thing we’ve been waiting for?? It’s here! Jesus is the Christ, and it’s better than we ever imagined it! We’re reunited with God: the problems of sin, separateness, and sickness have been solved! This is it! and it’s great! What’s wrong with you guys??

The Jewish people were the protagonists of the whole divine story, from Creation through to Paul’s own day: they had the books of the prophets and the words of God himself; they had the laws that pointed toward a God of justice, orderly living, and personal righteousness. And what were they doing with it? They were deliberately holding onto the law – which can only condemn – and refusing to let their understanding of the law be transformed into the person of Christ, who offered salvation rather than judgement. In short, they had their heads buried in the sand. And while Paul was in agony over their lostness, he was also expressing his disgust: you were given everything and still you won’t see. 

Maybe Paul had certain people in mind when he wrote this passage. There must have been men and women whom he loved, whom he prayed for, whom he longed to bring before the throne of glory. 

I can’t help but think of St Augustine in this context. And when I think of Augustine, I have to think of Monica, his mother. She was a Christian woman from North Africa, and she had married a pagan man, Augustine’s father. We don’t know much about his father, because Augustine didn’t write much about him. But Monica looms large in his autobiography, titled Confessions. 

If you haven’t read the Confessions, you really ought to: this book shows Augustine at his most relatable, his most human; and you’ll be impressed with how profoundly familiar Augustine, the fourth-century Christian, will feel. Until he was in his 30’s, Augustine belonged to a cult called the Manichaeans. Fearing for his soul, his mother prayed for him constantly and pestered the Christian priests to refute the false doctrines her son was learning. The priest responded: “Go away. As you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish” (1991: 51). She took these words as prophetic. And indeed, they turned out to be so: her son became one of the greatest fathers of the church. 

Even if Paul had been thinking about a loved one when he wrote the passage we’re looking at, his words apply, not to a person or a handful of people, but a whole race. “My people” he calls them: “The people of my own race, the people of Israel.” 

Is there a group of people who weigh heavy on your heart when you pray or meditate? A group who seem lost, hurting, or struck with a particular misfortune? 

Maybe you think of the service workers who have lost their jobs since the pandemic started; or the children who can’t go to school; or the families of people killed by police. You might think about Christians who are persecuted for their faith around the world; or Syrian refugees; or the people of Hong Kong. Or maybe your heart focuses on family issues: the pregnant teenagers who are scared and alone, or children growing up without fathers, or the unborn infants who have been labeled “unwanted.” 

In short, who does our heart go out to? Where is our heart? 

What about those groups of people who, we sorrow to see, are racing in the opposite direction of truth, love, and God himself? In this category, I see my generation – the millennials – and the generations after me. And while I think some of the criticism leveled against millennials is unfair, I do think that they are lost and running hard in the wrong direction. This generation was handed a world where all the old rules and old promises seemed not to apply anymore. We were handed shards and were told that it was still a pot. Friends, that pot is not holding water. Millennials see the unfairness of the world: its racism, sexism, rising economic disparity, underemployment, stagnating wages, increasing division between cultural values and Christian values… and their response has been: Smash the patriarchy. This generation says, “If it’s old, destroy it. All the old ways – reliance on God, belief in institutions, hope for a better world – all must go out the window.” I see the nihilism and hopelessness of a generation without God, and it breaks my heart. 

We should pray for those people who are on our hearts, no doubt about it. I pray for my generation. But it’s so easy to draw the line there, to say: THESE are the people deserving of my prayers, my compassion, my love. But who are the people towards whom our hearts are not naturally inclined? That is, who do we despise?

That answer is different for every person. We have to search our hearts in order to discover the groups that we villainize, despise, or simply lack any pity for.

Is it along economic lines? When you’re poor, it’s easy to despise the rich. When rich, it’s easy to despise the poor. 

Is it along social lines? When you’re white, it’s easy to villainize those who are brown or black. When brown or black, it’s easy to villainize those who are white.

Is it along political lines? When you identify as Democrat, it’s easy to demonize a Republican. When you’re Republican, it’s easy to demonize a Democrat. 

Is it along religious lines? Do you find yourself disregarding the lives of Muslims, atheists, Jews or Buddhists? 

What about when you watch the news? Do you take sides, and hate everyone on the other side? The graffiti in my neighborhood reads “ACAB,” which stands for “All Cops Are Bad.” In some corners of the media, I see all protesters labeled “anarchists.” Neither group seems to think the other side has any value as human beings, or any right to fair treatment under the law.

Our hearts find natural affinity with some groups, and a natural antipathy for others. And the highly polarized media makes sure that our natural tendencies are hardened, wherever possible, into tribalism and enmity. Brothers and sisters in Christ, is that who God has called us to be? 

I challenge you to meditate this week on whom you have hardened your heart against, and pray for them. Love them. Reach out to them in the Spirit. Even if that group is your enemy, Christ teaches us that we are blessed when people insult us, persecute us and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of him (Matt. 5:11). Even if the group you despise is actually your enemy – though, so often, those we despise are not our enemies – Christ died to redeem them. Christ died for the perpetrator of injustice. He died for the villain as much as the victim. 

You may protest that you don’t have any enemies. There’s no one you despise. 

If true, that’s great. Sometimes, even if we don’t despise anyone, we stop focusing on people.

That is to say, it’s easy to focus on things over people: a book you loaned out and never got back; a plant that the neighbor promised to water and then let die; the car your kid wrecked. In these cases, the image of Jonah often comes into my mind. No, not Jonah in the whale. Jonah sitting under a plant growing in the desert. Jonah hadn’t wanted to be a missionary to Nineveh. And when people of Nineveh actually repented, he was annoyed. He was kind of hoping to see the fire and brimstone. So after everyone repented, he went to sit in the desert. The sun was hot and burned him; but God caused a plant to grow to provide shade for him. Then God caused the plant to shrivel up and die. Jonah was really upset; He loved that plant. God said to him, “You cared more about that plant than you did about the people of Nineveh.”

How often do we care more about the plant than the people? I find myself doing this a lot. I care more about having a quiet beer on the porch than I do about my friend in crisis who needs a listening ear. Sometimes, we don’t have enemies. We’re just insensate to the image-bearers of God who suffer around us. 

So we ask ourselves: Who are my people? Who are the people on my heart? And who are the people I despise or ignore? 

As fallen creatures, we find it easy to divide the world into “my people” on one side, and “not my people” on the other. But who are God’s people? Does God say to some: “You’re my people, and I look out for you” and to others “You are not my people, and I don’t care for you?”

That’s the central question in the next part of Romans chapter 9. If you have your Bible, you can follow along with me as I read the next verses: 

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

Here, Paul is dealing with one aspect of the central paradox that the early followers of Christ had to confront: Are followers of Jesus simply a cult of Judaism, or are they something new? And if they are something new, then do God’s promises made to the Jewish people apply to the non-Jewish followers of  Christ? 

Indeed they do: Paul affirms that “it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of promise.” No longer do people need to be ethnically Jewish in order to be included in God’s promise of redemption, reconciliation, and healing. No longer is God’s protection and mercy extended only to a closed community of Israelites living under the law; rather, Gentiles have been welcomed in as children of promise. No longer are God’s people figured in terms of physical descendants, geopolitical nations, or dietary law. The doors are open for all. Christ says: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). That means everyone who stands and knocks, everyone who seeks the Lord will find him. 

Unlike the God of Judaism, our God’s favor is not limited to specific people in specific cities. Unlike the Gods of Hinduism, our God doesn’t need us to please and placate Him in order avoid his wrath or curry his favor. Our God works all things together for our good, even though we’ve done nothing to earn it. Our God washed his disciples’ feet the night before they betrayed him to his death. 

So I ask again: does God say to some: “You’re my people,” and to others “You are not my people”? No, God doesn’t do that. God opened the doors, saying Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The last I checked, we are all tired and carrying heavy loads. We are all in need of a God of infinite love and infinite power who knows our inmost hearts and says to us, “You are loved. You are exactly as I made you to be, and you are mine.” 

With a God like that, how can we have hearts that harden against anyone? 

Think about those groups of lost souls I conjured in your minds at the beginning of this message: the people that your heart goes out to, those that you pray for, those that you long to bring into the joy of salvation and wholeness. Notice how you feel about that person, or that group of people. That’s how Paul felt about the lost Israelites who didn’t know Christ. That’s how God feels about the lost Israelites still, yes; but that’s also how God feels about the people you love who have strayed from his light. When your heart aches for a friend who moves from one abusive relationship to the next as he looks for love, or for a child who has left the faith, God’s heart aches for them in exactly the same way yours does. When you lament that a group of people has wandered away from God and endures the pain and brokenness that a life without him entails, God laments with you. 

What about the people you despise – those you see on the news who seem intent on destroying something you care about, or those you see as perpetrators of crimes and injustice – How does God feel about them? How about those that you never think about because you, like me, are focused Jonah’s plant instead of God’s image-bearing creatures? How does God feel about them? It turns out that God feels about them the same way he feels about the people we find it easy to love and pray for. 

God loves the lost. He loves the violent, the broken, the destroyers of statues, the despots, the people carrying guns on both sides of a conflict. Can we try to look at these people, not with our own human minds that insist on an “us vs. them” narrative, but with God’s mind? God sees them as his own dear children, lost and wandering in a hostile desert. Like sheep, they fall into crevices, headbutt each other, and refuse to come home. These are people for whom Christ died, whom he calls into his presence for healing in grace. Those we find hard to love are God’s people, too. So let us pray for them, and minister to them. We know that the grace and love we were freely offered has healed us, and shall heal them too. 

in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, amen.