Sunday, July 27, 2008

Paul's Gospel of Inclusion

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question this week. “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? Who will condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” St. Paul goes into rhetorical overdrive as he barrages his readers with question after question. Another way to put the question might be, “Who will exclude us from communion with God?”

That really was the heart of the matter for St. Paul.[i] His Letter to the Romans is a long, complicated, and rhetorically brilliant argument for the inclusion of Gentiles qua Gentiles in the early Jesus movement. Paul is a Jew engaged with other Jewish disciples of Jesus in a debate about the basis for inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. Must they first become Jews – accept circumcision and observance of the Torah – or not? Paul answers with a resounding “No!” They do not have to become Jewish converts to follow Jesus. They are included as they are.

At the same time, Paul argues that all Israel will be saved, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom. 11:29) If Gentiles are included through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus, that does not mean that Jews who are not followers of Jesus are excluded. Paul argues that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” God will be merciful to all, whether Jew or Gentile. (Romans 11:30-32).

The tragic irony is that Christians have subsequently read Paul through the lens of the rejection/replacement argument; that idea that God has rejected Israel and replaced it with the Church as the new people of God. An inter-Jewish debate about the status of Gentiles became a Jewish-Christian debate about the status of Jews. This is actually the opposite of Paul’s argument, which is that through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus the Gentiles have been included in the people of God. It is an argument for inclusion, not for exclusion.

And so Paul assures his Gentile readers that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ, while also cautioning them against boasting about their status as if Israel is now somehow excluded from communion with God. Paul is eager to offer assurance, but he also is eager to correct an anti-Jewish misinterpretation of his teaching already current in his day. Thus he argues that all are beneficiaries of the mercy of God – the Jews, first, who respond to that mercy through faithfulness to Torah – and the Gentiles, second, who respond to that mercy through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus.

Now, all of this might seem of merely historical interest were it not for the reality of continuing anti-Jewish Christian teaching and practice, and the very contemporary question within the Church about who is or is not included in communion with God. Paul’s cultural horizon was limited to a division of humanity into Gentile or Jew; his field of vision did not include Buddhist or Jain or Confucian, and Islam had not yet been born. In fact, I don’t believe it even included Christians; Paul never uses that term and never identified himself as anything other than a Jew who believed that Jesus is the Messiah. Christianity was not yet something separate from Judaism. Even so, despite our vastly different cultural context, the basic principle remains: God shows mercy to all, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

As Christians, our communion with God through Christ is not dependent upon anyone else’s exclusion. No one else need be condemned so that we can feel affirmed. Our identity is God’s gift to us and does not need to be defined over-and-against anyone else. Neither do we need fear anyone else’s condemnation or rejection. “Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8:34).

This question of inclusion or exclusion has been in the forefront of the Church’s life in recent days. As many of you know, the bishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, gathered this past week in Canterbury, England for the Lambeth Conference, the bishops’ once-a-decade meeting. Well, actually, approximately 670 bishops are there. One bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, has been excluded from the meeting because he is an openly gay man in a faithful same-sex relationship. More than 200 other bishops have boycotted the meeting because the Episcopal Church has not been disciplined for consenting to Robinson’s election and consecration as bishop of New Hampshire.

For some people, not only Bishop Robinson, but any bishop who supports him should be excluded from the Communion. This past week, the Primate of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, called for Bishop Robinson’s resignation and for repentance on the part of those bishops who support his ministry. "Gene Robinson has to be away from the Anglican world and be a normal Christian,” said Deng at an afternoon news conference. "If he is, as he always says, a Christian, he should resign for the sake of the church."

Asked if he has talked to Robinson, Deng replied, "I have nothing to say to him." He also said he cannot participate in the Anglican Communion's Listening Process because homosexuality is not "approved by the Bible" and "is not part of my culture, I cannot talk about it." Deng said there are no gay or lesbian people in Sudan. [ii]

We find ourselves in a situation where the cultural divide today between Archbishop Deng and Bishop Robinson is as great as that between Jew and Gentile in St. Paul’s day. Must gay people, as Archbishop Deng seems to believe, become or at least act “straight” in order to be included in the people of God? Must they be excluded so that others can be included in communion with God?

I would argue that we need to take our cue from St. Paul, who believed neither that Gentiles needed to become or act “Jewish” in order to be included in the people of God, nor that Jews who disagreed with him were beyond the pale of God’s mercy. Paul’s argument in Romans is the relevant biblical text with respect to the issue of inclusion. There is room at the table for both Archbishop Deng and Bishop Robinson when each can see the other in the light of God’s gracious love.

Here I am reminded of a very different reflection on the current Lambeth Conference offered by our own bishop, Marc Andrus. Marc writes that, “The Lambeth Conference brings questions of identity forward in our lives. We are with people of many different ethnicities, cultures, and languages. In the presence of great diversity our easy assumptions of identity are unsettled, and deeper ways to ground our identity can emerge. We can begin to see our life in Christ as the ground of our being, our identity.

As we are drawn deeper and deeper into relationship with one another we find that the descriptors that may catch our attention at first, those associated with ethnicity and culture, rich and capable of being explored in depth as they are, do not begin to sum up human life. Gender, sexual orientation, economic status, all these are important too. And then we begin to learn the personal histories of people, certainly conditioned and connected to all the above, but articulated in unique ways having to do with the inner life of people, their gifts and aspirations.

At some point we may come to understand, as we perceive the deepest aspirations of another person, their courage and hopefulness in the face of their own life challenges, that we are seeing Christ in that person. Christ speaks I AM from within all life, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

What Jesus, when he speaks of himself without metaphoric mediation is about is affirming the goodness of creation and the apprehension of the depth of human beings within that creation. He reminds us that we are all “offspring of the divine,” and have the divine image planted within us.

The Lambeth Conference is reminding me of the life Baptism has drawn me into and prepares me for each day. I am trying to look for Christ in each person here.”[iii]

As Christians, as the people of God, we are called not to judge who is included and who is excluded. God has already made that call and we are on the inside of God’s project of reconciliation along with everyone else. No, we are called, from within the perspective of the Christian story, “to look for Christ in each person.” Even more, as Bishop Marc has said on other occasions: “to look for the face of Christ in all of creation.”

A Guru asked his disciples how they could tell when the night had ended and the day begun.

One said, “When you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a cow or a horse.”

“No,” said the Guru.

“When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell if it is a neem tree or a mango.”

“Wrong again,” said the Guru.

“Well, then, what is it?” asked his disciples.

“When you look into the face of any man and recognize your brother in him; when you look in the face of any woman and recognize in her your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is by the sun it is still night.”[iv]

So, let there be light. Let us accept that we are loved as we are. No one needs to become or pretend to be anyone else. Let us finally see each other as God beholds us: with a Lover’s gaze. Then we can become the people we are truly meant to be. Amen.

[i] My reading of Romans is indebted to John G. Gager’s Reinventing Paul.

[ii] Episcopal Life Online at

[iii] Bishop Marc’s blog at

[iv] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations, p. 161.


Robert said...

Wow. Very powerful. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, John. Your comments are a thought-provoking, faith affirming reflection of the core of the Gospel.

Michael Patterson
Trinity, San Francisco

MikeF said...

Thank you so much, Fr. John. Beautiful and apposite, and true to the Gospel of Christ...