I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’ But what is the divine reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,
‘God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.’
And David says,
‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling-block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs for ever bent.’
In this passage Paul struggled with two ideas. As a faithful Jew he believed that God hadn’t rejected the Jewish people – the Covenant still stands. As a Christian, who had come to realise that trust in Jesus’ faithfulness is what mattered, Paul realised that simply being part of a chosen people wasn’t enough for salvation. Paul asserted that the Jewish people are still the people of God but, at the same time, held that simply being part of the Chosen People wasn’t enough.
Paul used the idea of the Remnant; after commiting genocide against pagan priests, Elijah had to flee the wrath of Queen Jezebel. Believing he was the only one left who truly worshipped God, Elijah had to be reminded that there were 7,000 others who had also held firm. From this a remnant theology grew as the prophets realised there would never be a time when the whole nation was faithful to God. Paul used this dividing the wheat from the chaff to differentiate between those, in God’s chosen people, who held firm and those who succumbed to a sluggish spirit.
Of course Paul’s insight applies to us too. Christians can have a sluggish spirit believing that church membership, even regular attendance is enough for salvation. We can serve as members, elders or ministers and believe that all will be well – but if we fail to trust in Jesus’ own faithfulness we can act as if we are, what a friend of mine calls, functional atheists. When I did my theology degree, back in the 1980s, the Church growth people forecast that the URC would die by the year 2,000 simply by plotting our decline on a graph and extrapolating. Sociologists will tell us that increased longevity has saved the URC, I hope it’s a radical trust in Jesus believing he hasn’t finished with us yet!
Lord Jesus, you were faithful, travelling to the Cross and beyond, waiting for vindication, exultation and glorification. Help us to be full of faith, faith that you haven’t finished with us, faith that our lives, words, and actions touch others with your love, that we may continue to be part of your chosen and faithful people. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston ministers in the Synod of Scotland’s Southside Cluster and co-ordinates the Daily Devotions project.