(Romans 11: 1-15)
Groucho Marx once quipped: “I wouldn’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member.” Membership has its advantages. It can be inclusive and exclusive. When I thought about membership I thought back on some of my past and present memberships. I’ve been a member of the Texas and Washington State Bar, I’ve been a member of the Houston Police Patrolman’s Union, a member of the Smith County Bar Association, a member of the United Methodist Church and a member of Costco and I have a card to prove it. The memberships conveyed certain benefits like the ability to practice law, collective bargaining, the fellowship of believers, and the ability to buy in bulk. The State Bars of Texas and Washington required several years of law school and passing their respective bar exams. The police department required a 17-week academy and a one-year probationary period. The Methodists and Costco aren’t nearly as selective. However, Costco does require an annual membership fee. Comparatively speaking, being a Methodist is a pretty good bargain. All that is required of us, and other Christians, is that we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and, believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, and we will be saved. No schooling, no tests, no oaths, no background checks, no polygraph, no dues, or photo identification required.
So how do you know if you’ve been chosen by God to be a member of His family? How do you know if you are one of God’s elect? That’s the question the Apostle Paul is trying to answer in our scripture reading for today. His audience knows that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified by the Roman government at the insistence Jewish authorities because they had rejected the long-awaited Messiah. Rhetorically, Paul asks, Does this mean, then, that God is so fed up with Israel that he’ll have nothing more to do with them? Paul pauses for effect and then says, Hardly. Remember that I, the one writing these things, am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham out of the tribe of Benjamin. You can’t get much more Semitic than that! Paul explains that they aren’t talking about repudiation. He reasons that God has been too long involved with Israel and has too much invested in them to simply wash his hands. He points out that there is a fiercely loyal minority that is still holding on, not because of what they think they’re going to get out of it, but because they’re convinced of God’s grace and purpose in choosing them.
Paul was the apostle God sent to the Gentiles to spread the gospel. He felt that if the Jews saw what he was doing, and they became jealous over the Gentiles’ relationship with their God, it might just cause them to come to Christ. Paul identifies a remnant of the people who have not bowed down to Baal, a remnant that still worships the God of Israel, they just need to know Christ. That’s the point! They need to know Christ. It’s not by works or through the strict adherence to the laws of Moses. It’s by the grace of God.
So how do you know? What do you have to do to become one of the elect? That’s the question our Sunday morning Learning Circle has struggled with for the last two weeks. We understand when someone gives us a birthday gift or a gift for Christmas that the giving is done out of love. But when someone gives us a gift for no apparent reason, we become suspicious. There must be some strings attached. There will certainly come a time when you’ll be reminded of the reason for the free-gift. Not so with the free-gift of salvation. It’s free. All you have to do is confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that He was raised from the dead by God. Our salvation is by the grace of God. So why do people still think they have to earn God’s grace? Do they think that if they do all sorts of good things, that point to what a good person they are, that God will want to convey membership to them? Do they think that if they do all these great, humanity enhancing projects that God will feel indebted to them? Why are some people open to the Good News while others are so closed off? It may be that coming to Christ is a leap of faith that requires a change in focus, from self to God and others. Others don’t want to change. They want the focus of their lives to remain on them. Most of what they do is for them and those people within their orbit.
The label, God’s Chosen People, may seem off-putting to some people. It’s like we’re special and better than everyone else. They’re not a member of our elite club. They haven’t been asked and have no intention of joining anyway. Being a member of this club may require them to give up some of the things they really enjoy. But, the fact that God has chosen some to be saved does not mean that He has chosen the rest to be lost. God’s sovereignty is never exercised in condemning people who ought to be saved, but rather it has resulted in the salvation of people who ought to be lost. The only way we can know if we are among the elect is by trusting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As Paul told the believers of the Thessalonian church, Brothers and sisters, you are loved by God, and we know that he has chosen you. We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know as well as we do what kind of people we were when we were with you, which was for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord when you accepted the message that came from the Holy Spirit with joy in spite of great suffering. The real question of a believer is not, does the sovereign God have the right to choose people to be saved? Rather, it is, why did God choose me?
What hope does God offer to all people? How do you know if you are among the elect? These are questions you might get asked by someone whose life is in turmoil and they are turning to you for help because they know you’re a Christian. You have to be ready to answer. The best answer is your story. What it meant to you when God chose you and you accepted his invitation. You might tell them that you obtained a peace of mind, security, hope and a future. You might tell them that you came to realize a life with a purpose, one that is not self-centered but focused on God and love of neighbor. You can tell them that you were saved through faith in Christ and not because you were part of a nation, a religion, or a particular family. You can tell them that you weren’t anything special when God reached out his hand and you took it.
Paul had a vision of a church where all Jewish and Gentile believers would be united in their love of God and in obedience to Christ. While respecting God’s law, this ideal church would look to Christ alone for salvation. A person’s ethnic background and social status would be irrelevant, what mattered would be his or her faith in Christ.
So, yes, Groucho, I want to belong to an organization that will have people like me. People who are human and not afraid to admit it. People who make mistakes, acknowledge their mistakes and then try to learn from them. People who seek forgiveness and also forgive others. People who don’t see the differences that divide us, but people who see the common ground that unites us. People who proclaim with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead to bring salvation to all who seek him. Yes, I want to be a member of the family of God, a brother or sister of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and the Light of the World.
Please pray with me.
O Sovereign God, you are beyond our understanding. Your ways are perfect, and your unlimited mercy astounds us. Thank you for calling us to yourself and claiming us for your own. Teach us to trust you more, to love you deeply, and to turn to you in humility every day. Amen.