It’s surprising how up-to-date the New Testament becomes when you take out a few of the ancient words and put modern ones in their places. In chapters 9 to 11 of his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes specifically about the Jews. He is proud of his legacy of faith. He is deeply conscious of the debt that he owes to his Jewish heritage, and he rejoices that the noblest elements in that heritage have found their fulfillment in the coming of Jesus Christ.
But Paul writes with a breaking heart. Though the faith of Israel cradled the Messiah, yet Israel herself has rejected the Messiah. Passionately Paul cries out that he would make any sacrifice even to renouncing Christ, if thereby he could persuade his stubborn countrymen to believe in Christ. It must have been a great embarrassment for this first Christian missionary, himself a Jew, to travel among the alien peoples offering them a Savior whom his own people refused to accept. All the first missionaries were Jews. Faithfully they preached Christ to the Gentiles, meeting a response far beyond their wildest hopes, but when they looked back at their own country, they hung their heads in shame. Israel was not a Christian country. There were small fellowships of believing Christians among the Jews, but Israel as a nation had rejected God’s revelation in Christ.
It needs very little imagination to re-write these chapters in modern language. For the name of “Israel” we can substitute “the East.” For nearly two centuries churches in America have been exporting their religion to other parts of the world. We have sent missionaries to sow the seeds of the Gospel in South America, Asia, Africa, and the islands of the sea. We still send out missionaries, and, like the first apostles, they sometimes meet with a response beyond their wildest hopes. BUT, what an embarrassment when they look back at the country of which they are ambassadors. It is not a Christian country any more. Christian communities survive and even flourish within the nation, but as a nation we seem to have repudiated our Christian heritage.
Following Paul’s thought throughout these chapters of Romans, we begin with this fact that the nation Israel has turned its back on Christ. Then, if we look around us, it becomes quickly apparent why we can substitute the name of our own country for that of Israel. Certain factors in the religious situation in America today are too glaringly obvious to be ignored.
First, the time-honored Christian custom of Sunday observance and churchgoing. It was on Sunday morning, June 25, 1865 that Hudson Taylor, founder of the great China Inland Mission, slipped out of a crowded church in Brighton England and walked down to a deserted beach. His thoughts at the moment were far away in China. He said, “Unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security, while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out on the sands alone, in great spiritual agony.”
He and others in his profession would not find Sunday solitude on a Brighton or a California beach today. He would be more likely to find it in a church. Even 15 years ago, the Sunday crowds were in Church, leaving the beaches deserted; now Sunday crowds are on the beaches, in the mountains, on the lakes and rivers – leaving the churches deserted.
Nor can we ignore the irrational distrust with which many people seem to regard the Church and its ministry. How many books are being printed, how many news articles are being written, how many pictures are shown and stories told, presenting illusions to religion on the eccentric fringe, portraying the church in terms of its oddities, lampooning the clergy as an amusing and feeble-minded anachronism. And people laugh because they agree that the church simply is “not with it” anymore. Once it served a useful purpose, we are told, but now it no longer represents vital Christianity.
Nor can we dignify this antagonism by calling it a pro-God anti-church attitude. The majority of people reject not only Christian institutions but the Christian faith as well. A mood of skepticism, as dense and chilling as a San Francisco fog, has settled on the minds of this once-Christian country. Some of it has its source in honest intellectual doubt, but mainly it can be attributed to crass ignorance and the refusal to think and learn – intellectual laziness. A very vain man who believes that he has more than average intelligence, told me once that he could never again trust the New Testament after reading the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. “Why does the Bible give publicans such a raw deal?” he asked. “I have a nephew who keeps a tavern and he is as fine a man as you will ever want to meet.”
All of this will provoke the stock reply that we are judging the situation by the wrong standards. Our country may indeed have rejected the beliefs and forms of Christianity, but do not its teachings still influence our conduct and its values permeate our culture? Morally do we not compare very favorably with countries where everybody keeps Sunday and goes to church and reads the Bible and professes belief in God?
Such questions are beside the point. Whether we are a Christian country will have to be decided on its own merits. Does a Christian country exalt in its literature and art and amusements that which is sordid, vulgar, and profane? Does a Christian country spend more money on drink and tobacco than on essential housing? Does a Christian country spend more on war and preparations for war than on meeting needs of people in the ghettoes? Does a Christian country spend more on recreation than on churches and charities? Does a Christian country allow its economy to be threatened by men who work to the rule of self-interest? Does a Christian country produce a generation of young people who, if they are not terrorizing areas of our cities, are shrieking insanely at longhaired rock singers? So, let’s begin with the fact that, though Christian communities still survive within the nation, yet as a nation we seem to have turned our back on Jesus Christ.
Still following Paul’s thought, we now come to the fact that the Gentiles have accepted Christ. Jesus predicted that they would. He told the story of a man who invited a number of guests to dinner and, when the banquet was prepared, sent a servant to summon those who had accepted his invitation. To his chagrin, they declined to come, offering excuses that were neither sincere nor substantial. “Let them stay away,” he exploded – don’t even admit them if they come; their places will be given to the riff-raff of the streets.”
The Master’s meaning was clear – if the religious leaders of Israel proved recreant, a response might be found among that dim crowd whom the Pharisees deemed accursed. If the chosen people despised their election, the hated stranger living in far fields beyond the city might prove worthier of God’s favor. If the Jews rejected their Messiah, God would offer him the Gentiles. A spiritual vacuum cannot remain empty. God will have guests at the Kingdom banquet despite the courteous withdrawal of those first chosen.
This was exactly what had happened. Christianity began as a sect within Judea, as indeed, it should, because it emerged from the religious heritage of Israel; it brought to fulfillment 17 centuries of sacred history. Christ was a Jew. His first followers were Jews. So how natural that Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys, when they came to a city, should make straight for the local synagogue to preach the Gospel to the Jews. But invariably they found the Jews hostile and invariably they found the Gentiles responsive. It so exasperated Paul that, like the man in the parable, he exploded at these mulish children of Abraham, “It was necessary that the Word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from me, behold we turn to the Gentiles.” Before long, Christianity had become almost exclusively a religion of the Gentiles, a faith for foreigners, while the very people whom God had chosen excluded themselves from his Kingdom banquet.
We must not press too far this parallel with the modern situation. It would not be true to say that the countries to which we have sent missionaries have become more Christian in their national character than we can claim to be. In the West Indies, most of the natives go to church, but an Episcopal priest there, who recently baptized 30 babies in one service, told that 24 of them were born out of wedlock. We can say with truth, however, not only that the most vital, forward-looking and sacrificial Christianity today exists on the mission field, but also that the strongest Christian influence in the councils of the nations emanates from those very countries to which we have been sending missionaries for the past 100 years. It was not a Western politician but the Prime Minister of Samoa who addressed the United Nations in the words: “The Bible states that hope fulfilled is the tree of life… The government of my country is and shall be founded in God…”
Paul in these chapters of the Letter to the Romans takes his readers a step further. Longingly he tells them what the conversation of the Jews would mean to the world. In one sense Israel’s rejection of the Messiah has been providential because it released the missionary effort and opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. How immeasurably the Gentiles would be supported in their new faith if Israel were now to accept the Messiah!! Paul writes: “If their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!! For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”
In the simplest terms we may liken it to the influence of parents upon their children. There was a family who wanted a baby baptized, so they sent their desire in a letter to the pastor of a church nearby. Because he had not met them before, the minister called at their home and suggested that, unless they wanted the baptism to be a mockery, they should take their religion seriously, and especially their relationship with the Church more seriously. This they agreed to do. On Sunday mornings they now bundle their children off to be taught by the parents of other children, leaving father to work in the garden and mother to get on with her household duties. How long before the youngsters get wise to the hypocrisy, and rebel?? It is possible, of course, that the influence of the Church may be stronger than the indifference of the home, but think what it would mean to those children if their parents accompanied them to church and actively supported what they now simply encourage from a distance.
Let’s paint the picture on a broader canvas. A lovely West Indian girl entered a downtown church to make arrangements for her wedding. “How long have you been here?” the minister asked. She answered, “Six year.” “Haven’t you identified yourself with some church?” “No,” she replied honestly, “I haven’t been to church for a long time.” Knowing she must be typical of many immigrants, the pastor asked, “Did you go to church in the West Indies?” “Oh yes,” she replied, “I used to go three times a Sunday.” “Then why have you lost touch with the church since coming to America?” She thought for a moment, then said, “Well, one does not get very much encouragement here. At home everybody goes to church. Here no one seems to go.” The minister then asked her, “Did that surprise you?” “At first it did,” she said; “Our people think of United States as the motherland of Christianity. After all, you send your missionaries to us, and they teach us to believe in Jesus. I suppose we have an image of this country that just is not true anymore.”
That girl was speaking for our millions of spiritual children all over the world. The miracle of it is that she does not represent more than a minority of our converts to Christianity in other lands. The faith which we have given them is stronger than our own defection from that faith, and even when their image of us is shattered, they do not become disillusioned. Indeed, as one moves among the councils of the world church, and reads news of all of Christendom, one gets the distinct impression that the representatives from foreign missionary lands see themselves as the new custodians of this Gospel which God has given for the salvation of all mankind. If the efficient parents will not direct themselves to eternal values, then their backward children will speak the words of eternal life. Yet, think what it would mean to our spiritual children if we did direct ourselves to spiritual values, if we restored the image of us which they have apparently lost. Think what it would mean to the whole Christian world if there were a revival of the Christian religion in this land of faith.
Paul closes these three chapters in Romans by promising that God is able to effect such a revival. He tells the Gentiles that they are like wild branches grafted into an olive tree from which the Jews, the natural branches, have been broken off. God has performed this thing – and the God who can graft wild branches into the tree of faith certainly has the power to graft back the natural branches. We are not expecting the impossible when we pray for a revival of spiritual values among the people who have become utterly materialistic in their thinking and living. God can and does re-awaken faith and revive vital Christianity where every human factor points to its ultimate extinction.
Look back 200 years to England – the situation could not have been less favorable to a reawakening of faith. Christianity was dying of sheer spiritual paralysis and moral anemia. Deism and descended upon the country like a stagnant, poisoning atmosphere. The Gospel was discredited, and the Bible treated as a myth entirely. The Church of England rested comfortably in its ivory tower while all around it a decaying social structure swayed and tottered on the brink of a revolution as grim and ghastly as that which could come to America in coming days. Suddenly the Spirit of God touched one man. The fires of faith burned in the heart of John Wesley, and out of that one man’s spiritual awakening came a revival of religion and a passion for social reform that swept the length and breadth of the land, so that historians, whiting of England’s modern period, divide it into two parts – Before Wesley and After Wesley.
There is a story that someone found an American Negro preacher on his knees before one of Wesley’s pictures, and overheard him prying fervently, “O Lord, do it again! Do it again!!” And we say “Amen” to that prayer. Yet we know that if God does perform this miracle again, it will not be in exactly the same manner that he performed it 200 years ago. Our modern, mechanized society with its complex structure scarcely allows for the emergence of any one man with the spiritual influence of a second John Wesley. This time the re-awakening power of God will make itself felt in other ways – perhaps through the Church itself, through the councils of churches or through the younger generation growing up within the Church; perhaps through the forces and movements outside the Church, through literature and television, through social action and political action. God works in his own way. We must trust him to work and we must be ready to recognize and respond to the great new initiatives of his Spirit.
Dr. W.E. Sangster of Britain, on his last trip here some ten years ago, said, “What would a religious revival do for America? It would pay old debts; reduce sexual immorality; disinfect the theater; cut the divorce rate; reduce juvenile delinquency; lessen the prison population; improve the quality and increase the output of work; restore to the nation a high sense of integrity and destiny; it would make you invincible in the war of ideas; it would give happiness and peace to all the people.”
The coverage of his message and presence here as given by news media proved that God still has in this country his 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal. More people than we realize are deeply concerned that, in turning away from the Christian religion, we have lost the distinctive genius of our heritage and that, if ever we hope to exercise world influence again, we must restore in the eyes of the world our image as a Christian nation. We ourselves cannot restore that image, however. Only God can graft us, the natural branches, back to the tree of faith. There is no limit to what God can do for us and through us, if we offer our lives as the channels of his transforming power, fulfilling what is involved in that profession of faith in Jesus Christ that each of us made in the presence of God’s people.
O God, break through the tough barrier of apathy that we have built up against Thee by our sophistication. Level the barrier of indifference that affluence has built up. Make us humble, make us grateful to Thee, and enter our lives anew to use us as Thou wilt; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.