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The Dialectical Structure of History (Romans 10:1-10)

June 27, 2010 Length: 24:01

Every summer, my brothers and sisters, in either late June or early July we listen to the first ten verses of Romans 10. This text appears near the middle of Paul's analysis of the dialectical structure of history, which is the subject of Romans 9-11.

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Every summer, my brothers and sisters, in either late June or early July we listen to the first ten verses of Romans 10. Now this text appears near the middle of Paul’s analysis of the dialectical structure of history, which is the subject of Romans 9-11.

Now Paul’s treatment of this subject, I believe, is not based on a dialectical theory of knowledge. He was not, I think, an ancient forerunner of Chalybäus. I am not at all convinced that Paul even had a theory of knowledge. And if he did have such a theory, I doubt it was Hegelian, much less Marxist. There are those who find in Paul’s letters evidence of a familiarity with stoic dialectics. Maybe. He certainly knows how to use rabbinic common sense, part of which consists in answering counter questions.

But I think Paul’s understanding of history is dialectical, but not a thing of theory. It was, on the contrary, completely empirical. He perceived it happening before his very eyes. As he preached the Gospel for nearly a decade, in the larger cities of the Mediterranean Basin, in the northeastern corner, Paul witnessed the epithetical resistance of Israel to the Christian thesis.

In town after town—Salamis, Pisidean Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Thessaloniki, Berea, Corinth, Ephesus—Paul and his missionary team brought the Gospel first to the synagogue. This was the proper and logical procedure, since the Gospel had been promised to the Jews. Since it was first promised to the Jews, it must first be preached to the Jews. The Jews, after all, were the heirs of the Patriarchs and Prophets. To them belonged the Sonship, the Glory, the Covenants, the giving of the Law, the service of God, and the Promises. As far as Paul and the other apostles could discern, the Jews were the people truly prepared to receive the Gospel, since the call of Abraham nearly 2,000 years earlier. During all that time, God had, in sundry times and in diverse manners, spoken to the Fathers by the Prophets. And yet what happened?  Paul and the others found that the more severe and determined opposition to the Gospel came from the Jews. There was a profound incompatibility between Good News and what they expected to hear.

Sometimes Paul was bewildered by this hostile response. On occasions, in fact, it angered him. Let us recall his words to the Macedonian Jews: “Your blood be on your own heads. I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 

Who can forget Paul’s comments on the subject when he wrote to the Philippians?  Let’s see what he wrote about the Jews and about circumcision: “Beware of the dogs. Beware of the evil workers. Beware of the mutilation.”  These are rough words. If the words had not been written by a Jew, one might even call them anti-Semitic.

It is one of the merits, I believe, of the Epistle to the Romans, that Paul’s thinking upon this phenomenon had recently been transformed. One thing you do not find in the Epistle to the Romans is any anger toward the Jews. During the three months he was a houseguest of Gaius in Corinth, roughly January to March of the year 58, Paul thought long and hard on this theological problem. And the Holy Spirit led him to a new understanding of it, which is embodied in the Epistle to the Romans.

Paul came to see that the historical defection of the Jews was the existential condition for the transmission of salvation to non-Jews. Suppose—all hypothetical of course—suppose the Jews had simply welcomed their Messiah. That’s an enormous hypothesis. One thing I’m kind of sure of is we wouldn’t be Christians today—only the Jews would. But that’s all guesswork. We’re not really sure what would have happened. But we know what did happen. The Gentiles became the beneficiaries of what appeared to be a debacle. This is the burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11. When some branches were lopped off of the ancient stalk of Israel, this loss became the occasion of new branches to be grafted back on. The effective universality of the Gospel was hastened by the very fact of Israel’s religion.

Indeed, let’s make this our first consideration, the first point of today’s reflections. Namely, contrary resistance is necessary to move it.

This dialectical principle is obvious in any consideration of kinetics. The sparrow’s exertions to beat its wings would avail it nothing if the air did not push back on the wings. It is the resistance of the atmosphere that permits the little bird to take flight. The bird could not fly in a vacuum.

It is the resistance of the water that allows the minnow to swim.

When the gecko scurries across the rock, this movement depends, in equal parts, on the muscular efforts of the lizard and the resisting surface of the rock.

Whence comes it then that this simple principle of kinetics, the dialectical nature of progress, is so quickly forgotten when we deal with concerns of the spirit?  How is it that we expect to ascend the mountain of the Lord without the mountain pushing back against our feet?  It is impossible, I think. I’ve never tried it, but I think it’s impossible to climb a mountain of mush. This is probably a good reason for avoiding mushy religion, by which comment I indict much of the human race.

Saint Paul’s claim that the resistance of the Gospel was necessary to the success of the Gospel, should prompt a like expectation in every aspect of the life in Christ. Progress absolutely depends on friction. Let’s make that our first consideration. That progress depends on friction.

Let our second and third considerations be centered on the defining event at the heart of this dialectic of history—the Resurrection of Christ.

Let us consider the Resurrection of Christ in the context of history, because this is what Paul does in today’s Epistle. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Future tense. “You will be saved.”  He’s saying that to them now. People who are already Christians. “You will be saved.”

Observe the fact that, for Paul, salvation is attained by faith in the Resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus was raised from the dead, it was an event in two senses, and these two senses we will adopt as points two and three in our consideration of today’s Epistle.

Normally, when I come out to do the first incensing at Matins on Sunday, I’m thinking exactly the same thought and it’s almost a compulsive thought now, because usually by the time I get out here to the front of the Royal Doors and start incensing, the congregation is singing “Wherefore, O Women Disciples”. I’m thinking about the myrrh-bearing women. And normally when I’m going around the Church, I was thinking—and this morning for sure—how the Church attempts, every Sunday at Matins, to try to recreate the excitement and the confusion of that first morning. If Matins seems a little excited and confused, it’s on purpose. I have to tell you I never thought of it when I joined the Orthodox Church, but now that I’ve been in Orthodox for 22 years, it appears to me that Sunday Matins is sufficient reason for being an Orthodox. Sunday Matins is quite adequate to explain the continued existence of Orthodoxy for 2,000 years—the morning of Pascha, Easter morning.

Let’s consider then point two. The Resurrection of Christ was an event in the objective sense of a fact, a Quid Factum, something that really happened. This objective event is historically documented by the testimony of eye witnesses—the Apostles and the Myrrh-bearing Women. For this reason, the Lord’s Resurrection is listed in the Creed with other historical events, such as the Incarnation and his death on the Cross.

The historical objectivity of these events is indicated by their specific insertion in the sequence of political history. We’re going to do that just a few minutes from now. We’re going to stand up and place the events of Salvation in a sequence of political history.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate. This expression, “under Pontius Pilate”, is a very significant, important component of the Creed. In fact if we took that out, something would really be removed from the Creed. You’re not supposed to put anything in or take anything out of the Creed. The temptation has been to put things in, until recently when lots of things are coming out. Without that expression, “under Pontius Pilate”, it’s a really different sort of Creed. This insertion embeds the content of the Gospel into the very substance of human history, including political history. Pontius Pilate was not only the Imperial Governor of Judea during a decade of Roman history, he was also an important actor in the drama of Salvation. That’s why he appears in all four of the Gospels. His name serves as a metaphor for the historical claims of the Creed. It is objective. It is a fact. We’ve been saying that to the world for 2,000 years. “He rose from the dead. He rose from the dead. Get used to it.”

Point three. The Resurrection was an event in the subjective sense that it was the conscious experience of a human being.

I’ve talked about this before in connection with many things in the life of our Lord, especially with respect to his Passion, because I am persuaded that an adequate theology of the Incarnation would insist not only that God’s Son assumed a human nature but also that he assumed a concrete human existence. The Doctrine of the Incarnation does not refer simply to a state but to a full human life—God’s own experience in human consciousness of the passage of time.

In the words of Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, in the mid-second century—I’m sorry I can’t do it in Greek because the Greek text has disappeared, we have that text only in Latin—Gloria Dei est vivens homo; visio Dei vita hominis. (The Glory of God is a living man; the vision of God is the life of a man.) That is to say the Word did not simply become human. The Word became a specific human being. That’s why Cyrus of Alexandria habitually spoke of Christ as his ex himo (one of us).

The Word assumed not only our nature, considered abstractly and in general, but the concrete historical circumstances of an individual human life. He made himself a subjective participant in human history, someone whose existence and experience were circumscribed by the limited conditions of time and space, history and geography.

During the entire time that the Epistle to the Hebrews calls “the days of his flesh”, God’s Word continued to become flesh and to dwell among us. In fact, we may go further and say that through the experience of his Passion and death, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered.

A very well-known Orthodox theologian, five or six years ago, wrote me a letter in which he challenged something I wrote in Pastoral Ponderings. It was simply a misunderstanding and sometimes I don’t express myself as clearly as some theologians might like, but I try. He said to me, “It is arguable that Jesus continued to learn to the very moment he died.”  And I wrote back and said, “That is not arguable. That’s certain. And let me go further,” I suggested, “in that he continued to learn after he died.” 

If it is true of our Lord’s Passion, if it is a fact with regard to his passage from life to death, that he learned obedience by the things which he suffered, let us also agree it is true of his passage from death to life. What did he learn by rising again?

For the first time in history, a human dead body received the surge of the resurrection. I’m not talking about the resuscitation of a corpse, which is what you had with the son of the Widow of Nain and Jairus’s daughter. I’m talking about the actual resurrection surging through human flesh. What the divine energies of the resurrection meant to a brain, to a nervous system, to the re-beating of a heart. It was a new experience. No human being had ever been raised in the sense that Jesus was raised. Just as he learned obedience by the things which he suffered, he learned victory by the experience of being raised from the dead. He passed through from the other side, passed through eternal life—what we’re all waiting for.

My biblical support for this thesis is Psalm 15—at least it’s Psalm 15 in the Orthodox Bible, it’s Psalm 16 in the Protestant and Hebrew Bibles—the great Psalm of the Resurrection. We recall that this Psalm was quoted in Saint Peter’s sermon on the morning of Pentecost. The Apostle places these words on the lips of Christ: “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand I will not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices. My flesh also shall rest in hope.” That’s the subject of another sermon down the road—the hope of Christ. “My flesh also will rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in the nether world. Neither will you permit your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the paths to life. You will make me full of joy in your presence.”

The Resurrection of Jesus, my Beloved, was the ultimate human experience. For the first time, a human brain and a human nervous system were suffused from within by the energies of the Resurrection. The whole, material universe begins to be transformed from that moment to what Paul will call “the fullness of Christ”. For the first time, a human heart pulsed with a life beyond the power of death, the pulsation of a heart which will never stop. For all eternity that heart will beat. Jesus was thereby manifest as the “firstborn from the dead” as he is called in the book of Revelation. His experience of rising from the dead, the first man to do so, is the secure promise of the glory that awaits all those who are joined to him in faith and Divine Grace. This will be the final stage of Salvation. The final stage of Salvation will come only at the end of the world. You see, even dying and going to heaven is not the last stage. It’s a rather important one, but it’s not the last stage. True Soteria—True Salvation—is found when our bodies will rise in glory.


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