Whitewater Rafting with Paul: Reflections on Romans 9:1-5
August 3, 2014
My husband Murry and I went whitewater rafting recently. It was exciting but not too dangerous on grade 3 rapids through Brown's Canyon on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista, Colorado. The company was fittingly called "The Adventure Company." Its brochure announced that it is Colorado's only outfitter that hires guides at least in their fourth year of professional guiding to help ensure rafters' safety and enjoyment. It also mentioned the company's outstanding safety record and regularly cleaned and maintained equipment.
As we stood around on the shore, garbed in wet suits, waterproof jackets, pfd's (personal flotation devices), and rubber zip-up booties, I felt completely confident in their skills and record. I'm a good swimmer and have been rafting several times before, sometimes in grade 3+ and 4 rapids, so I had no anxieties. Still I listened politely while our raft guide Nate explained the safety rules of the trip we were going to be taking down nine and a half miles of the Arkansas River. Of course, we were to always have our pfd's snugly buckled. If we fell out of the raft, which I had no intention of doing, we were to remember to never stand up in the river. Why? Because your feet could get caught under a rock and you could be sucked into a current. We were never to try to swim against the current. It only tires you out and takes you further from the raft. What to do then if you fall out of the raft? Put your feet up and your head back and your arms out and float. Then look for the T end of the paddle the raft guide will extend to you. The guide knows not to offer you the paddle end, which is slippery and hard to grab onto. But grab the T end and let him or her pull you toward the raft. When you get to the edge of the raft, grab onto the rope that circles the raft and the guide will lift you by the straps on the shoulders of your pfd and pull you into the raft.
Our passage for today is our guide Paul's assurance that everyone about to embark on the journey will make it to the desired destination. Paul wrote to the Romans having never visited the city and without the need to counter the claims of rival missionaries. However, there seem to have been tensions in the churches there, perhaps between Jewish and Gentile believers (Rom. 14-15). The Gentile believers may have developed an arrogant attitude (11:13-24). (Bassler, 77) That may help explain the focus of the letter and especially chapters 9-11 where Paul argues that God's righteousness has been revealed to include both Jews and Gentiles in salvation (1:16-17). (Bassler, 78)
Paul doesn't know the Roman Church well but he seeks to make his anguish and compassion and zeal for the salvation of his fellow Israelites real and vivid to them. He understands that the law was God's gift to the Israelites to govern their community and help them live in keeping with the divine will by constant outward reminders of their inward faith. But clearly for him in this passage, the law can also devolve into futile striving to please God on our own by superficial observances that run counter to love of God and neighbor.
Romans 9:1-5 comes after Paul's description of life in the Spirit in Romans 8 and his eloquent statement that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Then, beginning here in chapter 9 and extending through chapter 11, Paul turns his attention to Israel, their election, their lack of enlightenment, and God's will for their ultimate salvation. It is as if they have fallen out of the raft and Paul, like a highly skilled and experienced raft guide, is determined to get them back into the vessel and safely to their landing place.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.