Whitewater Rafting with Paul: Reflections on Romans 9:1-5

Lectionary Reflections
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.

These brief five verses wash over the reader in a tumult of anguish. Paul states that he wishes he were the one at risk in the churning waters instead of his own people. He has tried his best. He has traveled and taught, been beaten and shipwrecked, but not everyone has accepted the good news of salvation by faith in Christ. Though Paul recognizes the value of the law, in this passage his emphasis is on the futility of striving for righteousness on the basis of one's own actions. When we try to save ourselves in the dangerous waters of life, we are swimming against the current, trying to gain a foothold in fast moving currents, ignoring the lifeline God extends to us in Christ.

In 8:18-29, Paul had just recounted God's words of promise to believers. Now the question is, if God's word of promise to Israel has failed, what confidence can be placed in these new promises? Paul's long, convoluted argument in chapters 9-11 is that God's faithfulness to Israel has not failed and that, in the fullness of time, she will also be saved (11:26).

On our raft trip we were in a raft with a delightful family from Michigan with two adventurous young boys, age eight and twelve. Also in the raft was our skilled guide Nate who knew the river like the back of his hand. We couldn't have made the journey safely without him, shouting instructions about when to row forward and when to back paddle to avoid rocks both above and below the water. Fortunately, none of us fell out of the raft, even when going through the "Pinball" or "Zoom Flume," two of the most challenging rapids of the ride.

But if we had, Nate would have known what to do—and so does Paul, a veteran raft guide wholly committed to pulling his people back into the boat before the journey becomes even more treacherous. Paul, in anguish that his own people are swimming against the current of level 6 rapids, takes hold of the only comfort he can—that of God's mercy (9:16). And he throws it out to his fellow Israelites both with a stern, tender prayer that his people will accept the T end of the paddle, the lifeline God offers in Jesus Christ the Deliverer, and allow themselves to be pulled back into the life raft.

Sources Consulted

Jouette Bassler, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts.

7/27/2014 4:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    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.
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