When I think of this week’s lectionary text from the book of Romans, I am always reminded of the now infamous comments of former Southern Baptist Convention president Bailey Smith.
The year was 1987, and Smith was at a conference in St. Louis when he uttered the claim, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of a Jew.” Over the years, I have heard numerous references to this quote. Fortunately, I do not remember many people trying to legitimize such a claim.
Smith’s comments seem to be in direct opposition to Romans 10:12-13: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” I guess one can always perform a number of hermeneutical gymnastics to prove any theological claim, but such a scriptural statement seems fairly clear to me.
In this Epistle to the Romans, Paul strives to reconcile a divided community of Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. Rather than striving to disconnect the Christ event from the history of the Jewish people, Paul seeks to bridge these stories opening the message of the gospel for Jew and Gentile alike.
Paul seeks to emphasize the importance of belief and works as these ideas operate in conjunction with one another. One may be justified through one’s faith, but the action or work of confession brings salvation (Rom. 10:10).
On his 1982 album Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen concludes the record with a “Reason to Believe.” The song, divided into four stanzas, recounts some tough stories of pain and loss. At the end of each stanza, Springsteen sings the refrain, “At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.”
Some might hear the song as a critique against faith, but I hear it much more as an observation of the intrinsic and human quality of faith and belief — to be human is to believe. How beautiful and terrifying it is to think that our humanness contains some innate capacity to believe. While people may take this a stretch further to believe in something, Springsteen makes us stop and consider that regardless of what we believe in, we believe.
Paul certainly pushes us to believe in the resurrection and the person of Jesus Christ, but Paul also pushes us on a more basic level — to confess what we believe. For Paul, the salvific process requires belief followed by confession (Rom. 10:9-10).
Too often conversations of belief are riddled with anxiety over convincing someone to believe rightly or whether someone finds you to believe wrongly. Conversations of belief, however, enact Paul’s salvific process of belief and confession. They pull individuals into a discussion — a confession — of one of our most human qualities.
For some people in this Lenten season, Paul’s clear instructions ring as a sign of comfort and assurance — a perfectly acceptable response to the text. Others may sit and ponder a little more, asking along with Springsteen, “Lord, won’t you tell us, tell us what does it mean/that at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.”