Tree and Branch.

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2013-09-15 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
15th September 2013
Readings: Romans 11:1-5, Romans 11:11-24

Reading 1

Romans 11:1-5

1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” 4 But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.

When I married Ed, although I was not a Christadelphian like his family, I had one big advantage with the in-laws: I’m Jewish. Christadelphians are enormously Judophile, and I think this is mostly from their reading of Romans 9-11. My summary of these chapters, which Sue Haslehurst borrowed from me in a sermon last year, is: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Christian, but it helps.”

Basically in this part of Romans, Paul is agonizing over the fact that so few of his own people, the Jews – God’s chosen people – have believed in Jesus. Has God therefore rejected the Jews? Was the whole history of Israel – God’s choosing of Abraham, the long saga of wandering, disobedience and return to God – all in vain? Can we throw away the Old Testament and all it tells us about God’s relationship with humanity?

For Paul , this was about more than whether God would save the people to whom Paul was proud of belonging. It was about whether God’s promises and gifts to God’s chosen people were temporary, to be cast aside when God came to us in Jesus. Was the Jesus event a radical break with the law of Israel, or a fulfillment of it, as Jesus himself presented it? And the implication is, if God can suspend or break the promises to the Jews, why would God’s promises to the world in Jesus be any more permanent?

Paul’s first answer, in chapter 9, is to emphasise the lasting value of all that the story of Israel stands for:

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.” (9:4-5)

In other words, without the history of God’s chosen people, it’s impossible to understand who Jesus is, or what his life, death and resurrection mean. He is the fulfillment of all the history of the Israelites pointed towards. And of course, if you threw away the Old Testament, Jesus himself would have no scriptures; neither would Paul or any of his contemporaries.

So now in chapter 11, Paul returns to the significance of the Jews as the chosen people, using the common Old Testament idea of “the remnant”. This is a small group who remain faithful to God when the rest of God’s people turn away from justice and God’s way of peace, and when – to put it in OT terms – God punishes them with conquest, deportation and exile. It’s a concept that can easily be misused by Christians, to say “we are the faithful remnant and all the other churches – or the church we split from – are apostate, betrayers of God. I’m sure it’s been used this way by Mennonites and Anabaptists many times in history.

I don’t think however that Paul is using it this way, to prove the righteousness of the particular group around him. Rather, he is using it to make sense of the fact that, apart from a small and vulnerable group, the Jews have by and large rejected the one who claimed to be their Messiah. The Gentiles, on the other hand, have unexpectedly proved enthusiastic about the man who comes from a tradition that they don’t even own as theirs. What on earth is God doing? Clearly God is only saving a remnant of the Jews.

Well, what significance does any of this have for us today, unless, like me, you’re Jewish? It’s all very well for me to think of myself as having some advantage, being in some sense “twice chosen”. But that doesn’t help anyone else, and I doubt if it’s anything more than me giving myself a spiritual boost. What about the rest of you?

Fortunately Paul goes on to address this very issue further on in chapter 11, with another biblical metaphor. So let’s hear the second reading now:

Reading 2

Romans 11:11-24

11 So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14 in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!….

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you….

23 And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree?

The metaphor of the olive tree, or sometimes the fig tree, is a common one in both Old and New Testaments for the people of God. A tree is no use unless it bears fruit for the farmer to sell or eat; but if your tree is not bearing fruit, one possible option is to graft in a branch from a tree which has borne fruit. (I hope I’m right here, but I’m no horticulturist – maybe it’s the other way around and you graft in a non-fruit bearing branch to a tree which does bear fruit.) Either way, a grafted branch will not grow and flourish unless its connection to the root is secure and it’s receiving nutrition from the ground via the roots and trunk.

So the point Paul is making, is that the Jews are the root, and without connection to their history, the Gentile church will be stunted and inadequate. I personally think, and I may have a personal bias here, that one of the greatest tragedies of the church’s history is the fact that it lost touch with its Jewish roots quite early on in its life. We lost an earthy, everyday version of faith which dealt in practicalities and had a positive attitude to the body and to creation. This opened the way to an abstract, intellectual faith focused on the afterlife rather than this life in which God’s place us. We also lost much of the connection between faith and active righteousness, what Alan Kreider calls Social Holiness. This was especially true after the Protestant reformation and Luther’s version of what it meant to be saved by faith alone, which in some ways was disastrous for a rounded biblical understanding of the relationship between faith and action. It’s Anabaptism’s recovery of that vital link that is one of the things that first attracted me to the Mennonite way.

For Gentiles, then, the point of Jewish history is that without our Jewish forefathers (and foremothers) , we become spiritual and theological orphans. And to borrow from John 15 and mix the metaphor a bit, any branch that tries to survive separately from the vine will wither and be thrown on the fire.

Paul’s image of the olive tree contains a warning as well as a promise: the Gentiles may have come to Jesus, as he says in the first passage we heard, in order to make the Jews jealous enough to come to him too; but the faith of the Gentiles is radically dependent on that of the Jews, and they should beware of severing that connection. That’s the threat; and the promise is, if the Jews are made jealous enough to want to be “grafted back in” through Jesus, anything could happen.

Now my Christadelphian in-laws, and many other millennialist Christians, would read all this as a programme for the end times. It goes like this: the Jews have remained stubborn in their rejection of Jesus, but in the last days, they will come to follow Jesus en masse, and then Jesus will return in glory and the whole “new heaven and new earth” scenario will start to unfold. In their thought, the resettlement of Palestine by the Jews – and the founding of the state of Israel – are all part of this plan and indicate that all the prophecies are coming true in our time. As a result of which, they like to plant a lot of trees in Israel but aren’t very sympathetic to the rights of the Palestinians.

I believe Christadelphian theology has got quite a lot of things right, but you might guess that this isn’t in my view one of them. If Jesus said that even he didn’t know the day and hour, who are we to know better? The most certain thing you can say about any person or group who says “The end is nigh”, is that they will be proved wrong by history. And that includes the contemporaries of Jesus and of Paul. Some would say it even includes Jesus himself, but I don’t have time and space to go into that now.

Instead, I’d like to think about what it might mean to Gentiles, that Paul expects the Jews eventually to follow Jesus. And to do that, I’m going to home in on one word that the NRSV translation uses in that second reading. It comes in verse 12, the second verse of our extract:

“Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”

“Their full inclusion” – that is, the full inclusion of the Jews in the Kingdom of God. As a person who struggles with what it means to be a Jew in the church, I love that phrase. Of course the world “inclusion” only occurs in some translations, and I don’t know enough Greek to explore the meaning of the original. But looking at several translations, I get the impression that the core meaning is about gathering people in, making one people out of two – as Ephesians 2:14 puts it, breaking down the dividing wall.

In my experience, evangelical preachers love to talk about “the exclusive claims of Christ”. I do know what they’re trying to say. If you take seriously Jesus’ statements like “I and the Father are one”, or “No one comes to the Father except through me” then they automatically exclude some other possibilities. Possibilities such as “I’m just another prophet” or “a good man” or “a spiritual teacher”, though Jesus is all those things as well. “Jesus is Lord” automatically excludes the counter-statement “Caesar is Lord”, though many Christians seem to have forgotten this and wedded Jesus to their national flag. As C S Lewis puts it, Jesus could not have said the things he did without being either mad or bad – unless they were true.

But I still have a problem with that word “exclusive”. Because it’s only a small step from “exclusive claims” to an exclusive church, a church which excludes anyone who has doubts or questions or discomfort with those claims. Or indeed anyone who doesn’t agree that those claims automatically lead to a particular political or ethical agenda. For a long time I’ve wanted to balance that talk of “exclusive claims” with talk about “the inclusive call of Jesus.” Because in the Gospels, Jesus’ call clearly focused particularly on exactly the kind of people society excluded.

So I’m happy that Paul, or some of his translators, uses the word “inclusion” here. I think he’s affirming that God has an inclusive mindset. Indeed it’s that mindset that has, first through Peter and then through Paul, allowed Gentiles to be included in the heritage of the Jews, to be grafted in to that very important root. If God didn’t have that inclusive mindset, in fact, I would be standing here as the only true Christian in this congregation, and the rest of you wouldn’t qualify.

It is not God’s desire or plan to exclude anybody who wants to be included. As 2 Peter 3:9 puts it, “God is not willing that any should perish” – and though some people would drop 2 Peter from the Bible, I think it’s worth keeping just for that verse. But even if we didn’t have that, it’s extraordinary how often the New Testament uses the word “all” in relation to God’s purposes. Look for instance at Colossians 1, from verse 15 on:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

It’s extraordinary how in practice we have changed “all things” to “some people”. We’ve thought and taught as though what Colossians says is “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself some people”. But God’s Kingdom project is much bigger than that.

So to sum up, I think the most important thing Paul is doing in this chapter is not setting out a timetable for the last days. It’s not about how the conversion of the Jews leads to the parousia and the millennium, so we can have lots of arguments about whether we should be pre-millennialist, post-millennialist, or a-millenialist – and if you don’t know what all this means, you’re not actually missing that much. Because the central thing Paul is saying here is that God’s will is to gather all people – Jew or Gentile, man or woman, gay or straight – into God’s kingdom of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. And the only way to respond to that is to give you another excerpt, from the end of Romans 11, beginning at verse 33:

33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him,
To receive a gift in return?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

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