Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership
Hood River, Oregon
Sunday 17 August 2014
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. David D. M. King
I took a little liberty with the lectionary this morning. As you may have noticed, in the second reading each week, we’ve been working our way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We started in Romans 6 back in the middle of June, and each week since then we’ve been moving our way through the epistle. The text assigned for today was Romans 11:1-2a and 20-32. And we read all of those verses. But I added a few. The lectionary skips over some very important verses here, verses that are at the heart of Paul’s understanding of where gentiles fit into God’s plan for salvation. It also happens to be one of my favorite passages in all of the writings of Paul. It is Paul’s metaphor of the grafted tree.
Traditionally, interpreters of Romans have focused on the first eight chapters. This is where all of the good Lutheran and Methodist theology about justification by faith alone comes from. Protestant theologians love the first eight chapters. Then they typically skip over chapters 9, 10, and 11 and begin interpreting again at chapter 12. They like chapters 12 through 15, and then skip chapter 16. These traditional interpreters prefer to skip chapter 16 because in it, Paul refers to one woman as a deacon and to another woman as an apostle. And of course the traditional interpreters, Luther and Wesley included, don’t much like the idea that women could be deacons, or pastors, or bishops, or apostles. So that’s why they don’t like chapter 16.
The reason they don’t like chapters 9-11 is different, but related. It doesn’t have to do with women, but it does have to do with inclusion. The reason traditional theologians don’t like chapters 9-11 is because of the way that Paul talks about Jews. And it starts with the way Paul talks about himself. You see, Paul is very clear in Romans that he is a Jew. He says nothing anywhere about being a Christian. Paul does not self-identify as a Christian; he self-identifies as a Jew, specifically as a Pharisee.
Now, the version of events that many of us learned in Sunday School goes something like this. Saul was a Jew. He persecuted Christians. On the road to Damascus, Saul was struck blind and had an encounter with the living Jesus. Saul converted to Christianity. He stopped being a Jew and became a Christian. At the same time, Saul’s name was changed to Paul as a sign of his conversion.
Unfortunately, that is not the story that is found in the bible. The story in the bible starts out the same. Saul is a Jew and he is a persecutor of the church. He has an encounter of the living Christ on the road to Damascus. But here is where the traditional story and the biblical story diverge. According to the bible, Paul does not convert from Judaism to Christianity. Paul remains a Jew. What happens at Damascus is that Jesus commissions Paul as the apostle to the gentiles. He remains a Jew, but he begins bringing a new message to the gentiles. Through Jesus Christ, God has established a way for gentiles to become part of God’s family, part of God’s chosen, without becoming Jews and following the biblical laws about circumcision and dietary regulations. In Acts, Paul’s name does change from Saul to Paul, but it doesn’t have anything to do with his experience on the road. When he is around people who speak Aramaic, he is referred to by his Aramaic name: Saul. When he is around people who speak Greek, he is referred to by the Greek version of his name: Paul. It would be the same if someone went by the name George when they were around English speakers, but went by the name Jorge when they were around Spanish speakers. Paul does not convert. Paul is called by Jesus to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. The reason his name seems to change is only because after his call experience, he spends more time with gentiles, who speak Greek rather than Aramaic.
So you can see why this would be a problem for the traditional interpreters. They are quite committed to the idea that Paul stops being a Jew after his experience on the road. With very few exceptions, the reformers were extremely anti-semitic. Luther, for example, argued that all of the homes and synagogues of Jews should be burned to the ground and that Jews should be rounded up and pressed into forced labor, expelled from Europe, or killed. Wesley was little better, arguing that Jews were completely outside the grace of God and beyond salvation.
So it is of little wonder that traditional Protestant theology has tried to ignore chapters 9-11 of Romans and that Paul’s image of the grafted tree is ignored by the lectionary. They were under the impression that Christians are assured of salvation while Jews can only hope for salvation if they stop being Jews and became Christians. What Paul says is quite different. Paul says that Jews are the natural objects for God’s favor and that gentile Christians can only be included in God’s family because we become a kind of honorary Jew.
He says it’s like a grafted tree. The Jewish people are, always have been, and always will be God’s chosen people. Jesus was a Jew, and all of his disciples were Jews. However, Jesus resurrection has changed things a bit. Jesus death and resurrection mean that it is now time for the prophecies in Isaiah to be fulfilled. It is time for the gathering of the gentiles to God’s holy mountain. Paul is convinced that it is time for the gentiles to come to God. He has a disagreement with some of the other Jesus followers, though. They think that gentiles have to become Jews in order to follow Jesus. But Paul is convinced that the gentiles have to come to God as gentiles. If they become Jews, then they will no longer be gentiles, and Isaiah is clear that the gentiles will come and worship on God’s holy mountain.
But, this creates its own problem. How can gentiles be cleansed of sin so that they can be a part of God’s family? Jews are cleansed through the continual observance of the law and the rituals that they perform in their homes and in the temple. But gentiles have generations of sin piled up. There isn’t enough time, Paul thinks, to purge all that sin through the normal means of Torah observance. Paul is convinced that God has made a new way for the gentiles. Jesus’ death and resurrection serve as the means of cleansing the gentiles so that we can be a part of God’s family.
And the way that we become part of God’s family is like a grafted tree. The tree represents the Jewish people, God’s chosen. It is an olive tree, in Paul’s metaphor. A nice, orchard-quality olive tree that has been cultivated over many centuries. At some point, some of the branches of this nice, cultivated olive tree are broken off. It’s not 100% clear what Paul associates with the breaking off, but the most likely thing is that the branches which are broken off are those Jews who refuse to accept that gentiles are now going to be a part of God’s family. In any case, some of the branches are broken off. Then God cuts the branches off of a different variety of olive tree, a wild variety that isn’t much good for agriculture. These branches from the wild tree are gentiles. God, like a master orchardist, grafts these wild branches into the broken spots on the cultivated tree. And because it’s God doing the grafting, these grafted branches actually change in nature. They don’t become Jews, but they start producing better fruit, fruit that isn’t good-for-nothing like before.
And what we have now is a single tree that represents God’s family. The root is Judaism. That is where the tree gets all of its water and minerals. But the tree has two different kinds of branches. Some of the branches produce the old, Jewish fruit. Some of the branches produce the new, gentile fruit. Both sides of the tree produce fruit. Both sides send their sugars back down to nourish the root. But they now exist as one organism, a unity constructed from diversity.
Neither Luther nor Wesley would like it very much, but that is the family of God that Paul envisions. He might think of himself as being right at the point of grafting, the bridge from Judaism to these new gentile members of the family of God.
And Paul speaks a further warning to the gentiles. Be careful, he says. Don’t forget that you are not the root, you are the graft. If God cut someone out to make room for you, don’t you think that God could cut you out and make room for someone else? So don’t be too uppity about your place in the world. Remember that Israel is God’s chosen people, and you get to have a share of Israel’s blessing through God’s extraordinary act of grace in grafting you in.
And there is no doubt that that is an extraordinary act of grace. We, through the self-giving death and resurrection of Jesus, have been offered new life. We have been offered forgiveness of our sins. We have been adopted by God and grafted into God’s family. We have been empowered to produce good fruit for the Kingdom of God. And it is all through God’s mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ. It is all through God’s grace, offered to us without price. It is all through God’s justification of us, which God accomplishes through the faith of Jesus Christ. May we never cease being thankful for God’s act of love in including us in the plan for salvation. And may we never presume to judge who else God might choose to include. Thanks be to God, who offers a grace that we have not earned. Alleluia. Amen.