Last weekend, I was at the Frost family reunion in Minnedosa. This is my mother’s family. Cousins and aunts and uncles came from – well, pretty much from sea to sea and from the northernmost to the southern most parts of this continent. The oldest person was 90 and the youngest 5 months. I guess there were about 40 of us gathered there all together.
On Sunday a couple of my cousins asked if I would speak for a few minutes at the family service – another tradition of each reunion. So, since I had been working on a few thoughts already for this Sunday that seemed as if they would fit, I did. I panicked a bit when I thought about it a few minutes later – after all, my 90 year old uncle is a pastor, my cousin is a experienced linguist with Wycliff, I have older cousins who are mature Christians and probably better speakers, so there were many who were more qualified than me, but by then I had said yes and it seemed a little late to back down.
One of the common metaphors used throughout the Bible is the vine and branches, and trees and roots. People were familiar with the production of useful crops from a vineyard and olive orchard. The common people understood the comparisons and the stories told using these images would have been understood. They still are today. We have all seen growing vines and understand the concept of branches drawing their nourishment up from the roots.
Families can be described using the same metaphors and so I did last Sunday. I am fortunate to draw some of my life from a family with a legacy of deep spiritual roots. We not only have deep spiritual roots but this is a family that cherishes its historical roots and works to keep the ties current and strong between the generations. Each person at the reunion brought some gift to the others, some history and parts of their own stories that enriched others lives – including the ones grafted in as it were through marriage and friendship. There is something special about a family that produces descendants that care for each other. There is a sacredness to families and communities that by their love and care for each other bring God’s love to bear on the world. They are a healing presence in this often fragmented and disconnected world.
Our text today is from Romans 11: 1and 2a and 29 to 32.
I ask, then, has God rejected his own people, the nation of Israel? Of course not! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham and a member of the tribe of Benjamin. No, God has not rejected his own people, whom he chose from the very beginning.
29 For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn. 30 Once, you Gentiles were rebels against God, but when the people of Israel rebelled against him, God was merciful to you instead. 31 Now they are the rebels, and God’s mercy has come to you so that they, too, will share in God’s mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone.
It is hard to extract these verses from this chapter in isolation and one of the things I found interesting in reading the whole chapter was the fact that Paul goes back to a familiar idiom – a well rooted olive tree – to describe the relationship of the Gentiles to the overarching story of Gods activity in the world. The roots of the olive tree are the old stories, the old patriarchs, the old covenant God established with his chosen people.
17 But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. 18 But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root.
Speaking on a text from Romans that is so full of complex theology is a real challenge and I am the first to admit that, in spite of my reading, my theological understanding of all that this passage implies is pretty basic.
Something John Weborg said in a class he gave us this summer caught my ear and that idea has stuck there in my mind. I’ve heard the same idea repeated in different ways since then.
What Dr. Weborg said was something to the effect of “in our postmodern world where the concept of overarching truth is rejected, this testimony of Paul’s is hard to understand. Paul and the people he is speaking to are familiar with the story of the Jewish people as the chosen people of God. Paul was speaking within that context to people who were familiar with this story.”
Today, not everyone who comes to faith in Jesus is so steeped in the history of the old covenant of God with his chosen people. In Paul’s day, even the Gentiles who hung around the Jewish synagogues in Rome and came in contact with his teaching would have been grounded in the foundations of that faith. Today, people who are introduced to the Christian faith without an immersion into the story our faith arises out of, and with an aversion to claims of overarching truth on the part of any religion need to be introduced to the ancient stories of our faith. Most people, even those who have grown up in the church, are not so likely to understand their faith as part of this overarching narrative. We have adopted such an individualistic stance and in becoming so individualistic, we have less of a sense of being part of that long history of faith originating in the covenant God made with Abraham.
Paul struggles to explain to the Gentiles, and perhaps to himself, how the chosen people of Israel in their rejection of Jesus Christ remain part of this story. He needs to do this to show the consistency and faithfulness of God. After all, God promised to the people of Israel that his covenant with them would stand forever. However, what Paul sees is his own people rebelling against God in their rejection of the Lordship of Jesus.
This whole concept of God choosing to enter into a special relationship with a specific group of people is complex and sort of strange to our way of thinking. I am not really qualified to sort all of this out for you but basically this means that God acted in history to choose Israel for a unique relationship. This choice of a specific nation – actually the descendents of a specific person – Abraham – is terribly unique. No other people were chosen in this same way. This singling out was more than what we tend to think of as God’s universal activity in his creation. We, who are raised on the virtues of tolerance, and inclusiveness, find this exclusive relationship difficult to understand. What God does is often poorly understood with human logic. He is at one and the same time a familiar, intimate and personal God and a God beyond our comprehension – the great Mystery.
By this covenant with Israel God chose to become personally involved with his chosen people although he also continued to rule the history of all other peoples as well. He was really present with them in specific ways – the burning bush, the still small voice, the pillar of fire and cloud, the prophetic words – as theologian Karl Rahner says, God was “not simply there as a mystical atmosphere permeating everything” but as a definitive presence.
Then, as God enters into our human existence in Jesus, a shift begins to happen. Jesus chooses to gather believers from outside of this historical national covenant – the Gentiles. The inclusion of other nations as recipients of the redemption of God is a promise that is also long standing, was prophesied by Isaiah and sung about by the Psalmist.
So, let’s go back now and consider the gospel passage from Matthew. This is the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Within the historical context, the Canaanites were traditional enemies of the Jewish people. Apparently Jesus may have travelled to this region just because of that fact. The Jewish and Canaanite people did not mix. These people were not likely to swarm him and follow him to the same degree as the crowds in Galilee. If he needed time and quiet to teach his disciples, there was a better chance of this up around Tyre and Sidon.
But, we see the Canaanite woman – this Gentile, who is aware that he is a healer. She follows and harasses Jesus and his disciples because the daughter that she loves needs freedom from a demon that has been harassing her. If you look at this story you will notice a movement from simple recognition on the part of this woman that Jesus is a renowned healer to acceptance that Jesus is a Jewish teacher and healer and finally to the place where she kneels before him, acknowledges his Lordship and pleads for his help. Somewhere during their exchange of words, she makes it clear to Jesus that she has faith in him as God – that he can do this thing which she asks with all of her heart. She moves into a relationship of belief and faith – the same relationship we must have with Jesus to be grafted into the roots – to become a part of God’s people in this story.
If you continue reading in Matthew, it seems as if a shift is taking place in the way God is interacting with people. There had always been some Gentiles who had converted to Judaism but as the Gentiles sit and listen and respond to the message of Jesus they recognise that this teacher offers them something more than just being assimilated into Judaism. Jesus is offering them life on a new level and there is something in him that those people recognise as being The Son of God.
So, the story widens.
Paul’s hope continued to be for the redemption of his own people even though he felt that his special calling in life was to be the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” When I consider my family, how much our lives are enriched by our common history and memories, it is easier to understand this hope that Paul hangs on to.
Because we have been grafted into this plant with deep roots, we draw on an extremely rich heritage that forms the foundation for our Christian faith. Our faith did not just appear in a vacuum. God had been making himself known to his people for generations and that history now becomes ours as well. This rich heritage and the stories of God’s interaction with his people down through history teaches us about the nature of God and enriches our relationship with him.
I wonder if we really appreciate the depth of our roots in Judaism, in the patriarch’s faith and the beauty and wonder of the covenant that God established. Intellectually, we know the stories. But I think it is mostly back ground knowledge that does not often rise to the surface of our consciousness. We know the stories and we love the writings and wisdom that the Jewish religion has imparted to our Christian faith. We seem to lay claim to the ancient parts of our faith’s history as just a part of our Christianity. Maybe that is exactly how it should be – a given that we do not stop and think about. But perhaps we need to be a bit more aware that we have been grafted into this covenant relationship with God. Our relationship with God is only possible through the person of Jesus Christ who was sent “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
I do not know what God has in his plans for the rebellious descendents of the great patriarchs but I am certainly thankful that, by faith, I can be grafted into the story of God’s people. We do need to remember Paul’s warning to the Gentiles of his day not to become proud. We neither merit God’s grace due to our own goodness nor deserve it because of an ancient covenant.
So we find ourselves standing on common ground – Jew and Gentile alike. There is no longer an exclusive claim to membership in God’s Kingdom by merit of ancestry. The roots remain but the only way to become part of the tree is to be grafted in. Family ties are insufficient to keep the branches healthy. Both the branches from the wild and the tame stock must be grafted into the roots by faith. Everyone must recognise their rebellion and accept the mercy offered by God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Lets close by praying Psalm 67:
1 May God be merciful and bless us.
May his face smile with favor on us.
2 May your ways be known throughout the earth,
your saving power among people everywhere.
3 May the nations praise you, O God.
Yes, may all the nations praise you.
4 Let the whole world sing for joy,
because you govern the nations with justice
and guide the people of the whole world.
5 May the nations praise you, O God.
Yes, may all the nations praise you.
6 Then the earth will yield its harvests,
and God, our God, will richly bless us.
7 Yes, God will bless us,
and people all over the world will fear him.