Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shall We Mistake the Branch for the Root?

Homily for Proper 20, Year A
Sunday, August 17th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
-- Romans 11:29

The Revised Common Lectionary, the ecumenical table of readings from Scripture that we follow week by week has been a blessing to the Church. In adopting this lectionary, mainstream Christian denominations, such as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, The United Church, Presbyterians, and Lutherans (amongst others) are committed to a shared journey through the same weekly lessons from Scripture over a three-year cycle. Much more of the Bible is read than many of us ever covered before in our respective denominational lectionaries; and yet, there are still portions that are left unread. Such is the case with today’s reading from Romans in which we read the first verse-and-a-half of Romans chapter eleven and then skip ahead to verses twenty-nine through thirty-two. As a result the intervening verses are never read during the regular Sunday worship in churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.

Why did the framers of the lectionary leave out certain portions of Scripture? While I rejoice in the fact that we have a shared ecumenical lectionary and I encourage its use, the omission of certain portions of Scripture has continued to bother me throughout the years. I first recognized this tendency in the lectionary some years ago when I was preaching on the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Revelation, which contains a series of “blessings and woes.” The lectionary only included every other verse, the ones with the blessings, while the woes were omitted. Indeed, when one canvasses which passages from Revelation actually make the cut it becomes clear that most difficult passages have been removed and the ones that remain are the hymnic passages in which hosts gather round the throne and praise God. Several other examples could be cited.

At the time that I first encountered this editorial policy, I had the good fortune to be a staff member of the National Office of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. One of my fellow staff members had been a member of the editorial committee of the Revised Common Lectionary. I asked this person why these decisions were made and was told that some of the more difficult passages were removed because the preacher would have to spend a lot of time explaining the difficult parts of the text before they could ever get to preaching the Good News.

Well, that answer never really satisfied me. First of all, I believe that the difficult passages of Scripture are to be confronted and grappled with. Secondly, it places a low estimation on the preachers of the Church and their ability to deal with difficult passages of Scripture (You, the faithful people of the Church will, of course, be the ones ultimately to decide if this assumption is justified). And finally, given that today is one of those cases in which a significant chunk of Scripture has been edited out, I have had to spend the first third of my sermon explaining why it has been excised. Perhaps the time would have been better-spent exegeting the text rather than exegeting the rationale of the lectionary editors. To this end, I turn to today’s text from Romans, what is there and what is not.

In the eleventh chapter of Romans, Paul is wrestling with the fate of Israel, given the dawning of a new age in the Christ event. As Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, we are saved not by works of the Law but rather through God’s grace and are made righteous by faith. Now, if this is indeed the case, what is to become of those with whom the first covenant was made, namely historic Israel? Lest we think this to be either an academic or merely historical question, let us consider for an instant that this question might be very germane in this very community of Thornhill in which we live, a community in which Christian and Jew live side-by-side.

In the missing chapters Paul seeks to explain the fate of Israel. The heart of his argument is this: that because Israel rejected the Jesus as Messiah, this created an opportunity for the gentiles to receive Christ, and thus be grafted onto the tree of Israel. In Paul’s reasoning God used the tragedy of Israel’s disobedience to bring about his purpose of including all of humanity in the family of God, and not simply one nation, alone. We should also note that Paul did not create this theology ex nihilo. Rather, we know from the prophets that Israel expected the incorporation of the gentiles into their nation. Indeed, consider texts such as Isaiah 60, “The gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Thus, Paul stands within a tradition of Jewish theologizing about the incorporation of the gentiles. Furthermore, he states that God has allowed a remnant to remain faithful, presumably those who chose to follow the Christ. Indeed Paul writes to a mixed Jewish/Gentile Christian community in Rome. Now, to our modern sensibilities this may seem a distasteful notion, that only Jews who became Christians would be considered part of the true Israel, but again, Paul is consistent with his biblical tradition in which again and again, the people of Israel refuse to follow God while a remnant remains to faithfully lead the way forward to a renewed covenant relationship with God. Paul is a thoroughly Jewish theologian in this respect.

The problem to be faced in this passage by modern interpreters – the problem the framers of the lectionary wish to protect us from considering – is what is called, in technical terms, supersessionism. Supersessionism is the belief that Christianity has superceded and indeed replaced Judaism. It is a belief that Judaism is no longer a viable religion, nor an authentic way to God. It asserts that in rejecting the Jesus as the Christ, Jews have not only abandoned any hope of salvation but that God has indeed revoked his covenant with them. Is this what St. Paul is actually saying?

On one level it would appear so. In fact, he asserts that the incorporation of gentiles into Israel and the example of their faith will be the cause for those Jews not among the remnant to once again be reincorporated. Yet, this is not the end purpose of Paul’s discussion -- he is not satisfied either to pass judgment on those members of Israel who have not turned to Christ, nor is he satisfied to assert that they are cut off from God. As the lectionary editors have left out the problematic text, they have also left out a text in which Paul grapples with the very problem he presents. In response to this problem, Paul offers the image of an olive tree. Certain branches (i.e., disobedient members of Israel) have been broken off and trimmed, while the gentiles (i.e., us), a wild olive shoot, have been grafted into their place to “share in the rich root of the olive tree.” Yet he adds that while it was true that some were broken off through unbelief, we only remain through faith. We must never forget that we, too, are but branches and that we, too, may be trimmed should we mistake ourselves for a root or trunk, rather than a branch. As James Dunn, a prominent Anglican scholar of St. Paul remarks, (Dunn: Theology of St. Paul, 526) “there is no room for pride, which is the antithesis of faith, only godly fear.” Dunn goes on to point out that Paul’s metaphor is that of a single tree, not one that is cut down and replaced by another. Thus, we are grafted onto the tree of Israel and the roots are the patriarchs & prophets. This, of course, is why we do not abandon the Hebrew Scriptures but choose to read them as part of our Christian Canon of Scripture. And what is more, the Hebrew Bible continues to maintain its revelatory power as sacred Scripture for Jews of any age, and yet as Christians, reading it in the context of the Incarnation & Resurrection, Hebrew Scriptures are also Christian Scriptures that point to, and reveal the Christ.

The whole point of Paul’s metaphor of the tree is simple: Having been grafted on to the tree – shall we lord it over others? The branch does not support the tree, the root does. To this end we share in a journey with our Jewish brothers and sisters who draw life from the same root and occupy the same tree. All of us are living “between the times,” we are caught between present and future fulfillment. As Christians, we have had died and are risen with Christ and yet we wait to taste that bodily resurrection from the dead. Similarly, our Jewish brothers and sisters who have received the Law devoutly follow it, and yet also await its consummation.

As I noted earlier, the concept of the gentiles becoming incorporated into Israel was an important theme of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. But what we learn from this chapter of Romans is that the concept of Israel is more expansive than the Jews expected – the gentiles did come understand the God of Israel as their creator and Saviour – but not through the law but rather through the grace of God in Christ. The challenge is for us both to see each other as members of God’s family and as members of the house of Israel. This is a difficult task given our competing claims of exclusivity. It is difficult for both for Jews and for Christians. On the one hand, for Jews the requirement to uphold the law would seem to exclude Christians who reject the works of the Law. On the other hand, Christian claims of the exclusivity of Christ, especially given our appeal to texts such as John 14:6 (No one comes to the Father except through me), exclude those who do not come to God through the second person of the Trinity. What makes this all the more problematic is the fact that Christians and Jews have fought, slandered and abused each other (and there is blame on both sides, here), rather than seeing ourselves as children of the same God and branches on the same tree.

The challenge for us as Christians is not only to consider a broader understanding of Israel than we had previously thought (and this remains a challenge as well for our Jewish siblings), but also to remain open to the reality that perhaps there are other branches on the tree as well. Shall we be swift to condemn and mistake ourselves for a root when we are but a branch? In this metaphor of the olive tree Paul cautions us against believing that we hold a place of privilege above others in the eyes of God.

I recognize, though that this conclusion does not answer every question or hold up against every proof-text which claims either Jewish or Christian exclusivity. To this end I offer my own humble experience: As a Christian person, I have an experience of the living God in Christ. I know Christ to be my saviour and through our Scriptures, the lives of the saints, the lives of faithful Christians known to me, I know him to be the Saviour and redeemer of Christian People everywhere, and yes, even Saviour of the World. This is the point from which I must invariably begin. But I cannot speak for others or from the perspective of others, who claim as well to have an experience and relationship with the living God. Yet, shall my certainty of God’s offering in Christ prevent me from sitting down with another and seeking to understand them? And worse, shall my certainty lead me to condemn them. God forbid it, for we are all God’s children.

There is a sobering thing about what Paul is saying. He suggests that the stumbling of one branch of Israel is what brought us (the gentiles) into Israel. Shall my stumbling and lack of understanding be the thing makes room for another? I must face the reality that it may not be my faithful preaching, my zealous belief, my longing for God that allows another branch to be grafted on, but my stumbling, my mistakes, and my brokenness. The fearsome reality of God is that God can make use of my brokenness, disobedience and imperfection to bring about the fullness of his will just as easily as he can make use of my obedience and zeal, for as St. Paul says in Romans 11:32, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience that he may be merciful to all.” We are all sinners: Christians, Jews, and Muslims, what have you. If we are human then we sin. If we are human we are prone to arrogance. If we are human, we are imperfect. God alone is sovereign and perfect. But we must always remember, if we are human, God’s mercy is open to us all.

In the end, and this is indeed the part of the passage included by the editors of the lectionary, Paul opts to believe in the expansive graciousness of God. He states emphatically about God’s covenant with historic Israel, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Therefore, let us meet each other in a spirit of humility, bringing not only the fullness of our convictions and beliefs, but also a recognition of the sovereignty of God and a healthy sense of our own limitations. Let us sit together, in silence if necessary, but at least together, that God may bring about the work of reconciliation, and that the tree of Israel, which is the whole human family, may grow into fullness and beauty in the sight of God.

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways!”

Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

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