Topic: Biblical Verse: Romans 11:1-2a–11:13-32
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 16-17, 2014
Romans 11:1-2a, 13-24, 28-32
“Christians in the Capital: Grafted Branches”
It’s the middle of August and the plants we set out last spring are now bearing fruit: tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, just to name a few. Nothing beats a home-grown, vine-ripened tomato, does it? Whether you’re a gardener or not, there is a gardening or horticultural technique widely used called grafting. What’s involved here is taking two separate plants and bringing them together. One plant is chosen for its roots, and that plant is called the rootstock. The other plant is chosen for its stems, leaves, flowers or fruit, and that plant is called the scion (like the car). It’s this plant, the scion, that contains the desired genes for future plant production – like tomatoes, peppers, or summer squash. This process of grafting brings together the best of both worlds to bring about the best plants: hardy rootstock joined together with the scion for beautiful and bountiful leaves, flowers and fruit. Grafting can take place by joining a stem onto the root itself, or by joining a dormant side bud onto the stem of another stock plant. It is this image of grafting that is before us in today’s Epistle lesson as our summer preaching series, “Christians in the Capital,” continues. The theme of today’s message is “Grafted Branches.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11 are devoted to the question of election; that is, who is to be saved, and whom does God choose, or elect, to salvation? The vexing problem here was and still is the wide-spread rejection by God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, of that blood-bought salvation in Jesus, the promised Messiah. Remember that Paul himself is one of those children of Israel. He is a Hebrew by birth, as he writes at the beginning of our Epistle lesson: “For I myself am an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1; see Philippians 3:5). The question is this: has God rejected his chosen people, Israel, and moved on to a new people, the Gentiles? Is God’s Word of promise that He made to Abraham and his descendants now null and void? In our own thinking, we view Judaism as totally separate and distinct from Christianity; there are Jews and there are Christians. But we must never forget that our Christian roots are solidly within Judaism. In Paul’s missionary journeys he often began in a new city by going first to the synagogue and preaching the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to God’s chosen people (Acts 13:5, 13ff.; 14:1ff.; 17:1ff., etc.). They are the first branches from the rootstock of God’s mercy and grace. They were chosen by the Lord God not because of anything in them, but simply because Lord set his love on them and kept his promise to Abraham and his children (Deuteronomy 7:6).
In any kind of horticultural or gardening work, pruning is a necessity. Unproductive growth needs to be trimmed back so that the plant grows and produces in the best way possible. Within the world of Middle Eastern olive production, there is an ancient practice of invigorating an olive tree by grafting in branches from a wild tree. These are very slow growing trees, maturing over thirty years. Pruning and grafting enable a tree to produce fruit for centuries, even millennia. This is what Paul speaks of here: that original branches were broken off that rootstock of God’s mercy and grace. Although they were original branches, they were removed – pruned and trimmed back – because of their unbelief (Romans 11:19). The cultured olive tree represents Israel, God’s chosen people and heirs of the promise to Abraham and his descendants. The wild olive tree represents the Gentiles, and that’s us. By God’s grace, we have been grafted into that rootstock of the Lord’s mercy and favor. But don’t get cocky! Paul issues a stern warning to remind his Gentile hearers then and now: “So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:20b-22). Bottom line: we have no room to get smug or arrogant in our standing with the Lord. It is only by his grace that we stand at all.
And the purpose of all this grafting? It is to bring about faith because the experience of both Jews and Gentiles are parallel. Both have received mercy in the face of disobedience. Because of Israel’s disobedience, undeserving Gentiles have received mercy. And because of mercy to the Gentiles, disobedient sons and daughters of Abraham will receive mercy. All people – Jews and Gentiles – are imprisoned in their disobedience with no possibility of escape unless God in his mercy releases them. And God has done this by sending his own Son, a descendent of Abraham, born into the world to bring life and salvation to all. Jesus is that promised seed of Abraham who has come to set us free from sin and disobedience. He came to live that perfect life of obedience that we could never do, and he came to die the death we rightly deserved because of our disobedience. All that Jesus has done – his life of service and willing obedience to the Father’s will, his innocent suffering and death upon the cross – all this he now freely gives to everyone who looks to him in faith. This is the mystery of God’s plan of salvation: that everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord and turns to him with repentance will be saved. This is what we heard in the Gospel lesson with the Gentile Canaanite woman, an outsider to Israel, who in faith clung to Jesus for help. Her simple request becomes our own prayer: “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25). And the Lord who answered that cry for help answers our cry for help today. All who cry out to Jesus in humble and trusting faith are grafted into him who is the rootstock of God’s mercy and grace; who is the true Vine, and we become his branches (John 15:1-17). May our lives bear fruit for him. Amen.