All Roads Lead to Rome

The 5th installment in my sermon series…though actually, it culminates the theological message. Enjoy the text, or download the audio here!

This last week at Bible study, after we were done reading Chapter 7, we turned for a few moments to the scripture I am going to read in a moment, from Chapter 11, in which Paul jumps into an exposition using the image of an olive tree with branches being grafted on to it to describe the inclusion of Gentiles into the Covenant originally made between God and Israel.

I think I’ve said this before, but I don’t have a whole lot of agricultural knowledge. I don’t have a lot of experience growing stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown stuff before, including a giant pumpkin when I was 13 in our backyard, and just this week I harvested the first of some sage off of a plant on my porch. It was a pretty exciting moment when I took the tiny scissors and cut off the small amount of leaves that had gathered over time.

Thursday became another learning moment for me. As soon as I finished reading the passage, Michelle Branson mentioned that the passage sounded a lot like actual grafting, which takes pieces from multiple plants and puts them together to grow as one plant. It leads, she explained to stronger plants. It’s like mixing animal DNA, and how dogs from mixed backgrounds don’t have some of the health problems pure breads develop over time.

It was great that Michelle brought all of this up, not only because I didn’t know it; it also gets exactly at the point Paul is going to make today, which is the point that Paul has been leading up to this entire letter: the kingdom of God will involve bringing all of the nations into one community, which will require that folks give up their need to be right, and quire signs of faith which unite humanity behind the promises of God.

What Paul is telling the Church in Rome is that they are to be one community, formed out of many communities. And they are supposed to do this through faith in Jesus Christ.

Listen now to our scripture for today:

13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14in order to make my own people* jealous, and thus save some of them. 15For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! 16If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

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, 18do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ 20That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.* 22Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23And 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. 24For 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.

25 So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters,* I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,

‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;

he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’

27 ‘And this is my covenant with them,

when I take away their sins.’

28As regards the gospel they are enemies of God* for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; 29for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now* receive mercy. 32For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all

Paul turns to the Olive Tree to describe what he’s been up to this entire time. As we’ve gone through Romans, we know that everything is different. We know that Paul has had a radical change. We know that faith has become law, that grace has removed obligation to the old way of doing things. We know that God is doing something new, not just in Paul, but in the world. We know that things are changing.

And Paul turns to the Olive Tree. The symbol of peace and victory. What the dove brings back to Noah on the ark.

Paul turns to the Olive Tree to explain things.

We know from what I said earlier that grafting branches onto an existing plant makes it stronger. And in gardening, sometimes you have to cut off the branches that aren’t producing life anymore. And so Paul see’s, in these two communities, in Jews and Gentiles that there is some grafting that needs to be done.

This, it seems, is the work that Paul see’s happening in Christ: that there would be, separate from the world of privileges and power, separate from the world of despair and death, a place where worth, where life, where the power to live is not contingent on your place in life, and it’s not contingent on where you’re from, and it’s not contingent of what you’ve done in the past, right or wrong; this is a community that comes from a fallen creation, a fallen, sinful world in which all have fallen short, but in which all are reconciled, like branches being grafted on to an olive tree, by the redeeming work of Christ.

These are two distinct groups. This is divided creation. Fallen humanity. Different groups of people, vying for their own interests, holding their accomplishments, their identities against each other. You can almost hear the echoes of Babylon’s tower to heaven, and the scattering of the nations. One conquers and occupies the other. Once claims moral superiority.

And so when the churches form, the Jews try to enforce the law, and Paul has to explain why that’s not necessary, and then the gentiles try to hold their new privileged status, because after all so much of this is about how they are welcome, which might make them feel superior for being the guest’s of honor, or something. And Paul, again says, knock it off.

Because this isn’t about your accomplishments. And it’s not about who you are, or about where you’re from, or what you’ve done.

It’s about God, working to save creation through Jesus Christ.

And because of that work, these two groups of people, separated by class, separated by status in the empire, separated by ethnicity, but traditions, by histories, by accomplishments, are being grafted into one community.

Let’s try to give some life to this image, to this dream of a community where distinctions fall, where all have been set equal, where none of the old baggage remains:

Shane Claiborne, a young evangelical activist, has this quote in his book “The irresistible Revolution,” in which he try’s to respond to a common Christian stance on poverty.

Some Churches, he explains, use Jesus statement that “The Poor Will Always be With You,” to say that it’s ok to go and feed the hungry, to volunteer sometimes, but there will always be poverty, so why should we work to try to solve it?

Claiborne’s response is not simply that we should do more, but rather to take Jesus at his word: “If the Poor will always be with you, then where are they?”

Claiborne and some of his friends took this pretty seriously. They started “The Simple Way,” an intentional community in Philadelphia that attempts to live in community with the poor, providing services and pioneering ideas to help those struggling to get by not by visiting as outsiders, but by submitting to the culture of the community itself. They have given up their own sense of place in life in exchange for a chance at a community in which “The Poor” might not be so different, so helpless, so “over there.” Rather, their community has sought to bring together diverse groups of people. It’s required giving something up.

Another story that gives life to this image of forming new community comes from a story John Fife has told about life in the Southern Arizona Desert. After hearing year after year of migrant deaths in the Arizona desert, a group of committed church leaders and volunteers created the No More Deaths.

Each summer, volunteers and coordinators spend the hottest months in the summer, hiking trails known to lead migrants through the seemingly endless desert. Their mission is not to assist anyone is crossing; rather, they recognized that no matter where you’ve come from, what you’ve done, or are doing, you deserve humane treatment. And so the groups hike with plenty of water, food, and medical personel, seeking to assist those who have lost their way, have run out of water, are in danger of dying in the hot sun.

John’s story begins on one of these hikes. As his group of maybe a dozen volunteers wanders the trails, they see ahead of them, maybe 50 feet or so, a group of migrants, who, as soon as they notice the group turn and start quickly running the other direction. One person in the No More Deaths group starts shouting “tenemos Agua! Tenemos Comida,” we have water, we have food.

The group of migrants stops, turning towards the No More Deaths delegation, and as they move forward, one of their members shouts “No tenemos Muchos, pero podemos compartir.” We don’t have much, but we can share.

Who’s out to help who?

It’s easy to think we’re put here to share what we have with those that don’t have as much. And there’s some truth to that. But it’s more than that; we’re invited to join in community with those whom are different than us. If Paul was describing it, he might say that we’re two different communities, with our own histories, with our own faults and problems and accomplishments. And yet, both groups are loved. We become one because of the work of Christ, and the effect it’s had on our lives.

There’s obviously more to this Olive Tree metaphor that anyone could ever explain in any series of sermons. Yet, I want to take it in two more directions related to what we’re talking about before we wrap up this morning.

First, part of the major shift in Paul that we haven’t touched on until this moment is that among the things that change for Paul is his sense of who this work is for.

Paul, after all, was really good at following the law. He was really good at making sure his own branch was as good as it could be. When he meets Jesus, however, this changes, and he realizes something: it’s not about him. It is, rather, about the community, about the “we” God is calling into creation.

It is not about you, and it’s not about me, and it’s not about those people we’ve never met. It’s about all of us, coming together to be one community. One people in Christ.

And the second way the Olive Tree metaphor is speaking to us this week is that if this is going to work, if the kingdom of God is going to reign on Earth, then everyone is going to have to give up their sense of being right against someone else’s wrong. We may have to “prune” our own branches. The story is not that we all did so well together that we got it all right. That everything worked out because each of us did what we were supposed to do. The story is that all, Jew and Gentile, sinned, fell short, couldn’t fulfill the law. That each of us, before God, does not have the ability to boast.

What, then, do we have to give up? What sense of right and wrong? What sense of superiority? What do we have to give up to be in community with those who are from a different than we are?

And more, and this is what Paul is talking about, this is why All Roads Lead to Rome: how are we forming a community that loves regardless of what the world says? Because Rome, as we heard in our first Sermon in this series, preaches good news that is only for some people. Paul has discovered the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is for all people.

Paul has to write to Rome, even though it’s not his congregation, because everything is about that; everything is about the powers, the media images, the temple ceremonies, the politicians with their agendas, telling people that they are not good enough, telling people that if they were like certain people, everything would be ok. This is not the Gospel; this is not the Good News

As we have made our way through Romans, we’ve heard a little bit of what Paul is up to. We’ve read about the work that is happening in his world, and how he, and the people of the way are responding to the changes.

How are we going to respond to this call? How are we going to work towards creating communities that celebrate diversity, that seek community where there is none now?

As we leave this place every week, we enter a world which is divided. If we are going to faithfully respond to the work of Christ in our world, how are we going to reach out to those who are different than us, to those who are not here now? How are we going to become one community, united in Christ, serving the kingdom of God?

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