Last fall I grafted a half dozen varieties of apples onto my apple tree. I’m a poor and inexperienced grafter, so not surprisingly only a couple of them took.
I discovered one in the spring — a stout finger of alien branch curving from a scarred knuckle of wood that, amazingly, budded and put forth three timid flowers: the promise of yellow fruit on my old red apple tree.
Paul’s image of the people of God in Romans 11 works a little like this. “If the root is holy, then the branches also are holy,” he says (11:16). The scions “share the rich root of the olive tree” (11:17).
Through Jesus, old Abraham’s trunk, 12-branched as the sons of Israel, has made room for and enlivened the diverse people of the world. Wild olive branches have been grafted in (11:17). “Those who believe are the descendants of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7).
A question opens up: What of those who belong to the promise by ethnicity but not by faith in the Messiah? Paul never fully squares that circle.
“There is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5). There is the hope that they will be grafted in again, full and vigorous (11:24). Only God knows what he will do and how he will do it. After all, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (11:35). Paul is willing to leave it at that.
Yet even in the mystery of God’s providence, Paul affirms the oneness of God’s people — Jew and Gentile together, root, trunk and branch. Human failing cannot break a God-made covenant.
“If we are faithless,” Paul writes elsewhere, “he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
Paul concludes his reasoning on this subject doxologically rather than doctrinally: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever” (11:36).
Praise God! It’s an example and a command. Let your life be so engrafted to Christ’s that all that you do is worship — living, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1). So too, exercising the gifts of God becomes a kind of praise as his people are built up (Rom. 12:6).
The weight of Paul’s argument bends us toward grace, amazement and surprise at God’s goodness in extending salvation to the whole world. God loves his children, loves even me. Perhaps that swells pride, but the truly fitting response is awe.
There were some in the Roman church who felt pride in their salvation (Rom. 11:20). And why not? They had been called and chosen and loved and saved and blessed (Rom. 1:6; Col. 3:12; Eph. 2:4; 2 Cor. 2:15; Gal. 3:9). Who wouldn’t be a little proud, maybe “boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31)? Who wouldn’t, perhaps, feel that their election was merited?
I wonder how often we soothe ourselves by thanking God we’re not like other people. We’re not abusers or bigots or jerks. Our family doesn’t deal with that kind of drama. We deserve our salvation, at least a little. It’s a deeply human impulse, but one that puts us in the company of the prideful Pharisee (Luke 18:11-12).
The apostle points instead to an unfeigned awe. Who are any of us, in our stunningly uncreative capacity to wound, that the Lord would be mindful of us (Psalm 8:4)?
Just dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). Just gone-tomorrow grass (Psalm 103:15-16). Just wild scions, lovingly chosen and aptly cleaned and grafted on with the budded promise of fruit. That’s all.
Glory be to God.
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan., and author of God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press). He blogs at DoxologyProject.com.