By Michael Fitzpatrick
Reading from Romans, 11:13-24
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.
St. Paul comes here to the culmination of a long argument about the relationship between two identities, Jewish and non-Jewish, both to each other and to the promises of God. Far from seeing the Jewish rejection of the gospel as a tragedy, St. Paul celebrates the resulting acceptance by the Gentiles in the hope that it will inspire envy in his own Jewish sisters and brothers to come to Jesus.
Next, St. Paul undercuts that human tendency for those who are Gentiles to think they have switched places with the Jews, and now they are the superior people in the eyes of God. Not so! Where there are branches “broken off,” it is not because Jewish identity has lost any value, but because of unbelief in Jesus. And where Gentiles are grafted in to the Abrahamic promise, it is not because they are suddenly the blessed identity, favored over all others, but solely because of faith in God’s faithfulness — a faith like that of Abraham. In the logic of St. Paul’s gospel, “neither circumcision or uncircumcision has any value” toward salvation, “but only faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
St. Paul further builds on this radical egalitarianism before God: he hopes that those branches that have fallen away will be grafted back in to the holy tree. The threat of loss is real, but it must always be tempered by realizing that nothing is impossible with God. As we face divisions between Christians, we should tremble in our broken fellowship, and hope and pray that all branches that have separated from the tree of Abraham’s faith will be grafted in as God’s amazing grace continues to remake this world through love.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Stanford University and a student leader for the Episcopal-Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford. Michael attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA.
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