From Our Archive
For Sunday August 20, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Genesis 45:1-15 or Isaiah 56:1,6-8
Psalm 133 or Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
This Week's Essay
St. Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome wrestles with the status and fate of both the covenant Jewish people and all non-Jews who have accepted Christ, in light of the God of Abraham raising Jesus from the dead. Most of us, if we are familiar with this particular letter, read Romans 8 as the conclusion of Paul’s argument. We then jump to Romans 12 to learn about Christian living, skipping over those confusing chapters in between.
That is a mistake. Romans 11 is the crown jewel of St. Paul’s magisterial letter, the monumental conclusion to Paul’s argument. Romans 1–11 is Paul’s case for the Good News that God has mercy on all, so that Romans 12–16 shows how this radical new reality changes the way we live our daily lives. The whole first half seeks to make good on Paul’s opening claim, “I am not ashamed of this good story, for to all who trust in its message it has Creator’s power to set free and make whole. This is true, first for our Tribal People, and then to all the Outside Nations!” (First Nations translation, here and following).
Paul was confronting a very difficult problem in his context: Jesus was the Jewish Messiah fulfilling the Jewish scriptures, yet many church communities around the Mediterranean, such as the one in Rome, were made up predominantly of non-Jewish converts. Many of the young Christ-followers wondered what this meant. Does the failure of non-Jews to follow the Torah law mean that only Jews can be baptized into life with Jesus? Or does the success of the Gospel in converting non-Jews mean God has abandoned the covenant with the Jewish people for their widespread rejection of Jesus?
Or to put it in contemporary terms, does God’s mercy really extend to everyone, or are there some of us who are beyond recovery? Is it possible for us to so violate fellowship with God that there is no means by which God can heal the relationship and restore us back to that fellowship?
I want to share brief passages from three theologians who, despite their very different temperaments and theological persuasions, all contend that God wills to save whomever can be saved.
The first passage comes from Francis J. Hall, an Episcopalian Anglo-Catholic theologian writing in the advent of the 20th century. In his book on The Being and Attributes of God, he writes,
The love of God for sinners remains because, and in so far as, the possibility of recovery to holiness and divine fellowship remains.
The second comes from C. S. Lewis, who insists several times in his novel The Great Divorce that while death must precede resurrection, anything that can be raised will be raised.
Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death… Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured… If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear.
The last comes from Rowan Williams, in his marvelous little book introducing the Christian faith, Tokens of Trust. In a passage on forgiveness, he writes,
To say, as we do in the Apostles’ Creed, that we believe in the forgiveness of sins is to claim, not that offences don’t matter, nor that things can easily be made all right again, but simply that even the worst of our failures cannot shut a door for God. Failure and hurt can be reclaimed, not by us but by God…
Together they forward the theological principle that God wills to redeem everyone who can be redeemed. Yet for all the beauty of this promise, behind it lurks an unsettling implication — that some of us are beyond the pale, past the point of no return, and not even God can find a way to bring everyone home.
C. S. Lewis’ worries aloud about this terrifying possibility,
But ye’ll have had experiences … it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.
We end up so perverting our own soul that the moral distance between us and our wicked feelings and desires disappears, until there is no us left, no self to be rescued from the wickedness, just a stew of resentment and cruelty where once a person bodied forth. Is such a fate possible?
Or is there no hole so dark and deep where we can hide from the liberating and ransoming love of God in Christ?
The answer depends on who our Redeemer is. If God cannot heal us unless we first desire healing, then our desires could become so twisted we’d never submit to Christ’s cure.
However, what if God raises the dead? After all, there is no us left in a corpse! And yet that is precisely the testament of the empty tomb, that the Father of Jesus “is not the Great Spirit of the dead but of the living” (Matt. 22.32b). On the Cross, Jesus conquered Sin and Death, so that “Death no longer has the power to rule over him” (Rom. 6.9). Is there any limit to who can be saved by this God?
St. Paul faces these questions on behalf of his own people. He asks,
Have our Tribal People then stumbled with no way to get back up again? I tell you they have not! Creator knew ahead of time that they would fail, and he knew their failure would open the way for the people of all Nations to be set free and made whole. One reason the Great Spirit did this was to make the tribes of Wrestles with Creator (Israel) jealous by giving the people from the Outside Nations equal standing in his eyes. But if the failure and loss of our tribal members brings such great blessings to the nations of this world, how much greater these blessings will be when they fully become the people he created them to be! (Rom. 11.11–12)
If the rejection of Jesus by some of Paul’s fellow Jews blessed the world, then how much greater will the blessing be when they are themselves restored! Paul explains his confidence that they have not stumbled with no way to get back up again.
Think about it this way. If the turning away of our Tribal Members from the Great Spirit means that he then turned toward the rest of the world, to bring them back to himself, then what will it mean when our Tribal Members turn back to welcome him? It can only mean that they have come back to life from the dead! (v. 15)
The Great Spirit raises the dead! Just as Jesus was raised, so all those outside the covenant people can be raised, so all those of the covenant can be raised.
Paul’s confidence that nothing lies outside the saving scope of Christ’s death and resurrection allows him to close his argument using a rather marvelous horticultural metaphor (v. 17ff.). He says to all non-Jews, that if God grafted you into the olive tree of the covenant people, placing you on broken branches where some of the covenant people had fallen away, do not think this gives you some superiority. Do not think to yourself, “Those branches were broken off so I could be grafted in.” For if God was willing to let some of the covenant people go for your sake, do not be so self-assured that you won’t be broken off for their sake! The grafting is a gift, not a reason to believe that the covenant people can’t be saved because you were.
Because the scope of God’s saving power is unlimited, all who fall away can be grafted back in. The grafting in of the non-Jews demonstrates God’s saving power! If a branch can be grafted in “contrary to nature,” how much easier to graft in a branch that was originally from the tree! Anyone can be grafted in! The Creator is able to graft back in anyone who places their trust in Jesus.
The Saving God who resurrects the dead allows for branches to break off from the tree so that there is no inequality regarding who needs God’s mercy for restoration to the tree. Just as those outside the covenant community received mercy to join it, so those from the covenant community who have fallen away can receive the same mercy. God has allowed every kind of branch to break so as to have mercy on all (v. 32).
If every broken branch can be grafted back onto the tree of promise, then no one can become so twisted that they are beyond the healing of the Christ who rose from the grave. C. S. Lewis’ concern that our wickedness could distort our soul beyond repair is no barrier to a Savior who even harrowed hell for our sakes.
At the apotheosis of his argument, Paul can do little else than fall into ecstatic worship of the Great Spirit who wills to save whomever can be saved, and for whom no one cannot be saved. It is only fitting that we too end with Paul’s rapturous acclamation.
O how deep are the treasures of both the wisdom and knowledge held by the Great Mystery!
His decisions go far beyond our weak ways of thinking!
“For who has understood the thoughts of the Great Spirit?
Who has given him counsel?”
“Who could give him a gift that would require a gift in return?”
For from him all things come, by him all things exist,
and in him all things find their true meaning and purpose.
All honor belongs to him, both now and in the world to come,
to the time beyond the end of all days.
Aho! May it be so!
George MacDonald (1824–1905)
The Grace of Grace
Had I the grace to win the grace
Of some old man in lore complete,
My face would worship at his face,
And I sit lowly at his feet.
Had I the grace to win the grace
Of childhood, loving shy, apart,
The child should find a nearer place,
And teach me resting on my heart.
Had I the grace to win the grace
Of maiden living all above,
My soul would trample down the base,
That she might have a man to love.
A grace I had no grace to win
Knocks now at my half open door:
Ah, Lord of glory, come thou in!—
Thy grace divine is all, and more.
George MacDonald (10 December 1824–18 September 1905) was a Scottish author, poet and Christian Congregational minister. He became a pioneering figure in the field of modern fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow-writer Lewis Carroll. In addition to his fairy tales, MacDonald wrote several works of Christian theology, including several collections of sermons.
C. S. Lewis wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his "master": "Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later, I knew that I had crossed a great frontier." G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had "made a difference to my whole existence". Elizabeth Yates wrote of Sir Gibbie, "It moved me the way books did when, as a child, the great gates of literature began to open and first encounters with noble thoughts and utterances were unspeakably thrilling." — Adapted from Wikipedia
Michael Fitzpatrick welcomes comments and questions via firstname.lastname@example.org