“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, where grafted in their place to share in the root of the Olive tree, do not boast over the branches.”Romans 11:17
The first Christians that gathered in Rome, like all of the early Christian churches, were hybrid Jewish communities. Hybrid in the sense that fundamental Jewish ritual, and Torah keeping was synthesizing on the fly with teachings and the witness of Jesus Christ. Gentiles, representing converted Jewish and an expanding pagan believers, found themselves coming together under the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and had established the kingdom of God through a new, expanded, and even global people.
The traditional Jews wanted to keep Sabbath (14:1-6), and saw no reason to change several ancient practices that had come to represent pillars in their faith, convictions that were deeply personal. The Gentiles however, had no such inclinations and considered every day alike. The Jews, under Torah, kept strict dietary requirements, these too became issues for the church as the Gentiles took liberty in ways that wedged and divided the new community.
If matters from within the community weren’t enough to confront, there was Rome, the powerful governing autocracy pressing upon the empire. Believers in the belly of the beast, so to speak, were in a sense representatives for the whole of this new Jewish sect around the Mediterranean world. Rome had it’s hands full these strange monotheists in cities like Corinth, Ephesus, and Thessaloniki; how the Christians behaved and represented the witness of Christ in Rome, surely Paul had in mind when writing to the believers in Rome.
In the year 2022, it’s easy to forget that we too, like the newly grafted in branch, are not the tree. We have no root of our own. This faith, this covenant with God established in Jesus Christ was, and is an ongoing grafting of the nations into the nourishing, life-giving root system of faithfulness shown to the patriarchs of the Jewish faith. God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the love and commitment shown to Israel became known to you and I through human disobedience. Paul’s reasoning in chapter 11-12 works like this:
Israel rejected Christ, and therefor God broke off the branch of the olive tree to make room for all nations (11:31). Therefore don’t be proud, or haughty in your faith, because you were already disobedient, cut off from mercy in the first place and it’s only through the rejection of Christ, both Jew and Gentile that mercy has come to each of us that believe. Then, Paul appeals to the Jewish believers in an astonishing, at least to me, turn of logic – He says the Jewish believers should also remain humble, because it’s through the Gentiles that God’s mercy is re-established in and for the branches – He’s using the Gentiles to graft them back in!
Why would God do this? Paul doesn’t pretend to know the heart and mind of God in this matter, but simply rejoices:
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgements, and how inscrutable are His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?”Romans 11:33-34
Paul reminds both Jewish and Gentile believers in this new Roman faith community that all have sinned, all have been shown mercy, regardless of their claims to origin or entrance into the body of Christ.
The believers, as equals before one another, living as sacrifices for the good of one another and the world around them (Rom 12:1-2). He reminds them of their diverse nature, each having different gifts, some having prophetic witness, some teaching, giving (12:6-8) but love and honor toward one another is key to upholding their collective witness (12:9-13). He instructs them to be zealous in their faith, rejecting what is evil, to serve the Lord.
We don’t serve men ultimately, though we are to be good citizens (Romans 13:1). It’s obvious that some were not only rejecting Torah entirely, but that with God’s new kingdom on earth some believed one could completely reject the world’s governing structures as well, even forgo paying taxes etc (13:7). In Rom 13:2 Paul speaks of resisting authority. This, as greek scholars will contend, is a continuous posture of rebellion, a rejection of government institutions to the point that the government essentially must turn and sink it’s jaws of justice upon the insurrectionist. For anyone wishing to dig into Romans 13 further, see this exegesis https://learn.gcs.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=4267 –
The context of Romans 13 is surrounded by chapters that give it the proper meaning for the original readers, and our own 21st century application. It’s Christ alone, through the conscience that each person is to navigate one’s convictions. Those convictions should never divide us, we should respect the individual pursuit of worship before God as we promote what we believe to be honorable, good, and right.
We don’t serve Christ for others, but serve Christ for His glory alone.
We don’t serve worldly authority, but our attitudes and actions are revealed through our life long posture towards the structures that govern us. It’s God that has initiated the concept of government, to reject order is to bring upon yourself a world of hurt. This is the heart of what Paul was getting at. He was encouraging the uniquely diverse body of Christ to carefully ensure that when they suffer, and they did suffer, that it be against evil, and not turn in on themselves which would injure their witness.
The Roman believers were struggling under the oppression of Roman government, and also from hostile actors within Judaism who were threatened by their liberty. Paul’s instructions, guided by the Holy Spirit, were for each believer to carefully weigh what matters in their acts of worship, compelling them to embrace their diversity, and their common root of God’s mercy.
Some in the faith, are weak. Their consciences won’t allow them to stand up for or against particular things that others are willing to stand against. What moves and motivates one, may not our neighbor. Paul reminds the Roman believers, both Jew and Gentile, “Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1). Essentially, be gracious to one another, let your diverse unity display the unique fragrance of the kingdom. Where the world seeks uniformity, the church embraces true unity as a reflection that emanates from the Trinity and has become our model for relatedness in the body.
The challenge for the church in every generation is to love one. another, always, without exception, as the ultimate ‘imago Dei’ witness. We look most like God when we walk in His gift of unity.
How can we do this? How can we remain humble, and love those that we disagree with, who upset us, or refuse to align with our particular issues of conscience? One way is to heeds Paul’s letter to the Romans. By remembering we are all grafted branches, none of us ‘own’ our spiritual life, and therefor need not defend it. This gift, this love received, flows from the roots of mercy through the nourishing roots of God’s ancient covenant with Israel, renewed and perfected for all in Christ!
Don’t judge others, just don’t do it. “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:4). In matters of conscience, the food we eat, the people we hang out with, the doctrines we espouse, these are all part of our individual journeys as we bring shape and meaning to our lives. We are to come alongside one another, bringing witness to our world that there is a Savior who loves us, unites us in our diversity, and many uncertainties. As much as it is possible with us (Romans 12:8), we remain open to unity with all people. It seems the only thing that keeps the body from this diverse unity, is a predisposition to uniformity. Thinking we must all look alike, think alike, do the Christian life alike; this was the problem in Rome, and continues to effect the body today.
Paul encouraged the believers to remember the fountain of mercy. It’s these nourishing roots that unite us in solidarity with the world as sinners, alienated and undeserving of mercy. We are grafted in, united by who we know, not what we know. This unity, if embraced and celebrated in the church, remind us that our enemy is not from within, but from without. We forgive, and show mercy, patience and endure with the many strange beliefs and actions of others, especially when they do it unto the Lord, from the conscience as their act of service or worship to God. In the end, it will be God that weighs each of our hearts, whom he knows perfectly.
“If we life , we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.” Romans 14:7.