Let’s talk about apples.
Most people have some kind of apple allegiance. It might even be so ingrained in you that you don’t even think about it. So think about it now: when you go to the grocery store, what kind of apple do you buy? I bet you buy the same apple every time. For me, it’s Gala – and I’m so dedicated to the Gala, that if I go to the store and they’re out of Gala (which sounds crazy, but crazy things like that happen in COVID), I don’t know what to do. I just stand there staring at twelve other kinds of apples, frozen in indecision.
So how about you: what’s your apple?
Here’s why I want to know: In today’s Scripture, Paul uses the image of grafting to talk about who’s in and who’s out in the kingdom of God. Grafting is taking a branch off one plant and getting it to grow on to another rootstock. In Paul’s example, these are branches on an olive tree – an incredibly common fruit tree in the Mediterranean world. But not an incredibly common one here, in the mountains of North Carolina. To bring this metaphor a little closer to home, we want to think of a local kind of tree that’s frequently grafted. In other words: an apple tree.
It’s common to try and graft a branch onto an apple tree for a couple reasons: it causes the tree to bear fruit more quickly; it can produce a more identical clone of a good kind of apple; and in some cases, it can get you a variety that’s not possible without grafting. Your favorite kind of apple probably depends on a bit of grafting for at least one of those three reasons.
Speaking of your favorite kind of apple…
I wonder how dedicated you are to your variety. Are you like me, 100% committed? We keep our apples in the bottom drawer of our fridge, and we really like apples, so most of the time that drawer is filled with them. And because I’m dedicated to the Gala, that means a drawer full of nothing but Gala apples.
Which is fine for our fridge.
But it’s not fine for the kingdom of God.
We’ve already translated Paul’s analogy from the olive trees of Palestine to the apple trees of Appalachia. Now we need to translate it on another level. Paul’s “branches” are Israelites and Gentiles, Jews and non-Jews. By comparing them to branches either grown on or grafted into a tree, he’s getting his Gentile readers to think like this:
The Israelites are God’s chosen people – they’re like branches natural to the tree.
Gentiles (non-Jews) have been grafted in to be part of the tree.
Some Israelites have not chosen to follow Christ – but don’t boast over them.
It’s only by God’s grace that you’re grafted in, anyway.
And God hasn’t grafted anyone out permanently –
God is ready and waiting to graft anyone in.
In other words, Paul is challenging his readers to stop thinking about who is in and who is out, because God’s intention, God’s desire, is that everyone would eventually choose to be in. Remember John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And let’s not stop there: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God’s desire is to save the whole world. God’s hope is that everyone would be grafted into this tree. And when that happens, God’s tree will look something like this:
This is Paul Barnett, a West Sussex man who has spent the last 20 years grafting varieties of apple onto one root stock. The end result is a tree with 250 kinds of apples. Yes, you heard that right – two hundred and fifty varieties of apple on one single tree.
He wanted to grow a bunch of different kinds of apples, but didn’t have enough land for all those trees. So he started grafting. And grafting. And grafting. The end result is a marvel of modern horticulture. It’s also a perfect example of what the kingdom of God is meant to look like: a beautiful diversity, where “Gala” and “Fuji” and “Pink Lady” and “Granny Smith” – and 246 other kinds of apples! – are all bound together by one trunk, one single root stock.
This is the kingdom of God: a beautiful diversity of people bound together by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
For some of us, this image is a wake up call. Our refrigerators can be filled with one kind of apple, sure. But our churches can’t be filled with one kind of person. Our hearts can’t be open to only people like us. There is room on God’s tree for every person who wants to wants to be grafted in, and every single one of us is grafted in because of God’s grace, not because we’ve earned it. So we better not dare act like there’s no room for him or her or them, and we sure can’t act like we’re better just because we got here sooner. There’s room for all of us, and it’s nothing but “better late than never” on this tree.
But for others of us, this image is a different kind of wake up call. It might be telling you that there’s a place for you on God’s tree, in God’s kingdom. Even if you feel like you’re a rotten apple. Even if you feel like an oddball variety that no one ever picks. God’s desire is to save the whole world – and that means that this tree isn’t complete until you’re a part of it.
You might be a Gala or a Fuji or a Pink Lady, a Red Delicious or a Granny Smith or a Honey Crisp…
But by God’s grace, we are all meant to be apples on one tree, united by Christ.
By God’s grace, may it be so.