A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 22, 2023 at Holy Communion
Matthew 8:1–13, Romans 11:11–24
Jesus said, “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
One of the themes of the readings for Epiphany season is the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles in Jesus’ mission on earth. On the Sunday after Christmas, Jesus was made a member of the Old Covenant when he was circumcised. Shortly thereafter, we celebrated the Epiphany, which is also called “the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” when Jesus was first worshipped by non-Jews. And then again, in our Gospel reading today, we are told a story in which Jesus makes a point about the inclusion of Gentiles in the kingdom of heaven, along Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But so what? The extensive biblical conversation about Gentiles and Jews seems very far away from us, because, unlike the early church, we are all Gentiles. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to learn from the conversation.
The issue is about inclusion and exclusion in the kingdom of God. Who are God’s people? Who is invited to the banquet of the kingdom of heaven?
What the Bible teaches, both in our Gospel reading for today and elsewhere, is that it is very dangerous to rest on your laurels and assume that, because you are part of a covenant community—a community like this church, for example—that you are ready for the kingdom of God. Enjoying the banquet of the kingdom depends on having a living and fruitful faith in Jesus.
To explain this, before we turn to our Gospel reading, let’s take a look at the book of Romans. A few weeks ago at the Bible study, we discussed a curious phrase in Romans 1. St Paul says that salvation belongs “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Why does salvation belong to Jews before Gentiles? What does that mean?
We explained this by referring to a later passage, from Romans 11, where Paul explains this at greater length. Before God ever invited non-Jews into a relationship with him, he chose Israel to be a holy people. They would be like a fruitful vine, bringing forth the good fruit of faith and righteousness. So salvation belongs to the Jews first.
But when Jesus the Messiah appeared, some Jews didn’t believe in him; they were unfruitful in faith. So what does God do? Like a good vinedresser, he removes the unfruitful branches, and grafts in wild branches which will fuse with the vine and improve the stock.
This is his metaphor for the Gentiles. God originally chose Israel as his people, so if we are included in God’s grace as Gentiles, it is because we have been grafted into that relationship, even while some natural branches (that is, Jews) were excluded because they did not believe in the Messiah. So salvation is for the Jews first, and then for the rest of us.
Using a different metaphor, that is what we get in the Gospel reading for today. It is a story with two healings: one of a Jewish leper, and the other the servant of a Gentile centurion. In the second case, Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith, and says, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11-12). Gentiles who believe will be invited to Abraham’s table in heaven, even while Jews who do not believe will not.
But the point, which Paul makes in Romans 11 immediately after describing the metaphor of the vine, is that we as Gentiles should not be presumptuous. He says, “If God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:21-22).
God’s business with humanity is not to unconditionally bless a group of people whom he arbitrarily prefers, Jew or Gentile. God is a vinedresser who desires that his vine brings forth fruit. And the fruit is faith, the adherence of the inmost heart to God.