Paul wrote a letter to the church at Rome - a church he was not able to visit, so he really was not well-acquainted with their individual beliefs, practices, or problems like he was with those churches he did make rounds on in his ministry. In this letter, he outlines the very basics of faith - the things which should be foundation in our lives. Since he did not know the church's particular struggles, he gives them the "full-gamut", so to speak. Really, he shows why the gospel message is important, that each man needs to embrace it, and what happens when a man does take the gospel into this life in such a manner. The biggest point he makes in this letter is the idea of grace vs. works - salvation being a matter of grace extended, no working our way into righteousness by any action or deed on our parts. This was a concept foreign to the Jewish believer who was so used to following a set of rules in order to make "atonement" for their sins, or to be declared "clean". As he continues with the letter, he comes to the place of explaining the embracing of "non-Jews" into the family of God - the action of grace extended to the Gentiles through the action of the cross of Christ. So, although I know this letter is written to Roman believers - especially Jewish believers - I also know it has important points for us to consider as those of differing backgrounds who were "grafted in" to this "family tree".
It’s certainly possible to say, “Other branches were pruned so that I could be grafted in!” Well and good. But they were pruned because they were deadwood, no longer connected by belief and commitment to the root. The only reason you’re on the tree is because your graft “took” when you believed, and because you’re connected to that belief-nurturing root. So don’t get cocky and strut your branch. Be humbly mindful of the root that keeps you lithe and green. (Romans 11:19-20 MSG)
As Paul continues with the letter, he comes to this point of some "branches" being lopped off, others "grafted in". Lest anyone could "boast" about being grafted in, he reminds them of the reason behind the "lopping off" of some of the branches. You see, some failed to accept the work of grace as sufficient for their sins - they continued to deny the action of the cross - believing instead that the only path to God was as it had always been - by man's own efforts to be "good". Lest we get a little "cocky" about being one of the "grafted" branches, he calls our attention to how easy it is to become a branch which suffers the fate of being lopped off. In fact, he simply has to speak of the branch as "deadwood" to give us a vivid image of why the branch no longer belongs on the tree.
This idea of some being "deadwood" caught my attention this morning. First, it explains the condition of the heart of those who find themselves being "pruned". They are no longer "connected" to the root. They have chosen to "cut themselves off" from the supply of their need for that which will produce life within them. Second, there is the matter of their lack of commitment. I recently wrote about the importance of being able to commit as a means of placing one's life in the safe-keeping of Christ. These "deadwood" branches may very well have been like all those little upshots I see on my plants from time to time. They come up all hardy and green, but they are doing their own thing - taking from the tree whatever they can, but really still determined to live in their own way.
Before I leave this point, I just want to encourage you to consider two things this morning. I know this speaks of the Jews and Gentiles - each finding a place in Christ and some not willing to accept their place. Yet I think it is okay to consider what it means for those of us who believe. First - what's your connection to the root? You may have "branches" in your own life which are barely connected and therefore barely drawing anything from the root. The branch which draws little or nothing from the root becomes deadwood - just "cluttering" up the tree with its presence. Don't resist the removal of the deadwood - in its removal there becomes room for the growth you may not have thought possible. Second - what's your level of commitment to the root? Every branch which remains has "placed" itself in a position of "safe-keeping". The connected branch doesn't go about doing its own thing - in fact, it finds all it needs for growth and protection from the "harsh elements" of life based on being vitally connected. If you have been trying to live as an "up-shoot", then you are into sucking life from the root, but not really being part of the tree.
The other thing which stood out at me from this passage is the idea of being grafted into the tree. The process of pruning actually makes a place for the graft to "take". As long as disconnected or independent branches remain, there is no place for the "graft". Thus, the pruning occurs - not to destroy the root, but to give the root the ability to function as it should - giving life to all branches who "take hold" and draw from it. Here in Arizona, our warm weather has already begun. Our trees are in full-bloom, pollen is wafting through the air, and the sweet smell of citrus, mesquite, and palo verde is everywhere. As I examined my elm in the backyard, I noticed several branches have not "come back" this season - they are deadwood. They will have to be lopped off soon, or the tree will suffer because of their presence. I will soon have to fire up the chainsaw and get those taken off - allowing both space and light to the other branches around them.
This is what the pruning process accomplishes in our life - it gives us space to grow because it allows light to get into the spaces once occupied by what needed to be lopped off. We can resist the pruning process, or we can see the "benefit" in getting rid of the deadwood. It is all in how we look at the process - one sees it as cutting away something which obviously started out as part of the tree; another sees it as cutting away what no longer belongs despite its having belonged at one time. We can liken this process to that of maturing - as we grow in Christ, things which once "belonged" in our character don't actually "fit" any longer. They are "deadwood" and need to be cut off. It may seem like we are "taking away" from the tree when we cut of the dead or nip off the independent growths which attempt to spring up on their own, but it is for the integrity of the tree. Just sayin!