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Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Genesis 45:1–15, Romans 11:13–32 & Matthew 15:21–28

Thomas Coke left his ministry in the Church of England in 1777 to become chief assistant to John Wesley in the new and fast growing Methodist movement. In September 1785, Coke set sail from England with three companions, whom he hoped to establish as missionaries in Nova Scotia. 

Following a journey that took three months, rather than the expected one, due to stormy conditions and dangerous seas, they made it only as far as the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. They were forced to disembark at St John’s harbour when their shattered ship could go no further. Coke knew of one Methodist who lived in St John’s, a missionary by the name of John Baxter. 

Coke and his missionary friends stopped the first person they met on the street, to ask them if they knew where John Baxter lived, only to discover that the person was in fact Baxter himself! He was on his way to attend special Christmas morning services, so Coke and his colleagues joined Baxter. 

After that, Coke never made it to Nova Scotia, instead he planted his missionary team on Antigua and the neighbouring islands, where upon at the time of his death in 1814, there were more than seventeen thousand members of the Methodist Church in the islands. 

This is a powerful example of ‘God’s providence’, God’s plan for humankind and creation. We may have plans and ideas of our own, but God may have other plans for us that are not consistent with our own plans! The story of Joseph, as told in the Book of Genesis, is another example of God’s providence. If Joseph had not been sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, then the nation of Israel would not have come to be itself in slavery in Egypt. This in turn means there would have been no story of the ‘exodus’ from Egypt. But of course this was all part of God’s plan for the nation and people of Israel, which was all but a part of his overall plan for humankind and creation.

We heard in today’s gospel passage that Jesus himself had his own plan, which ultimately proved to be slightly different to God’s plan! In response to being asked by a Canaanite woman to heal her daughter, who was possessed by a demon, Jesus told her that his mission was only to the people of Israel, and not to the Gentiles. However this episode in the ministry of Jesus marks a turning point, and from here the Gentiles are also included in God’s plan to reconcile ALL of humankind to Himself.

The idea of the Gentiles, or non-Jewish people, being included in God’s plan for humankind, would have been scandalous to a Jewish person in the time of Jesus, because the Jews identified themselves alone as God’s chosen people. After all, they had been rescued from slavery in Egypt by God working through Moses, and it was Moses, acting on behalf of God again, who brought the people of Israel to the land of Canaan, which they were to conquer and settle in after the death of Moses. This was of course the land that had been promised, through Abraham, to the people of Israel.

In today’s lengthy passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul addresses the Gentile members of the church community in Rome directly, while at the same time indirectly addressing the Jewish members. He tells the Gentiles that part of the reason for his ministry to them, is in fact to make the Jewish people who have rejected Jesus jealous, so that some of them might change their mind if they see that the Gentiles are now receiving the promises of God that the Jewish people thought were reserved strictly for them. 

Paul goes on to say that if God’s rejection of the Jewish people results in the reconciliation of the Gentiles to God, just imagine what it will mean if God accepts the Jewish people! In that case, it will result in the resurrection of the dead on the last day. 

Using the analogy of an olive tree, which was often used to refer to the people of Israel as God’s chosen people, Paul tells his readers that if the roots of the tree are holy, which is a reference to the patriarchs of Israel – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – then the branches (meaning the people of Israel) are also holy.

Paul continues with the analogy of the olive tree as a warning to the Gentiles to not suddenly begin boasting, thinking that they are now somehow spiritually superior to the Jewish people simply because they have been reconciled to God. He acknowledges that they are indeed like branches that have been ‘grafted in to the tree’ that is, included because of their belief in the gospel, whereas the Jewish people are like branches that have been ‘broken off’ because of their unbelief. But Paul goes on to say that if the Jewish people change their mind and believe in the gospel, then they too will be ‘grafted back in’.

Implicit in the passage from Romans, is the message that God’s plan for us is not always the same as our own plans. We saw examples of that in the cases of both Thomas Coke, and Joseph and the nation of Israel. In both cases, there was hardship and challenge, and again in both situations the final ‘positive’ outcome was not realised until much later, well after the hardship and challenge had passed. I wonder if that is true for each of us?

Can you think of a time when something in your life did not go according to how you planned it? A time when perhaps there was unexpected hardship and challenge? As you reflect back on that time now, was there perhaps something positive that came out of that experience that you weren’t aware of at the time, even if at the time it was a painful and difficult experience? Do you think this might this have been a case of God’s providence? 

What, if anything, can we learn from these types of experiences?

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