How many of you had to wear hand me down clothes as you were growing up?
One of my favorite mental images of hand me down clothes comes from my brothers. They are three years apart in age and both of them have school pictures from second grade in the exact same gray and blue sweater. It had been stored up until Darren could wear it, and on picture day, he went to school in the exact same outfit that Tony had years before. We might not have noticed, but my grandma keeps all of our school pictures on the wall in her kitchen and there Tony and Darren are in the exact same outfit right next to each other.
Now, even though I was an oldest child, the only girl in my family, and I might add, the oldest granddaughter on either side of my family, I still had to wear hand me down clothes.
My dad had an aunt and uncle that lived a few miles away and due to some age differences, their seven children – my dad’s cousins – were about my age.
Four of those children were girls. All of them were older than me. And every now and then, we got this great big sack of clothes from the Benesh girls.
I don’t think I ever really minded having hand me down clothes. It was normal for me. They had pretty good taste. The clothes were gently used and fit me just fine.
But I knew enough to know that you didn’t go to school and brag about the clothes that your cousins just gave you.
The virtue of handme down clothing is that it teaches you humility and modesty.
Well in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, that is a lesson that he is trying to teach to the Christians.
He wants them to know that the gift of salvation is nothing to boast or brag about.
He reminds them that they did nothing to earn it and it belonged to someone else first. It’s a hand-me-down… and the only reason we have it is because the people who got it first rejected it.
But in his words to the church of Rome, Paul negates that type of attitude. He asks: “Does this mean that God is so fed up with Israel that he’ll have nothing more to do with them? No! Has Israel stumbled so far as to fall permanently from God’s grace? Are they out for good? No!
In fact, Paul starts to wonder if this disobedience, if this hard-heartedness on the part of Israel isn’t entirely God designed.
As the Message translation puts it:
This hardness on the part of insider Israel toward God is temporary. Its effect is to open things up to all the outsiders so that we end up with a full house…. There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in.
To go back to our hand-me-down clothing analogy… it’s almost as if God planned for the Jews to give their faith away like old clothing. And those of us who received that faith are now lucky enough to receive it. It’s nothing to brag about… just wear the clothes and be grateful.
However, when your friends the Jews start seeing you walking around in those clothes, walking around in that faith that they gave away… when they see you full of joy and at peace and free from the grips of sin and grace… then they are going to start to wonder what they have lost… and you just might be the vehicle God uses to help them get back in.
The important thing to remember is that it’s God’s work… not ours. You didn’t earn your salvation, and this is not a gift that you can give to others. It is God’s doing.
That is a reminder that we need to hear over and over and over again.
This is God’s work, God’s salvation, God’s plan for our lives.
We need to hear this message just as much today as the Christians in Rome needed to hear it 2000 years ago.
Because sometimes we get a little prideful. Sometimes we get a little superior when we think about our brothers and our sisters out in the world.
Sometimes we gossip about Susie Q down the street who stopped going to church, or about John Doe across town who has never graced the door of a church in his life, or about Ms. Smith’s grandson who grew up in the church and then went off to college and became a wild child.
And when we do so, it kind of makes us feel good. It kind of makes us feel important and proud and arrogant…. I go to church every Sunday. I put money in the offering plate every week. God loves me… and not those other people.
Paul’s response to that kind of attitude?
He turns to the image of a tree to drive this point home. We, as latecomers to the faith, are merely wild shoots that have been grafted in to the ancient family of faith.
In fact… there is only room for us, because some branches have been pruned. They were dead in their faith and they were cut off, and now there is room for us.
We have hand-me-down places in this family tree. They only reason we are growing is because we finally got connected to the source of life – Jesus Christ.
And that is nothing to brag about. It’s nothing we did. Its nothing we earned. And we have no reason to be cocky about it.
In fact… Paul warns us – God didn’t think twice about pruning the natural branches on the tree, so why would he hesitate to trim you off of this tree of salvation if you stop producing fruit.
We get arrogant, because what we see as we look on your Jewish brothers and sisters or Susie Q or John Doe are branches that have been pruned from a tree. People who rejected God’s love in their life. They are broken and alone, withering apart from the source of true life. And we are so glad that they are not us…
But in God’s eyes, they are just branches waiting to be grafted back in. They are beloved children that our Master loves.
No matter what we do to reject the love of God, He will never reject us. He is always looking for a way to bring his lost children back into the fold.
That should be a reassurance to us. Because we are merely recipients of extravagant, generous, hand-me-down faith.
Hand me downs can sometimes be precious gifts. And our salvation is not a gift that we should take lightly. Because a gift like this, well, it could be taken away just as easily as it was given.
Knowing how undeserving we are of such generosity, we might walk around always worrying about doing the wrong thing, anxious about losing the love of god.
But Paul reminds us in Romans – God’s gifts are never taken back. His gifts are irrevocable.
We have all disobeyed… and he has mercy on all of us.
That is why we trust in God’s love. It is steadfast. It is eternal. It is unconditional.
It is just as enduring for us who have tasted the sweet beauty of salvation as it is for those who have walked away. God loves us and will not rest until each and every single one of us knows that love.
As Paul concludes this chapter – Everything comes from God; Everything happens through him; Everything ends up in Him.
Thanks be to God that his ways are not my ways. And that his love is not my love.