The key word in the opening verse of Romans 12 is ‘Therefore’ (Greek: oun). Paul’s appeal for transformation here is a glad and free response to ‘the mercies of God’ as set out in the previous chapters of the letter, but especially the eleventh. Using the image of a tree, which receives the graft of a new branch (the Gentiles), Paul sees us all as rooted and grounded in universal mercy: ‘he has concluded all under sin that he might have mercy on all’ (Romans 11:32). Romans 12:1–8 is a call to respond to unmerited and unconditional grace, to ‘mercies’ already freely given and received, a call to let that mercy bear fruit.
Fruitfulness and transfiguration are central to Samuel Palmer’s painting The Magic Apple Tree, especially, at the heart of the painting, the apple tree itself, bowing its branches low and offering its fruit freely to all, in a more than natural abundance, itself suggestive of grace.
The painting is from his ‘Shoreham Period’, painted in the place in Kent he called ‘the valley of vision’ (Wilcox 2005: 29–42). Together with the other ‘Ancients’, a fellowship of Christian visionary artists all inspired by William Blake (1757–1827), Palmer was seeking, even in the shadow of the Fall, to paint a vision of the world redeemed by grace, to see things in the light of Eden, rather than in its shadows. The golden light which shines beneath, rather than beyond the dark storm clouds above it, so that it gilds the corn and lights the apples, hints at a revelation of glory in and through creation, rather than simply above and beyond it, something also hinted at in Paul’s phrase ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things’ (Romans 11:36).
The shepherdess in the foreground, and the church spire at the centre of the composition, establish both a pastoral and Christian context for the scene, but it is the tree itself that draws us in to grace and restoration.
Wilcox, Timothy. 2005. Samuel Palmer (London: Tate)
12 I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.