Monday, January 30, 2012

Romans 10: All are Welcome

As we’ve seen in the last nine chapters, Paul has a problem. He is a Jew and as such believes in the covenant (read unique, special, one of a kind) relationship that God established with Israel. However, Jesus has come, died, and was resurrected, fulfilling long standing messianic prophecies and bringing salvation to the Jews. Thing is Jesus didn’t fulfill the expectations of the Jews. The Romans still had the upper hand. Israel, the nation, was just a pipe dream. The Kingdom of God had come, but the oppressor still lord it over the Temple. To further complicate matters, through the movement of the Holy Spirit, the early church soon understands that Jesus didn’t come just for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles. To a dedicated Jew all this makes no sense. How can God have a covenant relationship with Jews, yet say that all can belong in His Kingdom? And if Gentiles are part of the family do they need to follow the law? And if they don’t need to follow the law, then are these Christians saying the law (and therefore God’s word) is worthless?

These are difficult questions that to the modern ear seem irrelevant. Yet the answers to these questions are central in understanding our relationship to God. Paul wants us to understand two things:
  1. Everyone and anyone can now be part of God’s story. Even if you are a Greek from Attica, your story and identity includes what God did with Abraham and Moses and David. Gentiles are grafted to the tree. 
  2. The central character in that story is Jesus, who has come for the Jew and the Gentile. 
Paul continues to address these questions in following chapters, but he makes clear in chapter ten that it is Jesus who brings us hope and that with Jesus comes our salvation. As Paul says in verse twelve, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”


Friday, January 27, 2012

Romans 9: No Satisfaction

I like to think that I’m now a more nuanced reader of the Bible. I understand that it’s historical roots and the different genres. I know that it isn’t a guidebook, but 66 separate books, united in Spirit, yet separated by time, place, audience, and author. I recognize that it’s not an answer book for my problems and questions.

Nevertheless, I like it when the Bible makes sense. Often it doesn’t. I don’t know why the characters act the way they do. I’m baffled by God’s response and the actions of His people. Usually that’s fine, because all this confusion happens in the Old Testaments, really really long ago. Sure, I’m going to understand the reasoning of a pastoral people surrounded by enemies. Yes, Elisha is a bit odd, but he’s a prophet and prophets don’t need to make sense. Plus it happened before the Romulus and Remus built Rome, so just read it and move on. This befuddlement, however, does not stay in the Old Testament. In Romans, chapter 9, I’m frustrated by Paul.

In this chapter Paul is answering a charge against his understanding of faith in Jesus. Namely, what do you do about God’s covenant relationship with Israel? Do the Israelites still belong to God?

Paul’s answer is, in a nutshell, God is God and God can do what God wants. This does not satisfy. I appreciate Paul’s insistence on faith for salvation, rather than work for salvation, and his emphasis that Gentiles can belong to God. Still, even though I don’t know what response I want, this definitely was not it. Yes, God is God and I cannot fathom his ways, but that cannot be a go to answer.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Romans 8: God's Children

Paul is building an argument in Romans. Up to chapter 8 he wants the people of Rome to understand two points; first, we are all caught in the web of sin; second, that it doesn’t matter if we are Jewish or Gentile but we are all saved by faith. And, as Paul notes in chapter 8, it is faith in Jesus Christ that sets us free from the “law of sin and death.”

Paul wants his readers to understand this freedom. This letter comes later in his life. He has ministered all over the eastern Mediterranean and has seen people caught in the web and mindset of sin. Folks have faith, but forget that they live in this new reality of freedom in Christ. And this freedom means that we are children of God and His heirs. It is easy to skate over this idea because saying someone is a child of God has become a cliché. But it has deep meaning. As children of God we belong to God’s house. And in his house we have access to all that God provides and we share in his blessings. This does not mean we won’t suffer here, but it means that we cannot be separated from Jesus and the love of God.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Romans 7: Will vs Reality

The problem, Paul says, is that you forget you are free. The law exists, which is good because it shows us our sin. Paul is explicit that the law does not cause sin, but the sin in us reveals itself through the law. The law shows us what is right, but we cannot do right.

This distinction between knowing what is right, but doing wrong is an essential reality for Paul. Knowledge is not enough. We know, but we sin. As Paul now famously says in verse 15: 
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
This understanding of sin and will resonates with our modern sensibility. In our minds we know what is right, but we fail to act. As I kid in middle school one of my classmates of was being made fun of. I knew this was wrong, but I did not say a thing. To my shame I kept quiet and my nose clean. I was a slave to sin. The will is not enough. I see this in the mundane, finishing off those brownies even though my mind says, you’re full. You see this in the paternalistic projects of today, if only people know that “smoking is bad for them,” “that junk food isn’t healthy,” “that bullying is mean.” We equate knowledge with action, even though knowledge often does not lead to action.

Paul’s solution, not surprisingly is Jesus Christ. We’ll talk about that in chapter 8.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Romans 6: Living in God's Reality

Programming Note: since this has become a series I'm actually adding titles to the posts. The plan is to do three to four of these a week, though I'm not sure what I should do after Romans. Suggestions welcomed.
Much of the Bible is about defining God’s reality (or universe as it really is). In a fallen and broken world we say up is down and yellow is brown. When you read the prophets of the Old Testament you see them disgusted with Israel’s behavior. Israel, the chosen nation to be God’s people on earth, ignores its duty and behaves poorly. The funny thing about this behavior isn’t that God isn’t being worshipped (though that happens at times) but that God’s order for the world is not being followed. Israel breaks God’s heart by oppressing the poor, forgetting the widow, and showing injustice to the alien. God’s reality as found in creation, the law, and history is ignored and the people of Israel play by the world’s rules, not God’s.

The reality that you see in the Old Testament gets radically reworked and fulfilled in the New Testament through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus broke all expectations: forgiving sins when sins weren’t supposed to be forgiven; inaugurating a kingdom not based on power. The reality of God now includes the resurrection of the dead and the salvation of humanity.

In chapter 6 of Romans, Paul is trying to make the same point. He is telling the Romans that the world isn’t as it seems. That because of our faith in a resurrected Jesus we are no longer in bondage to sin. God’s reality has broken through in our lives and we are now alive with true, eternal life.

Some Thoughts on Romans 5

I like to think that Romans is popular among the theological minded because it full of therefore’s. Paul is attempting to lay out a logical argument, with different sections building on each other, and at times circling back. Unlike his other letters, Paul isn’t dealing with problems in that specific church or addressing specific needs. He addresses the problem facing all churches—that is what to do about the Jew and Gentile divide. Instead this letter is telling the Romans what he believes and what is central to the Christian faith. Chapter 5 hits a home run with three “therefore’s.”

But let me only highlight the first therefore, which is in the first verse, “We are justified by faith (what Paul has been talking about in chapters 3 and 4), THERFORE, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ.” It is easy to skip over this line and focus on the thought provoking stuff right after it. But this idea that we have peace with God because of Jesus Christ is absolutely central to the story of Christianity. When the Apostle Peter is shown by God that Jesus is also for the Gentiles he goes and tells a Roman Centurion and his family that God sent to Israel “peace by Jesus Christ” (Acts 10.36). The world, ourselves, and our relationship with God is not right. It is broken and un-whole. Jesus Christ makes us whole and gives us peace with God. We can be in right relationship with God, the world, and others because we have shalom/peace.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Some Thoughts on Romans 4

Much of Paul’s ministry was about extending the family of God. In his youth, only Jews could belong to God. They were God’s covenant people, burdened and blessed by this special relationship. The family was small and tight knitted. Paul wants his fellow Jews and Gentile neighbors to understand that through Jesus God is expanding this family. His covenant is not just for the Jews, but for anyone who believes in Jesus. Time and time again Paul fights against this natural division in the church, reminding them that they all belong in God’s family.

Central to that reality of unity is faith. Faith is more than just assenting to propositions about the nature of reality. Faith is more than believing what you are told to believe. Faith is accepting God’s reality. Faith is attempting to live in that reality of a Kingdom come, where Jesus was raised from the dead and made us right with God.

Paul tells the people of Rome (and us) that we are like the great patriarch Abraham. Abraham was made righteous because of his faith, not because he was circumcised or because he was a good person (go read Genesis 12 and following and you’ll see what mean). For Paul, and for us, this is wonderful news. Essentially it means that it doesn’t matter who you are. If you have faith, but are a Goth from the north, you are saved. If you have faith, but are a slave in a senator’s house, you are saved. If you are a Jew from Alexandria and have faith, you are saved because of that faith.

Paul wants us to know that God is not limiting his blessing anymore. We, the Gentiles, the forgotten, the broken, are now part of God’s story. Because of Jesus we have the joy that David spoke about 3000 years ago:
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight.
Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of sin.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on Romans 3

In Romans, chapter 3, Paul continues walking a fine line. He wants to establish that all have sinned and that no one is saved because of he was circumcised or goes to the Temple. Yet, he doesn’t want to say that God’s covenant with Israel was and is worthless. Paul recognizes the law exists, but it brings only knowledge of sin, for no one can follow the law be saved. Adding another wrinkle Paul wants to extend God’s covenant to the Gentiles while still maintaining God’s special relationship with the Jews. This line of reasoning can make for difficult reading, but is essential for Paul.

At the end of the chapter (still in the beginning of the letter) Paul dances this little two-step. He wants the Jews and Gentiles living in Rome to understand that faith is the basis of their relationship with God and each other. The Jew, though aware of the law, is incapable of following the law. And so she must turn to faith. The Gentile, through foreign to the law, is condemned by the law. And so she must turn to faith. We come from different places, Paul says, but we must come to the same point of faith. No barrier is too great, for God is one and He is the God of us all who sent his only son to bring redemption to you and me alike.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some Thoughts on Romans 2

In the second chapter of Romans Paul lays out the simple fact that we’ll be judged by God. His judgment is righteous and just, and nothing can supposedly save you from that judgment. Being circumcised won’t save you. Even pleading ignorance won’t save you, for you will be judged by your own conscience. Paul understands human nature and is trying to make sure the Romans know that they don’t have a “get of jail free” card. Even those who know the law and teach the law do not follow the law.

Oddly, perhaps, this reminds me of a common complaint of God and His judgment. People will say, “yeah, God’s fine, but what do you about those people who don’t hear about Jesus. Do they go to hell? Are they saved?” The legitimate question is not an easy one to answer. We really don’t know and can only throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, this question is usually asked to deflect the real question, “Do you believe and follow Jesus?” You may be troubled by the fate others, but your fate is here and now.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on Romans 1

Crudely put, the book of Romans is about proving that God’s grace and salvation is free to all who believe. For Paul, the author, no special group membership exists that gets you into the club. If you knock, you will enter. In chapters one and two, Paul lays out the judgment against humanity. We have known God, but in our evil, denied God and thus subject to the wrath of God.

Not surprisingly, Paul holds back no punches. He doesn’t just say that folks were bad or evil or not nice to each other. Nope, that’s too abstract for Paul. Rather, he states that they (meaning you and me and everyone else) are full of: wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, and craftiness. Additionally, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless.

This specificity bothers are modern ears and makes our cheeks flush. “We aren’t that bad,” we want to say. “Sure, some folks might be like this. You know, people like Hitler or Stalin.” We are uncomfortable with these accusations. Doesn’t Paul know that folks are nice and trying their hardest? Doesn’t Paul know that it isn’t their fault? Doesn’t Paul know that I don’t gossip, I just like talking? In our modern world we like to think that evil and malice have been expunged by the rule of law and modern psychology. In the capitalistic system, we just turn these negatives into positives, making a tidy sum along the way. Evil is a deficiency that can be fixed or at least mitigated. 

I don't think Paul would agree with that sentiment...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gideon and Failure

When reading the bible it is easy to get caught up with the idea of "super" people. All these folks--talking to God, trusting God, doing what God wants them to do--seem extra special. "They have it easy," I think. "They here directly from God. Angels come visit them. Of course it's easy to follow Yahweh when Angels knock on your door." And we say to ourselves, "if only." If only I heard from God like that, all would be well. If only angels came to my tent then would I really follow God and serve the poor. If only the fleece stayed dry then I would quick the job I hate and start trusting God.

The thing is, if only, doesn't really work out too well for the people of God. Take Gideon, for instance. This guy  is perhaps the most famous of the minor characters in the Bible. His people are oppressed and as a member of the weakest clan in the tribe, he can do nothing about it. But God sends an angel to speak directly to him to tell him to first cut down the alter to Bael and then kick out the Midianites. Over the next few chapters we see God speaking directly (God said) to Gideon three or four times. Gideon speaks back and even tests God on numerous occasions (the famous fleece test). With the power of God, Gideon kills a whole bunch of Midianites, becomes fabulously wealthy, and is hailed by all the northern tribes.

And yet, Gideon fails. Gideon has heard from GOD. Gideon has done wonders because of the strength of GOD. But the idols are too strong. Gideon makes an idol for God and Israel falls away. The people had once again experience the might of God, but they forget their story. Gideon forgot too and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Reflection on Joshua 6 & 7

At times Israel can seem like a sullen teenager. In Joshua 7 the Israelites are defeated by the city of Ai because the Israelites have sinned against God. Joshua, not knowing about the sin, rips his clothes, throws dust on his head, and prostrates himself before God. He then complains bitterly and says we should’ve just stayed on the other side of the Jordan (and I read the tone, ‘because this trip sucks!’).

God calls him out, “Stand up! Why have you fallen upon your face?” “Joshua,” God says, “you are a ding bat. Do you think I have given up so easily? That I, the Lord of Lords, will let you be destroyed for no reason. No, someone has sinned.”

You see, Joshua assumes that God has left the people to be destroyed. He jumps to the worst possible conclusion and lets fear overtake him. It is easy to mock, but Joshua’s reaction is so natural. When things don’t go our way, we assume God is against us. And that it is God’s fault we are here in the first place (if I didn’t follow God, I wouldn’t be here). Fortunately, the Lord is bigger than our temper tantrums.

Favorite Lines of the Bible

"for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner." Paul, spoken to King Agrippa, Acts 26.26.

I'm not a bible basher, and, in fact have been known to skirt around the issue once or twice (sorry Grandpa Fred). I'm not good at talking about the need for Jesus and our hope in Him. I want to keep it quiet and out of the way. Like the middle-schooler I once was, I want to fit in. And in America we are pushed to make religion private and inward. In polite society religion ought not to impinge on one's public performance. Don't be the awkward uncle at Thanksgiving and tell people about Jesus. Keep your mouth shut and be cool about the whole thing and everyone will be happy. But, as Paul points out, this was not done in a corner. The acts of Jesus were not hidden away. The prophets declared from the mountaintop. The glory of the Lord was revealed in a risen man.

Friday, January 6, 2012

God of the Hills

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. So begins the famous the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4. It is the definition of the Jew’s relationship with God 3000 year ago and today. Throughout the Bible you find this theme: that God is one and he rules the whole world, that all powers are beneath Him, that nothing can separate us from Him. Moses knew this. Paul knew this.

Yet, for the people of Israel it is a difficult commandment to fully comply with. Throughout most of their history the Israelites live in the hill country of Judea. Their neighbors control the lush plain and the coast. The hills are too often barren, good only for sheep and goats. The Israelites see the ease of their neighbors and wonder about their gods. See, in this ancient world the gods are particular to space in time. Too many, Yahweh is just a god of the hills—one of many. His way is hard and difficult. His way depends upon the fickle rain. The gods of the valley give abundant grain to the cities.

The Israelites see their neighbors and in their jealously cannot resist their neighbors’ gods. It is not so much that Yahweh stinks, but that He isn’t enough. So they hedge, setting up sacred poles, buying a few idols in the market. Maybe, they think, if this god works for the Amorites then it will work for me. And so the Israelites fall in their weakness and envy. They, like us, cannot trust enough in God. They, like us, hedge their bets.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Reflection on Luke 23

In many stories of the Bible I’m drawn to periphery characters. I wonder what it was like for them to witness the event—to stand still and watch. Here in the chapter on the crucifixion I wonder about Simon of Cyrene. Here was a Jew from a land hundreds of miles away. He had come for the Passover or perhaps on business. He may have heard of Jesus as one hears the town gossip. But he did not follow Jesus. He did not give up all he knew for this man. Jesus limps along to Golgotha, trying to carry a cross. The crowd gathers in for a crucifixion, which is always good spectacle. So Simon watches like everyone else. Taller than most he has a good view as Jesus moves from the fortress to the hill. I wonder what he thought at that moment. Did he feel pity? Did he know that Jesus was an innocent man? Did he care? It was a rough world, with rough justice, and he was keeping his nose clean. Then Jesus passes by. He collapses under the weight of the cross and the world. No Roman would carry a cross and this Jesus guy is too weak, so the soldiers scan the crowd and see a large, tall man. “You!” they yell, “come here!” And Simon knows it is not worth protesting soldiers with whips. So he comes and lifts the wooden beam and is surprised at how light it is. And as the soldiers whip Jesus, Simon follows, carrying the cross.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Some Thoughts on Acts 13

It is easy to forget the amazing fact that Paul went and preached to the gentiles. The Jewish faith was a covenant with God. You couldn’t just open those doors wide open. That is unseemly. Instead, let the interested crawl on their knees to God in the hope that someday they may become Jewish and join God’s blessings.

Yet Paul took that and said, “Bah, the Lord has commanded me to tell the Good News to the Gentiles too.” He understood, like no one else at the time, how drastic the change was that Jesus instituted on the cross. Paul knew that salvation had really come and that it was absolutely nothing like anyone thought. It wasn’t about making Israel a nation again. It wasn’t about just Jews following Jesus. All of humanity had been saved with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul knew this. He was obsessed by this.

Paul often is criticized for his hard line—that he isn’t soft around the edges. And he isn’t. But it took a man like Paul to bring the Good News to all. He wasn’t concerned what the others were thinking. Even Peter was swayed by the “Judizers.” Paul would have none of it. The man, the Pharisee, knew he had been saved. And he knew that that salvation was not just for him. And with the Holy Spirit, Paul would let no power stop the word of the Lord.