Friday, February 24, 2012

Lent Thoughts

Last Wednesday we slide into Lent. Every year Lent seems to creep up on me. I wade through the darkness of January and February, gathering strength for a new year. Then, as the days begin to noticeably lengthen Lent arrives, reminding me of what I am and who I am.

What am I? I am dust, born of the debris of exploding stars, the decayed remains of long ago flowers, and the minerals forged in the heat of the earth. I hold no special place, but like the sparrow or willow tree I was born of this earth and to this earth I shall return.

Who am I? I am a child of God, given life by God to follow Jesus. A spirit resides within me that cannot be so easily vanquished. I am resurrected.

And so Lent reminds me of both. At first it says, remember, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, that is your fate. But then it whispers, look ahead, see the coming dawn, the light on the horizon. For I am dust, but Christ is resurrected and I am with him. And during this season of Lent we hold both our past and our future in our hands.

We are dust, but we are resurrected. The pain is real, but Sunday’s coming. Amen

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Romans 15 & 16: Dinner Time

Paul summarizes his letter this way:
I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15:15-16)
In short, Paul wants the Gentiles to be part of the family of God. Jesus has “confirmed the promises given to the patriarchs” and those promises are extended to the Gentiles who believe. Paul wants the family to get bigger and better. The Good News isn’t just for a few, but for all. We are all outsiders, but because of Jesus Christ we belong to God and sit with him.

It is so easy to stake over this profound truth, so take a moment and breathe in that reality. You belong to God. Once you were an outsider, abandoned and forgotten, but God has called you to the table. Its dinner time, the meal is ready. You thought the party was for someone else, but listen and you’ll hear your name. Look at that the last chapter of Romans. Paul ends with a list of greetings. Some are Jews, but many are Gentiles. Ten are women, twelve are men. The Kingdom of God expands. It cannot be contained by our limitations and categories. Jesus has come for the unrighteous, the Jew and the Gentile. All who believe are saved. Amen

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Romans 14: Living Like a Christian

In the last post I noted that the defining characteristic between Christians (and their neighbors) ought to be love. This is the posture we need to take to one another. When we talk about this very important idea, we usually end the discussion with love. We don’t want to get into the gritty details, because, well, the details are gritty and messy and someone may get offended so let’s just keep it all nice and abstract and talk about God’s love and leave it at that. Whew.

Paul doesn’t take that approach. He says, “love another,” and this is what that means. It means, don’t judge each other because God is judge. Some Christians are weak and can’t understand the grace of God, but “God has welcomed them.” Paul’s vision is that each Christian lives in honor of Jesus and in that honor seeks to lift up her brother or sister. If what I do, though not a sin, causes my fellow Christian to stumble, than I shouldn’t do it. Our goal as Christians is to live in love, which means according to Paul to, “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” That means we will need to deny ourselves at times, because it ain’t about me. It’s about Jesus. Sometimes we use God’s grace as a hammer to those who are still learning. Paul reminds us that is a selfish way to live in faith. We are to live in God’s Kingdom, which “is not food or drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Romans 13: Love your Neighbor

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Paul in Romans 13, echoing the words of Jesus Christ. Why? Because, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” You will not murder, you will not steal, nor shall you covet or commit adultery if you love one another. Paul is laying down a marker for the Christian life. It is a life based on love, from which flows all the blessings of the law.

Now this is commonly received wisdom in the church. Really no matter your denomination or whether you’d classify yourself as a liberal or conservative, mainstream or evangelical, you’ve heard a sermon about loving your neighbor. It is a common trope in any church. And because it is so common we forget how astounding it is to hear the statement, “love your neighbor.”

Paul writes this after spending chapters talking about division between Jews and Gentiles. He has seen firsthand the pain that comes from divisions in the church. He understands how living hard it can be to break old habits of division and attitudes of disdain. He wants the Jews and Gentiles to be a church, living in relationship with God and with each other.

But loving your neighbor is even more radical than that. The Roman world was intensely socially stratified. First you had Roman citizens and then everybody else. You had freemen and slaves with no rights but what their master gave them. You had the super-rich with hundreds of slaves. Women where the under the firm hand of their father or husband. Loving your neighbor wasn’t socially responsible in the Roman world, because you neighbor could be some lowly scum. And as Jesus makes clear in the story of the Good Samaritan, your neighbor is your enemy—he is the lowly scum. So “love your neighbor as yourself,” says Paul. Show her respect. Treat her as a friend. Understand that she is part of God’s story. Be a follower of Christ.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Romans 12: Bridging the Divide

Paul has spent the last eleven chapters explaining why and how both Jews and Gentiles are part of God’s family. He wanted the church in Rome to understand that both belonged and neither could claim superiority over the other. The Jews could not say they have God’s special favor and the Gentiles could not say that God has rejected the Jews. Paul wanted them to get along and understand that they were a family. But this isn’t your, “you guys are brothers, so stop fighting” type of family. Paul lays out clearly what is a desired, a family based on God’s love.

First, remember it’s not about you or what you have done, it’s about what God has done and is doing. Second, we all have different gifts, but we are all one body. Third, love each other and hate evil. Fourth, love your neighbor, even if he hates you. Feed him, clothe him, bless him.

Paul is saying what Jesus said, you gotta die to self. It ain’t about you, but about God. Fortunately, God love you and sent his son to rescue you. By dying to self you find your true self in God. Paul wants the church to live in harmony and peace (shalom) with themselves and with others. God leads, you follow.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Romans 11: Branches and Trees, What?

The Bible is full of metaphors and analogies and similes. Many of them are agricultural in nature—chaff and wheat, shepherds and sheep, branches and vines. If you grow up in the church this really isn’t a problem, because you are taught the meaning at such a young age. But if you didn’t grow up in the church (or weren’t paying attention) and weren’t a farmer and shepherd from the Mediterranean Sea than much of what the analogies will go right over your head.

We see this in Romans 11 where Paul is finalizing his “God is for Jews and Gentiles” argument. The first twelve verses reiterate the point that Jews, Paul’s people, still belong to God by his Grace. Then Paul launches into metaphor of branches and olive trees. He compares the Gentiles to wild olive branches that are grafted onto the olive tree. He reminds the Gentiles not to boast or lord it over Jews who do not follow Jesus, because it is only in faith that they are grafted on. And heck, he says, God may graft them back on before the end.

This is a relatively common metaphor in the Bible and in the modern church. Even though so few of us know what grafting a branch on really entails, we employ the metaphor all the time, because, well, it’s in the Bible. I think a different (not necessarily better) way is to imagine a prestigious university. Let’s pretend that this university is in South Dakota and you are from India. Growing up you had no connection to that university, because you lived so far away (physically and culturally). You may have heard about it because it really is the best university in the world, but you didn’t know anything. Then out of the blue one day you get an invitation to attend this school in South Dakota. Your wildest dreams, which you didn’t even you were your dreams, are being fulfilled. You go to that university and the first day you step on campus you are now part of a great history. Even though you just joined and knew nothing about the school, now you can take pride in what happened 50 years ago or in the Nobel Prizes won 10 years ago. The university’s history is now part of your history, even though you had nothing to do with it. You are still Indian, but you also are part of this university.

So it is with Paul and Gentiles the branches and the olive tree.