Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.


Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.


Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)


About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.



The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.




Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Rebirth of Humanity: What Christmas Brings

The Universal Reach of Christmas: reading Luke 2:14

In Luke 2:14, it is written that the angels were singing:"Glory to God among those on high, and peace among humankind with whom God is well-pleased."According to many scholars, the Greek words "en anthropois eudokias" are to be translated "to human beings upon whom God's favor rests or with whom God is well-pleased." So, the verse is translated by them as: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to human beings upon whom God’s favor rests.” These scholars rely on evidence of the use of this Greek phrase in the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered during the mid-1900's.

The old King James translated the same Greek words "en anthropois eudokias" as "good will to men." But, that King James translation, made in the 16oo’s was long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (writings of Jewish religious group near the time of Jesus birth) which revealed the type of language used around the time of the New Testament and the types of meanings of terms as well. So, the King James renders Luke 2:14 as "Glory to God in the highest, and peace, goodwill to men." And, scholars have changed that translation due to archeological discoveries which allow for better understanding of the Greek language used by Luke.

Some other scholars have translated the same verse as "Glory to God in the highest, and peace upon human beings of good will." But, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it appears that this translation has lost much of its support as well. And, I am glad about that. Because, if God's peace was only for those who had good will at the coming of Christ, then where is our hope for this world? Of course, the translation that I favor: "Glory to God among those on high, and peace among human beings with whom God is well-pleased" could be understood as referring to only a certain group of human beings that are "the elect" and "chosen" of God. But, I think to understand things this way would be to have the same misunderstanding that so many in Israel had of the salvation that would come through the Messiah. That is why Jesus provoked some real outrage among the scribes and Pharisees. He proclaimed a salvation that was coming from God to all people. In fact, if you read scripture closely, it appears at times that God was pouring out that salvation to the Gentiles and Samaritans through Jesus before Jesus was preaching the universal reach of it. I am reflecting now on the times when Jesus recognizes genuine faith in Gentiles and Samaritans and others who were not considered among the "elect" of God. But, Jesus in the end does proclaim a message that encompasses all humanity or better put: "Jesus is the Word of God spoken as a blessing over all humanity."

And, that gets me back to Luke 2:14. It is a remarkable message, what those angels are reported to have sung:GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST PLACES, AND PEACE ON EARTH AMONG HUMANITY WITH WHOM GOD IS WELL-PLEASED!It causes me to think of another passage – the one about Jesus being baptized by John, and a voice from the heavens says: "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased" or in Mark's Gospel: "You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased." The Greek word that is translated here in Mark as "well-pleased" is the verb form of the same word "eudokias" which Luke uses in Luke 2:14 which we are talking about. For Luke, the apparent meaning is “peace on earth among human beings WITH WHOM GOD IS WELL-PLEASED.”

Several years ago the deep connection between these two announcements from the heavens struck me. One at the birth of Christ; one at his Baptism. Both of them are about the parental joy of God, the rejoicing of the father in his son - the joyfulness of God at the birth of Jesus and at his baptism, a joyfulness that causes God to embrace the entire human race with that fatherly care and pride. To see that newborn child, who was flesh of our flesh, but also just as deeply of God's very being, was for God to fall in love all over again with human life in all of its fragility and beauty and tragedy and joy.

Of course, as John’s gospel tells us, that very love was what conceived the Christ child: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son . . . .”

I don't know how else to say it than to say: "God threw in his lot with us that day in Bethlehem – that first Christmas. He gave himself into the life of humanity for better or worse when Christ was born – when he heard the first cry of that little baby boy. He made the heavens shake with the joy of his love for all human beings." God's heart was so full of love at the sight of the newborn Jesus that that love overflowed to all people, and has ever since.

But, to love, to really love another, is to become vulnerable. When you love someone else, you are affected by what happens with them and to them. When you love someone outside yourself, you might just take a risk in that love to help or even try to rescue another. God came among us so humbly, so simply, so joyfully, without pretense or pomp. The purity of the Christ awakened the hope of many, but also caused shame and hiding among those who loved their impurity.

God loved, and so God became vulnerable to the most heart-breaking of all losses – the loss of a child. That's the way real love is - it is risky. God was revealed in this love, in this flesh and blood of Jesus, whose very flesh was able to fully bear the life-giving Spirit of God in this world.

The glory of the incarnation. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." Yes, for God to do this, it must have been just as the angels said on that day of Jesus' birth:

"Glory to God among those on high (angels in heaven praising and congratulating God with all their might), and peace among those on earth (below) whom God loves beyond all imagining.

"When Jesus was born, we were all reborn in the heart of God. Amen.

Third in series of posts on forgiveness - now I'm talking about anger

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Forgiveness: 3rd Post on dealing with anger

Maybe we have stated the problem in the wrong way - the problem we think we are getting at when we talk about the struggle to forgive. Isn't the real issue what to do with anger? Anger comes when injustice or unfairness is experienced. Anger is born when our inner world explodes because our outer world is so at odds with our hopes and expectations. And, once that anger comes to life in our hearts and minds, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes a force that must be reckoned with. Anger is a force in our inner world that has its effect, one way or another.

Whether we consider ourselves to have forgiven someone who has wronged us, or whether we consider ourselves to have not forgiven, there remains a reality within us which I will call our anger at what has happened to us. Anger in this sense is like a reverberation or aftershock from a terrible shaking of our being. There is a sense in which anger is a biological and psychic reality that is inevitable after serious trauma. This force may or may not be expressed outwardly. It may or may not be expressed directly. But, it affects and shapes our inner reality and eventually how we express ourselves, how we act.

On one hand, we can have conscious strategies for dealing with our anger (or upset if you want to call it that), but on the other hand, so much of how we 'process' difficult events is unconscious. That is, the reverberations within our selves are channeled, controlled, interpreted, etc. without conscious awareness that such "channeling, controlling, interpreting" is going on. We have what I will call our "direct" strategy for dealing with upset, but we also have our "indirect" strategy or basic ways of finding meaning and hope and peace in life which in time shape how we respond to upset in our lives.

These two levels of response: the first conscious; the second more unconscious; the first direct; the second more indirect; the first a trouble-shooting type of approach; the second more of a way of living/habit type of approach.

The dominant focus of religious people seems to be on "direct, conscious, trouble-shooting" type of approaches to problems. At least, this is the way of most Western religion. You have a conflict, face it; you have a problem, solve it. But, our best resolutions usually come when we aren't working directly on our problem. The answers to our greatest challenges often come when we aren't dealing directly with these challenges, or at least when we are not consciously trying to solve these problems. Scientists and mathematicians and inventors have had this experience, as have writers and other artists. If the mind and heart are committed to working on a problem, then the work goes on even when the problem is "out of sight and out of conscious thought."

What brings new resolutions and revolutions in understanding and creativity is when a person carries a concern hopefully and with commitment and dedication to resolution of the difficulty. There is a "faith" at the heart of this positive movement towards understanding, reconciliation, resolution. There is a way of carrying unresolved issues and experiences of life that brings new life and new understanding. And, there is a way of carrying or perhaps burying unresolved issues and experiences of life that brings death and prevents understanding (breeds misunderstanding).

If you are backpacking, there is a way of "shouldering" the pack that makes walking easier. It is worthwhile to stop and adjust the way you are carrying the pack, getting it to fit as naturally as you can to your back. In the same way, it is worthwhile to stop and adjust mentally and spiritually the way you are carrying burdens of anger and hurt, so that you can carry them in a natural way, fitting to your psychical make-up. When you are hiking with a pack,and everything is going just right, and you are enjoying the view and when the exertion itself seems natural, then you don't even feel the weight of the pack. The burden of the pack is resolved by being swallowed up by other experiences and desires and goals.

This is an analogy for how we deal with anger indirectly, how we deal well with upset in our lives indirectly. If the pack is our anger and upset, then we carry it best when we don't allow its weight to distract us from our deepest concerns, dreams, hopes and goals. When its weight is keeping us from going forward, we need to stop and adjust the way we are carrying our trouble. When we do this, our anger doesn't consume our attention. That thing we are upset about, or that person we are mad at, is only one concern of our lives - not the concern. As we take a break from thinking about what we are mad about in order to focus on other duties and desires, that is when we tend to find the answer to our conflict, a way out of our conflicts.

The great teaching of Jesus is this: "Seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you as well." He also helpfully says: "He who sets his hand to the plow but looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God." That saying seems harsh as it is spoken to the son who wants to care for his aging father, but the only way to resolve many difficulties is to renounce their hold on your life. By stepping outside of a conflict, and seeing what life has to offer, you begin to live free from being controlled by the conflict or the anger, and in the end probably find a way to resolve it when you get caught up in other concerns and forget about being mad.

More thoughts on forgiveness from other blog

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Forgiveness: 2nd post

If you can ask the question: "Should I forgive or not?" then you don't understand the troubled situation you are in. If it is a matter of whether we should forgive or not . . . if the issue is put that way, then the battle is already lost. And, the battle is with evil and condemnation and all that is against the way of Christ in this world. It is not that it is easy "to forgive." If you think it is your right to decide whether or not to forgive, it is damn near impossible to forgive in certain situations.

For me to say "I forgive you" to someone who has done me wrong just doesn't seem right to me. If I can take up that God-like position over someone who has wronged me, then I can't be a channel of God's grace. Truth is: we simply don't have the right to sit on the throne of judgment. If we did, maybe we could withhold or grant forgiveness. If you come down from that throne and lose all desire to ever ascend to that throne in judgment over anyone . . . well if you do that, God's will is done; God's grace flows through you; God's peace comes to you.

In the full humanity of his flesh and blood existence, Jesus comes "not to condemn, but to save."He is the way and the truth and the light; and his way doesn't include making decisions about whether to forgive or not. If that is a decision we have a right to make, then we remain in bondage to sin. If we get to the point where we simply don't have it in us to condemn, then we have come out from under sin.

Some thoughts from my personal blog

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Forgiveness

I'll be reflecting some on this later today. It seems that Jesus' view was that it was God's business whether to forgive or not. It seems to be in the "job description" of the divine, and outside the scope of our business. That is, from what Jesus says, and from what he does, true humanity simply passes on God's forgiveness, acts as a channel of it. It is, in that sense, not any great deed to forgive, just "par for the course."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thinking about Romans 5:1-10

Paul's words in these verses (see translation three posts ago) bring a revolution in understanding of who God is, what God is like. We might have thought that Jesus was simply an "atonement" for our sins that satisfied God, leaving God the same, us the same, just forgiven and saved from punishment. But, we aren't able to think that anymore after what Paul proclaims here. What Paul celebrates here about God is revolutionary. I don't think the radical nature of Paul's experience of God has taken hold, even almost 2,000 years after he wrote these words to the Romans.

Somehow the Church tends to forget that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God's very self." In theology and preaching the Church has so often viewed God way up there in heaven as the judge, offended by our sin, ready and needing to punish us, but somehow the wrath subsides when Christ bears the punishment for us. But, Paul throws all this out the window as trash, as a backwards presentation of who God really is. For Paul, GOD IS IN CHRIST. Do you see?! God is not far off, waiting on legal satisfaction. GOD IS IN CHRIST, RECONCILING THE WORLD TO GOD'S VERY SELF THROUGH THE DEATH OF CHRIST. GOD REACHES OUT AND EMBRACES THE WORLD IN CHRIST'S DEATH, A WORLD THAT REJECTED HIS INCARNATION.

The legalistic atonement theory of Protestant theology is simply wrong. It doesn't believe in the incarnation, but leaves God way up there in heaven, unchanged, unaffected, uninvolved in humanity; and leaves us unchanged - only our legal status has been altered. What crap we hear presented as the Gospel. But, Paul . . . Paul puts the truth before us, glowing with grace, shaking with the joy of one who knows that God has really come among us in Christ. How God sustained the world as God's Son died, I don't know. But, I believe very deeply that God was in the middle of doing both.

Read this passage every day in Advent. Romans 5:1-10. What a wonderful and profound celebration of the INCARNATION.

Taking Some Time to Listen to Howard Thurman to Remember his life

"The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication, they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires."

-Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream


The words below are taken from a PBS special on Howard Thurman, a profound witness to God's grace in human life:


Thurman was born and raised in Daytona, Fl. He was raised by his grandmother, who had been enslaved. In 1925, he became and ordained Baptist minister. His first pastorate, at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio, was followed by a joint appointment as professor of religion and director of religious life at Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta, Georgia. Thurman spent the spring semester of 1929 studying at Haverford College with Rufus Jones, a Quaker mystic and leader of the pacifist, interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. Here he began his journey towards a philosophy that stressed an activism rooted in faith, guided by spirit, and maintained in peace.

Three years later, he began to articulate these views. In an essay entitled "Peace Tactics and a Racial Minority," Thurman depicted white America as characterized by the "will to dominate and control the Negro minority," a situation which engendered among blacks a spiritually crippling hatred of their would-be dominators. He suggested that a "technique of relaxation," might break this cycle.

In 1936, Thurman led a "Negro Delegation of Friendship" to South Asia. There he met the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. His conversations with Gandhi broadened his theological and international vision. In his autobiography, Thurman said that in his meeting with Ghandi, the Mahatma expressed his wish that the message of non-violence be sent to the world by African-Americans.

In his seminal 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman provided an interpretation of the New Testament gospels that laid the foundation for a nonviolent civil rights movement. Thurman presented the basic goal of Jesus' life as helping the disinherited of the world change from within so they would be empowered to survive in the face of oppression. A love rooted in the "deep river of faith," wrote Thurman, would help oppressed peoples overcome persecution. "It may twist and turn, fall back on itself and start again, stumble over an infinite series of hindering rocks, but at last the river must answer the call to the sea."

KEY MOMENTS OF FAITH

THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Thurman was raised in segregated Daytona, Florida. Schools there went only to the seventh grade, so Thurman's family scraped together the funds to send him to high school in Jacksonville. However, at the train station, Thurman was told he had to pay extra to send his baggage. Buying the ticket had left him destitute; he had no more to ship his trunk. Penniless, the boy sat down on the steps and began to cry. Then, a stranger - a black man dressed in overalls - walked by and paid the charges. He didn't introduce himself, and Thurman never learned his name.

When Thurman wrote his autobiography, he dedicated it "to the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago."

THE STUDENT AND THE PACIFIST

While still a student, Thurman began working as a youth movement leader, mainly through the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He graduated from Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary in 1926 and began his first pastorate, at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. At Oberlin, he encountered the work of Rufus Jones, a Quaker mystic and leader of the pacifist Interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. Thurman eventually studied with Jones, and described this time as the watershed event of his life. However, Jones' focus was global, and Thurman thought local. "How can we manage the carking fear of the white man's power," he asked, "and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred?"

A MEETING WITH GANDHI

In 1935-36, Thurman led a delegation of African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi. God-given faith, Gandhi proclaimed, could be used to fight the oppression of white American segregation. He challenged Thurman to rethink the idea of Christianity as a religion used by whites to keep black "in their place" with images of a white Christ and ideas of a land of milk and honey in the great beyond. Hindu principles offered Indians a basis for nonviolent opposition to British power, he said. Did Christianity have a similar power to overcome white racism?

A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION

Thurman continued thinking and writing about his conversation with Gandhi for the rest of his life. He passed on his thinking to James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman expounded on the idea of Jesus as a liberating figure, bringing new testament gospel together with non-violent resistance.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF RECONCILIATION

In 1944 Thurman left his position as dean at Howard University to co-found the first fully integrated, multi-cultural church in the U.S. in San Francisco, CA. The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples was a revolutionary idea. Founded on the ideal of diverse community with a focus on a common faith in God, Thurman brought people of every ethnic background together to worship and work for peace. "Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thoughts at the Beginning of Advent

John the Baptist and Advent

As I prepare for the first Sunday in the Church's Advent season, I really do have my mind directed towards the coming of Christ. But, that coming on the human side of things was prepared for by John the Baptist. I am fascinated by this prophet, John the Baptizer. He went out to the desert, lived among the wild animals, dressed in animal skins, ate bugs for his main source of protein. And, he began to preach a new message about repenting and believing that God's kingdom was drawing near. I wonder exactly what was so new in John's preaching. I guess it sounded new because it hearkened back to that which was very, very old in Israel: the days of the true prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea. Days when the way of holiness was understood as unified to the way of justice and mercy in human life. Yes, John brought this message - very old, but always very new. Because, whenever we awaken to the profound depths of such a word like that spoken by Amos: "I hate, I despise your religious feasts. I am sick of the noise of your songs at your solemn assemblies. Your sacrifices and rituals make me sick to my stomach. But, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!" When these words get a real hearing, they open human hearts to the coming of God's redemption. That's what John was doing - shaking people back to their foundations - waking them up that God was the only authority that was worth obeying and bowing down to.

And, when John saw Jesus he must have felt this huge weight come off his shoulders. That weight of holding on and getting ready and trying so hard to open the hearts of people to God's truth and help. But, when John saw Jesus, he saw that HELP had arrived. "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The sin of the world. That is the real problem we face. The sin of the world. That includes our own individual, family, societal sin, but goes even farther than that. The sin of the world. The twistedness of this world even while there is so much good and promise. The twistedness even of the best people, and the pervertedness of the worst. The sin of the world. The hatred of one nation for another; one group of religious people for another; people of lighter skin hating people of darker skin. The sin of the world.

So, as Advent draws near, I say those hopeful words that John first said: "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."O, Lord, please come and take away the sin of the world. Take away the sin from my heart, from our hearts, from all hearts, and remove the vestiges of bondage to sin. That at your coming, Lord, we might be free - free at last, free at last, thank God almighty - free at last!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Romans 5:1-10 Translation

1. Being established in righteousness by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2. through whom we have confidence by faith in this grace in which we stand and we boast in hope of the glory of God. 3. And, we also boast in afflictions knowing that affliction works patience, 4. and patience steadfastness and steadfastness hope. 5. And, hope does not make ashamed or leave disappointed, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us. 6. For while we were still powerless under sin, at that very time, Christ died for the ungodly. 7. But, it is rare that anyone will die for a righteous person, but someone might at certain times dare to die for a good person. 8. But, God has shown his great love for us in that Christ died for us when we were still sinners and in bondage to sin. 9. How much more now that we have been established in righteousness by his blood will we be saved through him from the wrath to come?! 10. For if we were reconciled to God while we were the enemies of God by the death of God's Son, how much more will we who have been reconciled be saved by the life of Christ?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Romans 4:23-25

"The words 'it was reckoned to him" were not written for Abraham alone, but also for us, to whom God will reckon righteousness - for those who believe in the One who raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life that we might become righteous."

Our faith is in "the One who raised Jesus from the dead." Abraham is seen as the pioneer of faith, the one who hoped in the bare promise of God, a promise made when hope seemed impossible. A promise of a child to a couple where the man was very, very old, and where the woman was barren. But, Abraham is said to have trusted in this promise of God, and somehow catching on in the depths of his soul that God is the one who brings hope out of hopelessness, who brings life out of death - as Paul says, we know him as the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. This God was the one at work in Jesus, even in his death and in his raising up.

God turned the rejection of his Son by humanity into the means of our redemption. What humanity meant for evil, God turned to good. And, God also showed that his way of mercy and peace and truth in Jesus would not be defeated, not even by death at the hands of human beings. And, in raising Jesus, God showed that he indeed is God, and that he will not abandon this world to unholy authority, as God raised Jesus up as the head of humanity, the first born among a new creation through him. And, God showed that Jesus was right, true, good, and holy above all others, and he vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead to the highest place of all - the right hand of God. Whatever that exactly means I don't know. I believe it means more than we can understand: more about Jesus, and more about the place of humanity in the life of God because of Jesus.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Calm of the Morning and the Tyranny of Time

I give you thanks, O God, for another morning and for an hour before all other hours of the day begin, an hour where time stands still for just a while in your presence, before time begins to move and push me along. But, this morning, I think I am going to linger in this calm for a good part of the day.

Who rules, O God, in my life: you or time? You are not the one pushing me along. And, what is time anyway except a drivenness in the human mind?

Grant me freedom from that compulsion to keep time and restore me to live at peace and in rhythm with the creation around me.

Amen.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Faith and Works

Paul says plainly that righteousness comes through faith and not through works, which is another way of saying: "IT IS THE INITIATIVE OF GOD'S LOVE THAT BRINGS RIGHTEOUSNESS; NOT THE INITIATIVE FROM OUR EFFORTS TO ATTAIN RIGHTEOUSNESS."

In response to God's initiative in Christ, it is our realization that we are loved, and our celebration of God's sheer goodness that brings about a righteousness and, yes, good works, that we would have never dreamed of or expected.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The End of Romans 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4

As the third chapter of Romans ends, and the fourth chapter starts, Paul focuses in on the meaning of faith and he uses the figure of Abraham to demonstrate the nature of faith, and the way of faith that has been revealed and given in Jesus Christ.

Paul seems to be talking to Jews as he says: "Is God the God of the Jews only?" As John Calvin says, Paul is not just saying that God is the creator of the Gentiles also. Of course, any Jew would acknowledge that, since God is the only Creator. Paul is saying that "God is the saviour of the Gentiles, just as God is the saviour for the Jews." That was the new word in Jesus Christ.

God's will to save was revealed as covering the whole earth, not just his special people, the Jews.

Now, in chapter 4, Paul wants to make very sure that the readers know that God's blessings came through Abraham - not because of some work that Abraham accomplished - but, simply because he trusted in God's goodness and mercy and promise. In short, Abraham was reckoned righteous because he trusted in God's promise.

Luther used to speak of the "naked promise that is believed in faith." Kierkegaard spoke similarly of the 'leap of faith.' Luther and Kierkegaard both believed that faith began as this wild trust, this risk that the other was true and faithful. That other for us is God. Jesus believed in the promise of God, even as Jesus faced death by execution. Jesus believed in the goodness of God even when the goodness of God had disappeared from the face of the earth as he was crucified.

Abraham is used as the example of faith. "When he was as good as dead, he believed God's promise to give him a son through his wife Sarah." Paul speaks of Abraham as "one who hoped against hope." That is faith. Paul speaks also of this reality of faith in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, when he says "in Asia we despaired even of life itself, but that was so that we would trust, not in ourselves, but in the God who raises the dead."

When all hope is gone, this hope which we call faith, arises. It is that "light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Faith, seems, then to come from beyond us, not from within us. That is where I think the Bible points. Those who are all into talk about the immortality of the soul, and the unshakeableness of faith, and the superiority of the soul over the body. Well, that is all well and good. But, when it comes down to it, the Bible and the experience of God says something different. It says what Paul says. To paraphrase, he says in 2 Cor. 1 and in 2 Cor. 4:

"We come to points in our lives where we are completely empty and feel defeated, and, again and again, something new comes from God - just as it came to Abraham when he least expected it, to Zechariah and Elizabeth when they least expected it, to Samson's mother and father when they least expected it, to Mary when she least expected it, to Hannah and Elkanah when they least expected it, and to the grieving disciples of Jesus when they least expected it - this is the way of God in human life. God is the one who brings new life amidst the experience of death, brings new love in the midst of hatred, brings joy in the middle of sorrow. This is the experience of faith, which is to say, this is what happens if you can just open your lives to the coming of God's Spirit. But, it comes from without, from beyond. The greatest comes from beyond us, not from within us."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reflecting on the Day

I was thinking today about a woman I was trying to get out of jail, a man in jail whose sister had just died, and a man I had coffee with yesterday who doesn't have a place to live. I felt tired as I considered these people. The woman I was able to get out of jail, the man I haven't even been able to get a furlough for the funeral, the other man I am going to try to work on a social security disability claim for him. These are just a few of the people I considered today.

I wondered about my family, my friends, my church, even my dog today, as I seemed to be taking stock of whether I was giving to others what I needed to give. The question comes again and again: "Am I bearing those responsibilities that are given to me to bear?" There is a feeling inside when it seems I am, and a feeling inside when it seems I am not.

And, another day has come to an end. I turn to God in my thoughts. I surrender the swirl of my thoughts and feelings and let them drown in his grace.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

confession and Psalm 32

I am looking to another section of scripture this morning: Psalm 32. "When I was silent," means "when I was hiding in my sin, or trying to conceal my sin."

The idea that we hide from God is a strange idea. Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden of Eden from God is a striking image. After they had disobeyed God's command, they felt they needed to hide.

It is easy to imagine a scene in which we have done wrong and are trying to conceal it from someone else we know. But, it is harder to imagine trying to conceal our sin from God. This is the state of mind and soul the Psalmist is talking about. What does it mean?

I guess it is like pretending God is not involved with us, is not concerned with us, or to pretend that God does simply not exist.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thinking about new church development at 4th United Presbyterian

One thing about doing something new is that you get to make it up as you go along. And, in a new church development, there is really some of that “making it up as you go along.” But, there is always something very “old” in every genuine “new” church development. What we hope to develop has a living tradition almost 2,000 years old. And, with our connection to the faith of Israel, an even longer living tradition. Those of us who seek to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth do so as the “contemporaries” of the first disciples. That “old” tradition is experienced as “new” and relevant in our lives. So, this vital connection to the tradition of faith means there is something very old and deeply embedded in any true new church development. As we hear the Word of the Living God: “Behold, I make all things new,” we are humbled and hopeful, realizing that it is God who is creating and redeeming in our lives and through our lives and in this “development” of a new mission.

Paul speaks of “the faith of Jesus Christ,” which may also be translated as “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” This is that wonderful union of humanity with God as a human being shows complete faithfulness to God, the Creator, and as God reveals his faithfulness to that human, Jesus, by raising him from the dead to be the head of humanity, the Lord of the earth, and declared for all the world as “the Son of God,” one with the very being of God. But, the revelation of God’s faithfulness to humanity goes even deeper than that. Because in Jesus, God is made known in human flesh. Both God’s will for humanity and God’s character are made known in Jesus. And, what is revealed is that Jesus came from God as the love and redeeming will and power of God on earth. “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son . . . ."

The “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” opens a way, a way of human beings living in peace and joy with God and each other. That is the way of Jesus Christ on earth. It was a way revealed in his life, suffering and death. It was a way that was shown to be undefeatable in his resurrection. When humans are reconciled with God, they are given to share in God’s eternal love and life.

So, this way of Christ is not something we are ‘making up as we go along.’ Nor, are we proclaiming some “new” gospel of God. What we are doing is bearing witness to this way in our midst. What we are doing is bearing witness to the ways of God which are always new among us. This old and living tradition is not primarily a set of beliefs passed down from generation to generation, nor is it primarily a set of rituals or precepts for living. No, it is a living allegiance and love for our God who remains faithful to human beings and to all the creation. It is an old way, but in this way, we attend to the ONE who makes all things new. It is the character of God to create new amidst the old, to bring life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, light out of darkness. It is our “attendance” to this living, moving Spirit of God that causes us to declare this a “new church development.” It is the newness of God’s Spirit moving among us. It is the fact that we have awakened to God’s calling that makes this a “new thing.” And, as we continue to experience God as the “God who raises the dead” and “the One who makes all things new,” we respond and realize a certain newness in our own spirits.

But, in taking part in a “new thing,” we are joining with all who are “attending” to the movement of God’s creative Spirit in the world. If we do something truly new, then it will reverberate in the faith of those other church’s around us. We will be mutually strengthened by each others faith. For, the truly new will ground us in the truly old. For, in the end, what we want to be is not so much a “new” church development, but a “true” church development.

The “newness” in our situation is that we have been shaken, turned around, displaced, so that we are seeing those around us in a new way, seeing the church’s mission in a new way, seeing ourselves in a new way. This is a “new” church development because we have departed from the old ways of “doing church” and are willing to learn from God a new way of “being church.” We are coming to understand this divine disruption of our lives as the coming of God’s costly grace into our lives and through us into the lives of others. Aren’t so many of the most wonderful gifts initially experienced as “disruptions” in our lives?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Time to Move On

Romans 3:21-26, that I have worried over, because I didn't trust any of the translations I have read. Well, when I got to this point in Romans 1:16-17, I felt I could offer a reliable translation, but not only do I not find any of the translations convincing of Romans 3:25, I cannot offer one on my own. I simply do not have the level of knowledge of ancient Greek necessary for this problem. So, I leave it as a problem. I don't trust the renderings of Romans 3:25 by our translators - whether they be the King James group or those of the RSV group. But, I trust in my experience of God and my reading of the rest of scripture. And, I trust in my reading of the rest of Paul's letters and the rest of this letter to the Romans.

I am zealous to proclaim the wonderful goodness of God whose grace was poured out through Christ, who has always worked at saving humanity, and who was so intent on saving us and our whole world that God, our Creator, took on our flesh - which means, took on our vulnerabilty in this flesh and blood life - and, God be praised, somehow has gone to the depths of our pain and suffering and hopelessness and created a new way - a way of purpose and love and hope that cannot be defeated.

That's what Jesus Christ means. He means something unbelievable about the Creator of the world. He means that God is with us, God is for us, against all odds, against all expectations, God is our redeemer and for some reason will not give up on us.

And, I'll get back to Bible Study next time, with some real attention to detail in vv. 25-26.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Getting Back to this Study

It's been 13 days since my last post. I have had a lot of work lately. And, just not as much time to sit and read and write.

If you do read this blog, I would encourage you to go back to the start, and read through Romans passages by passage and read the blog to this point, and comment if you want to comment. After I get through 3:21-26, I will be summarizing the study to this point, and coming up with some issues that are unresolved at this point in Paul's letter.

More later today or tommorrow.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Romans 3:21-26 "The Greek is a Mess"

Paul's use of Greek is usually pretty clear, but here, it doesn't seem like him at all. I almost have trouble believing he wrote these words. Many scholars suspect that he has adopted some early creedal summary of the church that he didn't write and has included it perhaps because it was meaningful to the Romans. I don't know about this. But, a literal translation of the Greek at v. 25 ends with something that really doesn't make much sense at all. So, even scholars who are very proficient in Greek are making some big guesses when it comes to verses 25-26, but most especially verse 25!



I will start with a translation of 3:21-24 which can be done with some confidence, and then I want to move to a translation of v. 26 which can be done with a little less confidence, but still it can be done. And, I want to act as if v. 25 has been lost, but we know a v. 25 exists. From the context surrounding v. 25 (vv. 21-24 & v. 26), I want to guess what I would have expected to have been in verse 25.



But, I'll have to get back to this a little later.



I can get a start before leaving this behind for other work:



"Now, separate from the law, God's righteousness has been and is being revealed, the very righteousness to which the law and prophets could point but could not bring about, that righteousness of God that comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all people who rejoice and participate in this faithful way of Jesus with God. In this revelation of God's righteousness through Jesus, it is shown that there is no distinction between people since all have sinned and lack the glory of God, being made righteous by the gift of God's grace through the freeing power that is in Christ Jesus,"



Note: "the Greek word apolutroseos can be translated as "release" or "redemption," having the sense of an exchange of some value given to procure physical freedom or freedom from financial debt (which in those days debt often meant loss of liberty). I wonder if the Greek will bear the translation "through the redemption of Christ Jesus" ????? The preposition "ev" makes this unlikely.

Now, I know that not everybody reads Greek, so bear with me until I get through this part. I am just not willing to accept English translations any more on sections of the Bible where the translation involves a huge interpretive decision because the Greek is difficult to render into English. When I hit these sections, I am digging in to give myself some peace of mind that I have actually heard what was originally written, instead of being cut off from it by a big "interpretive" decision of a translator. But, I will have worked through this in a day or two, and then we will be back to english as usual until I run into another passage like this, which won't happen very often in Romans.

I will move to v. 26 next, and then go back and make some guesses about what I would think v. 25 would be about in light of its context, and then the hard work of really translating with the help of others guesses as well.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Romans 3:21-26

In reading this passage, there are some very important interpretive issues which are also translation matters. Again, as in 1:16-17, the term for "faith/faithfulness" comes again. I will set the Greek out below: list three or four different translations, and then see what I can come up with. Read the New RSV, The King James, and two others (I will be reading J.B. Phillips translation also and the New English Bible as well).

I will list these translations of the passage next.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Quote from "The Divine Conspiracy," by Dallas Willard

This quote relates to my second to last post (Sept. 9).

"The sensed irrelevance of what God is doing to what makes up our lives is the foundational flaw in the existence of multitudes of professing Christians today. They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ's account to ours, and to wipe out our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of atonement to be true - even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us."

p. 49

This quote is also in preparation for interpreting Romans 3:21-26, but interpretation of that passage will require a close look at the Greek too.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Romans 3:1-20

Paul has proclaimed that God will judge all human beings with impartiality. In Chapter 2 he had focused his attention on the Jews as the argument progressed pointing out very sharply that "knowing the law would not insulate the Jew who fails to do the law from judgment." For the whole point of circumcision and instruction in Torah was to produce a people who lived righteously in the sight of God and glorified God in the sight of the world.

The revelation that was given Paul through Jesus had first been a revelation of the great NO of God to humankind as Barth says. And, much of God's revelation of this great NO, a revelation of present judgment on humankind, was the rejection by God of "human religion." By human religion, I mean human efforts to access the divine, human efforts to make sense of the world through thought, practice and rituals of religion. The real shock of that revelation out on Damascus Road to Paul (Acts 9) was that his own brand of Jewish religion was also implicated in this great NO. The great distinguishing feature of Judaism was that it alone had been spoken to by the One Creator and Judge of the world. At the heart of the Jewish faith was a thorough-going criticism of false religion/idolatry: "you shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make any likeness of any part of the created order and you shall not bow down and worship it." But, on the way to Damascus to put down "false religion," Paul found out that he had sold out to false religion himself! Because the One who had made God's will known in human flesh, the One whose complete obedience had shown the truth of God on earth - Paul realized suddenly that he was fighting against this One. Jesus said to Paul that day: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" But, Paul had thought he was persecuting those who were leading others away from God. Paul had thought he was upholding the truth of the faith, not attacking the true way of faith.

So, as Paul has launched this sharp criticism of Jews in chapter 2 of Romans, know that it arises out of the dramatic turning of his own heart and mind inside out on Damascus Road before the living Word of God, the Risen Lord.

But, how could the Jewish faith have been twisted so badly? Was there some defect in the scriptures themselves? God had brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt; God had revealed his holy commandments on Mt. Sinai to Moses; God had raised up prophets to speak the Word of the Lord and to bring judgment and correction too for God's people. How could this tradition have gone so wrong? What was being asked basically was this: "Was the Holy Scripture and the tradition of Worship somehow "unholy?"

Paul faces these questions - actually raises them himself: "What advantage then has the Jew? or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way: first of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God." Romans 3:1-2. The giving of the law and prophets, the revelation of the name of the Lord and God's character to Israel, the history of God with Israel - this history is holy, even if Israel failed to keep the covenant. This history, despite being shot through with sin, nonetheless is a holy history because it reveals God's character - God's faithfulness despite the unfaithfulness of Israel. Paul writes: "For what if some were without faith? Shall their lack of faith nullify the faithfulness of God? God forbid! Yes, let God be found true, but every human a liar; as it is written, 'that thou might be justified in thy words, and might prevail when thou comes to judgment." Romans 3:3-4.

This holy history of God with Israel is a history of revelation: revealing the presence of God with human beings and also revealing the rejection of God by human beings. Of course, this history also reveals that from time to time human beings like Abraham, Moses, Amos, Jeremiah, Shiprah and Puah received God and praised God and obeyed God. So, this history is a record of the holy path where God's truth meets with human sin and at moments, with human faithfulness to God.

And, I spend some time on this response of Paul's (which he will clarify in more detail later in chapter 7 of Romans when he deals specifically with the law of God) because how one views the history of God with Israel and our Old Testament that arises from and recollects this history - well, the way one views this period of the Old Covenant is critical to faith. An example from Church History might help clarify what I am getting at. So, I am going to take the next post to cover a couple of important figures in early Church History. One is named Marcion; the other Irenaeus. The reason that I take time to do this is that how we understand and experience the relationship of the New Covenant through Christ and the Spirit to the Old Covenant through the Law and Prophets - well, how we experience this in the depths of our souls is at the heart of faith. For Marcion, the covenant through Christ did not arise out of the covenant through the law and prophets but contradicted it and set the law and prophets aside. For Marcion, Christ did not reconcile us with the Creator of the Word, but showed that the God of Israel had been a God we couldn't trust, who was arbitrary. And, so the cross did not affect a reconcilation with the God and Father and Creator of all, but bound us to a new redeeming God and saved us from an old judging God. More on this in the next post.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Romans 2: Standing before it and questioning myself

I have been complaining some about a type of Protestant belief that has three basic assumptions:

1) that belief in Jesus is all that matters; and
2) that doesn't worry too much about conforming one's life to the way of Jesus, because what really matters is keeping Jesus way in mind and praising him even if we can't quite follow him.; but
3) that does worry about keeping our sin in mind and confessing it regularly.

A few weeks ago or maybe a month ago I preached a sermon about "Moving from Guilt and Forgiveness to Repentance and Obedience." I liked that sermon; problem was that I am as stuck in the guilt/forgiveness cycle as the biggest guilt trippin, grace grabbing Protestant around. And, I think I even said some right things in that sermon like: a religion focused on guilt/forgiveness is focused on ME; whereas a religion focused on repentance/obedience is focused on glorifying GOD - centered on GOD. But, just like the Jewish teachers Paul is addressing in Romans 2, I say a lot of the right things. But, when it comes down to it, what is the structure of my life of faith and my understanding of what devotion to God really means?

"Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are (pastor, doctor or Indian chief), when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." Romans 2:1

In some ways I have a self-focused typical Protestant faith. Of course, I have these experiences at times that break through that into a God-focused moment, but then I let that slip away before I am taken up into my upward calling into a completely God-centered life. And, so I fall back down into the pit of having to revisit my tendency to criticize others, consider things with regard to how they affect me, and experience anxiety over many things instead of trusting peace. And, I bring this all out before God seeking his renewal, his peace, and the way of Christ in this world. And, God again is gracious and shows me something, and I take it to heart it seems for a while; then, I forget again and get stuck in the pattern of "believing in God's grace; keeping myself aware of my sins and distance from true obedience" and thinking that is the structure of true faith. But, it is not. Real faith is powerful. That is, real faith, as Paul knows breaks open the heart and our ways of living to God's redeeming, guiding, creative power. The path of Jesus in this world is a path of vital life, deep trust, and joyful praise. It loses respect for the power of sin, because it is so full of the power of God's holy grace and merciful love. Real faith gets on with obeying God's will. Too much time has been wasted on the b.s. of sin; let's get on with the real joy and business of living in God, abiding in God's love. That is the attitude and spirit of real faith. And, I have known it and been known by it. But, then when that fades away, I settle for the consolation prize of a sickly Protestant guilt-focused, me-focused religion, which I am not really sure is any religion at all. But, I deny all the time that I believe in this type of rweak religion, because I claim that my faith is in God and my praise is for God and that my allegiance is really for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But, where is my head and my heart day to day? Self-preservation and focused within, or self-giving and seeking God's work as the Spirit draws me into working for others, loving others, understanding others, enjoying others? I can say that when I really feel alive I am involved in the self-giving and seeking the way of Jesus in the world. I have to admit that when I feel pretty dead inside, I have usually gotten stuck in myself. I have gotten to where I can feel the difference in these ways: the way of life and the way of death. But, God is not a God who leaves us to be tossed to and fro between good and evil, between trust and anxiety. So, when I am tending towards deadness inside, it generally means I have walked away from the path of the Spirit of God, which means walked away from the real needs of others and the real needs of myself - the need to abide in God and praise and revere God from the depths of my soul.

As I think back to my anger this morning over a minor dispute with another attorney, I realize that my anger was not really arising from my heart, but from some role I was playing. And, when I get angry like that, I can't really "own it," and that makes me feel bad about being angry and makes me even harder to deal with! If my anger really arises in the course of trying to be just and decent, then it is something I can own; it is something that can be shaped by God's Spirit. But, this other anger, what I had going this morning - that feels like something from the past, something that is no longer real and needs throwing away for good. It felt like it came from a part of me that has already died.

I may have learned something today. When we come to realize the falsity and even dead parts of ourselves - those false constructions that have been crucified with Christ - we can quit digging up the graves of our pasts, maybe dance a little jig on these graves and get back to connecting with life: in God and in others.

These thoughts that I am having right now bring hope to me. I am starting to wonder if God's Spirit has lured me away from guilt into repentance; away from focusing on being forgiven to making God proud. I have to admit that my experience of God's overwhelming grace does seem to be an experience that I have despite myself. And, God seems to have surrounded me with so much help, so many good chances, so many good people, that maybe it is all starting to sink in.

That's all anybody needs to move the structure of their faith from guilt/forgiveness self-focused religion to repentance/obedience God-focused religion. Part of me is certainly the old self-focused religion, but it is getting harder and harder to take that part of my self seriously. God is like that with us. He lures us away from dead end paths, shows us examples of real life, until one day we will wake up and realize we are walking faithfully in the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, maybe that old self-focused religion of guilt and forgiveness isn't so bad afterall as long as it remains open to the coming of God's grace and as long as it realizes that God has more in store for human beings than that. I am on the same continuum of faith as my fellow believers, and where I really am on it only God knows.

Maybe, I am on the same continuum of faith as my fellow humans, whether they know it or not? In Christ God has established a relationship with every human being that is full of hope and full of promise. A human being is placed on this gracious continuum of faith by the completely unexpected embrace of God in Jesus Christ. I would like to think some about this when we cover Romans 5. Paul seems to think the nature of all human life is changed by God's unilateral reaching out in love through Christ to all humanity. I would like to think on this. The assumption that Christ's death and resurrection had no effect on the creation and only has an effect on those who profess faith in Christ doesn't seem to be Paul's view. More on this, but it will have to wait until chapter 5 of Romans.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Words from Anders Nygren about Romans 2

In his Commentary on Romans, Anders Nygren (I think he is a Swedish Biblical Scholar), says of Romans 2:12-16:

"Many have felt that Paul's proclamation of justification by faith is irreconciliable with and just exclude all thought of judgment, especially any judgment of the works of men. . . But this suggestion rests on a misunderstanding of the apostle's thought. For him, as for the rest of the New Testament, the last judgment is an inescapable fact, which nothing can put in question. It is only in the judgment that the creative and redemptive work of God comes to completion. And, even that judgment belongs to the work of Christ. See also 2 Cor. 5:10.

"For Paul there is no contradiction between justification by faith and judgment. The former does not make the latter unnecessary for the Christian's account. By justification by faith God has not abolished the judgment of the works of men. Justification does not mean carte blanche for the Christian, so that God no longer asks as to his or her works.

"But does not Paul mean that man is to be judged according to his faith or unbelief? Such a question also rests on a misunderstanding of Paul. For him faith is not something which man offers in lieu of works. To think that is to remain in the legalistic position, merely substituting one requirement for another."

Commentary on Romans, Anders Nyrgen, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1949, pp. 127-128.

Now, if you are beginning to wonder what faith means, what the Gospel does for human beings . . . if you are beginning to wonder, then you are beginning to read this part of the Bible with an open heart and mind. These first two chapters of Romans are meant to unsettle all of our human points of view, and really lead us into a state of "unknowing," so that we might begin to listen for a living Word from God. Along these lines, I want to include a reflection in the next post of how I am reading this second chapter of Romans. It has led me to ask about the structure of my understanding of God's revelation in Jesus and the structure of my "faith." I have come to the conclusion that I share so much of the structure of the "false preaching" I have criticized in interpreting chapter 2 of Romans that I need to read this letter as if reading it for the first time. Like Moses when he saw the bush burning and didn't know why, this letter seems to be burning before my eyes, but is not consumed. I wait to hear a new word. My old understandings are being burned up, and so I am starting to listen to a new word, a word not contained in the written words, but spoken through those written words, by the living Word of God, Jesus. I thought these words from Romans were words that I understood and could handle and interpret. But, these are words in God's hands, that cannot be taken out of God's hands, and either God will reveal their meaning or else we won't ever understand these words. The Bible is not a tool in our hands; but a tool in God's hands. We need to give it back to God and wait on him and quit thinking we "have the Word of God all neatly tied up in a book." There ain't nothing neat or tied up about these words in Romans! It was formed by the Spirit of the God who created the world and who raised Jesus from the dead. It will be understood only when that same Spirit breathes God's judgment and grace on us as we read and wait and seek understanding.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Following Romans as the argument builds

One thing to remember as we follow Paul's letter to the Romans is that he is building step by step in a dynamic way, clarifying chapter by chapter, the truth of God's revelation in Jesus Christ. I am trying to hear what Paul says in chapters 1 & 2 before moving on. That is the best way to read this letter. Take to heart what Paul has said in chapters 1 & 2, and then move on to chapter 3. I can see that some readers of this blog might read my last post and think: "he sounds like it's all about what we do, not what God does that saves us." At this point, I am just saying what Paul has said "to this point." And, in chapter 2 of Romans, he is emphasizing the goodness of God and the patience of God and the truth that we are completely accountable to God for our deeds. We need to let these teachings sink in and then build upon them as we read more of the letter.

I think a couple of things become very clear in Paul's teaching here: 1) Paul is most interested in proclaiming/celebrating the righteousness of God as the foundation for everything that follows; 2) Paul begins to explain that God's righteousness is revealed now in God's patience and concern for the salvation of human beings. Paul's focus is upon the character and glory and kindness of God. It is on this foundation that he builds his teaching about God's revelation of God's very self in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ of God.

It is significant to note that once Paul begins his argument in chapter 1:18, that he doesn't mention Jesus again until end of chapter 3. He speaks of God without speaking of Jesus again until the end of chapter 3. Paul is establishing our understanding of Jesus in the context of the relation between the Creator to the creation, particulary the relationship of the Creator to humanity. As Paul explains the rift between Creator and created humanity in these first 3 chapters, he moves towards the declaration of God's gracious and decisive response in Jesus. But, I have moved into chapter 3 a little. That's what I'll cover next.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Romans 2:6-11: "Some comments about false Protestant preaching"

Paul makes it real clear: God is going to judge every human being - not in accordance with whether they say "Lord, Lord!" but with regard to "each one's deeds." See Matthew 7:21! (I wonder who Paul got this from?).

Paul writes: ""when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. For God will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good . . . , he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking, . . . there will be wrath and fury." Romans 2:5b-8.

We have been taught that we can't earn our salvation, and that salvation depends on whether we "accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour." Of course, Jesus was skeptical of those who accepted him if those followers didn't honor Jesus' God and Father by their actions. On the final day, we have been taught that it will only be asked of us whether we believed in the Lord or whether we were baptized or whether we were members of the body of Christ. But, the Bible doesn't say that. See Matthew 25:31-46. The Bible and the words it records that Jesus said, and that Paul wrote, indicate something very different. And, this truth of the Bible can be summarized in these words: "For God shows no partiality." Romans 2:11; see Peter's statement in Acts 10:34. Through Jesus God revealed this truth: that the living God shows no partiality!

But, the church has done what Israel did: turn faith inward and into a way of preserving self, instead of turning faith outward as a way of giving of self. Israel, with more justification than the church has had, thought God's grace was for only Israel. The church, born in the truth that God's grace was for all, has a sad and hard day coming when God judges the deeds and "the secrets of the heart" (Romans 2:16).

I have always had a deep sense that no one who really has faith should get too comfortable on the "inside of the church." Faith causes me to be uncomfortable with comfortable church meetings, and more comfortable on the fringe of the church where those who are unsure of their status seek grace and peace and understanding. There is a type of certainty of salvation among believers that celebrates in confidence for insiders that just doesn't come from the experience of God, but from false religion.

We have been raised and trained on so much false, unbiblical Christianity, especially in the so-called "Bible Belt." The more conservative the movement among Christians, the more unbiblical often. Liberals in our day do seem to read their Bibles a lot more than they used to.

But, neither liberals nor conservatives have taken this chapter of Romans into account. Judgment is coming: first on the house of God, and then on those who aren't among the believers. 1st Peter says this too. Grace doesn't remove us from accountability but causes us to live under it daily. Living under the rule of God is a blessing, not a curse. When Paul talks about the curse of the law, and coming out from under the "custodian" of the law in grace, he doesn't mean an escape from accountability, but an establishment of true accountability before God as something we rejoice in. It will take a few chapters of Romans to really get to the heart of this relationship between the holy law and the gift of the Spirit.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Romans 2:1-3 and why I can't get past verse 3

In my last post, I said that Christians ought to read these words of Paul in chapter 2 as if they were written for contemporary Christians. Of course, having said that, I almost wish I hadn't. Because these words are just so direct, so clear. It was a more relaxing exercise to think about the context "back then," and wait a while longer to look at our context "here and now."

And, these first three verses of Romans 2 have just stopped me in my tracks.

"Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." v. 1

And, verses 2 and 3 just drive the point home further.

Romans 1:18-3:20 might be called "NO EXIT." And, in chapters 1 & 2 of Romans (Romans 1:18-2:29), Paul closes every door, or you might say: "he reveals the despair of humanity who is trapped in the meaninglessness of sin." What Paul reveals in this chapter is that our sinfulness is shown in the very fact that we are so busy judging others for the very sins we also commit. The real root of our evil lies in this propensity to set ourselves up as judges over others. It is sort of like Paul is saying: yes, in the first chapter of this letter I talked about all the awful idolatry and immorality among humans beings, but now I am going one step farther to talk about the presumption of those religious human beings who not only are idolatrous and immoral but think they are not while accusing the rest of the world!

"You say, 'we know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with the truth.' Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?"

vv. 2-3

And, here comes the real heart of Paul's appeal: "Or do you despise the riches of God's kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" v. 4

That really says it all. I am going to think on that some this morning.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

An introduction to Romans 2:1-29

Criticizing those who identify themselves as “the saved.”

In this section of Romans, Paul turns from criticizing the idolatry of unbelievers (non-Jews), and assuming that he has those of Jewish origin applauding, amening and self-satisfied with their religious status and knowledge of the law, Paul does an about face, looks squarely at the Jews and Jewish Christians and says: “Therefore you are without excuse, all you people of God, whoever you are that are judging others; for when you judge others, you are really condemning yourselves, because you are doing the very evil you accuse others of doing!”

At times in the history of the church, and often in the history of the Protestant Church, this section has been looked upon as a criticism of “works-righteousness,” which is the belief that humans earn their way to salvation by virtue of their good works, not by virtue of their faith in God’s good work in Jesus. But, Paul’s real point in this chapter is that it is a big problem to presume on God’s grace, because in the end everyone will give an account before God for what they have done in this mortal life. It is really the confidence in their faith that they have been elected by God for salvation that Paul is attacking, because this confidence is not characterized by humility and gratitude, but by arrogance and an absence of real gratitude.

To me, this chapter of Romans is best heard by the religious community known as “the church” in our time. That is, we in the church need to hear chapter 2 of Romans as directly addressed to us. We are those who believe that we have some superior status as “believers” that saves us, and we are those who trust more in our confessions of faith and rites of admission than the God to whom they are supposed to point. We might very well translate 2:26 as: “Therefore if the unbaptized keep the righteousness of the law, shall not this unbaptized person be counted as if he or she was truly baptized into Christ?” In this loose translation/interpretation, I have here substituted the rite of baptism for the rite of circumcision. Certainly, this is not justifiable on linguistic grounds; however, it may be justifiable as "an interpretation" that speaks a living word, as opposed to being stuck at the level of a literal translation with no real interpretation. Think about this chapter as addressed to the contemporary Church and see how it fits. It probably still addresses Jews pretty well too. As Christians we are so closely related to our Jewish brothers and sisters, both in our positive and our negative characteristics and tendencies. Back then, I think Paul aimed this criticism at those with a close tie to the Jewish tradition, whether they were Jews or Jewish Christians. That is another way of aiming his criticism at the “religious” as opposed to aiming (as he did in Romans 1:18-32) his criticism at the irreligious. Jews and Christians ought to try to hear this chapter together sometime, and see what comes of it.

I’ll go through this chapter verse by verse in the next couple of posts.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Concluding Romans 1:18-32

Paul is very concerned to make clear that human beings have the opportunity to "know" God since the nature of God is "made plain" in the creation. As Paul says: "they have no excuse" for failing to give thanks and acknowledge God as creator. As chapter one closes, the immorality of the world at large is described. One thing to note: human beings are condemned for their idolatry. Immorality is actually the punishment/result of idolatry. Wrath is God "giving human beings up/turning away from human beings" who have turned away from God and towards false gods.

That might be something worth reflecting on.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Romans 1:18-32: Looking at some of the specific examples of wickedness in Romans 1:18-32

Paul gives as examples of the sinful, torn-up condition of humanity the following (this is the condition that humans end up in when God has "given them up" to their desires):

"they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened." v. 21

"claiming to be wise, they became fools." v. 22

"exchanging the glory of God for images resembling humans or beasts." v. 23

"to the degrading of their bodies among themselves." v. 24

"their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another . . . " v. 26-27

"filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God'haters, insolent, haughty . . . rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless." vv. 29-31

"they not only do these evil deeds but applaud others who practice such evil as well." v. 32

This is the kind of list a Jew might have come up with in those days to describe how depraved the Gentiles were. So, in terms of where we are in the letter, the Jews/Jewish Christians might be saying: "amen, aren't those gentiles immoral and nasty sinners!!" Of course, as you will see as you start chapter 2, if the Jews/Jewish Christians reading are thinking that, then Paul pulls the rug out from under their feet in chapter 2!

But, I want to linger a bit with the language Paul uses to describe a sinful life. It is a traditional description of bad people and bad living. But, one part of the traditional list of evils probably takes many of us back in our time. And, that is the part of this list that focuses on women having intercourse with women and men having intercourse with men. This is clearly a reference to homosexual acts. Some commentators think Paul is really attacking the custom of "men with boys," that was accepted among many Roman citizens, though not among Jews. Robin Scroggs, a Biblical Scholar, has written a book to explain how this passage is misused in the contemporary church that pronounces God's judgment on all homosexual practice. But, to make his argument, Scroggs has to convince us that Paul really does not mean what he seems to mean.

I think it is better to acknowledge that 1st century Judaism did not accept homosexual practice in any way, shape, form or fashion. They also did not accept women as Rabbis either. The early church clearly found its leaders from among the males, and shared most of the Roman Empires thoughts about the subordination of women to men in both society and in the religious community. The early church and Judaism of the 1st century also show acceptance or at least, non-resistance, to the institution of slavery. Now, if we are going to take every custom of that time and require obedience to it whenever it is reflected in an ethical stance in scripture - well, then, we should go ahead and admit that we are in for some real trouble in coming up with any kind of consistent moral tradition in the church.

Now, in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., we all agree that the acceptance of slavery is not God's will, though it clearly is condoned in the New Testament, and in parts of the Old Testament as well. We all agree that women can be ordained as Pastors and that women are not to be subordinated to male authority, even though parts of the New Testament forbid a vocal leadership role for women in worship, and though other parts of the New Testament urge women to be subordinated to the authority of men. So, we have reached a consensus in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. that some of these ethical rules in scripture are not in accordance with what God would have us do in our time.

Now, as we move to consider homosexuality, our denomination is divided. Because, as some argue: "the practice of homosexuality is defined as sin - that type of conduct is defined as sin." With women, it was simply as status that was at issue, not conduct. With slaves, it was status that was at issue, not conduct. But, this argument falls apart once we acknowledge that the terrible evil of slaveholding was condoned in scripture (i.e., what was accepted as proper behavior, we agree is rebellion against God's will!). With Jesus, we see women being treated in a new way; we see women leaders beginning to rise up in the church in Paul's mission; we see the lame and the children being welcomed into the holy assembly by Jesus; we see eunuchs received into worship for the first time with Jesus, and through the mission described in Acts. So, walls are beginning to fall as the Gospel is a living power of God on earth.

But, not all walls fell in the first few decades of the church. What we see in scripture is the powerful movement of God's reconciling, redeeming love, that was bringing change and new life to human beings on earth. In our denomination, we think this is what happened with the abolition of slavery, and with equality movements both as to gender and to race. But, many of us think that this same movement of freedom in Christ is breaking down barriers between gay and straight, and removing the stigma and dehumanizing experience from gay people in the experience of the way of Christ on earth. I am one of those who believes God is speaking a new and liberating word into this troubled area of church and social life. My children's generation is hearing it loudly and clearly - to the extent that acceptance and dignity for a person, whether they are gay or straight is a given for so many of the young - that they are ready to deal with other problems and whether these young people are gay or straight, ready to work together to deconstruct the evil web of hatred towards homosexual people.

In Paul's letters, we see that Paul had experienced the freedom of Christ as he writes to the Galatians: "In Christ, there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek." Galatians 3:28. This experience of freedom in Christ is transforming heart and mind and church and culture. Paul was the leader on the front of breaking down barriers between Jews and non-Jews (gentiles), and the casting aside of traditional barriers is a disorienting experience for many. But, for those who undergo this disorientation in faith, it is discovered: "If anyone is in Christ, that one is a new creation - the old things have passed away."

If people gather to worship God in the Spirit of Christ, then a new thing comes to be; old things pass away. It causes some disorientation as we are trying to make out what the new community is to look like, how we are to understand sexuality in this new spirit, how we are understand the claim of God on us whether we are gay or straight or somewhere in between or off to the side. But, if we can first gather together and listen for God's living Word to us, and second bring ourselves humbly before this Word, we might receive a new understanding of human sexuality that might be good news and redemptive to a world so much in need of a new word in this area of life. A God-centered community has the chance to hear new things, experience new things from God, and become the good news of God in a world which needs some good news.

Romans 1:18-32: What is the wrath of God?

At this point in the letter, Paul has clarified who he is: "called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God, concerning God's Son, Jesus, the Christ." v.1 Paul clarifies that he is at work to "bring about the obedience of faith among the gentiles." v. 5 And, Paul gives thanks for the mutual identity of Paul and the Roman Christians. vv. 8-15 And, in vv. 16-17 of this First Chapter, Paul summarizes his mission: serving in the Gospel which is "the power of God for salvation . . . to the Jew first, and then the Greek." It is significant that Paul, who is apostle to the gentiles, insists on the historical priority of the Jew in salvation history. This is a very important theme in this letter, which Paul focuses exclusively on in Chapters 9-11.

But, now in Chapter 1, the movement of Paul's thought begins with this section about the wrath of God being poured out from heaven against "all ungodliness and wickedness of those who in their wickedness suppress the truth." v. 18 What is the truth "they suppress?" Paul says: "for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them . . . in the things he has made." vv. 19-20 "So, they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to God . . . claiming to be wise, they became fools . . . and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." vv. 21-23

So, this is the ungodliness and wickedness, that human beings who should have known God's goodness by looking at and experiencing all the good things God had made, instead got all mixed up and started worshipping creatures instead of the Creator. Because of this rebellion/ignorance against the Creator, we are told in v. 24: "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . " v. 25 Again it says: "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions . . . " v. 26 And, in v. 28, again it says: "Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done . . . " v. 28.

I have highlighted in bold print the refrain: "God gave them up . . .," because it is such a distinctive description of what the revelation of God's wrath is. We usually think of wrath as direct outpouring of fury and direct punishment. But, here, it may show God's fury or it may show God's deep disappointment, but the action taken is not direct punishment, but simply turning away and "giving human beings up" to the twisted desires of their hearts and minds.

So, in this section, we get a clear picture that God's wrath against idolatry (centering life and adoring first the things that have been made, and not centering life and adoring first the Creator of all things) is revealed when humans are seen to be destroying themselves and each other. Because, if human beings insist looking away from God and submitting to false gods, then God eventually lets them try out what they wanted so badly. Like the father who let the prodigal son take his inheritance early and squander it on wild living, God lets rebellious humanity find out what it is to live without God, with life centered on a lie.

The worst thing that can happen to us is for God to look away from us, for God to leave us alone, for God to say: "go ahead, have it your way." When God does that, it is a terrible thing - it shows his wrath. A God who has sought days without number to reach humanity and reconcile humanity to himself and to each other - well, when a God like this gets to the point of turning away and saying: "go off then and live your life falsely - if that's what you want so much, go ahead." When God gets to that point, being the kind of God he is, then that means God has just plain had it up to the heavens.

The worst thing that can happen to a human being is for God to look away from him or her. Then, we are abandoned to the abyss of our own confusion, the emptiness of human truth, the absence of a reconciling, forgiving presence.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Looking at Romans 1:18-32

With this passage the letter of Romans begins to move. Paul is going to bring all of life before God and reinterpret all history and all scripture in light of God's revelation in Jesus, the Messiah, and the experience of God's Spirit that has come out of that. Paul's mind first turns to the "WRATH OF GOD." After reading through the passage a little ways, I want to try to understand this concept "the wrath of God."

So, reread the whole first chapter, and start getting a sense of what this wrath of God is about.

I'll post again today or tommorrow.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Close Look at Romans 1:16-17

Most Bible commentators say that Romans 1:16-17 is Paul's clear statement of the main theme of the letter. And, there is certainly something to be said for that view. But, what I am more concerned about is, "what does Paul mean in this very important statement?" Often, it is assumed that Paul means in Romans 1:16-17 whatever the Bible commentator thinks is Paul's main theological point in Romans. What I want to do is ask: what is Paul really saying here? What does he mean when he says "God's righteousness is revealed 'from faith to faith?' But, I have jumped ahead of myself here, because we need to step back and not quicky assume that the common translation into english is the best translation.

So I ask: "what is the best translation of this passage?" I am particularly concerned with the translation of the Greek words normally translated as "righteousness" and "faith," and will be talking about these issues some below. Here are the two verses in the original language, as it was first written by Paul in Greek:

Οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ελληνι:

δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται.

In translating this passage, I want to give close consideration to the following Greek words/phrases: παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι; δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν; Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται.

The key terms (pisteuo and pistis; and dikaiosune and dikaios)whose meaning is complex come from two roots. The first set of terms are pisteuonti (verb/participle form) and pistis (noun form). The second set of terms are dikaiosune' (abstract noun) and dikaios ( personal noun). Most translations render the phrase in which pisteuonti is used as "to everyone who believes" or "to everyone who has faith." And, most translations render the phrase in which pisteos and pistis occur as "from faith to faith." But, if you look through the ancient Greek dictionaries and begin to explore how pistis or it's verb form pisteuo can be translated, then matters get a little complicated. Because the verb pisteuo indicates a trustful way of being, a faithful way of being, instead of just a cognitive commitment (belief that something is true). It seems to me that it would make a lot of sense to translate the first phrase "to everyone who is faithful" or "to everyone who lives in trust" instead of "to everyone who believes." And, in v. 17, it may be better to translate "from faithfulness to faithfulness," instead of "from faith to faith." The important point is this, this Greek word that Paul uses pisteuo and pistis to describe this holy state of being between God and humanity - he describes a "way of being," not simply a "belief." A way of being includes the commitment of mind, heart and life. When Paul spoke earlier about the "obedience of faith," he describes this total commitment, this way of devotion to God, that does not just mean a belief of the mind, but a total commitment of the self and course of life to God. Later when Paul is trying to clarify just what this desired way of being is, he puts Abraham forward as an example, talking of how Abraham demonstrated "pistis" in believing the promise of God, acting out of trust in God, showing allegiance and devotion to God in his obedient and trustful response to God. But, it is the nature of God who comes to humans as faithful and trustworthy and merciful that awakens this trusting devotion in human beings. So, I understand this trustworthy, merciful, compassionate character of God as "the righteousness (or justice) of God that is revealed in the Gospel." And, it is that loving, merciful, trusting way of being that is revealed from the faithfulness of God in Jesus to the faithful/trusting response of human beings who have been encountered by God in the Gospel. The translation 'from faith to faith' just doesn't quite get that.

And, that leads to a discussion of what the term "dikaiosune tou theou" means. It is normally translated "righteousness of God." Clearly it is an attribute of God - perhaps the central thing about God. The term "dikaiosune" is regularly translated as "justice." But, this term rather than being an abstract legal term, describes a way of action and being by which God "makes things right." So, whether we translate the word as "righteousness" or "justice," the important thing to know is that it describes the way of being in which God makes things right, set things straight, brings justice and healing and wholeness to human life. The way God has done that is in Jesus. Jesus is God's way of making things right, whole, well on earth. This "righteousness of God (God's holy way of making things right)" is revealed in the Gospel from the faithful/trusting/trustworthy way of being of God to the corresponding faithful/trusting way of being human. I, following Barth's translation, expect that this means from faithfulness to God's covenant with Abraham to bless all the peoples to the faithful obedience of those who have been awakened by God's faithfulness revealed in Christ. At each point, we find that there is the action of God and the response of humans - in one dynamic holy movement - this gracious movement and power is what we mean when we say "the Gospel of Christ." This response of humanity begins and is empowered by the response of the holy Son of Man, Jesus. In him, God comes to humanity, but, also, humanity comes to God.

And, at the close of v. 17, we get the term "dikaios" which can be translated "the righteous one" or "the just one." Is this referring to Jesus as "the righteous one who lives in faithfulness/in trusting devotion to God?" Or, does it refer to those who have been touched by God's faithfulness in Jesus to become people who live in faithfulness to God? Jesus is the head of humanity; he is that one who is righteous and has opened this way of human beings living faithfully and trustingly with God, which is the way to be just or righteous. In the end, in Jesus, what has been revealed is the merciful, faithful way of God and the corresponding trusting, faithful way of humans with God. This is the power of God to salvation for all who receive this way of being, this way that has come among us as a gift through Jesus Christ life, death and resurrection.

After all this discussion, here is my translation which is beyond a literal translation and somewhat of an interpretation, which I think is necessary to be a meaningful translation of this passage:

"For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who entrusts himself or herself to God, the Jew first, and then the Greek. For God's way of making things right is revealed in the Gospel from the faithfulness of God in Christ which awakens faithful devotion to God among human beings. As it is written, the righteous one shall live in this way of faithful trust."

Read four or five different english translations of these verses. In the next post I will explain other ways that this passage is translated, and why I chose the translation that I did, and why I chose certain meanings and why that is important. It is important that we get a solid foundation and not jump ahead too quickly as if we already know exactly what Paul means in Romans 1:16-17. Often assumptions that we know what scripture means are what keeps us from understanding what scripture means.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Romans 1:16-17 "For I am not ashamed . . . "

Paul writes in Romans 1:16-17: "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith: to the Jew first; and then to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, 'the righteous shall live by faith.'"

As Paul writes "for I am not ashamed of the Gospel," we remember what he had written in 1 Corinthians: "For the preaching of the cross is foolishness to those that are perishing, but the power of God to those who are being saved." 1 Cor. 1:18. Also, Paul writes to the Corinthians: "For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the proud." 1 Cor. 1:19. And, Paul adds in this previous letter: "For we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power and the wisdom of God." 1 Cor. 1:23-24.

As we read these words from 1 Corinthians, they should help us understand what Paul means when he says, "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ." First, we might ask: "Why would he be ashamed?" The answer comes from 1 Corinthians: the message that Jesus who was executed on a cross is the Messiah of God is offensive to Jews who expected the Messiah to assume the throne of David; and crazy-sounding to Greeks who assume that any god-like figure is above suffering and death. But, Paul has experienced the presence of God in the Risen Lord Jesus who appeared to Paul on the Road to Damascus. See Acts 9. Paul who was a Jew had also thought it offensive that the disciples of Jesus were going around teaching that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. And, in his previous life - before Jesus appeared to him - Paul was arresting such trouble-makers and even surrendering them to be punished by stoning or death. So, yes, Paul knows from a Jewish perspective how offensive the message of Christ crucified can be to Jewish ears.

And, Paul is an educated citizen of the Roman Empire as well. He knows the customs of the Roman Empire, and the religions of the peoples. He knows that Greek and Roman religion consider the idea of a divine being who suffers like and with humans is unthinkable. So, that's why Paul makes clear to these Romans - who are likely very much influenced by Jewish and Roman customs and culture - that the Gospel which cuts against both Jewish and Roman culture is the very power of God to save both Jews and non-Jews (Greeks).

To make sure there is no confusion about the term "Greek," just remember that the Greek Empire was the last great empire in memory that gave way to the Roman Empire. Greek was the language spoken as the common language of the empire at Paul's time, even though the empire in Paul's day was known as the Roman Empire. When Paul refers to Greeks, he means "Gentiles" who are the non-Jewish peoples of the empire. Everywhere Paul travelled was part of the Roman Empire. Every person he encountered was basically a part of the Roman Empire. Some were citizens, some not; but all were in one way or another part of the Roman Empire.

But, the Roman Empire was able to succeed in establishing itself largely because of the past Greek Empire established by Alexander the Great who had spread Greek culture/language throughout Europe, Mideast and Asia.

Well, that was a lot to say when I only started out to comment on what Paul meant when he said: "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ." Next post I will comment on the rest of Romans 1:16-17, which begins to speak of the revelation of the Gospel "from faith to faith."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Staying with the Thanksgiving for this Post

After the very helpful comments of Malcolm, I want to linger on Romans 1:8-15 for a while. I focused on Paul's apostolic commission to preach, whereas Malcolm focused on the mutual identity of Paul and the Romans as members of the body of Christ. Generally the primary function of the thanksgiving section of the letter is certainly to celebrate that unity in Christ as God is praised for it. And, clearly Paul does that with this passage, so I would have to say that Malcolm's reflection arises right out of the language and meaning of this scripture. At the same time, Paul is also advancing another point: the foundation of his apostolic authority in the commission to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. A simple way to put it might be this:

Even as Paul is celebrating the unity of the Roman Christians with him and his mission, he is beginning to define and clarify exactly who he is and what his mission in the Gospel is all about.

Our experience of unity as Christians must be deeper than simple recognition of the fact that we are part of the visible Church. It must be grounded in a real experience of God and the living Gospel of God. Part of the experience of God is to experience unity with others in faith as we celebrate something so much greater than our unity - the living God of all creation. And, this celebration because it is first of all a celebration of God, should reach out and catch on with people who are not part of the visible Church.

Sometimes when you start to celebrate real loudly and enthusiastically God's grace for others, some people in the visible church will tell you to tone it down. Like when Paul started celebrating God's grace upon the Gentiles, and lived out that celebration by eating with Gentiles and ignoring the racial-ethnic barriers imposed by society and religious rules. Jerusalem Christians at the time wanted Paul to tone it down (see Galatians 2:1-11).

Sometimes when you start to celebrate the fact that it is God's business to set the mission of the Church, and we can only wait upon God and when we see God's way, take up our cross and follow. . . Sometimes when you begin to experience God's calling directly, your praise of God can lead you into some conflict with others in church. Sometimes, thank God, it leads to mutual celebration. Paul writes his letter in this hope, but time will tell. After the Romans receive this letter which clarifies the relationship of the Church to the history of Israel, which clarifies what it means to come to "the obedience of faith," and after this letter makes plain the hope of the coming glory of God over all the earth . . . after the Romans have been able to see how God has made himself known in the flesh and blood life of Jesus, the Christ . . . after the Romans have been able to see if what they are celebrating is what Paul is celebrating . . . then, their mutual celebration will have even more sound to it, more power to it - just might reach around the world.

The unity of faith is a unity of heart and mind; a unity of allegiance to the living God made known in Jesus the Christ.