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.

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.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Romans 1:8-15

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers, [3] that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, [4] both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

The translation above is from the ESV which I found to be a very good one after working with the text and reviewing C.K. Barrett’s translation.

Paul observes the general letter writing conventions of his day, however, his use serves the purposes of what he wants to communicate. For example, in Romans 1:1-7, which serves as “the greeting,” Paul does not just give his name like he does with churches he knows well, but he actually gives a clear explanation of who he is, and the content of the message he proclaims. So also, in Romans 1:8-15 Paul utilizes the conventional “thanksgiving” part of the letter, as usual expressing his identification with the recipients of the letter. But, he also uses this thanksgiving to overcome any misgivings of the Romans about why he has never come to see them in person (explaining how he remembers them and has wanted to come to them), and to clarify once again what his message is all about by writing: “I am a debtor to both Greek and barbarian; both to the wise, and to the foolish.” 1:14.

At times Paul gives explanations to other churches about why he has been delayed in visiting them, but here Paul is explaining two things: why he has never visited them; and why he has the authority to write to them and instruct them since he has never preached the Gospel among them. Because he has not “become their father” in the Gospel as he had by preaching at the founding of the church as he had among the Galatians and Corinthians, he has “to step a little more lightly” in this opening section. So, after he says: “that I might impart some gift of the Spirit for your strengthening,” (v. 11) he backs up a little, and clarifies: “rather, that we might be mutually encouraged by our faith, yours and mine.” (v. 12). But, then, instead of backing up in vv. 14-15, he steps out boldly in referring once again to the foundation of his authority, hearkening back to the opening verses: “called an apostle . . . in the service of the Gospel of God’s Son . . .” and now in these verses he says: “as one obligated to preach this Gospel among all the Gentiles, both civilized and barbarian (Roman citizens and non-citizens). That is why I am also eager to preach to you in Rome.” It is this calling of God arising out of God’s saving action in Christ - this is why he presumes to come and preach among the Romans.

Later on, he also explains that he wants to then advance beyond Rome to preach to the West, even to Spain. (15:24). And, he mentions the collection he is taking up to bring for relief of the poor of the churches of Judea. (15:31). He probably waits to mention these things until later in the letter, so that they have a real sense of who he is and what he preaches before making hints that he would appreciate some hospitality and support for the missions – to Spain and to Jerusalem.

At this point in the letter what Paul wants to make clear is this: it is God, not the Church or some Apostolic council, that sets the limits to his mission. It is the God and the living Gospel in which Paul serves that defines where he goes and to whom he is to preach.

Before we leave this section, I want to say a word or two about the meaning of “The Gospel” in Paul’s letters. The Gospel is a force, the living power unleashed by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. The Gospel does have a particular content (Jesus as the Christ of God, as the saving presence of God, as the head of humanity), but it is not simply a spoken message; it is a living redeeming power on earth that gives rise to the spoken message. Paul does not control or present the Gospel; it controls Paul, and he “serves in it.” It would not be too much to say that the Gospel as Paul uses the term refers to the living, saving presence of God in Jesus Christ on earth. It is a present reality, arising out of the past creative, saving actions of God in Jesus Christ. But, it is a present reality, a moving presence, in which Paul serves as a witness. Paul is like Moses, holding up the staff, while God parts the waters of the Red Sea. Moses is telling them to come across on dry ground, declaring God’s saving presence, but God is the one who is acting to save. The Gospel is the active presence of God like that. The message or proclamation arises out of the saving action of God in the present time. A good example is how the Holy Spirit falls upon the Gentiles to whom Peter is preaching – God’s redemptive power is at work and its human messengers are trying to keep up with it. As Paul says to the Corinthians in his second letter: “Today is the day of salvation.”

In contrast to Paul’s view of the Gospel, much of Protestant preaching seems to be about a past event that, if received, has present and future results. For much Protestant preaching, the Gospel is not a present living power, but a past event, which is explained by preachers, and, if understood by hearers, guarantees salvation in the future. For Paul, the Gospel is a living power on the earth – the very saving presence of God – and, as Paul points to this presence, people awaken to it, and are overcome by its gracious saving power in the present which assures of a full redemption in the future life. Now, I may not be getting through here. Let me try one last way of explaining it: For most contemporary preaching, the Gospel seems to be an eternally important message that is controlled by preachers, whereas in Paul’s preaching the Gospel is understood as the saving presence of Jesus Christ that is controlled solely by God. What preachers like Paul do is bear witness to this saving presence and thus awaken people to see and hear and know and love the God who is active in working for their salvation both in this world and the next.

It is important to note that the term “Gospel” as used by Paul is very similar to the term “Spirit” as used in Acts by Luke. In Acts when it speaks of the apostles and other preachers serving in the “Gospel,” it speaks of being in the “Spirit,” being spoken to and guided by the “Spirit.” For Paul, “Gospel” means both that active, guiding presence of the Spirit of God, together with the message about God’s redeeming acts through Jesus, the Christ. Theology and experience of the Spirit are absolutely united for Paul.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Romans 1:1-7

vv. 1-7: “Paul a slave of Christ Jesus, called an apostle being set apart for the Gospel of God, that which was proclaimed beforehand by his prophets in the holy scriptures concerning his son coming from the seed of David according to flesh, being appointed son of God by power according to the Holy Spirit by resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship for obedience of faith among all the nations for his name, in which you are also called of Jesus Christ, all those in Rome, who are loved of God, called holy ones, grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The above is my translation.

Often Paul begins his letters with a greeting to individuals in churches that he knows or with a greeting to the whole church, but Paul doesn't personally know these Christians in Rome. So, he introduces himself by saying: "Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called an apostle being set apart for the Gospel of God, that which was proclaimed beforehand by God's prophets in the Holy Scriptures concerning his son . . . " Paul makes clear three things: 1) he serves Jesus Christ; 2) he is called of God to preach the Gospel; 3) this Gospel is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Israel which are recorded in the Holy Scriptures. And, then he says that this Gospel is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is a descendant of King David according to his human ancestry, and who was appointed the Son of God through the power manifest when God raised Jesus from the dead.

It is good to stop right here. Because a lot has been said by Paul. Maybe more than we can take in. By saying that Jesus is of the line of David, Paul shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel's hope for the Messianic King who would bring salvation to Israel (Christ is another word for Messiah). By saying that Jesus was appointed the Son of God in power by God's resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Paul shows that God had given to Israel more than just the fulfillment of the Davidic hope for a Messiah, for God had given to Israel the very power of life through Jesus whom God raised from the dead. God had vindicated Jesus overagainst all his enemies and shown that Jesus was of God - indeed, God had declared him to be his Son. In the Bible, we hear that God speaks of Jesus Sonship when Jesus comes up out of the water after being baptized by John. Besides this, God speaks of Jesus Sonship only through the words of angels or the actions of God in Jesus. The great action through which God speaks the ultimate word about Jesus is the earth-shattering, history-breaking resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And, with this word of life out of death God speaks a word about all humanity of whom he has made Jesus the head.

Paul says: "Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship for obedience of faith among all the nations for his name." Through this Christ, of the line of David, who was appointed Son of God, we have received this ministry of the Gospel, Paul says. "To bring about the obedience of faith among all the peoples for his name." "The obedience of faith" is a phrase worth considering. Often we oppose faith to works, or belief to deeds. But, here Paul speaks of them together. He speaks of the obedience of faith. Because, as Paul knows, when trust/faith in God is born, so is right action. When we trust God and feel a sense of love for God, we want to do God's will. Obedience flows naturally from faith. As Martin Luther said: "good works come from a good heart." Faith heals the heart, and the healed heart gives rise to good and holy actions.

Paul celebrates the unity he has with the Roman Christians, and reminds them that they are set apart for this same Gospel ministry. To be holy in the early church usually meant being "set apart for a special task," and was not thought of so much in moral/purity terms as it was in later Christianity. To be holy certainly implied moral goodness, but the meaning was first focused on fulfilling a special task from God. Often a person, even of questionable moral character, can be sanctified when accepting a solemn task. That is certainly something to think about as we think about what it means to be holy. First of all, it means to hear and respond to God's call to live for God and to love our neighbors with God's love. When we do that, all of our sins and impurities somehow just fade into the background. And, so Paul calls the Roman Christians: "those loved by God, holy ones . . ." Not perfect ones, but "set apart" ones - people with a special and gracious charge to keep.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Paul's Letter to the Romans

I am beginning a study of the New Testament book of Romans on this blog. You are invited to join this study by reading, studying on your own, and commenting when you have a comment or a question. I will be responding regularly to any comments.

This letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans is the longest of Paul's letters that has survived. This relatively long letter was Paul's way of introducing the message he was preaching to a group of Christians who had never met Paul. He pays a lot of attention to the relationship between the truth of God revealed in Christ and the truth of God revealed in the holy Law. He also speaks very strongly about the relationship between Gentiles (non-Jews) and Jews in the working out of God's will to redeem humanity. This focus on the law and the spirit (way of Christ), and the Jews and the gentiles, causes me to think that Paul is addressing a group of Christian believers who are both Jewish and Gentile in heritage. More on that later.

So, if you would begin reading the 1st Chapter of Romans, I will be commenting on it throughout this week.