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.

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.