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, 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.