Wednesday, February 29, 2012

1 Timothy 3

     In chapter 3 we get the qualifications for Bishops (elders) and Deacons (leaders) in the church. It actually presents a good leadership standard. The interesting debate here is "should we hold our leaders to a higher level of accountability than we hold the general church membership?" Obviously we do. I know I hold myself to a higher standard, I know that when our pastoral leaders fail it is a bigger "scandal" than when a congregant fails: imagine your pastor being caught in adultery or a friend, neighbor, coworker, fellow church member being caught in the same behavior and you'll get the picture. Which one seems worse in our eyes?
    I am inclined to agree with Erwin McManus on this point. We should hold all of us to a higher standard of behavior. McManus in his book The Unstoppable Force utilizes the final chapter of the book to discuss a "radical minimum standard". In this discussion he suggests that the biggest problem with the modern American Christian church is not that we have held too high a standard but that our standards have not been high enough. The goal of every ministry should be to raise up Disciples for Jesus Christ. A disciple is a fully committed follower of Jesus Christ who knows their spiritual gifts and is using them in mission and ministry. If we set that as the "radical minimum standard" the church would grow, gain strength and make an increasing difference in our world on both the domestic and international stage.
     Yes there should be high standards for leadership and we should hold our leaders accountable to live up to those high standards. BUT, there should be high standards and expectations on all Christ followers.

1 Timothy 2

Hi everyone: sorry I missed posting yesterday. Finally had a full day off with my wife (first together in several weeks) so we spent the day together.

1 Timothy presents one of the toughest challenges for the biblical interpreter. The classic problem is in verses 11 and 12 where women are ordered to "learn in silence with full submission" and "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent." and so forth.
     Using good principles of Biblical study: remember 1) understand the specific from the general; 2) no verse stands alone but must be understood in context; 3) understand that all translations have difficulties and examination of the original languages may help with understanding; etc.
     Question 1: are there examples of women teaching men elsewhere in the New Testament and are there examples of women in authority in the New Testament? The answer is that there are. Priscilla (with her husband Aquila) take Apollos aside and "more correctly explain to him the Way (see Acts 18:24ff)." Note that in the Greek linguistic tradition the most important person is always listed first and here it is Priscilla who is listed first before her husband -- this is not Emily Post correctness it is how they did it. Are there women in authority in the New Testament? -- yes. One example (not the only one) is in Acts 21:9 Philip the Evangelist's four daughters are identified as prophets (Ephesians 4:11ff cites the office of prophet as the 2nd highest in the church -- Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers). The "authority" passage seems to be in contradiction to other passages in the New Testament.
     Question 2: What is the passage mean in its context? Notice that most of the discussion in chapter 1 and the section that follows our verses in question are arguments regarding gnosticism and some key gnostic teachings. The critical one at play in Ephesus was a teaching that EVE was created before ADAM and was considered to be most revered. Because the gnostics valued a special knowledge over all else, EVE is revered because she sought knowledge from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
     Two biblical scholars from Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts, Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger have written an excellent study of this passage. The book is titled I suffer not a woman and is published by Baker book house. The Clark Kroegers contend that the word "authority" is mistranslated (has been since King James' time). The word in question is a Greek word that only appears once in all of the New Testament (here in 1 Timothy). In their study of Greek literature of the time they found that the word in question is usually translated "Preeminence" rather than authority. The authors argue that the passage in question should read "I do not permit it to be taught that a woman has preeminence over a man" (Paul correcting the Gnostic error in reading Genesis). That understanding puts verse 13 in proper light "for Adam was formed first then Eve. . ." This book (I suffer not a woman) is a book of excellent scholarship and is a must read for any who would honestly like to unpack this biblical passage in its fullest context.
     As for "listening in silence with full submission" the question is: submission to what or whom? When I read the passage I read that the women (AND THE MEN) should be in full submission to the Word of God . . . to the teaching of the Word.
     When we read 1 Corinthians in a few months we will run across another of these passages that a male dominated society and Christian fundamentalists have used to not allow full participation in the ministry of the Gospel for men and women.

Monday, February 27, 2012

1 Timothy 1

     This letter is written to Ephesus (1:3). It helps to know a few things about Ephesus to understand the letter. Ephesus was the center of the worship of the goddess Artemis (the Romans called her Diana of Ephesus) who was called the "mother of the gods and men". The worship of Artemis was so ingrained in the psyche and mindset and economy of the Ephesians that any threat to it led to rioting (see Acts 19:21 ff). Ephesus was considered the gateway to Asia. Ephesus was also a strong center for gnostic philosophy and religious influence. The gnostic mythology "upside-downed" the bible. In the two Timothy letters we find reference to "fruitless discussions, drivel and nonsense which oppose God." Notice also in chapter 1:4 the reference to endless genealogies and speculation rather than divine training. These are arguments against the gnostic influence. The gnostics (and the cult of Artemis) taught that all wisdom was passed down through women (only women and eunuchs were permitted to serve as priests to Artemis). In Chapter 2 we will see that the gnostics revered Eve (from Genesis) because she "ate from the tree of good and evil" and therefore gave us more knowledge. It was also taught by the gnostics that Eve preceded Adam. They taught a dualistic theology that said that all matter was evil and only spirit was good. Because of this teaching they rejected (or ridiculed) the creator God of the Old Testament (because any maker of matter must also be evil). The word "gnosis" is Greek for knowledge. The gnostics believed that only by having this special knowledge could one be saved. The Timothy letters as well as other places in the New Testament are often arguing against this ancient philosophy. It is an argument that continued for centuries. Gnosticism still exists in the modern world in many forms. Christian Science is, perhaps, the best example in the modern world.
     I love 1:15 "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the foremost." What a perfect example of God's grace at work in a broken vessel, like Paul. Paul then encourages his young friend, Timothy, to "fight the good fight" and by having faith and good conscience (19). If the situation in Ephesus is as described keeping faithful in the face of determined opposition must have been difficult indeed.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Introduction to 1Timothy

Beginning Monday, February 27 we begin reading 1 Timothy. Below is my brief introduction to 1 Timothy that I wrote for the Nexus Seminary training in Uganda: 
1 Timothy was written to Paul’s longtime companion and co-worker in the Gospel, Timothy. Timothy was from Lystra in southern Asia Minor (modern day Turkey.) Paul trusted him with many difficult assignments including a trip to Corinth when Paul learned of the troubles there. Scholars have noted that the writing style and language are very different from Paul’s other letters, and based on this, question Paul’s authorship. The scholars who question Paul’s authorship often assign this letter to a time toward the end of the first Christian century. However, Paul’s authorship was not questioned by the early church, and there are equally excellent arguments for Paul’s authorship. Internal evidence does not give many clues as to the date it was written.
1 Timothy, along with 2 Timothy and Titus, are called the “Pastoral Epistles” because they deal with pastoral matters such as the organization of the church and how to function within the role of the pastoral office. Among other things, Paul sets out the requirements for leadership in the church. One other matter worth noting is the establishment of the church offices of Bishop (overseer) and Elder. 
            Key Learning: 1 Timothy contains vital lessons in pastoral leadership, especially for those who are young in their leadership.

2 Thessalonians 3

     The letter concludes in Paul's typical way -- with a request some admonitions and encouragement. He asks for prayer for his work -- that the gospel would spread rapidly and for protection. His admonition in this letter is about idleness and idlers. The Biblical principle is for everyone to work and provide for themselves. Obviously, there are exceptions, Biblically, for widows and others unable to care for themselves. But the general rule is to not live on the generosity and charity of others but for each to "pull their own weight". Verse 10: anyone not willing to work should not eat. He then warns against those idlers to are just being busybodies and stirring up trouble for others.
     Verse 13 serves as a grace note and a warning to me. Paul says "Brothers and sisters do not be weary in doing what is right." This passage often puzzled me until I realized that it was quite possible to become exhausted and weary from "doing the Lord's work". It is also possible to get fatigued from always being on the other side of the majority (standing for the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the down and out). And yet, we are not to weary in doing what is right. This has two possibilities for me: 1) that I should just persevere on and not give up no matter how difficult the battle becomes. This is good encouragement and good advise. Option 2) is a reminder to seek balance in life. It is important for all of us to withdraw, to rest, to reflect, to keep a sabbath, and to not be overwhelmed with the work of ministry.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

2 Thessalonians 2

     Paul gets to the core matter of the 2nd letter in chapter 2. Apparently someone has been teaching that the "Day of the Lord" has already come and that the resurrection has already happened (see verse 2). It appears that an alleged prophecy or a false letter from Paul has been presented to the church arguing that the second coming of Jesus has already happened. In the first letter Paul had to argue that the 2nd coming of Jesus was imminent (could happen at any time). In the second letter Paul has to argue against the false teaching that it has already happened. He argues that there are events (the whole discussion of the "man of lawlessness") that must take place before Jesus returns. About all we Christians can say on the subject of Jesus 2nd coming from the Thessalonians correspondence is that Jesus is coming back so be ready; any more would be pure speculation.
     I find a lot of people trying to jettison the traditions of the Christian faith to make the faith more palatable and more interesting to the 21st century world. There is a fine distinction that needs to be made. In verse 15 Paul writes "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter". He is talking about the essential basic core understandings of the Christian faith. Someone once said that the true battle is in the Faith is the battle between the Tradition and traditional. Tradition (note the capital 'T') is the living faith of the dead -- the time honored faith and understanding that has been handed down to us from apostolic times. Traditional (small 't') is the dead faith of the living. Traditional is hanging on to particular ways of doing things, certain modes of worship, certain styles of music, certain rituals and methods because "we've always done it this way." For the Christian, who is called to present the gospel to every nation, language, people (and I would add in every time and context) presenting the authentic Tradition of the Christian faith in ways that are contextually and culturally relevant is always the challenge.Many traditional ways of doing things (robes, printed bulletins, committee structures, institutional structures, order of worship . . . you get the idea) may or may not help with with this goal.
    What is at the core of your faith? Why? In my journey in Christ (coming up on 40 years) I have found that keeping the core (essentials) in the core and the peripherals (non essentials) on the periphery is a constant challenge. The tricky part is recognizing what is in the core and what is on the periphery.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2 Thessalonians 1

     Paul begins by talking about the coming "Judgment Day". A day that brings relief to the afflicted (in this case the Thessalonian church which is enduring persecution) and vengeance on evil doers and unbelievers. Paul's language has a hard edge to it but the hardest of all is verse 9 " . . . separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. . ." I cannot imagine a worse fate that to be separated from the source and Lord of all life. Yet God made a risky universe where great things are possible. It is a risky universe where perfection lies in the fulfillment of our purpose. We were created to be the object of God's love and we never can experience completeness or wholeness or holiness outside of that love. But this risky universe gives us the power to choose who or what we will follow and how we will live our lives. We can choose to live surrendered to God's love and grace (and thus be complete) or we can choose to rule our own universe -- a somewhat pathetic choice, but nonetheless a common one. There can be no love without choice and with choice comes the option to live outside of God's love. Whatever images the bible chooses to use for the punishment of the wicked and evil doers . . . none could be worse than this: facing eternal separation from God. That, by definition would be annihilation.
     Once again Paul emphasizes that when Christ returns that is the end of the story as we have lived it and a new story is about to begin.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

1 Thessalonians 5

     The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is imminent (that is it could happen at any time). Here Paul uses the imagery of "A thief in the night" like "labor pains coming on a pregnant woman" -- images of sudden changes in circumstances. We don't know when Jesus will return but we know it could be anytime. However, for the believer this is not a time of terror or fear but the realization of our hope. He then admonishes the Thessalonians to stay awake, stay sober, and live in the fullness of the daylight.
     Paul concludes with his usual words of encouragement: respect those in charge over you, be at peace among yourselves, admonish idlers, help the weak, don't retaliate, rejoice, pray, give thanks, do not quench the spirit, or despise the prophets, hold fast to good, abstain from evil! He then offers a blessing and asks for prayer.
    The point of the letter: be comforted in knowing that your faith will not prevent those who are faithful and did not live to see the second advent of Christ from attaining glory. Be faithful to what you were taught.

Monday, February 20, 2012

1 Thessalonnians 4

     This is one of those times where the chapter markings are less helpful. Remember that when this letter was written it did not have the sentences counted and numbered and the chapter delineations marked as they are now. The numbering system was added centuries later to help us find our way around the Bible quicker. The first half of chapter four is a clear sermon about holy living. However, the teaching on the coming of the Lord runs from 4:13 through 5:11 and shouldn't break with a new chapter.
    4:1-12 -- Paul is encouraging them to live holy lives, especially as it relates to sexual relations. In Macedonia, the gods and goddesses were often worshiped through ritual fornication -- essentially one was united with the god/goddess by sexually uniting with a temple priest/priestess. This activity was not only adultery as the Bible teaches it and therefore forbidden; it was also Idolatry (in that it constituted a pagan act of worship) and, therefore, forbidden. The purity of our sexual relations should extend in both our public activities but also in our own homes.
     4:13-18 gets at the theological reason for writing this letter. Verse 15 explains the background question: will we who are alive and remain when Jesus returns prevent those who have died in the faith from being resurrected on the last day? This is not a question that arises in the modern world, probably because Paul is quite clear with his explanation. Paul's answer, one that is often misused out of context and frequently misinterpreted is pretty simple: On the day when Christ returns the dead in Christ will rise first THEN we who are still alive will be transformed as well and join them in the resurrection. This thought should comfort us who have had loved ones die in the faith. It is critical to note that this passage implies no time line. It is also critical to note that from this passage (and its concluding thought in chapter 5) implies that when it happens that is the end of the story -- new heaven, new earth, dwelling of God is with people, roll the credits, you with the sneakers out of the pool, etc. Christ's return marks the end of the world as we know it.
   More on Christ's second coming is in the first part of chapter 5 which we will look at tomorrow.

1 Thessalonians 3

     This was Friday's reading (I was not near a computer Friday/Saturday). So here are some observations:
Remember that Paul had to leave Thessalonika in a hurry and was sent off to the south to the city of Athens (see Acts 17). In his hurry to leave there was much left undone in terms of training leaders and encouraging the church. Thus he has deep concern for the stability of the congregation. In order to check on the congregation he sent Timothy to check on the Thessalonian church. In Chapter 3 Paul reports Timothy's report that the church is thriving, that there were no hard feelings and that everyone is praying for everyone else.  He concludes with a blessing and a prayer for the church.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

1 Thessalonians 2

     Paul continues in chapter 2 by reminding the church at Thessalonica of his behavior among them. For the first century reader the relationship is the most important thing and so it is essential that Paul remind them that their relationship was based on good behavior, positive experience and faithful dealing. We find this kind of reminder section in most of Paul's letters for example: he reminds one church that he never took money from them (choosing to pay his own way by making tents -- see 1 Corinthians 9); he reminds another how deep their love for each other has been (Philippians 4:1).
     The subtext of this chapter asks an interesting question. Why is Paul's defense of himself so ardent? What we don't know, and can only speculate on, is the entire conversation that preceded the letter. One issue, as we shall see, has to do with the second coming of Jesus Christ. What other issues are in the background? Where there persons in the church challenging Paul's apostolic authority? Where there persons impeaching Paul's character? So in chapter 2 Paul defends his apostleship, his work habits, his "divine calling" as a preacher of the gospel, and other matters.
   In Acts 17, we read that Paul's leaving Thessalonica was due to a riot. Paul seems to cause riots pretty much everywhere he goes. His hope is to return and continue the work . . . but he cannot do so until it is safe. Some of chapter 2 has to do with his hope to return and his inability, at the time of writing this letter, to do so.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

1 Thessalonians 1

Paul writes the first section to celebrate and encourage the Church at Thessalonica. He mentions their reputation, he mentions their support of his work, he mentions the evidence of their having been chosen by God and, without saying it, how proud he is of the progress they have made. Thessalonica and the providence of Macedonia were the birth place of Alexander the Great (300 + years before this letter. The city is a Roman colony and the primary commercial city in this region just north of Greece. The church there is worthy of celebration.

Thessalonians Introduction

We continue our journey through the New Testament One chapter at a time by looking at the two oldest documents in the New Testament: The letters to the Thessalonians. Below is a brief introduction that I wrote for my Ugandan friends.

1 Thessalonians was written to the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. This church was founded around AD 50 after Paul, Timothy, and Silas left Philippi. According to Acts (Acts 17:1-9,) Paul preached there for three weeks before a riot forced him to move on to Berea and later to Athens. Written from Corinth in AD 51, 1 Thessalonians is the first of Paul’s letters written and is likely the first of the New Testament books/letters written. This letter deals primarily with questions concerning the second coming of Christ: its time, the suffering of Christians in relation to it, and the destiny of those who die in advance of Jesus’ return.
2 Thessalonians was written shortly after 1 Thessalonians. In addressing the suddenness of the second coming of Christ in the first letter, the opposite position arises in the church. In 2 Thessalonians Paul must address the false teaching that “the day of the Lord is already here” (2 Thessalonians 2:2). In the discussion about the second coming of Jesus Christ, there is a balance between the imagery that he will return suddenly and unexpectedly (like a thief in the night) and the imagery that certain signs and events must first take place (wars and rumors of wars.) Paul addresses the first extreme in the first letter and the second extreme in the second letter. Between the extremes is a healthy balance.

Key Learning: The second coming of Jesus Christ is imminent (that is, it could happen at any time) but it is also scheduled (that is, there are things that must happen before he returns.) What these things that must first happen are is a matter of considerable debate.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romans 16

     It was customary in a first century letter to identify all of the connections that you had with a place. That is why Paul always concludes his letters with this extensive "say hi" to all the people I know in your town section. There are some curiosities on the list. The most interesting is verse 7 and 8 "and greet Andronichus and Junia who are prominent among the Apostles and were in Christ before I was". Junia is the Latin version of Johanna (remember there was a Johanna at the tomb on resurrection day). The Greek here is a bit obscure but it can (and has) been argued that Paul is identifying Andronichus and Junia as prominent among the Apostles (that is to say they are apostles and are prominent). Some early English translations to fight this even modifing Junia to the masculine form. It is possible that Paul is saying "they are esteemed by the Apostles" but the idea of a first century women being held in high esteem and, perhaps, considered as an Apostle is quite intriguing.
    After sending greetings to Rome from all of Paul's travelers (as well as a hand note from the scribe -- Tertius in verse 22) the letter ends with a doxology and blessing.
     Tomorrow we will begin 1 Thessalonians -- I will post a brief introduction in the morning.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Romans 15

     Paul finally gets to the point of this lengthy letter: I want to visit you on my way to preaching the gospel in Spain. Spain was a significant player in the Roman empire and produced several generals, poets, writers and other leaders in the 1st century. Paul's hope is that he may go and preach where "no one has preached before". His desire is that he will be able to visit the church in Rome, preach, teach, etc. take a collection and go on his way.
     This is an important insight into the life of an Apostle. Apostles were the sent ones and they were not sent to preach in established faith communities but to begin new faith communities. The apostolic work in the modern world is closer to the work of a church planter. Planters, using many different strategies, begin faith communities where no such faith communities exist. However, the modern church planter is often working (especially in the United States) where the gospel is regularly preached and where other churches already exist.
     Among my Uganda friends, where there are villages that do not have churches and tribal groups that have yet to be reached with the gospel. The church planters are often small groups from one church that discover and "unreached" area and send a team to preach, teach and organize new Christian communities. This type of planting behavior is much more common where there is a majority of "first generation" Christians and, I believe, is closer to the first century apostolic activity.
     Paul's hope in chapter 15 is illuminated by history. In Romans 15:25, Paul mentions that he is taking a collection for the poor from Macedonia to Jerusalem and then hopes to make his way to Rome after that. We know from the Book of Acts that Paul was arrested on his mission to Jerusalem. He was imprisoned for several years and eventually takes his appeal to the Emperor. When Paul finally arrives in Rome he arrives in chains and under house arrest. History does not record if Paul ever makes it to Spain. Tradition holds that Paul was martyred in Rome following his imprisonment.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Romans 14

     Life in community is exhilarating . . . Life in community is exhausting. There is nothing like family (biological or otherwise) that can help me soar to the heights of joy and achievement and there is nothing like family (biological or otherwise) that can crash me to the pits of despair. It is the nature of human gatherings and communities that some of us are more difficult to live with than others. It is the nature of human gatherings and communities that those who are more difficult to live with are generally not aware of the difficulties others are experiencing around them. The alternative to life in community is much worse: isolation, being alone, going through life not belonging.
     Paul is addressing some of these aspects of human community in chapter 14. Some of us choose to not eat certain foods (I am currently off refined sugar and white flour). That is my choice, it is not a religious choice but a health decision. If others want to slowly kill themselves eating that stuff -- OK strike that -- if others choose to eat a different food regimen that is their decision. I could choose to be a vegetarian (a good healthy choice) but as a Christ follower I would be wrong to condemn those who are carnivores. I could choose to abstain from alcohol (another good choice) but, the Bible gives no mandate for teetotalism and I would be wrong to condemn those who have the occasional "adult" beverage. Some people like to follow the "Christian Year" and to observe religious holy days . . . others consider one day in the Lord pretty much like all the others. Who is right? Who is wrong?
     Paul concludes: "for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23)." In other words if your conscience leads you in a specific direction stand for your convictions but don't condemn others if they choose to do otherwise. Obviously, there are some areas that are universal (golden rule; great commandment; great commission; 10 commandments?) and we agree that murder, theft, adultery, etc. are always wrong. But what day we worship, what diet we eat, what festivals we celebrate . . . these are choices of conscience and should not be made into universal requirements.
    Finally, my liberty in a certain area should not be flaunted or distracting for another follower of Christ. If I am with someone who for sound spiritual reasons believes abstinence from alcohol is a spiritual duty: It would be better for me honor that conviction and the person with it and also abstain. Of course the flip side is also true. Someone with that conviction should be willing to allow those with him/her to indulge if they so desire. In the final analysis, life in community should have us watching out for each other but not standing in judgement over each other.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Romans 13

    This chapter, like all biblical chapters, has to be seen in the context of the whole Bible. The Bible teaches that we are to respect those who govern over us (regardless of how we feel about their policies or person). If, as Romans 13:1 says "there is no authority except from God" then those who are in authority are "God ordained" and deserving of our respect. However, this must be balanced with the other biblical passages that remind us that we must obey God rather than humans. In multiple places in the Bible, people are put in positions where they must disobey the governing authorities (see Acts 5:29) because to obey them would be unfaithful to God.
    In the balance between these biblical positions are things like "civil disobedience" -- an act of disobedience made being willing to pay the consequences of that disobedience to highlight injustice or other structures of oppression. Note that civil disobedience (at least as taught and led by Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi) assumes the the disobedient one is willing to publicly pay the penalty for being disobedient. Even in these situations, however, we are not encouraged to "disrespect" to demean or to demonize those who are in authority over us. We are always called to pray for those in authority and to be good citizens. In the United States we are afforded another great responsibility in that we believe that government functions at the will and mandate of the people. As Christians we are called to pray and to discern and to cast our votes for the best people we can. As good citizens we pay our taxes and we obey the civil laws and authorities (except as it may be outlined above).
     The chapter concludes with Paul's urgent appeal and reminder that time is fleeting and Jesus is returning and we should live honorably like the people of God we are and not be caught up in inappropriate or sinful behavior.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Romans 12

   There is a grace within that is transforming me. There is a choice only I can make that leads to my transformation. On the Christan journey both are equally true. In another place Paul says to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" because "God is completing a good work in you". On the one hand it appears to be all up to me and on the other hand it appears that God is bringing the changes.
     In Romans 12, having already shown us that God is in charge and is forming a people for himself and that God has already accomplished for us what is necessary to be justified, forgiven, and at peace, Paul points to some of our choices and activity. We are to present ourselves as a "living sacrifice". We are not to be conformed but to have our minds renewed. In verse 9 and following, we are to hold fast, love one another, out do one another, not to lag, be ardent, rejoice, persevere, contribute, extend, bless, rejoice, love, and live peaceably with everyone -- these are all actions that require our choice and our participation. God is doing a good work in us but we are partners with God in our own transformation. We make choices, we draw nearer to God, we arrange our lives and work on our attitudes.
     12:3 and following is where I will be preaching this Sunday. This passage and similar passages in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians 4 are the root of the Christian understanding of the priesthood of all believers. Every Christian is called to serve and every Christian has been gifted by God to help build up the body of Christ and to be Christ's hands and feet extended in mission and ministry to the world. There are no exceptions. There is no such thing as an "ungifted" Christian. There is no such thing as a Christian who is disengaged from ministry. Everyone is called -- everyone is gifted -- everyone serves. The question we have to ask is not IF we will serve but where can my gifts be best utilized.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Romans 11

     Paul continues his argument that the current (for him) rejection of the descendants of Israel is not final. His argument is that the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (11:29)." Because God was forming a people for Godself through the Old Testament the people that were formed are not completely rejected. There will be a remnant (vs 5). God always preserves a remnant. He points out to his largely gentile audience in Rome that the gentiles have been "grafted" on to the holy olive branch of ancient Israel. We are like wild olive shoots that have been masterfully grafted onto to a much older olive tree. Because we are the grafted ones we should not brag about our new status in faith. Instead we should be grateful, humbly grateful, for what God has made possible. We stand "in awe" of Gods mercy (11:20)
    The question that Paul wrestles with here is not one the modern world spends much time discussing. In Paul's time this was a critical question. If God has made a way for the gentles (the non Jews) does that mean that God has rejected the Jews from salvation? Paul emphatic answer is by no means. God will make a way for his chosen. How God does that is not our concern. Our concern is to spread the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every corner of the planet; to teach and tell all who will listen. Those we cannot reach we trust to our gracious and merciful God for God's ways are unsearchable and inscrutable (11:33).

Romans 10

     The heart of Romans 10 is verses 9 and 10 -- "if you confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Although this sounds like a magic formula it is so much more. Confession that Jesus is Lord is an admission not just to ourselves in private but to the world around us that we are Christ followers. This is not an easy thing to actually live out. How easy is it for you to drop "by the way I confess the Lordship of Jesus" in conversation at your workplace? in your school? at Wegman's? or in your home? There is much in modern society that discourages the clarity and finality of making such a statement. I believe it was Francis of Assisi who once said "Always preach the gospel, when necessary use words." I believe the essential truth of Francis' statement. However, there is this necessary "public confession" that  helps to seal the deal. When someone joins a United Methodist Church they confess that Jesus is Lord . . . it is in the membership and baptismal vows . . . but that is a confession among other believers. How do we make this confession for the whole world to see without looking like we are bragging?
     The second part of the passage is to believe in our "heart" that God has raised him from the dead. The heart was not the emotional center in the ancient world it was the center of the mind and will. The resurrection of Jesus is the capstone, the cornerstone, the necessary and essential core of the Christian message. Choosing to believe this and living into this belief is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is not a question of how I feel but what I choose to believe. As Christ followers we are to bring the best of our intellect and the force of will to the choices we make on this journey.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Romans 9

    Now that Paul has shown that faith in Christ (not keeping the law or attempting to earn God's favor) is the only way to become righteous, he turns to the previous question in more detail. If the laws and circumcision and other aspects of the Hebrew religion are not enough to attain righteousness, what about the descendants of Abraham? Why have they failed? Because (9:32) "they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works." To follow the law to earn God's favor is quite different from following the law as an act of faith.
     There is a lot of conversation in chapters 9-11 about "God's election" and these chapters are often used to promote the doctrine of predestination. Predestination teaches that there is no free will and that God has already decided who will be saved and who will be damned. As I have studied the Bible over the last 35+ years I have reached a conclusion that predestination and free will are not contradictory. Here's what I have come to understand: Old Testament and New Testament present a picture of what God is doing. And what God is doing is forming a people for Godself. In the Old Testament becoming a part of that people was a matter of birth and family but a person could choose to whether they wanted to live inside or outside the mores of that community.. In the New Testament becoming a part of that people involves a choice -- the choice to be a follower of Jesus Christ. What has been predestined by God is that God will have a people for Godself. What has not been decided is the individual members of that people. God's people will exist -- the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church that God is forming -- but we have a free choice as to whether we will belong to that people or not.
     No matter what, we enter that life and that people by faith (and not of works lest anyone should boast) -- see Ephesians 2:8-9.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Romans 8

     There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! That is going to be the focus of this Sunday's message at Christ Church. Jesus extends mercy and grace to those who have tried and failed and are aware of their failure. Jesus has harsh words for those (Pharisees, Scribes, etc.) who don't recognize their own failures and need for mercy and grace. Total freedom from the craziness and busyness of legalistic religion is found in that simple phrase: there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! I am free to try and fail, I am free to explore the faith and life God has given me, I am free of worrying about the minutia of legal standards -- free to love God and love my neighbor and seek and receive forgiveness when I fail.
     God's purpose is being worked out in the world through us. Romans 8:28 reminds us that God uses every aspect of our lives for good. One friend of mine has suggested that God is the most frugal being in the universe and will use whatever we bring to advance the kingdom. If all we have is pain, God will use our pain to help others. God uses every experience, every success, every failure, every victory, every defeat, to build character in us and to continue to transform the world around us. I live my life with greater confidence knowing that God's purposes are not thwarted by my successes and/or failures. God uses it all to build good in me and God's kingdom in the world.
    The simple reason for this is Romans 8:31 to the end. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I believe I can never lose my relationship with Jesus. It will never be taken away. In that confidence and that assurance of my relationship and salvation . . . I am free to try and will never fear condemnation again.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Romans 7

Romans 7 takes us back a step to examine the difficulty of living the Christian life and especially attempting to live the moral requirements on our own. Based on what Paul writes here,  I am convinced that St. Paul was a golfer. Look how he describes his plight: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I so not what is what I do." (verse 19) It sounds a lot like my golf game (I don't want to hit it in the lake but it goes in the lake, I want to hit it down the fairway  . . . it does not go down the fairway.)
    The struggle that Paul describes is a universal struggle for all of us who strive to live the way of Christ. We find ourselves in a constant state of transformation and that state of transformation creates a constant war within ourselves. Our "old nature" that part of us that always wants our own way; that part of us that lusts and strives and lives pridefully and greedily; is at constant war with the way of Christ that calls us to wholeness, to holiness and to learning to live at peace with ourselves and those around us. If we had to do this by our own human effort and striving we would find ourselves in the exact situation that Paul is describing in the first few chapters of Romans -- that is to say we would find ourselves in despair or rising cynicism at not being able to do what we have chosen to do. We cannot do this on our own.
     Thus Paul writes: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? thanks be to god through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (24/25). We are not doing this on our own. A core truth of living the Christ life is this: we conquer through surrendering to God. Best described in George Matheson's hymn from 1890 titled "Make Me a Captive Lord:
     Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.
     Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be.
     I sink in life's alarms when by myself I stand;
     imprison me within thine arms, and strong shall be my hand.

     My will is not my own till thou has made it thine;
     if it would reach a monarch's throne, it must its crown resign.
     it only stands unbent amid the clashing strive
     when on thy bosom it has leant, and found in thee its life!

More importantly, Paul continues in 8:1: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." but that is tomorrow's text!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Romans 6

     Jesus said in Luke 9:24 "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it." Again, in Luke 17:33 "Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." I have often argued that his can be simplified to: "giving is living and living is giving." St. Paul, in Romans 6, is making the same argument just in a different way. Paul's argument is that we need to "die to self". "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Romans 6:5). To be reconciled to God we must have faith and trust in Jesus Christ. This faith and trust is the surrender of our striving and our willful rebellion against God's purpose in our lives. In this surrender to Jesus Christ as the Lord of our lives, we encounter a kind of death -- death to our ego, to our sense of self as independent from our creator.
     The argument is a central Biblical argument. We were created by God to be the "object of God's love". All that we have all that we are and all that we dream of being is a gift from God. Our purpose in life is to respond to that love and to live life in this love relationship with our creator. However, one consequence of sin (go back to Adam and Eve), is that humans are now in rebellion against their primary purpose. We believe we can live life without God, we believe we can live life independent of our purpose. We can be free to rule ourselves and be the owners and controllers of all that we survey. It is as Milton describes in Paradise Lost. The words he puts in Lucifer's mouth is a perfect description: "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven". Paul's argument is that only by dieing to ourselves and becoming "slaves to righteousness" can we ever hope to be free and to freely live into the purpose for which we are created. The way we "die to ourselves" is by surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and living our our primary purpose.

Romans 5

Here is the heart of the argument: "we are justified by faith and now have wholeness (peace) with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1) Paul notes immediately that this is but the beginning of our journey of faith. It is often said in evangelical circles that the goal of the Christian faith (the goal of the Church) is to get everyone to heaven -- that is to have them make a commitment to Jesus Christ, receive the forgiveness for their sins and plan to live forever in heaven. This teaching is dangerous and stops short of the full gospel message. That commitment to Christ is but the beginning step down the road to discipleship. Jesus never says "Go and make church members" or "Go and make followers" he says "go and make disciples" (committed/disciplined followers of Jesus Christ). Romans 5:3 and following shows part of this journey: we rejoice in Hope, but we rejoice in our difficulties because these difficulties are what form and shape our character and it is this redeemed character that allows us to not only endure but to grow and thrive throughout this life.
     The end of the chapter (12 to the end) is an explanation of how the fall of Adam is now corrected by the rising of Jesus Christ. In Adam the human race fell into a condition where our original condition (in the image and likeness of God) has been shattered and broken. Since we all come from Adam we all share that shattered image. Jesus, a kind of "second" Adam, restores the image and likeness of God within us through our faith and trust in him.

Romans 1-4

Hi everyone: Back from my week of R&R: Here is the summary of the first four chapters of Romans. It is pretty simple: St. Paul is arguing that the human race is broken, flawed, sinful and unable to help itself. The Old Testament Law only serves to show us how broken we are and how impossible it is to lift ourselves above our depravity. St. Paul goes on to argue that no amount of human striving and effort can change this. It is not possible to make ourselves righteous in the eyes of God. It is only in faith (trust that fully depends on) in Christ that the human being can be transformed, elevated and redeemed. See the end of Chapter 4:22-25 "therefore his (Abraham) faith 'was reckoned to him as righteousness.' Now the words, 'it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, bur for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification."
To be justified before God is to stand before God "just as if I'd never sinned" that is completely forgiven for our past sins and free to live into  anew life.