LentBlog Day 8: Getting the Horse Before the Cart.

Romans 4:1-12.

There’s so much I want to say from these verses I don’t really know where to begin…

The faith of Abraham was reckoned to him as righteousness. “Righteousness” here is the same root elsewhere (perhaps poorly translated) as “justice” or “justification.”

Paul’s going after religious (particularly Jewish or Jewish Christian) folks with a chip on their shoulder here. It seems in Paul’s day certain church folks liked to down on others who didn’t follow the law. In their opinion, one had to conform to their prescribed moral, ethical, and religious-cultural patterns before God could really work. What resulted was a continuation of the us-vs-them, insiders-outsiders nonsense that was never the intention of the law to begin with.

 

And when I look at a lot of what passes for “Christianity,” I gotta tell you I see the same thing happening. I am so sick and tired of Christian folks acting as if we are at war with the world. I’m tired of the petitions. I’m tired of the smear campaigns. I’m utterly tired of the one-liners on Facebook (one thing I have not missed these last 8 days…).

Because in the midst of a “Christian” mindset that many times acts as if it has a duty to defend, prove, justify, or militantly promote the faith, the apostle Paul taps us on the shoulder.

And he whispers a question into our ear:

“Don’t you remember when Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as Righteousnes?”

It was before he was circumcised.

That thought could (should?) be enough to knock us off our high-horses. The faith of Abraham happened before he would have been considered a faithful Jew in Jesus’ day. Before.

Faith. THEN works. 

Faith. THEN behavior change.

Faith first.

Get the horse in front of the cart.

What that means, brothers and sisters, is that we simply must stop being so offended when folks who do not profess to follow Jesus live as if they’re not following Jesus. We are not at war with the world! (I almost went all-caps there but talked myself down from the ledge.)

We must share with people, partnering with God to open up space for the Spirit to work. It’s very difficult to do that when the only way we ever acknowledge their presence is when we’re griping about their “uncircumcised” lifestyle.

I know it’s a hard pill to swallow. But quite simply, our mission is not to change their behavior. That’s WAY to low a goal. Our mission is to see God change lives. Not so we will be comfortable or have one less thing about which to write our senator, but so death can become life. So darkness can become light. So God can change them from the inside out….

Lord, give us the faith of Abraham. The faith that was reckoned as righteousness ahead of time. Help us to rejoice when that faith begins to happen where we might least expect it. 

 

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LentBlog Day 7: The Faith of Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26.  Reflecting on Romans 3 again because I simply must. It’s not my goal to get through all of Romans in 40 days, I guess. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Alex Deasley in his Romans class at Nazarene Theological Seminary when someone asked him if we would get all the way through the book in the semester. (Folks reading this who is an NTS alum from 2002 or before will appreciate this more, perhaps.): “The spirit of prophecy has not been given to me any more than it has been given to you, so we shall press on and see where the Spirit leads.”

Reading through this again and looking a bit at the Greek is reminding me of something very powerful in these verses that gets missed in most English translations, especially if you don’t read the footnotes. It’s in verse 21: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” The problem is the “faith in Jesus Christ” part. NIV, NRSV, NASB, ESV all translate it this way. However, a quick look at the SBL Greek version shows the words are πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, which could just as easily and perhaps more accurately be translated “the faith of Jesus Christ.”  Now, 11:00pm on a blog is not the place for me to attempt a Greek lesson. It would probably only prove how rusty my Greek really has become (apologies, Dr. Thompson).  Suffice it to say in other places where Paul speaks of something or someone being “in Christ,” such as v.24 in this passage, he uses the Greek word for “in.” Here he doesn’t. And the same thing is found at the end of v. 26. It’s better to translate these as “the faith of Jesus.”

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Now. Greek tediousness over. Let that sink in for a second, and you might be in for an “aha!” moment.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed … the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe…

…he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus.

 

What might it mean for Jesus to have faith? I think it means he was fully God and fully human. He’s the new Adam. The new human. Just like us. One of us. 

I think it means at the cross, just before he breathes his last, his last words are really, really important: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” I think Jesus exercises the ultimate act of faith right there. He’s dying a sinner’s death. He cannot raise himself from the dead: he must be raised. And so he must trust. He must believe. He must have faith that can move mountains… or tombstones. Jesus must have faith.

He became obedient even to the death on the cross, trusting the Father to raise him. 

And then here comes Paul, saying that the Righteousness of God is for those who have the faith of Jesus. 

The Father raised Jesus from the dead and brought him to new life. Me must trust him, even in the face of death, to raise us too.

The winter can make us wonder if spring was ever true;
But every winter breaks upon the Easter lily’s bloom.
Could it be everything sad is coming untrue?

(Jason Gray)

Lord God, create in me the faith of Jesus. By the power of your Spirit we pray. Amen

 

LentBlog Day 6: “Buts” Are A Good Thing.

Romans 3.Turn

Human languages each contain certain words that are more powerful than others. Love. Hate. Hope. Lie. Innocence. Go. Am/Is/Are/Was/Were… Colts… Drums… you know, words that carry more weight than others.

I’m beginning to think maybe other than “love,” the word “but” might be one of the most powerful words.

Think about it… If I said to my wife, “Wow, honey. You look amazing this morning, but…” every person reading this would say something like, “Noooo! Do not go in there!!”

The word “but” changes the entire course of a thought, rhetorical argument, or sentence. With that one word, everything that comes before is suddenly cast in a much less significant light, if not negated entirely. Your employer could give you a whole slew of positives, but the second she or he pulls out the word “but…” you know it’s going to be one of those conversations.

The cool thing is the word works the same in the other direction. I could say, “Honey, I know we’ve had a really rough morning and we’re both at our wits end, but…” and the whole conversation can turn just that quick. And the dime it turns on is the word “but.”

I guess that’s why I really like what happens in Romans 3. Paul has spent nearly 2 chapters making the case for how fried everyone is. Jew, Greek, following the law, not following the law, it doesn’t matter. By the middle of Romans 3, everyone finds themselves as objects of God’s wrath and judgment:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.” (3:10b-12 NRSV)

Paul makes it very clear we’re headed for disaster. All of us, whether we want to admit it or not, are totally hosed.

But.

(Did your mindset just change? Mine did writing it just now.)

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe…  (vv. 21-22a)

Wait a second. Insert screeching car breaks noise here. We are all totally condemned… but now God’s righteousness has been revealed for all who believe.

I think that’s why it’s one of the more important words in language. That one word becomes the hinge between darkness and light, death and life, Good Friday and Easter, the grave and… resurrection.

I think sometimes I lose track of the “but.” Sometimes I become so accustomed to the dark times we’ve experienced that I forget God has the final Word, and his Word to all of us includes a life-changing, all-encompassing, thunderous explosion of life and love that goes something like this: We are dead to the world… but alive in Christ.

Blessings.

LentBlog Day 5: Circumcision of the Heart (AKA: Paul Is From Mars.)

Romans 2:17-29.

Apologies to John Wesley for the title if this post, which is woefully unworthy to even share the page with something actually thought-through. 

Having said that, the first thing I did after reading this passage this evening was to pull out a copy of Wesley’s Works (Outler version, for those of you keeping score at home) and find Wesley’s famous sermon from Romans 2:29. It was the first paragraph that caught me. “Most [people] have so lived away the substance of that religion, the profession whereof they still retain, that no sooner are any of those truths proposed which difference the Spirit of Christ from the spirit of the world than they cry out, ‘Thou bringest strange things to our ears’ … though he is only preaching to them ‘Jesus and the resurrection,’ with the necessary consequence of it.” 

Maybe I’m misreading Wesley here, but it seems as though the Gospel of Jesus, which suggests that God invades our world to redeem it, that the best stuff comes from outside ourselves, that we cannot save ourselves, that self-centeredness is sin, and that it’s impossible to be half a Christian raises eyebrows wherever it is proclaimed. And sometimes those raised eyebrows immediately turn down in anger. 

And I see the same thing when I read this passage from Romans 2, where Paul centers his sights on Judaism. I’m trying to imagine how some may have felt to hear Paul say that circumcision is totally meaningless unless their hearts had been changed as well… for Gentiles who did not bear the mark of covenant relationship with God to be truly faithful, while some who bore the mark were unfaithful. Honestly, some must have thought Paul was from Mars or something.Image

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

LentBlog Day 4: We’re All in the Same Boat.

Romans 1:26-2:16.Image

As I read this passage today, I found my mind wandering to the recent nightmare aboard the Carnival cruise ship Triumph. I found myself wondering if the people who paid top-dollar for a corner cabin with a nice balcony wound up eating the same half-rotten food as the folks with interior cabins near the waterline. Did they all have to trudge through sewage-soaked halls? I’m imagining that answer is probably yes. They were all in the same boat. Maybe something like the Titanic disaster is a better image. Once the boats were gone, super-rich First-Class folks died just the same as Third-Class steerage peasants.

In Romans 1-3, once Paul starts laying-in to people, he gets everyone in trouble pretty quickly. He starts with sexual sins, but he doesn’t stay there long. Pretty soon he expands that list to include everyone:

And 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. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (1:28-32 NRSV).

And lest we become tempted to pick a particularly nasty sin from the list and start pointing a judgmental finger, Paul reminds us: God shows no partiality. We’re all fried. We’ve all got a thing or two on that list we’ve been guilty of. Don’t thumb your nose at God’s patience and grace. Don’t spend your time pointing out everyone else’s sin.

You’re all in the same boat, Paul says.Image

Our pleasure cruise has become a cesspool. White-collar, private, victim-less sins are still sins along side the more culturally obvious ones.

Now, I think it’s a mistake to use that level playing field as a reason to feel good about ourselves. Just because our sins are equal does not mean they won’t equally incur God’s wrath (according to Romans.) Thank God the end of Romans 2 is coming, because we all need God’s grace and are legitimately, really, truly fried without it.

The point here is it’s silly for one blind, hungry beggar to ridicule another blind, hungry beggar because he smells weird or she’s got dirt on her face.  

LentBlog Day 3: On Futile Minds and Dark Thinking.

Romans 1:18-24

Here comes the Bad News… Paul launches into this section wherein everyone winds up completely hosed: Jews, Greeks, “God’s people,” and total pagans. Everyone winds up without excuse, and they (we) are all nothing more than objects of God’s wrath unless something happens (and it does).

Reading this again tonight, what pops out at me is the cause of their futile thinking and dark, senseless minds: “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him as God…” (v. 22a) Here are a people who knew God. God has been revealing Godself to them since the beginning of creation, and they knew it. What made them miss it, and thus to draw God’s wrath, was they did not honor (or praise, or glorify… the word here is the same root as “doxology”) or give thanks to him as God.  They didn’t acknowledge it was God they were dealing with.

I wonder sometimes if we don’t make similar mistakes. Image

I wonder if sometimes what we do, even in the name of God, is really just humanism (for lack of a better word, maybe) with a Christian label on it. Maybe that’s part of the reason why so many folk tend to look at the church and keep on looking.  I think sometimes they see nothing different than a Dr. Phil or Oprah self-help strategy, only church folks tend to fight a lot more.

See, they didn’t honor God or give thanks to God… as GOD. It’s as if they thought they were the source of wisdom in-themselves. And they wound up worshiping the creatures (and their images) rather than the creator.

The truth (which they exchanged for a lie) is this: The best stuff comes from outside ourselves. (This phrase isn’t mine– but I can’t remember who said it! My gut says it was Scott Daniels, but I’m not sure.)  The truth is, we are not the source. Creation is not the source. There is an Other, and the source is located there.

What would our lives look like if we really worshiped God as God consistently? What if we really lived as if we’re not the source of everything?

What if we refused to live one more day, in our families, churches, and communities (as if those are separate entities), as practical atheists or at best deists?

“Breathe on me, breath of God.”  Because if you don’t, Lord God, I will die. May I never forget that life, wisdom, salvation, hope, and love come from you, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, through the presence of the Spirit. Amen.

LentBlog Day 2: On Faith and Righteousness.

Romans 1:8-16Image

Even though he is about to totally shred them, Paul follows the typical letter form and begins with a thanksgiving. He also gives us the main point of the letter, introducing two very important words: Faith and Righteousness.

The Good News (of Jesus, to whom Paul is enslaved, remember) is the power of God for salvation to those who believe. Same root word (πίστις: pistis) here for “faith” and “believe.” To believe is the verbal form of faith. In the gospel, God’s righteousness is reavealed… from faith to faith. No bones about it… righteousness comes through faith.

And the faith of the Roman church is being proclaimed throughout the world.

That makes me wonder about the church. It wasn’t their success, their growth, or even their works of piety or service that was proclaimed throughout the world. It was their faith. The faith of Abraham, which goes when God says “go.” Even if it doesn’t make any sense. What would it mean for the church to be known for our faith? For the works we do in the world: caring for the poor and the sick, loving our neighbors without limits, living-out the mission of God… somehow for it to be clearly known that these actions come from faith in the Gospel, not just from a desire to do good stuff.

The other thing that strikes me about this passage is Paul’s desire to be in-community with the Romans church. He wants to go to Rome and help them, yes… but it’s more than that. Rather, he says he wants to see them “so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (v. 12). Here’s the Apostle Paul, who in just a few verses is about to get everyone into trouble, admitting he needs to be strengthened by their faith as well. So much so that he proclaims himself a “debtor” (one who owes) to Greeks and barbarians (?!).

One of my greatest joys in this life of ministry is watching the faith of people grow. When my 2-year-old said “thank you, Jesus” when he received communion elements this week (We’re Nazarenes, so we serve communion to little ones) I literally laughed with joy. We pastor types spend our lives trying to open up spaces for folks to develop and exercise the faith that leads to righteousness. When it happens… it helps our faith, too. It runs deeper than more numbers or a notch in our gun belt or something (if it doesn’t we’re in serious trouble). God speaks to us… confirms His call… shows us the Kingdom… grows our faith… through the developing faith of our people. We really do need each other. Really.

Because the converse of that is also true: when our people fail, whether that failure is directed towards us or elsewhere, it tears us apart.

It’s as if Paul here has such a confidence in the Romans’ hunger for God he can’t wait to get there. It’s as if he just knows what’s going to happen. Their faith is about to explode all over the place, and he can’t wait to be a part of it.

“Jesus be the center of your church.”

Lord Jesus, may our churches be communities where pastors can’t wait to get at it, because they know the people are so hungry, so faithful, that sharing in the Gospel together is an intimate part of their own journey.