The Explorer’s Sacrifice

Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.


We are entering a new section of Romans, one where Paul talks extensively about the long-term Christian life—the ongoing post-conversion changes we should all experience.

Yes, we are saved by simple faith, by believing in the proven work Jesus Christ has done on the cross. Our belief is enough to save us. But is there more to do?

Yes, of course there is. We have received a gift so great we cannot fully comprehend it, the gift of eternal life, Paul is saying. If we properly understand the gift, we turn our lives into a giant thank-you note to God.

We give our bodies, conforming our behaviors to his will as closely as possible. We surrender our minds, letting God’s Spirit work in us and change our very thought patterns through prayer and Scripture.

Most of us like the part about God’s grace being freely given, the fact that salvation is a simple matter of belief. But when it comes to thinking about ongoing discipleship—about actual change—well, we’re not always so receptive. The Christian life starts to sound like work.

There’s a term for when we accept the gift but offer no response, no thanks, no real change in our minds and hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, called such an attitude “cheap grace.”

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I suppose I could just stop here, hoping to shame us into responding more fully to God’s grace, the way our parents might have guilted us into writing a thank-you note for a nice present we received. I think I can make all of this a little more palatable, however. Perhaps we can even become excited about this new section of Romans.

We are called to give up some attitudes and behaviors when we become Christians. We are not left with a void, however; God replaces the lesser behaviors and thoughts we surrender with even more gifts.

We are being invited to explore the kingdom that is dawning now, even before it is present in full. Like any explorer, we have to sacrifice the stuff that weighs us down if we are going to find something new, something that will change us to the core.*

We do respond to God simply as an act of thanks. We repent of what separates us from him. We pray and search the Scripture to try to understand how to better please our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. God doesn’t just receive our thank-you notes and flip them on the kitchen table with the rest of his mail, however. He gets excited by our response.

God says, “What else can I do for you? It is such a joy to have you a part of my plan! What do you want to know next? What do you want to do next?”

“How can I help you be the best you you can be?”

And God changes you some more. And you see where you used to be and where you are now, and you give more thanks. And God changes you even more!

It is a glorious cycle, one spiraling us toward heaven. Pretty soon, all that stuff we gave up, all that stuff we thought was so important, is simply scattered on the ground far below us, as forgettable as yesterday’s garbage.

If you don’t believe me—well, just try to fulfill Paul’s plea for a time. Six months, a year, something substantial. Make God’s word part of your life. Talk to him in prayer.

And certainly, most certainly, give up those behaviors that you know are not of his will. We have a short word for those behaviors: sin. Stop sinning. Ask God for the strength you need to stop.

Paul is not asking us to suffer. No, not at all. Instead, he’s asking us to live fully. We free ourselves to accept the further gifts to come, the gifts that gild our salvation.


*If you want to explore the backpack metaphor further, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is a good place to start.

The Grafting Plan

Romans, Chapter 11

As we’ve moved through Romans the last few weeks, I’ve already made the point a couple of times that Paul is writing with a particular question in mind. Why are so many Jews not accepting Jesus as Messiah, while at the same time people from other cultures and belief systems are turning to him in great numbers?

In that context, we have learned much about what Paul has to say regarding the core beliefs of Christianity, and how important it is for us to spread the Good News to nonbelievers. We’re looking at an unusually large chunk of Romans today, all of chapter 11, in part because Paul does some reviewing of what he has said.

As he returns to the matter of the Jews and their relationship to Jesus, he lays out what he sees as God’s plan from the birth of the Christian church to what we sometimes call “the end of time.” If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do we know the end is near,” Paul’s words will certainly contribute to the answer.

As he explains this four-part plan, Paul uses the image of an olive tree, an Old Testament symbol of Israel. This tree is pruned over time and even has new branches grafted into it.

If we’re not familiar with olive trees or grafting, we may have a little trouble imagining what he’s talking about. For those uninitiated to gardening, the best example might be one of those little grafted cactuses you can find in stores, where the colorful top of one plant has been attached to the green base of another, two plants sharing one root and vascular system.

Part 1 of God’s Plan

These were the earliest days of Christianity, just after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the arrival of the Holy Spirit upon what was, at the time, a very Jewish community. In fact, the vast majority of these early Christians simply thought of themselves as Jews who had seen or experienced the work of their expected Messiah.

They followed Jewish practices, going to the temple or synagogue for worship but also rejoicing in Jesus’ resurrection with other Christians.

It proved to be a relatively short stage, though. Alarmed, the leaders of Judaism quickly began to push back and distinguish between traditional Jews and followers of Christ. Paul saw the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah as branches broken off the olive tree for their lack of fruitfulness, or belief.

Part 2: The Wild Tree Grafted In

This was the era Paul found himself in as he wrote Romans around the year 57. Gentiles were becoming the dominant force in Christianity. Paul thought of Gentiles as a “wild olive tree” grafted into the old root system, dependent on what had come before.

In Romans, he has a particular message for this group, and for all Christians who are not of Jewish descent in any era. In short, he’s telling us not to get cocky. Just like the unfruitful branches in the early days of Christianity, the grafted branches can also be cut away if they fail to exhibit belief.

This is such an overt warning, I am left wondering how some Christians manage to maintain the idea of “eternal security” or “perseverance of the saints,” the notion that once a person is truly saved, she or he cannot fall away from salvation. Clearly, Paul speaks to people he thinks of as “grafted in” believers, but he tells them, “If you stop trusting, you also will be cut off.”

In interpreting Paul’s account of God’s plan, the hard part is figuring out what part we are in today. I would like to think we are in Part 2 of the plan but hovering somewhere near Part 3.

Part 3: The Return

Paul asserts something very important: God never breaks his promises. The Jews are his people, and they will make up a significant number of those who find eternal life with God. In fact, their turning back to God through Jesus will mark nearness to the end of time, or the beginning of eternity in the undeniable presence of God, depending on how you look at it.

This assertion made me wonder whether there is any evidence of Part 3 happening now. There are days I love the internet.

I went to the website of Jews for Jesus to do a little research, and I actually got personal, online help. A chat box popped up, and a friendly volunteer named Jeanne began to answer my questions for me.

As you might imagine, it is hard to estimate how many Jewish Christians there might be. She said different studies show there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 Jews who call Jesus Christ Lord and Savior. The most generous estimates from census data say there are about 15 million Jews on the planet right now, although some estimates are much lower.

“What is clear is that Jews are coming to Jesus at an unprecedented rate!” Jeanne told me. The original branches are being grafted back into the ancient olive tree.

Complicating potential Jewish conversions is the atrocious record self-described Christians have had historically in their relationship with Jews. Too often, kings, popes, bishops and even leaders of reformation movements have seen Jews as a group to be converted at swordpoint or gunpoint, or as opponents of God who could be killed with impunity.*

Such atrocities demonstrated deep ignorance of Jesus’ teachings and of what Paul, a Jew himself, is saying in Romans: “They are still the people [God] loves because he chose their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.”

Part 4: Glory!

This is what we live for. This is what gives us hope. We reach the point where God considers the community of Jewish and Gentile believers complete, and the promised resurrection of the dead occurs.

We celebrate as children of God together for all eternity! What a glorious plan it is.


*To read more about why Jews are resistant to the Christian message, I would recommend a paper by David Brickner.

The Struggle to Share

Romans 10:14-21 (NLT)

But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? Yes, they have:

“The message has gone throughout the earth,
and the words to all the world.”

But I ask, did the people of Israel really understand? Yes, they did, for even in the time of Moses, God said,

“I will rouse your jealousy through people who are not even a nation.
I will provoke your anger through the foolish Gentiles.”

And later Isaiah spoke boldly for God, saying,

“I was found by people who were not looking for me.
I showed myself to those who were not asking for me.”

But regarding Israel, God said,

“All day long I opened my arms to them,
but they were disobedient and rebellious.”


Christians have to tell the Good News to those who have not heard it. If you’ve been hearing this sermon series from Romans at least semi-regularly, you should by now have a good idea of what Paul means by the gospel, the Good News.

Jesus Christ, God in flesh among us, died for our sins. He went to the cross and bore the punishment for what we have done and will do to work against God’s will. His work on the cross is effective; his resurrection from the dead proves this is true.

Believe, and restoration is ours. Death is defeated! But again, those who believe have to tell those who have not yet believed. Otherwise, those nonbelievers may never have the chance to be restored to God.

The need to spread the Good News is not a complicated idea to understand. It apparently is a difficult idea for many American Christians to live out, however. I can cite a lot of evidence as I say that—rapidly declining church attendance across the nation is the biggest exhibit I might put before you. Along with that would be the shocking number of churches, United Methodist and otherwise, that go all year without a single profession of faith in their community.

And then there’s the anecdotal evidence I have. Too often in my career I have taken time to teach ways to spread the Good News, only to hear people say, “Well, pastor, that’s really not for us.”

Really? Jesus’ last instruction to us before ascending into heaven, what we call The Great Commission, isn’t for us?

All I know to do is to keep emphasizing our need to go tell others and to continue teaching ways to spread the Good News, hoping the idea will catch on with enough people who call themselves followers of Christ.

Let me try a different approach today. Let’s talk about what we might call “levels of engagement,” each a measure of how committed we are to telling the story.

Level 1: See What a Good Person I Am

I often hear people say, “My witness is in how I live my life before others.” Yes, that is a good starting point. Obviously, if you’re living a non-Christian life in front of others, you’re not helping.

Your behaviors and attitudes can change the environment around you. I discovered this in an odd and embarrassing way several years ago, while I was working in the corporate world.

I had finished a meeting in Washington, D.C., and had walked out into a blindingly sunny late afternoon. I was hungry, so I started looking for somewhere to eat.

As I walked down the street looking for a cab, I saw a sign in a window advertising a steak and potato for under $10. Quite a deal in D.C., even nearly 20 years ago! I entered what proved to be a dim and very empty establishment with a large bar in the center, and told the hostess as she seated me that I wanted the steak.

It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. I noticed there were stages in the corner; my first thought was, “Hmmm, they must have bands on the weekends.” And then I noticed something else. There were brass poles on each of the stages.

Uh-oh, I realized. I had walked into a a business serving more than steak and potatoes. When the hostess came back to the table, I also noticed her high skirt and low blouse appropriate for the venue. All I could think was, I really need to get out of here.

“Ummm, I’m sorry,” I told her, “but I didn’t realize what I was entering. I just saw the steak special. I’m going to leave,” I told her. Almost as if on cue, a pulsing, thumping music began. Obviously, the show was about to begin. I was surprised to see she looked as horrified as me.

“Oh. Oh!” she replied. “No, it’s okay. Please don’t leave! We’ve already started your meal. It’s okay, really!”

As she turned around, she did something almost reflexively that I’ll never forget. She somehow adjusted the dress on the spot, stretching the top up and the skirt down for more coverage, in what I presume was an act of embarrassment. She quickly ran to the back. The music stopped.

I should add that the steak was quite good.

Certainly, we have some impact on the world by trying to live publicly as a moral person. People may change their behavior to some degree by what they see in us. I’m going to once again be frank here, though —

It’s not enough. The people watching you have no context. The hostess had no way to know from our encounter why I wanted to leave, other than I had made a mistake that embarrassed both of us. She was reminded that there was a world different from her workplace, but no real witness regarding Christ occurred.

Level 2: Let Me Tell You About My Church

This next step is an improvement—well, sort of. At least we’re moving in the right direction. Maybe.

A lot of times when we talk about “evangelism” in a church committee, what we really mean is a church growth strategy. How do we get people in the doors? How do we get them to stay? Let’s go ahead and say it: How do we get them to give money? Staff and air conditioning are expensive!

Before too long, someone might even use the word “marketing” as part of this strategic conversation. We’ve got to let people know what we offer! This can get quite creative.

There are the church coffee bars and bookstores, of course, designed to create that commercial “Starbucks” feel we’ve all learned to love. I once heard of a church that went to the trouble of installing a giant slide from its upstairs children’s program down to the main level. When it was time to go home, the kids would dive down the slide to meet their parents. I’ll bet the children were packing that place, at least for awhile!

The danger in all of this is a church can spend a lot of money and energy to create what is essentially a social club for adults or a giant playpen for children. Certainly, nice facilities can be a huge help as we try to do the work of the kingdom, particularly in a community lacking such spaces. They have to exist for the right reason, however. As we discussed last week, everything needs to be “on mission.”

Level 3: Let Me Offer You a Relationship

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re also getting personal, making Level 3 a little scary. Additionally, Level 3 almost certainly will happen outside church.

I once spent some time doing what I now call “sushi evangelism.” The young man who made my rolls at a local sushi bar one day noticed the Methodist cross embroidered on my shirt. He asked me if I was a minister.

I did not have to steer the conversation much after that. (Sharing the Good News often is simply a matter of answering questions in an established friendship.) He had fallen away from church as a child and was full of questions, some so complicated they strained my theological thinking.

For a couple of months, I spent a lot of my lunch money on sushi to keep that relationship going. It continued until he moved to another state for a job, where I pray new relationships help him continue to grow in his understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord.

Measure Your Efforts

Christians, I’m going to give you a way to measure how you’re doing in all of this. Here’s a two-question test you can give yourself any time.

Question 1: Who was the last person I helped draw into a relationship with Christ? I’m not saying you had to be the one who was there when the person dropped down and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. But you know when you’ve helped a nonbeliever make progress—who was it, and how long ago was it?

Question 2: Who am I sharing the Good News with right now? There must be someone around you who needs the love of Jesus Christ. There must be someone needing hope and restoration.

If you cannot think of someone, you really need to broaden your circles. Stop hanging around other Christians so much!

Living out Level 3 is not easy. It takes a loving, Holy Spirit-filled heart to commit to a nonbeliever in a way that is genuine. You have to commit to friendship with the person you want to reach regardless of whether the person ever becomes a Christian.

Know this, however. You do not have to figure out how to spread the Good News on your own. In a healthy church, we support one another and train together as we witness to a hurting world.

Let’s do it. For the sake of the lost around us, let’s share the Good News about Jesus Christ!


The featured image is “St. Francis Preaches the Faith,” Jan Michiel Coxie, 17th Century.

The Struggle to Believe

Romans 10:1-13 (NLT)

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand;
   it is on your lips and in your heart.”


And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”


Paul’s heartfelt desire in this portion of Romans continues to be for all Jews to know what he knows—Jesus is the Christ, the promised savior, the one who will bless all the world.

While he has brought up the subject before in Romans, Paul describes in a new way the Jews’ struggle to believe, saying they have “misdirected zeal.” In the case of the Jews, this means they have become so enamored with the Mosaic law that they cannot see the bigger picture of what God has accomplished through that law. They “cling to their own way,” and miss the incredible gift God has given all the world.

As a pastor, I have seen the same struggle in other kinds of nonbelievers. They know little or nothing about the law given to the Jews, but they have their own kind of “misdirected zeal,” chasing righteousness with God or some sort of higher power  in completely wrong ways.

In many ways, this struggle to believe is a struggle to understand the incredible simplicity of what God has done in the world through Jesus Christ. People have trouble with the idea that heartfelt belief is enough for salvation. So long as that belief makes you able to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” and declare the resurrection real, you are made right with God despite your sin.

Surely, there must be more to do, the zealous strivers think. Surely, it’s not so easy that anyone can find salvation. Surely, some good works on our part must balance out the evil that we have done; surely, there is a price we must pay.

Nope. There was a price for our sins, a terrible price, but Jesus picked up the tab by going to the cross. Any good works we do are simply a joyous response to the truth that we are already saved simply because we have believed.

Simplicity can be perplexing, I suppose. God’s work is so simple that it astonishes the angels. If we read our Bible carefully, it would seem they are puzzled about what God is doing for his little humans.

I’m thinking particularly of 1 Peter 1, where Jesus’ most impulsive apostle sounds much like our Romans text today. Like Paul, Peter rejoices in how we are saved by faith in Christ raised from the dead.

In verse 12, he says, “It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.” The original Greek creates a picture of what is heavenly peeking in amazement into God’s work on earth. With this sermon today, I included the image of Jocopo Tintoretto’s 16th-century “Last Supper,” as it includes angels hovering in the smoke, watching Jesus prepare his disciples for his trip to the cross.

In theory, those of us who call ourselves Christians have grasped salvation’s simplicity, even if the angels have not. But I think we have to acknowledge that we also demonstrate some of that misdirected zeal first attributed to the Jews. Our problem is more rooted in forgetting why we exist as a church.

All churches, and consequently, all church members, have a scripturally defined vision and mission, both aligned with what Paul calls “the very message about faith that we preach,” this simple good news about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

At Luminary, we state the vision and mission in our communications. For example, look at the cover of our bulletins or the front page of our web site. Our vision is “a world conformed to Jesus Christ,” and our consequent mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” Our daily job as a church is to figure out how to localize the mission and then live into it.

This next part is hard for me to say, but I think it’s true. Even with our vision and mission before us, we too often go off on tangents, sometimes quite zealously. As a church, we have to be careful not to lose our way.

One example: We love to gather, particularly on Sundays and Wednesdays, but to what end? Fellowship is good, but ideally our fellowship should draw us and those currently outside our church circle into a deeper relationship with Christ. Are we structuring our gatherings in the fellowship hall, the Sunday school room or the small group gathering to such an end?

Another example: We love music at our particular church. We often revel in it, and there is a real effort there to glorify God as we worship. But again, we have to be sure we are always asking ourselves, “Are we using our love for music to draw others into a relationship with Christ?” And even if we are, how can we do it better?

There are a couple of tests we can apply to any of these environments, or to the church as a whole. The first one is simple: Are we working alongside the Holy Spirit to make new Christians? We did have an adult baptism and a reaffirmation of faith last week, examples of two people publicly engaging with Christ’s kingdom in new ways.

So, the answer is yes, occasionally. We’re not really changing lives enough to qualify us as some sort of dynamic force for the kingdom, however.

The second one is a little harder to quantify. Individually, are we growing in our depth of understanding and our commitment to the kingdom? I try to make an overall assessment as a pastor, but the answer for each of you individually lies in your own hearts. Are you closer to God each year, or are you casually chugging through life with God in the background somewhere?

I’ll simplify all of this with an old cliché: We too often fail to keep our eyes on the prize. We forget that we live to see evil destroyed and creation fully aligned with God. We live to see progress made toward those ends in our community now.

We forget that we have eternity ahead of us, and we let the concerns of this brief worldly existence pull us off a very clear, very simple mission.

We have to remember that when we operate with misdirected zeal, we are chasing something of far less value than what Christ is offering the world, and we are failing to live into what we are called to be as Christians.

Maybe our zeal is for a good feeling about good works. Maybe we chase a kind of status or respect we’ve failed to find elsewhere. Maybe we desire human relationships to the exclusion of a relationship with our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

Maybe we become so used to operating like a club that we forget what it means to function as an active, living part of God’s universal church.

Next week, we’ll dive into what Paul has to say about really preaching this simple good news about Jesus Christ as our risen Lord and Savior. In the meantime, I hope you’ll do what I’ve been trying to do the past several weeks.

Spend some time assessing how deeply you’ve let Christ in and how committed you are to letting him use you for his kingdom. What we determine in that assessment will help us as we move further into Romans.

The Stumbling Stone

Romans 9:30-33 (NLT)

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,
   a rock that makes them fall.
But anyone who trusts in him
   will never be disgraced.”


“What does all this mean?” We cannot forget that as Paul wrote, there was a perplexing development in early Christianity.  Most of Paul’s fellow Jews were not accepting the very Jewish Jesus as their messiah. And even more strangely, non-Jewish people had begun to follow Jesus as Christ in droves.

Paul blamed the Jews’ weak response on theological myopia. The Jews had been blessed by God with the Mosaic law, but had begun to study the minutiae of God’s revelation so closely that they failed to see the fulfillment of its promises and prophecies in the world around them—particularly, the signs and miracles provided by Jesus and the early church leaders.

Have you seen on video or in real life people walking along and staring at their cell phones so intently that they do not see the tree, fountain or bicycle in the way? The Jewish religious leaders were unable to see Jesus for the scrolls in front of their faces.

Jesus was a shock to them, like a jutting rock in an otherwise neat cobblestone path. What the Jews thought of as their orderly world was upset by his arrival, and some people simply don’t like to have the world as they see it disturbed.

Most modern Christians are certainly not Jewish in any real sense of the word, even if some of us might have some Jewish blood. By definition, we have been baptized as followers of Jesus Christ and have pledged ourselves to upholding and living out certain beliefs that go along with being one of Christ’s disciples.

Yet even for us, Jesus can at times be a stumbling stone. When our minds are fully open to what is revealed in Scripture, we are confronted with the reality of who he is, what he has done, what he continues to do, and how all that changes the world. As we explore these truths, we sometimes sense our own nearsightedness. Like the Jews of Paul’s day, we also like our world comfortable and predictable, and I’ll warn you now, Jesus can be a threat to our sense of stability.

Who is he, and what has he done? Well, we believe he is God in flesh, the one who came among us to teach us about divine love. He then demonstrated that love by dying a horrible death in our place for our sins. His resurrection from death proves his work was and is effective. We are restored to God despite our sins.

The very idea that God would come and live even for a short time among his creation, as one of his creation, is bizarre. The idea of God experiencing death for our benefit, even with his ultimate resurrection to overcome that death, is even stranger.

And yet, the story of how God took on flesh and lived and died among us is core to what we believe as Christians. If these ideas were untrue, then Jesus would be just another nice guy whose loving nature got him killed. The lesson would be that we had better learn to seek power and success in this world so we aren’t killed, too.

What does Jesus continue to do, and how does that change the world? It is here we really see Jesus as our stumbling stone. When we talk in past tense about what Jesus did, we make him into a nice little history lesson. Jesus engages us directly, though, in the lives we live now.

Yes, Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s true we no longer see him directly. But he said he would send another, and as we’ve already been reminded in Romans by Paul, the Holy Spirit, that third aspect or experience of God, is among us now.

The same Spirit involved in the creation of all things and the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb continues to work in us today. I hope most of us who call ourselves Christians have experienced the Spirit at work in our lives in some way. When we sense his presence, we are reminded that the world is changing and the idea of a stable, predictable pattern to life is fiction.

For the world is not the way God wants it to be. It is not to be a place of sickness and dying; it is not to be a place where evil exists. Christ’s redeeming work moves us toward real stability, the kind of comfort and predictability we crave—eternal life with God.

Yes, Paul keeps going back to core Christian beliefs. It’s because we need to keep hearing them. The truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing now, through the Holy Spirit, should inform and modify every decision we make in our lives.

I am too often disappointed in myself when it comes to decision making. Oh , how easy it is to make decisions without keeping core Christian truths before me, letting them shape my every move.

Frankly, I also am often disappointed in our church, both locally and on a larger scale, when I see how we fail to keep these core, scripturally defined truths before us in everything we do. A time will come when we look back and be deeply saddened as we consider how we missed opportunities to live into the truth of who Christ is and what he is doing.

In short, we are failing to turn the world upside down. If you’ll look in Acts 17, you’ll see that is the accusation made against the early Christians—turning the world upside down with the message of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing. And I don’t think we should be satisfied until we are accused by the world of doing the same.

During the next couple of weeks, Paul is going to help us understand more clearly why it is so important that we carry this stumbling stone called Jesus into the world to interrupt the lives of others.

 

The Merciful Sovereign

Romans 9:14-29 (NLT)

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
   and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
   I will now call my people.
And I will love those
   whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
   ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
   ‘children of the living God.’”
And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
   only a remnant will be saved.
For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth
   quickly and with finality.”
And Isaiah said the same thing in another place:

“If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
   had not spared a few of our children,
we would have been wiped out like Sodom,
   destroyed like Gomorrah.”


Sometimes the Bible forces us to think until it hurts. Paul is doing that to us in Romans today.

If that bothers you, sorry. If that doesn’t bother you, congratulations—you may be on the verge of getting a glimpse of God’s mind via Paul’s writings.

This particular passage for centuries has caused the church to think until it hurts. Differences of opinion regarding how to read it and related passages have pushed Christians into two camps. One would be the Christians who believe God predestines who gets to experience eternal life. The other camp would be Christians who believe choosing or rejecting Jesus ultimately makes the difference, although these people also emphasize that our ability to choose is a gift from God.

People in the first group are called Calvinists; they include denominations like Presbyterians, certain kinds of Baptists, and just about any church with the word “Reformed” in its name.

People in the second group are called Arminians. Methodists would be among the Arminians. I don’t have time to get into a lot of church history today, but with the internet, the history of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians is easy to find.

You may recall from last week’s sermon that Paul has been talking about the twins Jacob and Esau. Both were in the direct lineage of Abraham, but only one, Jacob, was a part of the promise intended to bless the whole world. If you look at the story in Genesis, you can see that even before they were born, God had a preference for Jacob and what sounds like an intense dislike of Esau.

In today’s text, Paul gives another example, this one found in Exodus. There you will find the story of Moses confronting the leader of Egypt, the Pharaoh. And in that story, you’ll notice a puzzling pattern.

Sometimes Pharaoh heard Moses’ warnings and “hardened his heart” against God’s plan on his own. Other times, God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in order that the mighty story of the plagues and the escape by the Israelites from Egypt could play out in full and to the glory of God. When you read the story closely, Pharaoh looks like a chess pawn, something to be used and discarded according to God’s purposes.

Paul also resorts to an analogy, one common to Jewish tradition. God is like a potter, Paul says. He makes his individual creations however he wants, and he uses his creations however he wants. One pot may be for art, and the other may be fashioned as a garbage container.

As we noted last week, from a human perspective, God’s preference for one person over another or one group of people over another can seem unfair. Paul’s answer to this protest is pretty straightforward—in fact, his answer is the main point of this text.

God is sovereign. As Creator, God has a kingship no human could ever match. Being all-powerful, God can do anything he wants. Being all-knowing, God can see his creation from the beginning to the end of time, and on into eternity.

The message is designed to humble us, particularly those of us who have an inflated sense of self-importance. Who are we, compared to God? If we truly understand who God is, we sin when we look at God and say, “Unfair!”

Instead, we should be driven toward an attitude of submission, to a desire to simply serve God in whatever way we were made to serve. I’m reminded of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

We essentially are praying, “I submit to being whatever kind of pottery you need me to be.” It is a sobering prayer. But let me take a few more minutes to remind myself, and you, why I am glad to be a Methodist. For we do take this message of God’s sovereignty and ultimately find great joy in it.

We do this by looking at Paul’s words in a much larger context. Yes, God seems to have a preference for one person over another or one group of people over another. At a minimum, he seems to have such preferences during critical moments in history, those times when he directly propels forward the Great Promise, the blessing designed for all families on earth.

We know, however, that God is a most merciful sovereign. In human kings, mercy has always been seen as a powerful virtue, although often a missing virtue. In God the King of Creation, mercy is perfect. The great merciful sovereign pours out grace on his subjects in ways no earthly king ever could.

The best example, of course, is the king coming among us as Jesus Christ, teaching us about the power of love and then, in an act of love, dying on the cross for our sins. Once again, we are reminded of that great verse from the Gospel of John. Here is John 3:16 in the New Living Translation:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

If the Great Sovereign were not somehow giving us a choice, I don’t think these words in John would be possible. Also, I don’t think Paul would have written earlier and later in Romans of the need to spread the Good News about the cross. When I return from vacation in a couple of weeks, we’re going to hear a lot from Paul about the importance of spreading the Good News.

Why involve humans in sharing the message if choosing Christ is irrelevant? Why all the talk in the gospels, Romans and elsewhere about the importance of faith if the decision regarding who is saved is fixed from the start?

I will admit, I cannot fully explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God who “elects” and “chooses” people throughout much of Scripture also gives us the freedom to say yes or no to him. I try not to resort to the word “mystery” too often, but it likely applies here. We are, after all, talking about how the mind of God works, and I do not see how a human mind, or even millions of human minds working together, can fully understand the mind of God.

I do know, however, that the mind of God is a loving mind, and that Christ’s death and resurrection express that love fully. We are blessed to have such a king.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What About the Jews?

Romans 9:1-13 (NLT)

With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

Well then, has God failed to fulfill his promise to Israel? No, for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children. For the Scriptures say, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted,” though Abraham had other children, too. This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”


No one likes to think about losing someone he or she loves. Paul is concerned about losing the vast majority of his people, the Jews, for all eternity.

It is a disturbing idea for any loving person even today, one that can still puzzle us if we have Jewish friends, or for that matter, friends of any faiths other than Christianity. What about the Jews, specifically those Jews who do not see Christ as the Messiah? What about the other people around us who have never accepted Christ or even flatly reject the idea of Jesus as savior?

Paul clearly is in pain as he raises the topic in his letter to the Romans. This is not some vague theological exercise for him. As he rhetorically explores the issue, he surely is thinking of specific people: family; mentors, perhaps like his respected teacher Gamaliel; sincere fellow students who had rigorously studied Judaism alongside him; the faithful Jewish vendor who sold him lunch in the marketplace.

We have to be careful not to read too much into his angst, however. While he is in pain for his people, the Jews, he does not speak as a man wrestling with a question. In that way, he is very different from some of us. Paul knows the answer because he has directly experienced the risen Christ. He understands and accepts the exclusive claims Christ made regarding his ministry and his sacrifice on the cross.

When we struggle with the question, “What about the others,” we actually are debating an idea that has been clearly defined for us in Scripture. A lot of us simply don’t like the answer. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; there is no other way for sinful beings to reconnect to a holy God except through Jesus. (I’m referencing the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verses 1 through 11, here.)

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fair. Paul says as much in next week’s text, although he quickly discounts this notion of unfairness. In this week’s text, he notes the Jews were “adopted” by God as the People of Israel, using the same familial language we heard last week when we considered our own status as adopted children. He recounts the history of revealed glory and covenants entered, and the giving of the law. Worship has been happening among the Jews, and promises were made.

It just seems like they’ve been trying so hard! The same can be said for our religious non-Christian friends, and Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and all those other good people we have seen.

If you take Scripture seriously at all, though, some truths about the nature of Jesus are undeniable. Jesus came as the result of those promises to the Jews. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promises, a fulfillment so great that from Jesus’ day on, we live in a time described to Abraham thousands of years ago.

Through Abraham’s Jewish descendants, God has blessed “all the families on earth” (Genesis 12:3). He has gone to great lengths to ensure any human being can be saved from sin simply by believing. If the Jews reject Jesus, they reject a promise first made to them. If others reject Jesus, they reject a promise extended to all of humanity.

Perhaps our problem with the exclusive claims of Christianity lies not in how God works, but in how we respond to God’s work. We sit back and say, “How can God be working this way,” and never for a moment consider what we are called to do in response to Christ’s sacrifice and the resultant gift being offered.

If you’re concerned about someone’s relationship with God, you are called to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To do so, you need to understand the message so well that you can relate it to nonbelievers in a winsome, non-threatening, non-judgmental way.

The non-judgmental part is very important, by the way. Only God can ultimately determine who is aligned with him and who is not. We are called to bear his loving invitation to others, not his judgment.

There is an art to such witnessing, and all of us as Christians need to develop this art form as best we can.

Someone among this congregation recently put it this way in reference to evangelism: How much do you have to hate a person to not tell that person about Jesus? Those of us who call ourselves Christians know the source of eternal life; we have found the path to God.

It is as if you are crawling through the scorching desert with others, dying of thirst, and you stumble across a cool, flowing spring rising up out of the sand.

How dare you not call out, “The water is here! It’s here!” You would have to really hate those other people to leave them to their deaths, crawling around in the sand.

If there seems to be a gap in God’s plan for salvation, it’s very possible our reluctance to share the Good News contributes greatly to the gap.

Paul concludes what we hear today by starting a deeper examination of why some seem to be favored by God while others are not. He reminds his audience of a very Jewish story, the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. Even before birth, one is clearly favored by God, while the other is not.

It will take us a few weeks to unpack the idea he is offering us here. Prepare to go deep.


The featured image is Giovanni Maria Bottala’s “Meeting between Esau & Jacob,” circa 1638.