Author: Chuck Griffin

Pastor of Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn., along beautiful Watts Bar Lake.

What’s Missing


Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.

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Thinking About ‘A Christian Nation’

I want to try something a little different in my blog this week.

The last two weeks, I’ve preached texts containing a concept I was barely able to consider on Sunday morning. With the help of anyone reading this blog and willing to write in, I’m hoping we can delve into the idea in at least some depth here.

The first text was Matthew 25:31-46, where we see an image of the judgment. The criteria for being a “sheep” (with Christ) or a “goat” (against Christ) puzzle some readers. The criteria are very action oriented: Did you or did you not give food and water to the hungry and thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned? On the surface, Christ’s basis for judgment seems to conflict with the notion we are saved by grace alone.

There was a basic conclusion to this sermon. Real faith results in discernible compassion for others. We imitate the compassion Jesus Christ showed us on the cross.

The second text was from Mark 13. Jesus is quite apocalyptic here, predicting the destruction of the temple that would come four decades later, and talking more broadly about the end of time as we know it. He also talks about signs of the time to come, but warns us there is no way we can know for sure when this will be.

Again, there was a conclusion, the same one Jesus offers: Keep awake! We also could say, “Keep busy,” deliberately working in the highways and hedges to grow the kingdom.

Now, here’s the part I want to explore. In both texts, there is the concept of “nation.” Individuals are judged, but nations—our governments, our politics, our systems for functioning as a group—are judged, too.

In the United States, the claim we are a “Christian nation” gets thrown around a lot in politics. If you pay close attention to those using the phrase, you’ll find each leader or potential leader can mean very different things. In some cases, it is simply a trigger phrase designed to appeal to a particular part of the electorate.

Here’s my question: Looking at Christ’s teachings, what would a Christian nation look like? What kind of policies would it have? What actions would put it with the sheep, opposite the goats?

Consider some of the big issues that are current. How would a Christian nation approach war? Immigration? Poverty? I have just one rule here. Be biblical! There are already enough people using the phrase “Christian nation” without letting the Bible be their guide.

While links to this blog appear on Facebook, LinkedIn, and some other venues, I would appreciate it if you would post any thoughts you might have through the blog site itself. Just type your thoughts into the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of the page.

 

No Guts, No Glory


Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

“The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”


This parable is a warning, and that is how I shall preach it.

In case you don’t know, the word “talent” in this story means a significant sum of money, certainly what we would think of as tens of thousands of dollars. The modern use of the word—for example, a “talented singer” or “a student with many talents”—developed from the way we traditionally interpret this parable.

Once we know what a talent is, the story itself is relatively straightforward. A wealthy man goes on a long journey and leaves different large amounts of money to what must be three very trusted slaves. We have to remember that in Jesus’ day, while slaves were owned by their masters, they sometimes did more than manual or household labor. It wasn’t unusual to have slaves managing significant business operations.

Two slaves double the investment they are given. One slave fails to earn so much as a little interest, and the master deems him useless for even menial tasks, casting him out.

Do I have to tell you this parable is not actually about money? Money is simply analogous to the gifts God gives us to use in the world as we help him grow his kingdom. Sometimes I talk in great detail about spiritual gifts, particularly if you’re in the Luminary 101 class. Let’s try to keep that conversation simple today.

God has some way of using you. First of all, you’re made in a particular way. That partially dictates how you can best work for the kingdom.

Since we just finished our long sermon series in Romans, I’ll use Paul as an example. Even before his conversion, Paul was clearly what we would call, in modern terms, a “Type A” personality: competitive, organized, ambitious, perhaps a little impatient. We also know he was studious, capable of processing and understanding complicated theological concepts.

Even after he came to believe in Jesus Christ, none of that really changed. God just began to use what was already there. A different make and model could not have traveled the same roads Paul traveled. So in one sense, our talents are stitched into us before birth and during our upbringing.

There’s more, though. Once we become followers of Christ, the Holy Spirit gives us new gifts. They work uniquely with how we are made. For example, the spiritual gift of discernment will be expressed differently in a detective than in a doctor, even though it is the same gift.

We know we are all called to lead others to Jesus Christ, so at a minimum, we all receive the same gift allowing us to spread the Good News. Paul certainly found himself newly equipped to evangelize for Christ.

There are many other possible gifts God may implant in us, too, gifts that make a real difference in growing the kingdom here on earth. I promise you, Christians, like the third slave in the parable, you each have at least one talent. It belongs to the master, not you, but you have been entrusted with it. It is worth a small fortune in the kingdom economy, where we trade commodities like love, grace, forgiveness, and healing.

That’s a lot of background to get to the real point of this parable. Fear is the third slave’s problem, and frankly, fear is our problem. Let’s think for a couple of minutes about what the first two slaves did; in the parable, their actions clearly match the master’s expectations. They “traded” with their talents to get a return.

What do we have to do to trade? Well, first we have to get out in the world. Even in today’s context, we need another person, at a minimum via an internet connection, if we’re going to do any trading. We have to find someone who wants what we’re offering.

This business of getting out into the world is what the third slave feared. He had no stomach for risk, not even taking advantage of the low-risk, low-return terms the bankers offered. The slave feared someone would take advantage of him, that he would make some sort of mistake that would cost him the talent he had been given.

I have heard people say they feel sorry for the third slave. I don’t. He knew who his master was, he knew what his instructions were, and in the end, he proved to be a coward. That’s why the master in the parable found the slave not just unfit for investment work, but completely unfit.

How strange it is that we can experience a similar kind of fear when considering how to use our talents to serve the master who offers eternal life. We genuinely have nothing to fear! Our master tells us, fear not! And yet, in the church we so often keep our faith within our walls, rather than seeking the people who need us.

People might reject what we offer, but we cannot lose what we have simply by engaging with the world. Even if we die, we cannot lose eternal life.

Everyone wants to see a miracle. Let me tell you about a miracle we can see with our own eyes. All we have to do is get out there and use our talents.

You will eventually find someone who accepts what Christ offers through us. You’ll then see love, grace, forgiveness and healing double in proportion. It is as if we are  giving away dollars, and every time our offer is accepted, a new dollar appears in our hand.

All who ask receive, but this is no zero-sum game. No one ever loses in a kingdom economy because the source of love, grace, forgiveness and healing is infinite and eternal.

The only risk for us is in not using our talents. According to the parable, that’s when talents can be snatched away, and that image of the servant cast into “outer darkness” is something we should fear. Have you considered what your talents are? Are you using them for the kingdom to the best of your ability?

Hurry, people, hurry! Even though it seems he has been gone a long time, we do not know when we will next face our master.


The featured image is Andrey Moronov’s “Parable of the Talents,” 2013, available through Wikimedia Commons.

The Last Episode

1 John 2:28-3:3 (NRSV)

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.


As in several other places in the New Testament, a reader can discover what seems to be a tension between ideas in 1 John.

First, the author is emphatic that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the path to salvation. In chapter 1, verses 7 through 9, he writes, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But later in the letter—just beyond our reading for today—the tone changes, as if those who are in Christ cannot sin. “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. … Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”

The two ideas pull at each other, but the tension is there to keep heresies from developing. If we forget salvation is an act of grace, an unmerited gift from God, we can start thinking we somehow earn our salvation on our own, and we begin to live like Pharisees. But at the same time, when people do not make a conscious effort to stop sinning, we can cheapen Christ’s sacrifice, saying to ourselves as we sin, “It’s okay—Jesus will forgive me.”

I think all of this is easier to process when we consider our text today. The author of 1 John is inviting us to live as if we know how our story ends. Why? Because we actually do know how our story ends.

If you’re standing on a train track, and you hear a whistle and feel a vibration under your feet, what do you do? You get off the track.

If you’re crawling out of a dark cave and you see a beam of light, what do you do? You crawl toward the light.

If you know your boss is going to walk through the door at any moment, what do you do? You work like you’ve been working hard all day. (That’s actually an extreme paraphrase of one of Jesus’ parables; see Matthew 24:45-51.)

If you genuinely believe you’re going to see Jesus face-to-face one day, what do you do? You put aside sin, those things displeasing to him. You certainly put aside those things that are recurring; if you keep reading 1 John, you’ll see the author seems particularly concerned about repetitive patterns of sin.

We know how to handle situations when the end result is clear. We change our behaviors so we are aligned with future circumstances.

Here’s what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to live like the people who are oblivious about the end result. I’ll give you an example: We don’t want to be like the characters on “Seinfeld.”

Most of you who are regulars know I have a deep affinity for “Star Trek,” and I’ve promised to limit my references to that show. But what many of you don’t know is that I also love “Seinfeld.” In particular, I think the show’s final, two-part episode in 1998 was deeply theological, whether or not the writer Larry David intended it to be.

For nine seasons, the characters on the show went about their lives without ever considering the consequences of their actions. Jerry, George and Kramer wrecked women’s lives with abandon; the toxic glue on cheapskate George’s discount wedding invitations killed his fiancée, for crying out loud! Elaine was just as adept at ruining the lives of men around her.

There also was the constant lying and deceit, whether it was Jerry trying to avoid visiting his parents at Del Boca Vista in Florida or the whole group trying to get soup from the soup Nazi. And those of us who watched the series throughout loved every minute of it. As long as we’re watching fiction, it’s amusing to see people living their lives as if there is no ultimate end in view, particularly when they are so hilariously sarcastic about everything.

It was the theologian in me, however, that made me think the final episode was brilliant.

In short, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George find themselves far from home, in a small town that actually has what most of us consider normal values. Fictional Latham, Mass., has even gone so far as to enshrine the need to help each other in the law, requiring people to come to the aid of someone in trouble.

Seeing a very overweight man being robbed, the Seinfeld Four choose to film the event rather than helping him or calling for help. They make fun of the victim the whole time, as they’ve always been prone to do. They end up under arrest for not providing aid, and being the first people put on trial under the law, the courtroom scene turns into a spectacle.

People they have victimized over the years arrive to testify against them. Jerry stole an elderly lady’s marble rye; she’s there, and she’s still angry. The Bubble Boy explains how they nearly killed him during an argument over Trivial Pursuit. (Moors! Moops!) Teri Hatcher shows up, and that’s all a pastor can say about her character.

An old girlfriend tells how George fled an apartment fire by pushing children and an elderly woman out of the way. There are references to uromycitisis poisoning, the puffy shirt, cockfighting, and how Jerry was “all the time mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking. Now it is Abu’s time to mock!”

And of course, they are all found guilty. The series ends with them in prison. The Seinfeld universe, as weird as it was, is put right in the last episode, with goodness affirmed and badness condemned.

As complicated as he can seem, the author of 1 John is telling us how the same principle plays out in real life. We have a last episode coming. It is already written. We know whom we see when we arrive in it. The good will be affirmed, even rewarded, and the bad will be condemned.

As people who already know the story, we are called to live our lives accordingly, no matter how much we might think we are entitled to that marble rye.


The featured image is Joos van Cleve’s “Final Judgment,” circa 1520.

The Well-Guarded Path

Psalm 1 (NRSV)

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
   but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
   but the way of the wicked will perish.


In Psalm 1, we have the beginning of a beautiful formula, a theological concoction that has intoxicated God seekers for thousands of years.

Understand God’s will and live according to it, and you will find joy, prospering in all you do. Ignore God’s will, and life will be misery and loss. It is the classic theme of Wisdom literature from the Near East.

The psalm is all about action-oriented choices. A different translation, one by Hebrew professor Robert Alter, captures the first lines more literally from the Hebrew:

Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
     nor in the way of offenders has stood,
          nor in the session of scoffers has sat.

One chooses where to walk, or with whom to stand or sit. The metaphor then shifts to something very familiar for people raised in an arid climate, the image of fruit trees in need of water. Plant yourself in God’s law, the revelation of God’s will, the Psalm is saying, and like a tree near an always-flowing stream, you will bear fruit. Plant yourself too far from the source of life, and you will wither until dry and blow away.

On the surface, these are beautiful ideas, concepts that fit our desire for justice. Without further development, they can seem quite empty to us, though.

If the opening theme of Psalm 1 were the only theme of Scripture, I would have long ago discarded my study of the Bible. The idea being expressed does not match the reality of what we observe during most of our lifetimes.

Too often, the clearly good people suffer. Too often, it is the wicked who flourish and seem to have all the fruit. Fortunately, Psalm 1 is just one piece of an elaborate puzzle.

The Book of Job is an equally ancient piece of Wisdom literature, and it takes us in a whole different direction. You may remember the story of Job. As it begins, he fits the pattern described in Psalm 1. He is a righteous man, walking with God and prospering mightily in terms of family and wealth.

The problem arises when Satan goes to God and speculates that Job is righteous simply because life is so good for him. Let me strike at him, Satan says, and Job will curse you, God. First, Satan is allowed to strike Job’s possessions and family. Later he’s allowed to strike at Job himself, afflicting him with terrible diseases.

In all of this, Job does not curse God, and he does not relent in his assertion to friends that he has done nothing wrong. He does complain mightily at times, though, and once he begins, he moves beyond his own problems and complains about how the wicked flourish and abuse the righteous, including orphans and widows, and God seems to do nothing.

You reach a story like Job’s in Scripture, and you realize the Bible deals with some very deep subjects. We may not find satisfying answers in Job to these deep questions about evil’s persistence, but at least the questions are asked.

So, with its simple opening formula, is Psalm 1 irrelevant? No, not at all. Its theme is a beginning point for us to think theologically.

If you teach a child something, you have to begin in a simple place. There is good, and good is what we must pursue. There is evil, and evil must be avoided.

The later, more complicated questions we ask as we mature do not change how the early, simple lessons need to be structured. And as our spiritual understanding grows and matures, the Bible is there for us every step of the way.

This is why it is so important for us to engage with the Bible continually throughout our lives. If we hear what seem like simple stories and lessons as children, and never return to the Bible as we experience more and more of life, we will think Scripture is irrelevant. And in the process, we miss so much that is useful as we continue to live.

When Jesus arrives on the scene in the grand narrative of Scripture, his teachings seem designed to take us deeper while also simultaneously emphasizing the early truths we learn.

Parables are a good example. Jesus teaches in parables to perplex us until we ponder for awhile, and in pondering we discover powerful new truths. Through Jesus―God among us, Immanuel―we learn that God loves us in ways the Jews had scarcely imagined. God pours out on the world what seems, from our perspective, to be this most illogical love, a love unearned and undeserved.

At the same time, Jesus teaches us to never let go of what we learned from the start. We are to come to God with the faith of a child, trusting that the basic lessons found in places like Psalm 1 really are true.

Yes, in the end, righteous, good people really do prosper; in the end, wicked sinners have nothing but failure and loss.

You heard me say “in the end” twice there, of course. So often, answering our difficult theological questions simply is a matter of perspective. We are confused because in our grief, in our pain, we have trouble with the bigger picture, which again, Scripture provides.

If you’re paying close attention, even Psalm 1 alone offers that bigger picture. As the psalm ends, the wicked and the righteous get their just deserts at the judgment, rather than right away. The path of the righteous may seem difficult, at times, but it is well-guarded. God ensures it leads to eternity with him.

Thousands of years ago, even suffering Job sensed the bigger picture in the midst of all his pain. In the 19th chapter of his story, he suddenly says prophetically, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

We are blessed to know Job’s Redeemer as Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus and believing in Jesus, we will have both justice and joy, neither of which will ever depart from our lives for all eternity.

 

Smooth Talkers

Romans 16:17-27 (NLT)

And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. Such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests. By smooth talk and glowing words they deceive innocent people. But everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord. This makes me very happy. I want you to be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

Timothy, my fellow worker, sends you his greetings, as do Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my fellow Jews.

I, Tertius, the one writing this letter for Paul, send my greetings, too, as one of the Lord’s followers.

Gaius says hello to you. He is my host and also serves as host to the whole church. Erastus, the city treasurer, sends you his greetings, and so does our brother Quartus.

Now all glory to God, who is able to make you strong, just as my Good News says. This message about Jesus Christ has revealed his plan for you Gentiles, a plan kept secret from the beginning of time. But now as the prophets foretold and as the eternal God has commanded, this message is made known to all Gentiles everywhere, so that they too might believe and obey him. All glory to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, forever. Amen.


We have reached the end of our Romans series. For 37 weeks, we have heard from Paul the core truths about Christianity.

Again, there is this matter of the Good News. Anyone making it this far through Romans should have a clear idea of what the Good News is. Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah, and in dying on the cross, he made salvation available to all people anywhere. God’s promise to Abraham that his people would be a blessing to all the world is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Paul also has given his readers ongoing reminders of God’s holiness. What conforms to God’s nature is holy, and what defies God’s nature is sin. We are called not only to salvation, but also to a remaking through the work of the Holy Spirit, growing in our ability to reflect God’s holiness in our own lives.

We must put sin aside, exploring God’s revelation of his will in Scripture so we know what he calls holy and unholy, rather than trying to define these matters for ourselves. In Methodist terms, we are to experience sanctification as the gift that follows salvation.

With all this in mind, Paul has one last pressing concern as he wraps up his letter—the danger posed by people who selfishly bring division to a church. It is not that the Christians in Rome necessarily have a problem in this area; in fact, Paul seems to indicate they don’t, saying “everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord.”

Paul knows, however, that the issue of division is a serious one, and that churches must prepare for its possibility in times of unity so they know what to do in times of discord.

Having just discussed core Christian concepts in his letter, Paul’s warning is a relatively simple one. As mature Christians, you know enough already; you understand God’s will, you know what is important. Don’t be swayed by “smooth talk and glowing words” designed to steer you away from these core truths.

As we know in our own time, words without content can be quite effective. We live in a culture where people use pretty, empty words to get what they want. Try this exercise: Pick a politician and break down his or her political speech. Really listen closely. Outline it. Analyze it. How much is actually being said clearly and forthrightly?

I’m not calling all politicians empty suits. We do have deep thinkers in politics. I’m just saying you won’t have a lot of trouble finding politicians who get elected while talking a lot but say nothing. You can do the same kind of exercise with television commercials. What do you really know about what’s being sold once you’ve analyzed what is said?

Where there is no substance in an appeal, we usually find emotion. More than 300 years before Jesus ever came onto the scene, Aristotle showed how emotion could be used to drive rhetoric. And yes, this happens in religious communities all the time. In fact, it may be easier in such communities because the people present have very personal commitments to God and each other, as well as other concepts like family or nation.

We actually have an easier time testing people’s words than the early church at Rome would have had. In many ways, they were still teasing out the implications of a risen Christ, with people arguing about his humanity, his divinity and other details of how God was working in the world.

We now have Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture and centuries of solid Christian thinking, what we sometimes call “church tradition,” to give us guidance. Our core doctrines are largely a settled matter. No one has to invent another wheel to keep the cart moving forward.

Paul also gives us another way to test people who bring discord. Ask, “What does this person have to gain?” If people are serving their own personal interests rather than the kingdom as Christ has described it, there is a problem.

Here, Paul causes me to think of a book called “Antagonists in the Church,” which a mentor convinced me to read when I first went into professional ministry. The author, Kenneth Haugk, argues most people who would bring division are pretty easily identifiable by their particular behaviors and strategies. They raise certain flags, and if you see enough flags coming from a person, beware!

I’ll not get into all of those flags—I do recommend the book—but I will say this: Nearly all the bad behaviors and strategies are borne from an antagonist thinking, “How can this benefit me,” rather than, “How can this benefit the kingdom?”

One of our earliest Christian documents we have outside the Bible is called The Didache. It was sort of an early church Discipline, giving all sorts of guidelines for how to run a church.

The Didache addresses this problem of self-centeredness masquerading as prophetic speech. In the early days of Christianity, travelers calling themselves prophets would show up in communities, and members of the local churches never knew whether to take these people seriously.

A particular guideline was very specific. If the traveler claimed the Lord had declared the church should have a fellowship meal, a real prophet would make the proclamation and move on before the food had been prepared. If he tried to stay and eat, he probably was a fake.

As we wrap up this trip through Romans, I hope you’ll take much away from your time in this holy book. There are two ideas I pray stay with you, as they will determine the future health of any church.

First, there is Good News! Understanding that news and its implications is critical to the Christian life. I’ve said it in different ways throughout this series: Bible study, mixed with a healthy dose of prayer, is the path to understanding.

Second, have the courage to spread that Good News. Good deeds are not enough. People need to hear about the source of goodness, the giver of eternal life.

Jesus is overcoming the evil that temporarily grips this world. Trusting in his power, what will you do to conquer a part of the world for the kingdom?

Lord, thank you for the gift of the Book of Romans. Continue to inspire us as we stay in your word. Amen.

 

Honored Servants of Christ

Romans 16:1-16 (NLT)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.

Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.

Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.


It takes people to make a church, and each person has a story.

As Paul commends and greets several people near the end of of his letter Romans, it is possible to find the outlines of a few of their stories. In the process, we can learn quite a bit about their social status and how they liked to gather. Paul’s words also give us some critical insight into the role of women in the development of the church.

We begin with Phoebe. Now, Phoebe is the one person we’ll talk about today who is not a member of the Roman church. Paul is “commending” her, essentially establishing her credentials so the Romans will accept her when she arrives in Rome. He calls her a “deacon,” using the word in a formal sense, indicating he sees her as a servant leader in her home church in the Greek port town of Cenchrea.

Scholars who focus on word studies also note she is described in Greek as a prostatis, meaning she was a “patron” or “benefactor.” All this seems to indicate she was a wealthy businesswoman, using her money to support the church and its missionaries. Why she was traveling to Rome, we don’t know. I wonder if she carried a copy of her commendation, or maybe even the very letter we have been reading!

Following this recommendation, Paul begins to greet people in Rome, and compared to other such letters, the extent of his greetings is remarkable. At a minimum, Paul has spent a lot of time with a few people from Rome and has learned of others there, taking an interest in their lives.

As I mentioned last week, Paul also knows he is going to need their support later, and mentioning key people by name certainly won’t hurt his cause. Paul certainly was a loving Christian, but he also wasn’t afraid to do a little politicking to accomplish his mission.

Priscilla and Aquila are known to be a couple, wife and husband. We know from Acts 18 they had to flee Rome after Emperor Claudius expelled Jews for a time, but by now had returned home. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade, and worked with him in Corinth and Ephesus.

They also clearly had a strong grasp of Christian theology. We’re told in Acts 18:26 that they helped bring Apollos to a better understanding of the faith at a time when his basic doctrine had a few gaps. It’s possible this couple directly impacted Scripture; Apollos is one candidate in the ongoing debate about who authored the book of Hebrews.

We also can assume Priscilla and Aquila were at least somewhat wealthy. We hear they hosted a “house church.” That means they owned a place big enough for a significant number of people, maybe a few dozen, to gather in worship together.

Skipping over some people we know little about, we next  have “Andronicus and Junia,” the latter name dropping us into the center of the centuries-old debate regarding the role of women in the church. Junia is female, but she also is described as having a relationship to the “apostles.” Some translations, like the one we are using today, make it clear the apostles at least had enormous respect for her, but another strong possible reading of the Greek is that Paul was actually calling her an apostle.

There’s no way to settle the controversy to the satisfaction of all denominations, but one thing becomes clear as we work through Paul’s greetings. Women were extremely active in shaping the early church, leading either by example in ministry or in formal roles.

I personally am very comfortable with women in professional ministry; it seems a natural progression from the radical inclusion women were finding in the early days of Christianity, a time when women seldom had much in the way of status in society.

Next in the list of identifiable people, we hear references to the “household of Aristobulus,” to “Herodion,” and to the “household of Narcissus.” These are likely people who were freed slaves, or their descendants. They were associated with or took on the names of powerful families they had served.

In this, we’re reminded that early Christianity was enormously attractive to those on the lower end of the social spectrum: the slaves, as well as the outcasts, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed. Yes, as we’ve seen, rich people understood Christianity, too, but the best of them, the ones we remember today, imitated Jesus in reaching out to the people on the edges of society. Their wealth simply became a tool to better include those in need.

The last one we know anything significant about is Rufus. I wish we knew more. He likely was the son of Simon of Cyrene, the man forced to carry Jesus’ cross.

As we read in Mark 15:21: “A passerby named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the countryside just then, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.)” Did the father’s story of bearing the cross alongside the bloodied Christ contribute to Rufus’ conversion?

There also is this matter of greeting each other with the “holy kiss.” When we pass the peace in worship, greeting each other “in the name of Jesus Christ,” we are practicing a vestige of what Paul is referring to here. In early Christianity, men kissed men and women kissed women on the lips in greeting. (Men and women were separate during worship.)

I guess we’re just more comfortable shaking hands in our culture. Plus, it’s getting near cold and flu season.

As we better understand these people, we see a deep, intimate connection. We see people filled with hope despite lowly circumstances. We see people with resources using them for the benefit of the kingdom. We see commitment to core Christian principles, and a willingness to correct each other in love as they all grow together spiritually.

As we look at them, I pray we see ourselves.


It’s impossible for me to develop a sermon with this much historical context unless I have some scholarly help. This week, I’m particularly indebted to Douglas J. Moo’s “The NIV Application Commentary: Romans.”