Epistle

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.

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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.”

The Mission

We are in what I think of as “the long goodbye” in Romans, a typical conclusion for one of Paul’s letters. As we explore Romans 15:14-33, let’s break it into pieces and consider what the apostle is saying.

I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. For by God’s grace, I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit.​

Paul treats these Roman Christians he has yet to meet as knowledgeable about their faith. But like us, even knowledgeable people need a reminder from time to time about what is important. That’s an important function of Paul’s letter to the Romans: It reminds us of core truths that must never be forgotten by Christians.

There is what Paul calls the Good News, of course, the truth about Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and what that means for a world struggling against sin. Paul also gives us a call to holiness.

Paul’s “acceptable offering” language creates an interesting metaphor. It is as if Paul puts himself in the ancient role of priest, doing all he can do to make the sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. But no longer are animals slaughtered in sacrifice; instead, we rely on Christ’s perfect sacrifice for all sin. Sanctification now happens as we allow the Spirit to make us holy in anticipation of eternal life with God.

So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum.

Paul is happy to declare the great miracles that have occurred during his ministry, but he is careful to give credit to God. He has followed a long, circuitous path as he has spread the Good News, and God has been with him every step of the way.

We should remember the kind of man Paul was before his almost forced conversion. He was a dangerous enemy of Christians, bent on their destruction. But God had need of him, and he became just as passionate a servant of Jesus Christ.

This also is a good time to remember the miracles associated with Paul in the Book of Acts. If you want a little extra study time, look for miracle stories in Acts 13, 14, 16, 19, 20 and 28. In a couple of them, it’s interesting to note how Paul suffered for doing God’s work.

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
   and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places.

But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.

When we call Paul an “apostle,” we specifically mean he spread the Good News where it had not been heard, staying long enough to establish Christian communities before moving on. His desire to continue such work remains, but he also is seeing a refinement to his calling. God is about to send him in a new direction, and to do so, he will need fresh relationships and a support system based in Rome.

For us, Paul’s situation is a reminder to seek whether God is calling us to make adjustments in how we serve the kingdom. We want to be committed in our work, but perhaps it is a dangerous thing to become too comfortable in our work. We must remain ready to adapt.

But before I come, I must go to Jerusalem to take a gift to the believers there. For you see, the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. As soon as I have delivered this money and completed this good deed of theirs, I will come to see you on my way to Spain. And I am sure that when I come, Christ will richly bless our time together.

Before going to Rome, Paul is hoping to bring some healing to a serious rift in the church, the one between Christians of Jewish descent and Christians of Gentile descent. The dispute over whether Gentiles should be made to live like Jews if they want to be Christians has created hard feelings. The very Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem has fallen on difficult times, and despite the rift the Gentile Christians have cobbled together a significant gift to help them.

Rather than sending someone in the role of courier, Paul wants to deliver the funds himself, to ensure the good-hearted intent of the gift is clear and fellowship is restored. This is a dangerous strategy for him. Once a budding leader among the Pharisees, Paul is now a pariah among Jews who do not believe in Jesus. But he believes there is an antidote to this danger:

Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit. Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem. Then, by the will of God, I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other.

The antidote, of course, is prayer. Yes, Paul clearly has God on his side. Yes, Paul has been able to do great signs and wonders. And yet Paul still humbly covets the prayers of other Christians.

Why do we pray? There are lots of reasons, but here’s a practical one you may not have considered: The Christians who have exhibited the greatest power and most effective ministries in history have rooted all they do in prayer. Why question what works?

We also see that Paul has an unusual concern about Jerusalem. He fears that once he gets there, the Jewish Christians may reject a gift from “unclean” Gentiles. He’s praying their hearts be accepting and full of love.

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen.

Paul, in the midst of so much contention and so much concern, speaks of peace so freely. We’ve seen a lot of strife and anxiety in our world the past few months. I pray that we continue to sense God’s peace, and to be bearers of peace to others.

Joyous Gentiles

Romans 15:7-13 (NLT)

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote:

“For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles;
   I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written,

“Rejoice with his people,
   you Gentiles.”
And yet again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.
   Praise him, all you people of the earth.”
And in another place Isaiah said,

“The heir to David’s throne will come,
   and he will rule over the Gentiles.
They will place their hope on him.”


I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Let’s focus on Paul’s concept of the Gentiles, the word for people not of Jewish descent.

The Bible as a whole is a very Jewish story. While God is the creator of all people and things, what we now call the Old Testament is told very much from a Jewish perspective, a viewpoint that continues into the New Testament.

By the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are quickly established in the biblical narrative as God’s Chosen People, the ones who desire, seek and finally possess the Promised Land.

Non-Jews are merely supporting actors on the stage, people who rise and fall depending on their interaction with the main characters. And yet, there are clues all along regarding how God loves all of creation, and how God’s close relationship with the Jews leads to salvation globally.

As I’ve already noted earlier in this Romans series, we can see the broadness of God’s plan in the first promise made to the man eventually called Abraham.  God tells him to go toward Canaan. There will be blessings for those who bless you, God says, and there will be curses for those who curse your venture. But most importantly for our meditation today, the father of the Jews is told “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

In our text today, Paul quotes from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah to demonstrate how the plan for the Jews was designed to become a plan for all people.

Our problem in understanding this plan has been a problem of time. God’s plan plays out over thousands of years, and individually, we are just mist, curling into a brief shape and then vanishing.

For the Jews, it is easy to get lost in the idea of being special, set apart as an example of holy living before God. They can become so focused on their unique relationship with God that they forget the whole purpose of their existence, to be a light to all the world so that salvation may spread.

For Christian Gentiles, it is easy for us to forget that our Savior is a very Jewish carpenter, a descendant of Abraham. Often this forgetfulness can express itself simply as disinterest in the Old Testament, but the effects also can be much, much worse. Some of history’s most horrific acts of madness have occurred when people calling themselves Christians have seen the Jews as enemies, persecuting and killing them.

Paul offers us a broader way to see Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the bridge allowing the promise of salvation to be exported from the Jews to the Gentiles.

We see the transition happen in Jesus’ ministry. Mostly his ministry is a very Jewish one, reflecting the Jewish perspective on Gentiles. Just look at Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs.” In the story, he does ultimately point out the power of faith and hint at the unexpected grace to come, but the rude reference comes as a shock.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 20, we see Jesus transition from Jewish Messiah to global Christ. Here, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people. Greeks—to a Jew, just a particular kind of Gentile—ask to see Jesus.

The odd thing about the telling of this story is we don’t know if the Greeks ever spoke to Jesus. The whole point of the story is that Jesus sees deep meaning in their arrival. Gentiles are seeking him, and now it is time to die for the sins of all people, Jew or Gentile. If you keep reading in John, it is clear Jesus’ mind is set on the cross once those Greeks ask to see him.

Christians, you know how the story continues. Jesus goes to the cross and dies. And then, glory of glories, there is the resurrection.

Word spreads, and spreads, and spreads, and here we are today, in Ten Mile, Tennessee, on the other side of the planet, worshiping Jesus Christ. Mostly we are the descendants of a bunch of Gentiles, knowing we have eternal life because of a promise made to and through the Jews thousands of years ago.

I guess we’re just a bunch of lucky dogs!


The featured image is “We Would See Jesus,” James Tissot, circa 1885.

Building Blocks

Romans 15:1-6 (NLT)

We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. For even Christ didn’t live to please himself. As the Scriptures say, “The insults of those who insult you, O God, have fallen on me.” Such things were written in the Scriptures long ago to teach us. And the Scriptures give us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


If you heard last week’s sermon, you’ve probably realized that today’s text is a continuation of what we heard last week, with a few subtle shifts.

After having encouraged all of his audience to live with flexibility about lifestyle rules and show tolerance for each other, Paul now focuses especially on the “strong” believers, the ones who are more mature in their faith. He says the strong have a special burden, a specific calling, to “help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.”

As Methodists, we could apply one of our favorite 18th century words, “sanctification,” here. This is the idea that even after we are saved, God’s grace continues to shape us, growing us in spiritual maturity and our ability to love as Jesus loves. We see this as the primary work of the Holy Spirit in our lives once we have found salvation.

And while humans are completely dependent on God for grace, Paul is once again reminding us that Christians are invited to come alongside God and help with the great work being done, including the ongoing sanctification of believers.

So, how do we go about this work of building up others?

An Honest Look in the Mirror

Well, there’s an obvious first step. We have to assess whether we are really among the strong in faith. It is possible over time to fool ourselves. Time spent in church doesn’t necessarily translate into discipleship, although time in church certainly helps.

Some matters to consider as you make your assessment:

Do you get all the basic points in the Bible, particularly the stuff about the resurrection, and how we are saved by God’s grace through faith in what Jesus did through the cross? Do you know the important Bible stories well enough to tell them to others when appropriate?

Is your understanding of Christianity aligned with the core doctrines established by the larger church through the centuries?

Certainly we’ve made adjustments to doctrine over time. After all, this year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Those adjustments, however, usually have involved a return to the early church’s understanding of Christianity. They are adjustments for drift, designed to get us back on a course set by Scripture.

If you find yourself out of alignment with these biblically based truths and doctrines, further study may be in order. It is unlikely you are the first person to properly understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance after nearly two millennia of the Spirit educating billions of Christians.

Does your life reflect these truths? As we’ve heard in Romans, there is thinking and there is doing. Are you aware of your weaknesses toward sin, and working with God to overcome them?

If you’re confident in your ability to answer “yes” to these sets of questions, then you may be called to help build up others, perhaps as a teacher or guide.

A Willingness to Intervene

The next step may sound a little odd, but I think it’s important. We have to overcome the idea that what is going on in other people’s lives is none of our business.

Certainly, we don’t want to be nosy, rude or intrusive, and we cannot help those who give us the old Heisman Trophy stiff arm in response to our overtures. But if we see people off the Christian path and don’t try to help them find their way to it, we are actually going against the grain of Christian theology. When we look away, we are no better than the supposedly holy Jews in the parable of the Good Samaritan who gave their injured fellow Jew a wide berth.

This responsibility to intervene is particularly true when we see our Christian brothers and sisters off the path. By calling themselves Christian and joining a particular church, they already have sought community and accountability so they can grow as disciples.

Training for Action

Once we’ve overcome our reluctance to interfere, we have to discern how we are going to help others build their lives for the better. The ways we do this vary depending our personalities, abilities, and education. I will say this: In one way or another, we all need mentors.

I needed mentors as a lay person who was beginning to teach and lead. I continued to need mentors as I became a clergy person. If I’m trying to learn some new aspect of ministry, or deepen my spirituality in some way, I still need mentors, even after 15 years of professional ministry.

Paul knew the importance of mentoring. Look at his two letters to a young pastor named Timothy. It simply is easier to go somewhere new if you go with someone who has been there before.

Hearing all of this, some of you may feel a stirring in your heart.

I hope all of you feel a desire to mature as Christians, to get to a place where you feel you can answer “yes” to the assessment questions I raised earlier.

Some of you may be feeling it is time to make a real difference in the lives of people around you. If so, I want to hear from you. I want to spend significant time with you.

Together, we’ll figure out what God is saying.

Weak and Strong

Romans 14 (NLT)

As Paul begins by encouraging tolerance of “weak” believers, he implies that other Roman Christians are strong in their faith. What may surprise some readers is that the strong, himself among them, are presented as being less concerned about rules.

This teaching is very much in line with Jesus’ ministry. A regular Bible reader can think of many situations where Jesus broke or bent the rules of his day because something larger was at stake, often irritating the very rules-oriented Pharisees in the process.

Paul is by no means encouraging a libertine lifestyle. (Neither was Jesus!) We have to keep what Paul says in context with the rest of Romans, where he often is clear about particular sins that must be avoided. It does seem, however, that there are rules, written or unwritten, in church life that may create discord.

Paul seems to be aware of division in the early church in Rome, but it is not completely clear to us what issues caused the division. There’s a strong possibility the Christians were debating whether it was okay to eat meat; most meat in the urban marketplace came from animals slaughtered during sacrifices to pagan gods.

There also seems to have been some dispute over the best day for Christian worship, possibly because Jewish Christians still saw Saturday as the Sabbath, while Christians not of Jewish descent figured any day would do. A second kind of food dispute also is possible, this one between Christians who wanted to follow Jewish dietary laws and Christians who saw no need to do so.

Again, note that as Paul deals with the divisive matters, he tends to cast those rigid about the rules as weak, in danger of starting disputes or even falling away from faith because they see others breaking what they perceive as a firm rule.

Paul’s solution, however, is not to tell those of weak faith to change. In fact, he’s careful to repeat earlier teachings about the importance of leaving judgment to God. Instead, he encourages a basic goal for the Roman church, and really, for any church. Without abandoning his call to holiness found in the rest of Romans, he calls all of us to strive for harmony. To accomplish harmony, we need tolerance and forgiveness for each other.

In the process, we lift each other up rather than tearing each other down. We grow stronger in the faith together. Such a process also causes us to emphasize the importance of the person before us, rather than the issue vexing us.

As Christians, we know the Bible doesn’t encourage situational ethics, but we do believe similar situations can call for different responses, assuming we’re not falling into or tolerating ongoing sin in the community.

In modern Western churches, we don’t have much of an ongoing debate regarding the consumption of meat. We do sometimes have strong differences of opinion about alcohol consumption, particularly among churchgoers in the Southeast United States.

For the record, I try to live by the Bible, and I cannot find any prohibitions against the general consumption of alcohol in Scripture. The Bible has much to say about drunkenness—what I would call a loss of control endangering self or others—but little about abstaining from drink, unless you’re taking a vow of some sort, along the lines of a Nazirite vow in Numbers 6. (In that case, you also cannot cut your hair.)

As a Christian, I’ve found myself employing different tactics around the issue of alcohol depending on the people involved.

In my pre-clergy life, I had a co-worker who was a serious alcoholic and very prone to succumb to drunkenness. The problem was we worked in a field where alcohol consumption was prevalent at cocktail parties, conferences, dinner meetings and such. Having no tendencies toward alcoholism myself, I felt free to drink in moderation, but I and some other Christian co-workers chose to abstain when around our friend. We hoped to keep him from feeling socially isolated, and perhaps we even altered to some degree a culture that was dangerous for him.

A few years later, I had to approach the use of alcohol in a different way. By then, I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. The school at the time had an ethos statement asking students not to drink alcohol, in deference to some of the seminary’s participating denominations that had strict rules about such things.

While traveling, I ran into another former co-worker who wanted me to sit down and talk at a restaurant he liked. In part, he was wanting spiritual advice. He also really, really wanted me to try a beer that had impressed him. I declined a couple of times, but I began to sense my reluctance was shutting down an otherwise important conversation. I think I was signaling to him I had somehow become less accessible in my transition to professional ministry.

I decided to have the beer. (Forgive me, Asbury Seminary.) The conversation opened up again, and as we sat there, I began to realize the beer was acting like a form of communion.

Paul also tells us we individually need to grow into a special kind of Christian, one confident in his or her faith. This is not false confidence or bravado. There’s a difference between being blindly assertive and truly confident. Paul points us toward a quiet confidence that comes from a strong prayer life and a deep knowledge of the Bible.

When we reach such a state, we can in good conscience say we have identified what is right and what is wrong, and then live accordingly, glorifying God with our lives as best we can.


The featured image is a photo of an ancient Roman marketplace, by Venanzio Cellitti, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.