Apostle Paul

The Stumbling Stone

Romans 9:30-33 (NLT)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Crux of the Solution

Romans 3:21-31 (NLT)

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.

After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.


Yes, Paul emphasizes the fact we all have sinned. But what should be a sad or even terrifying message becomes instead Good News that brings great joy to all people, to borrow a phrase from the Gospel of Luke.

This is core gospel, folks. People sometimes ask, “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” He did; he continues to do so. The work done on the cross fixes broken creation in ways we can barely begin to imagine.

There is one particular assertion in Paul’s words today I find astonishing. When I read them, I get the sense that the final work of the cross may permeate creation far more deeply than the human mind can grasp.

Jesus once said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough” (Matthew 13:33). But what if we were to discover the woman’s yeast also managed to permeate all the unleavened bread that had existed for thousands of years before she was born?

It’s a strange idea, I know, but not any stranger than Paul’s when he writes, “This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time.”

The translation we are using for this series brings the matter forward a little more plainly than others, but the assertion has always been there in Paul’s original Greek, which uses a long, complex sentence to express the thought. More traditional English translations talk about God’s “forbearance,” a word that can slip by us. The point is, the cross is effective for the cancellation of all sins in all times.

When I try to grasp the fullness of the cross, I think of a now-closed attraction in Atlanta called the Cyclorama. It featured a 42-foot-high, 358-foot-long 19th-century painting of the Battle of Atlanta on the inside of what was essentially a huge cylinder. Audiences viewed it from the inside, of course, and three-dimensional dioramas at the foot of the painting supplemented the image.

Imagine if all of history, every event from beginning to end, could be captured on such a painting. (The painting of the battle of Atlanta would be a mere thread in such a larger work.) Christ’s death on the cross would not be on the painting itself—it instead would be in the center of the room, the gracious light of the moment touching and changing everything on the canvas.

The Christ light touches Adam and Eve as they bite into the fruit and tremble with fear.

The Christ light touches Cain as he attacks and kills Abel.

The Christ light touches the wicked as they drown before the closed doors of Noah’s ark.

The Christ light touches the people of Israel as they dance before a golden calf of their own making, defying the God leading them toward holiness.

The Christ light touches the 10 spies who have seen the goodness of Canaan but place fear in the hearts of the Israelites, condemning a generation to desert wandering.

The Christ light touches Korah and his followers as the earth swallows them for rebelling against Moses.

The Christ light touches the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel as they turn from God repeatedly: as Saul resorts to witchcraft, as the priests extort the people, as David lusts for a woman not his, as Solomon’s many wives cause him to seek the favor of other gods.

The Christ light touches the prophet Jonah as he sits sulking.

The Christ light even manages to touch King Herod and the soldiers who execute babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to thwart the Messiah.

We receive a few hints in Scripture of how this Christ light might work backward through time. In 1 Peter 3:18-20, we hear that the gospel was preached to “the spirits in prison.” That and other obscure texts are the origin of the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended to the dead.” As Methodists, we often skip the line entirely, unless we are reciting it as part of the baptismal liturgy.

When we do say it, we are asserting that somehow during Jesus’ time in the grave the Spirit of Christ was able to witness to those who had died and awaited judgment.

All of that is tough to work out theologically and remains mysterious. Bible scholar Robert Mounce once called 1 Peter 3:18-20 a passage that is “perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament.”

But here’s what we can take away from this complex assertion with great certainty. The power of the cross is infinitely pervasive, yet easily accessed by having faith in it.

Never think for a moment God cannot reach you. Never for an instant believe there is no hope for you.

The Christ light is perfectly capable of touching every corner of your soul, if only you will let it.  Many of us have some kind of ongoing sin we cannot shake, and it’s easy to think, “That shame will always be there.” It need not be. Let it go.

Many of us bear pain from sins committed against us. That pain can be so great it keeps us from knowing God in full. Our anger may even cause us to commit new sins as we cope in very wrong ways, hurting others in the process. This also need not be. Let the light of the cross heal that pain.

The Christ light shines into our future, too. It changes all of creation so much that we are told a day is coming when “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Such a vision of the future is truly panoramic.

A Deep Longing

Romans 1:8-17 (NLT)

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart by spreading the Good News about his Son.

One of the things I always pray for is the opportunity, God willing, to come at last to see you. For I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift that will help you grow strong in the Lord. When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours.

I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles. For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world, to the educated and uneducated alike. So I am eager to come to you in Rome, too, to preach the Good News.

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”


From personal experience, I would say that until you have really studied Paul’s letters, it’s easy to stereotype him as cold and disconnected, a logical and doctrinaire man. He did, after all, spend a lot of time defining the nature of sin and exhorting holiness.

There was a burning passion in the man, however, an inner fire driving his lifetime of ministry. We might say he had a mission. Not coincidentally, it is our same mission today. Oh, for us to exhibit the same fire, the same longing!

Paul initially said he longed to visit the Roman Christians, a longing indicative of a greater desire. They constituted a church he had never seen gathered in one place. During his travels, he likely had crossed paths with some of its members, but he wanted the full experience of being with them.

He was specific regarding why he wanted to be among them. First, he said, he believed he could help them grow in their faith. They knew Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but Paul believed he could contribute in a particular way with his spiritual gifts, and that their giftedness would encourage and lift him up, too.

When I was in public relations, I grew to hate the word “synergy.” Everyone wanted to use it to describe every business transaction under the sun, hoping to convince investors that the sum of two business interests joining together would be greater than the parts. It didn’t hurt that the word rhymed with “energy,” and I worked for an energy company.

Paul was talking about synergy in its truest sense, though. When Christians bring their unique gifts together as a church, they do accomplish much more than what was possible separately. Among the group, the Holy Spirit is more fully expressed as new people and new gifts enter the mix.

Newness and change can be frightening for a group, but as long as the newness is rooted in God’s will, there is nothing to fear. That’s why a healthy church’s members always look to new Christians in their midst and excitedly wonder, “What possibilities do you bring?”

Paul revealed what he thought his primary contribution might be once in Rome. He was eager, he said, to preach the Good News. We’ve already identified “Good News” as meaning word of Christ’s death on the cross, a work that makes salvation possible for even the worst of sinners.

Perhaps the church in Rome did not yet have anyone gifted in preaching the Good News. Perhaps they did have capable preachers, but Paul thought he could contribute to the effort in a new way. Regardless, Paul wanted to help the church live into its mandate to bring people to an understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I can call it a mandate because Jesus gave his followers clear, indisputable instruction regarding what they were (and are) to do. This instruction came from Jesus after his resurrection from the dead, and is recorded at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”

It’s a mandate we still own as a church today. Here at Luminary, all you have to do is look on the front of a worship bulletin to see that we own it, at least on paper. We say that our mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The question for us is whether we have Paul’s passion for the task. I think it is still the key question for every church today: Are we passionately trying to bring people into that relationship with Christ?

The last thing we want to be is Laodicea. Remember Laodicea, one of the churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation? The risen Christ said this about Laodicea: “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” (Rev. 3:15-16)

To be a church passionate about our primary mission, some of us have to preach the scriptural truth, from a pulpit and in other places in our community. The word does have to be spoken.

It is a given, however, that not all of us are gifted in ways where we can comfortably preach in the traditional sense. I’m sure all of us have seen the old study showing many people fear public speaking more than death. Such anxiety does not relieve us of our responsibility to play a part in the mission, though—we are all called to play a role in declaring the Good News.

It is not as hard as it sounds. All of us are capable of establishing loving relationships. Showing love toward others is the first step toward helping people understand how much God loves them.

People are needlessly afraid of the word “evangelism.” If that word bothers you, just remember to love others. As your loving relationships grow, opportunities will arise for you to explain the source of all that love. God is love; the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love. At that moment, you’ll be evangelizing and you may not even realize at first what you’re doing.

Out of genuine love for the people we engage, I think we do have to get to the point. We do eventually have to offer them Christ.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Well, I try to be a good person and let my life be the witness.” Sorry, but that’s a bit of a cop-out.

Jesus didn’t say, “Show everyone you’re a good person.” Your behavior may draw people to you, but Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” He was pretty specific.

As individual Christians, we need to be sure we’re getting to the point with those who need a deeper relationship with Christ. As a church, we need to be sure all of our programs and ministries ultimately help people discover the point, too.

And remember, a little passion for who we are and what we do always helps. If you lack passion, it may be time to hear the Good News for yourself again. God loves you—God has given you eternal life!—and that truth should excite anyone.

God and Governance

1 Timothy 2:1-7
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For

there is one God;
   there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
   who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.


In these highly politicized times, this Scripture will make more than a few folks squirm.

First, let me state what is probably obvious to most people at least half awake the last few years. We are a polarized people. We’ve seen the left and right run toward their extreme edges, leaving a void in the middle. Far behind us are the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill sitting down in a room and hashing out a way to govern despite their political differences.

And then there’s this ongoing presidential election, where the major parties are running candidates who, according to the polls, are both disliked by more than half the voters. In other words, every other person you meet is considering a hold-your-nose-to-vote election day scenario.

So, let me ask you the tough questions the Apostle Paul has raised for us. For the last eight years, have you been praying for our president? Regardless of what you may think of him?

Will you pray for our next president, regardless of who she or he may be?

I suspect some of us are blanching at the idea. Me, pray for him? Me, lift her up to God for support and sustenance?

Our situation could be worse, however. Just in case you’re thinking, “How could Paul suggest we do such a thing,” let’s take a moment to consider the context of his words.

The worldly leader of leaders in Paul’s day was the Emperor Nero. Yes, that Nero. The Nero who persecuted the Christians, having them dipped in tar and turned into human torches, or letting them be torn apart by wild animals for sport. The insane Nero, the evil Nero, the guy likely assigned the code number “666” by the author of Revelation.

Paul was telling Timothy to pray for the worst leader you could imagine, and for all of his flunkies. And frankly, as strange as Paul’s request sounds, there is some incredibly powerful Christian logic here, a logic rooted in Old Testament teachings. Proverbs 21:1 makes clear God can control the will of any leader; the prophet Jeremiah exhorted the Jews in exile to pray for their captors, knowing that if their captors were at peace and blessed, the Jews would be at peace and blessed, too.

We pray assuming God can change anyone so he or she is inclined to do God’s will. It is of course a good thing when our leaders follow God’s will, even if they have not done so in the past. Paul is essentially saying, “If they begin to listen to and follow God, things will be better for all of us.”

He goes on to emphasize there is but one path, one God and one mediator, Jesus, who is the Christ. Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, regardless of whether we sit in a palace or sift through a dung heap for a living.

In a way, Paul’s (and Timothy’s, we must presume) prayers do seem to have borne fruit, although not in time to save Paul from martyrdom. Nero’s empire eventually passed into the hands of other emperors, until one day it finally belonged to Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion.

Some people debate whether it was really a good thing for countercultural Christianity to suddenly be acceptable in the halls of power, but one thing is for sure—the alignment of the empire’s leaders with the faith sped the spread of Christianity.

So, if you’re one of the many folks who lie awake at night worrying about this nation’s future, quit worrying and start praying. Certainly, pray for the leaders you like. But also pray fervently and regularly for the leaders you feel are not aligned with God.

Pray for all the people who might lead us soon. God may do great things in their hearts, working through them to awaken this nation to its role in Christ’s kingdom.

 

Overconfident

Philippians 3:4b-11 (NRSV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.


 

The Apostle Paul was not a man clinging to religion for solace or validation after failing to find such comfort elsewhere. By human measures, Paul was a success long before he believed in Jesus Christ as Savior.

He was born to the right people, in the right kind of family. He had both a solid trade, and he also was a scholar. In the Jewish world where religion and politics were one and the same, he was a rising star, a great future ahead of him.

But having been confronted by the power and reality of Christ, Paul threw his resume and the benefits he had accrued away, calling them all “rubbish.” Such is the life-altering experience that can occur when we truly understand who Christ is.

This message should resonate in profound ways―perhaps even disconcerting ways―in a congregation like ours. We are a people who are, on average, better educated than most. We are a people who are, on average, better off financially than most. Many of us have track records of success.

That means we also are a people susceptible to the same trap that ensnared Paul until God whacked him with the heavenly equivalent of a Louisville Slugger. If you’re among the people here today who are thinking, “Hey, the preacher’s not talking to me―I’ve never felt like a success,” then consider yourself blessed, perhaps for the first time. As Christ told us, the meek shall inherit the earth.

“What trap?” the rest of you may be asking yourselves. It’s simple: the trap of self-reliance, of overconfidence. We are a people constantly in danger of believing that because we were smart enough to figure a few things out, we have figured everything out, including God.

Not so, Paul tells us. There is something new to learn. We worship a God who has turned the world upside through Jesus Christ, a God who places the last first, who gives hope to the hopeless, who transforms slaves into rulers in the kingdom of heaven.

The only way the strangeness of God can be grasped is if we first let go of the idea that we have everything figured out. No undergraduate or even graduate degree can save us. Faith is the only way to salvation.

I suppose the one comfort for the targets of this text is God clearly needs Christians with backgrounds like Paul, strategic thinkers with successful records. God did go to great lengths to make Paul his own. I wonder why?

Well, first of all, because God loves everyone, including the self-reliant and even the self-absorbed. He draws us all toward a relationship with him.

There’s a close second, I think: In this time in-between the cross and the final, general resurrection, the church still has to navigate a broken world. Jesus said his followers would have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

For now, there’s a need for strategic thinkers, for planners, for people who can match wits with evil. Paul stood and fought brilliantly, enduring great harm to his body.

There is just an equal need, it seems, for those who do such work to do it with great humility, understanding that God’s wisdom, not our own, must be our guide. This is why we pray for guidance. This is why we submit to what we find revealed in Scripture, even when what we find troubles us.

Worldly success is fleeting. We are fragile creatures; wisdom and cunning can vanish with one blow to the head. We use our gifts, our talents and our blessings while we can in God’s service, but humble faith is what will sustain us for eternity.