Grace

Letter and Spirit

Romans 7:1-6 (NLT)

Now, dear brothers and sisters—you who are familiar with the law—don’t you know that the law applies only while a person is living? For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. When we were controlled by our old nature, sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced a harvest of sinful deeds, resulting in death. But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.


Paul begins with an illustration from marriage to demonstrate that even before Christ, the law of Moses, the law given to the Jewish people, had power only in this life.

Spiritually, as he has said before in Romans, we die to our old lives when we “die with Christ” by believing in his death on the cross and his resurrection. Therefore, the Jewish law has no power over us.

As Christians, I’m sure you care about the cross and the resurrection. But frankly, I suspect most of you haven’t thought much about how God’s grace undoes the power of the Jewish law. Life under the Jewish law is foreign to most of our experiences.

As Christians far removed from the Jewish experience, consider the matter this way: What is the basis for how we live? A good Jew would have simply answered, “The law given to Moses tells us how to live.” We need a similarly clear answer.

Instead of the letter of the law, Paul says, we are called to live in the Spirit who inspired the law. Behind the law there were universal principles that existed before the law—the law can be thought of as an expression of those principles.

Jesus spent a lot of time trying to teach the principles behind the law. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is a good example. Again and again, Jesus told his listeners, “You have heard that it was said,” a reference to the letter of the law. He would then go on, “But I say … .” And what followed was a statement pointing to the principle.

You have heard that it was said, do not murder. But I say, don’t even be angry.

You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery. But I say, don’t even look at a woman with lust.

You have heard that it was said, there’s an easy way to get a divorce. But I say, marriage is to be taken with lifelong, serious commitment.

You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, you must love your enemies!

These and other sayings reveal principles about how the heart should work when aligned with God. Remember how Jesus spoke of the law when asked to define its most important part.

His answer rooted the law in love. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Also, love your neighbor as yourself.

“The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments,” Jesus said.

Let me tell you a little secret. In some ways, it is harder to live as an expression of God’s grace and love than it is to live by executing a set of laws. When you’re grace-minded, there often is no checklist to work from, no clear way to say, “Yup, got everything right today.”

Imagine a stereotypical “helping the poor” scene, a homeless man holding out a cup. Is putting money in the cup good or bad? To really know, you have to love the homeless person enough to know his backstory.

By giving him money, are we helping him eat, or are we feeding an addiction? Is he simply needing a quick financial boost back to a normal life, or is he cyclically impoverished? What actions might we take other than dropping a little change in the cup?

Under grace, the homeless man before us becomes a call to a relationship.

If we take such matters seriously, we find ourselves driven to pray for guidance, and we will spend a lot more time studying the New Testament for lessons of love applied. We test what we think we hear from God by examining his revelations to the early church, and where we find alignment between answered prayer and revelation, we know we have received clear guidance.

We also have to acknowledge that when we don’t pray and study, we can do a lot of damage. Through a youth ministry I worked in nearly 20 years ago, I knew a man who had come to Christ in his 40’s. He went to a different church than mine. The particular church he attended emphasized the importance of speaking in tongues, noting correctly that the ability to speak in tongues was New Testament evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

He had a problem, though. He prayed and went to church Sunday after Sunday, but he could never speak in tongues. He was an earnest Christian; this man truly loved the Lord and was thankful for his salvation. But one day, the leaders of his church pulled him aside and said that because he could not speak in tongues, they doubted whether he really knew Christ.

He called me that evening, weeping. Fortunately, Paul had dealt with this issue in another letter, the one we call First Corinthians. In its 12th and 13th chapters, Paul acknowledged tongues as being a gift from the Holy Spirit, but he placed them among a variety of gifts. Prophecy, counsel, special knowledge, faith, healing and miracles are just some of them.

He also put those gifts in their place relative to love. “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

My friend’s church leaders had read the part about tongues and taken it very seriously, but they failed to read on. They failed to show love to a man who really, really needed it. When he understood what Paul had said about speaking in tongues and the primary importance of love, he seemed restored, and went looking for another church.

Paul is also encouraging us at this point in Romans. As we grow in our ability to love God, align ourselves with God, and love the people around us, our actions begin to make a difference for Christ’s kingdom. Good deeds happen, the kind of deeds that move people from lives of sin, brokenness and death to lives that never end. Through our Holy Spirit-inspired good deeds, people move from anxiety and sadness toward the constant experience of God’s joyful presence.

In the coming weeks, we’ll spend a lot of time exploring what Paul has to say about life lived in the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, let’s look at every situation we encounter and ask God, “How do you call me to show love here?”

 

Sinning After Salvation

Romans 6:1-14 (NLT)

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.


I suppose I should give up theft, as Paul says we should not keep on sinning. But I’m stealing this morning from a great preacher named Martin Lloyd-Jones, who in the 1960’s gave us a very useful analogy to help us understand what Paul is saying in today’s text. I want us to meditate awhile on the image Lloyd-Jones offers.

Imagine two fields separated by high rock walls, typical of fields in Lloyd-Jones’ Wales. Or, for our context, we could say “separated by barbed wire,” as that is what surrounds most of our fields here in Tennessee. The point is, you are born in one field and you cannot get out on your own.

In that field, you have a master, Satan, and feeling obligated to respond to Satan’s voice, you sin. Of course you do. You were born in his field, and you really know nothing else.

Now, here’s the great miracle. Through Christ, God comes along and plucks you up from one field, setting you down in the adjacent field, the field God controls. Satan, who for many good reasons is terrified of God, will not move from one field to another to regain control over you. You are free!

You also are new to this field. In terms of behavior, all you really know for sure is life in the old field, a life of sin. Now, Satan won’t cross into the new field to get you, but he knows you. You were born in his field. He trained you to his commands.

And, being the kind of determined fallen angel who never wants to let go, Satan calls out commands over the divide between your old life and your new life, hoping you will obey. You are in a new field, but you find yourself committing some of the same sins that were part of your old life.

“Ah, I hate that,” you say to yourself, cringing in the after-effects of your sin. “Why do I do that? I’m in this beautiful new field!”

Or to quote something we’re going to hear Paul say in the seventh chapter of Romans: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

This is our situation as Christians. We accept Christ, we know we are accepted, and yet, we continue to defy, at least from time to time, the one who has gone to such great lengths to rescue us from sin.

Here’s another analogy for those of us who grew up rural: You can scrub the pig up all nice and shiny for the county fair, but if you don’t watch the chubby porker closely, he’ll wallow in the mud the first chance he gets. It’s what the pig is used to doing. (For those of you not from the country, the verb is pronounced “waller.”)

The solution to the problem, or at least the beginning of the solution, is to hear again what I said earlier: You are free!

Satan no longer has a hold on you, thanks be to Jesus Christ and the cross on which Christ died. You don’t have to listen to Satan’s voice. You can tune Satan out, with no repercussions.

Yes, you really have the power! People are often shocked to learn that the devil cannot make you do it, whatever “it” may be.

When Satan issues his old commands, it’s okay to put your hands over your ears and say, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m not listening I’m not listening I’m not listening … .”

Look around you. Look at the glory of your new field. There is a new voice in this new field. It’s … it’s strange, at first. In a worldly sense, the old voice could sound wise and even beautiful, but it kept hurting you, right?

Would any of you disagree that the old voice kept leading us down paths of sin, and that ultimately, sin hurts, even if it initially seems like a good idea?

The new voice is different, though. The voice of Christ calls us to peace. The voice of Christ tells us, “Fear not,” while the old voice ran his field on fear—fear of not measuring up, fear of finishing last, fear of running out, fear of aging, fear of loss, fear after fear after fear.

The voice of Christ calls us toward a kind of beauty that is otherworldly, that never fades. Everything the old voice offered you looks cheap and dangerous compared to what we are offered in this new field.

Oh, it just struck me—some of you considering what I’m saying today may still be in the old field. Guess what, even from there you can hear Christ calling you to a better place, a better way of living now. All you have to do is call out, “Save me!” and you’ll be lifted into the new field.

Once we’re in the new field, we have to do something very important. We have to move away from the old field, away from the divide. Run from your old owner. Run deeper into the new field so it’s harder to hear his voice.

Recovering addicts and reformed criminals know exactly what I’m talking about. What’s the first big rule when you start a new life? Avoid the people who are part of your old life. Through your old friends, you will hear Satan’s voice calling you back. Stay away from anything that may be a conduit for Satan’s old call.

Eventually, you may be strong enough to run and jump in the new field and call over the divide, telling the others the way out of the field of sin. “Hear a different voice!” you’ll cry out.

I had a friend several years ago who worked with people who struggled with the same kinds of addictions she had once suffered. She estimated a person needed to be clean of a particular sin at least ten years before trying to help people with similar sins. The siren call of Satan is too strong early on, she said, despite the fact we are free.

There is more to the Christian life than simply running from Satan’s voice. It’s important you know that. Oh, there is so much more. This is a rich, beautiful field, one we explore with great excitement now and for all eternity.

There are ideas and experiences here to give us great joy. That is what we will talk about next week: how to explore the field, how to move deeper into it, how to truly experience our new home.

Until then, stay away from the fence.

At Just the Right Time

Romans 5:1-11 (NLT)

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.


We are making a major shift in Romans as we reach the fifth chapter. By this point, Paul feels he has clearly established that faith in Christ’s work on the cross is all we need for salvation. Believe, and we are made right with God.

Paul now wants to explore the benefits of faith. We will hear some of these interrelated concepts come up again over the next few weeks. He mentions:

Peace. Paul’s notion of peace is what I would call beautifully complicated. At times, Paul uses “peace” as if he means the cessation of hostilities. In other words, we have been at war with God because of our sinful natures, but through faith in Christ’s work, hostilities end. “Peace” also represents what we receive from this reconciliation: a constant sense of well-being, an understanding there is nothing to fear.

Joy and Rejoicing. We are so assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth about our salvation that our basic way of experiencing life is changed. We are lifted up in a way that is hard to describe until it has been experienced.

Endurance and hope. Yes, suffering continues to be a part of our lives, but we are changed so we can endure what others might find unbearable. We talked about this some last week as I asked you to think about the future.

Paul pulls no punches. Life can be hard, and we should expect difficulties to arise. But filled with the assurance the Holy Spirit has given us, we know what lies ahead, and we can plow through life without losing our ability to rejoice.

Our Focus: God’s Timing is Perfect

Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church, and I want to focus on a timely thought in our passage. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time for us sinners.” Today we celebrate the image of Christ coming for us, riding into Jerusalem to save us in a most unexpected way.

We hear the story of this timely arrival told in slightly different ways in all four gospels, in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19. In short, Jesus rides a donkey into the city as a prophetic act, and the Jews who have packed the city for the Passover cheer him like a king as he enters. “Hosanna!” they cry in a cheer of praise.

They didn’t really understand what they were seeing. They were in the right place at the right time, but they cheered for shortsighted reasons. Most of them assumed Jesus had the potential to overthrow the political system and establish himself as an independent Jewish king, restoring the Jewish people to their former glory.

In less than a week, many of these same people would take up the cry, “Crucify him!” They would see Jesus as a failure, another rebellious wanna-be king crushed by the people in power. As big as their dreams had been, they could not see the incredibly big picture of what Jesus, truly the Christ, their promised Messiah, was doing.

When we read the story of the “Triumphal Entry,” it looks like a joyous scene, but it is actually a sad scene to contemplate. Of all the people who had ever lived and will ever live, the people gathered in Jerusalem were the privileged few allowed to be present at the pivot point of history. Remember the promise made to Abraham thousands of years earlier—these Jews were to result in a blessing that would impact every family on the earth.

Jesus was on his way to make that blessing possible. All of us who have walked through Holy Week with Jesus in past years know what is coming. Jesus offers some of his most intense and disturbing teachings to his followers, to the point where most abandon him.

His conflict with the Jewish leaders grows and grows until they determine they must get rid of him. And, working with the Roman Empire, they do—but not for long.

We will talk more about the “not for long” next week, of course, on Easter Sunday. Let’s stay focused right now on the work Jesus arrives to do in Jerusalem.

Paul is telling us that Jesus’ life and ministry, in particular the moment Jesus died on the cross to make it all effective, happened “at just the right time.” As time has passed, Paul’s meaning has become more and more self-evident.

Think about the time and place Jesus was crucified. What’s miraculous is that we ever heard about it at all. From a human perspective, if you wanted to plan a martyrdom to change the world, the last place you would start would be through the crucifixion of a backwater rabble-rouser who had lost most of his following, to the point that only a tiny remnant showed up at his execution.

From God’s perspective, though, this was the golden moment for the divine sacrifice to atone for all sin. Over nearly two millennia, it has proven to be golden. What an astonishing thing to consider; by our time in history, we can see how word of this obscure crucifixion and what follows has spread globally, touching nearly every culture on the planet!

Yes, God controls the big picture in ways we cannot see. And here’s some more good news: We’re part of that picture. And as tiny a part of it as we are, God’s perfect timing also is at work in our lives.

God’s grace—that is, the unmerited, unearned love he pours out on us—doesn’t always make itself evident when we think it should, but it certainly is poured out when it can be most effective.

At just the right time, we feel that gentle tug inviting us to turn toward him.

At just the right time, we are given the opportunity to understand salvation is being offered to us through the simple act of belief. And guess what: If we don’t respond right away, at just the right time we will get another opportunity, and another. God wants us to come back to him.

At just the right time, the grace we need to grow as his followers will flow to us. We will find ourselves open, vulnerable, and God will not miss that opportunity to pull us further from sin and closer to him.

At just the right time, when we think we cannot bear pain or grief anymore, God will be there, and we through his presence during our suffering will develop a deeper understanding of just how much God cares. Our endurance will grow, our character will grow, and we will be filled with a new hope.

At just the right time, we will see God with restored eyes, praise him with perfect voices, hear the angels singing with incredible clarity, and know that everything has been made righteous and holy. Certainly, we will see this in some way at our deaths. Perhaps some of us will see this in a resurrection that precedes our dying.

Either way, we are all subject to God’s timing, and we know we can trust him.


The featured image is “Christ Enters Jerusalem,” Wilhelm Morgner, 1912.

Sinners, Part Two

Romans 2:1-16 (NLT)

You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.


Well, I warned you last week that Paul’s discussion of sinners, including some very specific descriptions of particular sins, was a set-up. It’s easy to think of sinners as “them,” as in “those sinners,” those people we like to pretend are somehow worse.

We should never get too big for our britches, though, no matter how good we may think we are. We are the sinners. And sinners shouldn’t be in the business of judging other sinners.

When we judge, we are doing something even angels fear to do. If you don’t believe me, look at Jude 1:9. It references a story we find nowhere else in established Scripture, a story about the archangel Michael contending with Satan for Moses’ body. Why Satan wanted Moses’ body, we don’t know—Jude likely is quoting from a story in Jewish tradition. But for whatever reason, Satan was after the body, and Michael was sent to claim it for God.

Jude says, however, that “even Michael, one of the mightiest angels, did not dare accuse the devil of blasphemy, but simply said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”

Only the perfect Creator, the being who makes the rules, is qualified to judge. Others who attempt to say certain people are unworthy of God have crossed a dangerous line, assuming we believe God’s loyal angels are generally wise, prudent beings.

Clean up your own house, Paul is saying. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

I will long remember the man and woman in a Sunday school class several years ago who asked me what could be done about homosexuality and its effect on the larger church. She was a young single woman; he was an older married man. They were quite worked up about the issue.

I did not find out until more than a year later that they were having an extramarital affair at the time they asked me the question. I walked around for a couple of days thinking, “Really? In their minds, the homosexuals were the problem? Really?”

Again, clean up your own house.

I also once witnessed the terrible effect large-scale judgment can have on a church. A church about the size of Luminary had two women visitors who began to attend regularly. Word quickly spread the women were known to be lesbians.

The pastor told me how matters developed from there. He said the women simply sat in church, never showing any displays of affection for each other. They just wanted to worship, to pray, to hear from God. But because of the allegations about their sexuality, people became more and more incensed at their presence.

The pastor, I think, did everything right. He stuck to the current, doctrinally sound Methodist line: Everyone is welcome in worship. Everyone. It doesn’t matter what your sins are, you are welcome.

And certainly, he did not ask the women to leave. After all, if we start throwing out everyone suspected of sin, churches will be empty pretty fast.

His gracious manner didn’t help, though. People were too worked up, too—judgmental. A significant number of members upped and left, saying they wouldn’t be in the same room with those sinners. The angry exodus of people and money soon prevented the church from being able to employ a full-time ordained elder as pastor.

As I am prone to say when dealing with touchy subjects, I do have to be careful here. As Paul makes clear in last week’s text, there are specific sins listed in the Bible. Homosexuality is one of them, although it is hardly the only one listed. We are called to faithfully teach and preach what Scripture reveals.

Sometimes, when we teach and preach regarding what the Bible calls sin, we are accused of being judgmental. That label is terribly unfair to people who simply are using Scripture as the basis for understanding God’s will, continuing the work the church has done for almost 1,984 years.

Our need to preach and teach truth as revealed in the Holy Bible and our simultaneous biblically based need to avoid being judgmental places preachers and teachers in a difficult position. We must constantly balance the two requirements.

I think the United Methodist Church is a special place right now in the kingdom of God. In our Book of Discipline, the place where we state our doctrine and practices, how we achieve that balance is clearly defined.

The Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating homosexual marriages, and it prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” These prohibitions exist for a simple reason: The church cannot affirm ongoing, unrepentant sin.

These prohibitions are balanced with a large measure of grace, however. Here is a portion of what the Discipline says about sexuality in the section on Social Principles:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

I like these words. In them, we have already achieved a middle ground so desperately needed in other parts of the global church. In this statement, we see a rejection of sin combined with a clear declaration of the power of grace.

Unfortunately, like people in so many other places in our world, we in church are increasingly polarized.

At one extreme, some people want church without Scripture, or without the more difficult portions of the Bible, anyway. They find God’s call to holiness too demanding. Let me ask you this: If we don’t have the Bible, or if we chip away at the parts we don’t like, what is the basis for our beliefs? In time, church would become little more than a civic club with a nice steeple.

At the other extreme, some are quick to condemn those they see as lesser followers of God. In their hands church becomes an unpleasant, mean place, a poor location for experiencing God’s grace.

Neither kind of church is fully God’s church. We can do better. In fact, I would argue we have already done better. We as United Methodists simply need to learn to live out what is already written in the Bible and reflected in our Discipline.

Perhaps when the real judgment comes—the judgment meted out by God—our ability to pursue holiness while offering grace will help identify us as followers of the risen Christ.

That Deep Desire

Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV)

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


 

Hmmmm. Another tax collector.

Last week, we heard Jesus’ parable about a righteous Pharisee and a deeply penitent tax collector. As you may recall, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were often rich, but also were considered by their fellow Jews to be traitors, doing the work of an occupying empire. Today, we hear of an actual encounter Jesus had with one of these tax collectors—a chief tax collector, no less.

We know for certain this one, Zacchaeus, was rich, likely because his position allowed him to take a cut of the thievery enforced by the tax collectors under him. He was wanting something more, however, something he could not buy.

This man Jesus, a prophet and healer, a speaker of words of love and grace, intrigued the little tax collector. As you may recall from the old Bible school song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man,” unable to see Jesus for the crowd following. So he climbed up in a sycamore tree, “to see what he could see.”

As I think of Zacchaeus scrambling upward with searching eyes, I imagine him as one of the great examples of the power of desire. Desire is a feeling God actually encourages us to have, assuming we can learn to desire what is right.

We of course often desire the wrong things: money, possessions and status are good examples. We’ll just call those desires “worldly,” as they are for objects, people or ideas that are of this world and remain in this world. They are possessions we are sure to lose even if someone stuffs them in our graves.

What’s interesting about Zacchaeus is he already knew worldly pleasures. He at some point had disregarded fidelity to his God and people to pursue the things of this world he thought could make him happy. And yet, he was not happy. Otherwise, he would not have been looking for answers from a penniless prophet being followed by the rabble Zacchaeus routinely taxed.

I’ve known other people who have traveled down the path of “more, more, more” only to find themselves more lost than ever. For a couple of years, I wrote a newspaper column detailing the career-ending antics of Georgia lawyers who had been disbarred, meaning they had done something so bad they lost their licenses to practice law.

You would think they would not speak to a reporter after such an experience, but I was always surprised at how open many of them were when I called for a comment. Some of them had simply fallen into addiction, certainly a misguided desire. I’ll always remember the one lawyer who told me, “It’s not my fault! It was my partners, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.”

Others told me stories that followed a surprisingly similar pattern built from greed. Despite earning very good livings, often $300,000 or $400,000 a year, they worked for and circulated among people who made millions a year, and felt like they somehow needed to keep up.

So they lifted money from trust funds and escrow accounts, investing it for their personal gain, thinking they would keep the profit and put the “borrowed” money back. I was talking to the ones who had seen their schemes come crashing down, and they were deeply, deeply chagrined. And yes, having hit bottom, some of them had turned or returned to God, seeking forgiveness and trying to make amends.

Zacchaeus still had all his money and stuff, but he must have felt as empty as those disbarred lawyers I interviewed. I suppose one way or another, the meaninglessness of money and possessions either owned or desired must dawn on everyone.

Perhaps we are like the lawyers and feel foolish at how hotly we have pursued wealth; perhaps we are like Zacchaeus and simply realize the money and stuff won’t fill the empty place in our souls.

Certainly, the futility of worldly desires must dawn on us when we are near death, that moment we realize we cannot take with us even the sheets to which we cling, no matter how nice the thread count.

Our deepest desire can be fulfilled only by Christ, through the simple faith-based relationship our savior promises us. And here’s the most fulfilling aspect of the good news I preach today—this is not some sort of delayed gratification, offered to you only at death. The sense of fulfillment can be experienced now. The joy is for now, as well as for eternity.

This promise is in the Zacchaeus story. The grace Jesus extended by simply going to Zacchaeus’ house changed the man, and his happiness and gratitude came bubbling out.

Half of what he had went to the poor. The other half was put completely at risk, as Zacchaeus promised to radically overcompensate anyone he had defrauded. We see a man who no longer cared about the worldly things, knowing that through Jesus he had found something better, something for now and all time.


The featured image is “Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus,” James Tissot, painted between 1886 and 1894.

Arrogance and Accommodation

2 Kings 5:1-19 (NRSV)

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” He said to him, “Go in peace.”


God wants you to know something. God has long wanted all of humanity to know something.

Naaman was one of those people who struggle to hear God’s basic message to humanity. He was a powerful man, and with that power came a degree of arrogance. He was a violent man, one likely to look down his nose at the people he had raided and captured.

He also, however, was a man of suffering, bearing a disease that would have made him an outcast except for his brilliance on the battlefield. It ultimately was through the suffering and shame that God was able to reach Naaman. It is clear from the story the warrior craved healing, the kind of healing that would restore him fully to his community.

His arrogance almost undid his healing. How could the Prophet Elisha’s miraculous cure be so easy? Shouldn’t he at least come out of his house, wave his hands and do his prophet dance? How could a river like the Jordan, one in what he considered a backwater place, be superior in any way to the great rivers of his homeland?

Thank God for the sound, sober thinkers around Naaman, people able to inject a little rational thought past his emotional arrogance. This is easy, so easy, they told him. Just do it. And he did, and after the seventh immersion he found himself restored.

And by restored, I mean more than just his skin. Certainly, he had fine skin, the soft, unscarred skin of a boy, the kind of skin that would make him a wonder among his people. But other changes happened, too.

He had brought gold and silver, worth more than $2.5 million in today’s money, as well as fine clothing. Naaman, used to power and wealth counting for everything, had naturally assumed healing from his terrible disease would have to cost a fortune. He offered it to the prophet as a gift of gratitude. Imagine his surprise when the prophet refused!

But again, God wanted Naaman to know something, something beyond the powerful truth that God has the power to heal anyone.

And Naaman finally understood. Instead of offering gifts, he had one last request. Could he take some of this dirt from Yahweh’s homeland to use as the base for an altar of worship? In Naaman’s limited understanding of the world, he saw Elisha’s God as a god of a place, even though the warrior was beginning to hold the conflicting thought that Yahweh must be the only true God. Surely dirt from that place would be needed to build a proper altar.

Elisha didn’t try to engage in any deep theological conversations. Naaman had understood what was important. Naaman had learned that God’s grace flows freely; Naaman understood that the primary response God seeks is worship, a humble acceptance of God. In his time and with his background, this Aramean’s understanding was a remarkable breakthrough. It was enough.

Elisha even accommodated Naaman’s request that he be able to continue to treat his pagan king’s practices with respect.

This story is a loud whisper of what was to come. God’s grace freely given would overcome everything, even the treasured laws of the Jews.

The day would come when restoration for all would be possible, regardless of our particular sins, regardless of how far away from God we may find ourselves. In an act even stranger than a healing dip in the Jordan, our faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the cross immerses us in the blood of one slain like a lamb, and we know we will be made whole and new for all of eternity.

In the meantime, there is worship, glorious worship, heart-filling worship, with no mule-loads of dirt required. After all, we know Christ as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the ruler of all of creation.


The featured image is “Elisha Declining Naaman’s Presents,” Abraham van Dijck, circa 1655.

Bad People

1 Timothy 1:12-17
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of one of the most terrible days in our national history, what we simply have come to call 9/11. All of us who were old enough to know what was going on have powerful memories of that Tuesday.

I also have memories of that following Sunday in 2001. I was not yet a member of the clergy, but I was a certified lay speaker in Georgia, and I was scheduled to fill the pulpit for a preacher at a small church. Needless to say, getting into the pulpit that Sunday was a daunting task for any preacher, and particularly for me, being very inexperienced and not knowing the congregation.

In my sermon, I chose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Fifteen years later, I still choose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Bad people don’t seem to be going away; in fact, in the case of Islamic terrorists, we now experience their impact in ways we could not fully imagine in 2001. Who would have thought the particular form of terrorism that brought down those planes would evolve into an organization capable of streaming its horrors via professionally produced video?

Of course, terrorists are not the only bad people among us. “Bad” simply represents a state of being out-of-sync with God’s will. We all find ourselves being bad from time to time, in need of forgiveness and God’s grace. I’m focusing on the people who are “bad to the bone,” the people who commit the kinds of atrocities the vast majority of us could never think of doing—the murderers, the child molesters, anyone who does deliberate, significant damage to another’s life.

These people are not a new problem, of course. Violence has been among us since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found plenty of skeletal evidence. As readers of the Bible, we also have Cain’s murder of Abel to give us what is, at a minimum, a powerful allegory of the origins of emotionally driven, quick and senseless killing.

The Old Testament has some straightforward punishments for the very bad. There is the famous “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” repeated in various contexts with “limb for limb,” “fracture for fracture,” “hand for hand” and “foot for foot” added.

And of course, death sentences were common. In Leviticus 24, shortly after these laws of equitable response are stated, the Israelites take a man out and stone him to death for blaspheming God.

It’s not unusual to hear people go all “Old Testament” when discussing how justice should be doled out today. This is particularly true when the topic of the death penalty is being discussed, or any time people do something so horrifying they trigger in the rest of us a very visceral reaction.

We as Christians have to be careful in such conversations, however. Why? Well, the coming of the Christ seems to have modified the approach God wants us to take.

In our 1 Timothy text today, Paul describes himself as having been among the bad to the bone, calling himself a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” As a good Jew trained in the Law of Moses, he is citing aspects of his former life that made him deserving of death in God’s eyes.

As he dictated these words, he most certainly was remembering how he stood by and encouraged the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He had to have been thinking of all those religious warrants he executed, harassing and capturing early Christians until the fledgling community lived in terror of him.

He is grateful, he writes, because through Christ he has experienced mercy, not getting the punishment he deserves for his evil acts, and salvation, receiving the gift of eternal life he does not deserve.

And here we find our Christian conundrum. If a very bad person like Paul can be saved through a relationship with Christ, should we not treat very bad people first of all as potential Christians, as people who could receive mercy and salvation?

We do need to take precautions against evil. Christians serve as police officers and soldiers with good reason, to stand between the rest of us and the particularly violent forms of evil in the world. We need to be smart enough to take precautions in our homes, places of work, and churches, too, remembering the Cains of the world can strike hard and fast.

But at the same time, we have to maintain the attitude there is hope for even those we consider the worst kind of people. There is a story going around on Christian websites and cable channels about how serial killer (and pedophile and cannibal) Jeffrey Dahmer had what seemed to be a genuine conversion to Christ before he was murdered in prison in 1994. If it’s true, then our Christian understanding of the power of grace tells us Dahmer is in the eternal presence of God—Christians will share the afterlife with him.

Of course, there’s no way for us to know for sure what went on in Dahmer’s heart, just as there is no way for any human to know with certainty what is happening spiritually in another person. But the very possibility of such remarkable turnarounds lets us imagine all sorts of possibilities.

Consider this: What if God raises up dynamic followers of Christ among the Muslims, sending them evangelists who are able to speak to their own people in their own Muslim context? What if Christian martyrs in that culture accomplish what martyrs have historically tended to do, leaving a positive impression on the witnesses? What if more and more of the Muslim world were to begin to see the truth of Jesus Christ as peacemaker and reconciler in this world?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Our faith has repeatedly managed to penetrate what looked like impenetrable cultures, bringing millions to Christ at a time. Roman, Celtic, Germanic and African polytheists have all found the message of Christ attractive at some point in history.

In a more modern context, scholars familiar with China estimate there are between 70 million and 100 million Christians in that very closed Communist nation. Because of the risks they are taking, we would have to classify them as very serious Christians. For comparison, the United States has about 223 million people calling themselves Christian.

We spend a lot of time talking about how it is going to take bombs and bullets to end the threat posed by the particular set of bad people we have faced the last 15 years. Perhaps God will provide another way, though, one we should be seeking through prayer. Here’s mine: Lord, open our enemies’ eyes. Let them hear your voice; let them experience your light. And in turning to you, may they astonish us as Paul astonished the early Christians.


The featured image is “Orfeus or Paradise Lost,” inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. By MarikeStokker, 2013. Used under Wikimedia Commons’ Creative Commons License.