Paul

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.”

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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.

The Careening Mind

Romans 13:8-14 (NLT)

Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.

This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living. Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.


Paul has returned to the theme he explored in the verses we heard two weeks ago. Why he deviated from his message to talk about government, no one knows for sure, but we are back to the importance of love in the heart of the practicing Christian.

As I said two weeks ago, in many ways Paul is restating lessons Jesus taught while walking on Earth, ancient ideas rooted in Old Testament teachings. In one way or another in all three of the synoptic gospels, Jesus says we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Additionally, in The Gospel of John our savior gives what he describes as a “new commandment,” to “love each other.”

“Just as I have loved you, you should love each other,” we hear in John 13:34-35. “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

We also see an expansion of the concept of “neighbor” in Luke’s telling of the lesson. When asked to define this word, Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we hear we are called to show mercy toward people traditionally our enemies. In fact, we learn the act of showing mercy is lovingly transformative, making our enemies our neighbors.

If we love well, Paul is saying, we cannot help but fulfill the requirements of the ancient law given to Moses.

Too often, we think of this loving approach to the world around us as something to grow into gradually. Hey, grandparents are often quite good at showing deep, unconditional love, right? Maybe it is something we master as we get older, after we’ve done the hard work of establishing careers and accumulating the stuff that makes us feel secure.

Just one problem: Paul takes time to emphasize the urgency of our need to change, to stop committing sins that are either caused by misdirected love or a complete absence of love. He uses very traditional metaphors for good and evil and goes all “End Times” on us, warning his audience of the need to flee to the light before darkness is destroyed forever.

Quit your partying and your drunkenness. Get your sex lives under control, living according to the marital standards Christ so clearly upheld. Quit behaving like children on Facebook, where you openly quarrel and show your jealousy of each other.

Okay, Facebook isn’t in the Bible. If Paul were writing today, though, I wonder if he would use some of our Facebook posts as examples.

The urgency of Paul’s message can elude us now, if for no other reason than the passing of nearly 2,000 years without Christ’s return. Skeptics will raise this point as disasters unfold, asking, “Where is God?”

But at the same time, I feel certain most of those people would be wanting an extension, a little more time to get their lives in order, if Christ were to return right now. When Christ returns, or when we individually die and find ourselves standing before him, many of us may feel shocked at how quickly and unexpectedly we ran out of time.

Try to get your hearts in the right place now, Paul is saying, so that you may cling tightly to the salvation Christ has offered the world. Don’t wait! Wrap yourselves up in Jesus Christ. When we are conscious of Christ’s presence, our ability to love and simultaneously flee from sin increases exponentially.

Paul even gives us what sounds like modern “positive thinking” pop psychology as we try to better understand how to live lives that are more disciplined, more in line with the holy nature of Jesus Christ, who has saved us from sin.

Don’t just resist sin at the point where you are about to commit sin. Actively avoid sin by paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, learning to steer them.

Our minds can be like careening cars controlled by a half-asleep driver. We need to know ourselves; we need to know what thoughts steer us off the road toward danger.

Here I go again: How is your prayer life? How is your knowledge of what God has revealed to us in the Bible? Are you in worship regularly, so the Holy Spirit can shape your innermost thoughts and feelings?

Do you have a Christian friend or, even better, a group of Christians around you that you trust, people who can help you win the battles we sometimes have in our minds?

With the Holy Spirit at work in us, the car is not hard to steer. Paul is not telling us to take on some insurmountable task. With God’s help, all things are possible, including an end to sin and an almost unimaginable growth in our ability to love.

 

The Radical Love List

Romans 12:9-21 (NLT)

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
   I will pay them back,”
   says the Lord.


Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”


Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.


In many ways, Paul here is simply echoing the teachings of Jesus. Jesus had his Sermon on the Mount, and this would be Paul’s Sermon from Corinth, if most scholars are correct about where Paul was when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.

It is best, it seems to me, to go through it concept by concept, much as we might break down the Sermon on the Mount. Again, we are moving rather quickly through Romans. I see about a dozen possible full-length sermons in these verses today.

Broadly, I will say this: Like Jesus, Paul is encouraging a kind of love most of us still consider radical today.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.

The key word here, it seems to me, is “genuine.” If we find ourselves faking love in order to look Christian, we need to pause and ask God to help us discern what is wrong. Why do we struggle to love the person before us? What prejudices or old hurts are we carrying that interfere with our God-given ability to love others?

Similarly, if we find ourselves liking what is wrong or failing to appreciate what is good, we may have discovered a spiritual flaw we need to bring to God for healing. Again, what has happened to us that would cause us to like what is wrong, that is, what is contrary to God’s will?

If we want to deepen our prayer lives, a good place to start is a close, prayerful examination of those moments when we may not be reacting to people or situations the way Christians should.

Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

This one is easier to understand, I think, as we age. Time seems to go so fast. Time is so easily wasted. Oh, to have back all the time I’ve wasted, time that could have been of benefit to the kingdom! I am embarrassed to think of all the ways I’ve wasted time.

It’s easy to fall into despair. Don’t, Paul is saying. Hope should reign in our hearts. Hey, as Christians, we’re often a mess. We get off-track, off mission. Christ’s power is in the world, though, and remarkable things can happen in a very short period of time.

Yes, time is short. Paul reminds us, however, that there also are painful moments we think will never end. No one wants to be in such moments, but there is an advantage to such times. They represent opportunities to slow down, breathe, and pray.

When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Hospitality is a Christian virtue that also was a very important Old Testament virtue. This is not about tea-and-cookies hospitality; when rendered into a theological term, hospitality is about radically opening our lives to people in need.

In the Old Testament, we see hospitality in practice when strangers enter a town square or draw near to a herdsman’s tent and are quickly greeted, fed and sheltered. Turning away a traveler was tantamount to sin; there were no Holiday Inns, no Waffle Houses, and you potentially were leaving the person to die.

We also see hospitality in the Old Testament when a prophet finds shelter with a poor widow, and becomes a blessing to his benefactor.

Hospitality is a deep and complicated subject, in part because it requires a commitment to simple living and deep vulnerability to others. I have found it even helps us process difficult subjects like abortion.

If I’ve intrigued any of you at Luminary or elsewhere with a brief mention of hospitality, let me know. It is the kind of topic we can spend weeks exploring in a small study group.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.

This seems to be more about our state of mind when victimized than anything else. In the scenario we are to imagine, someone has caused us to suffer, and the first step is to get to the place mentally where we can pray for that person’s well-being and alignment with God.

Praying for our persecutors makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Maybe you’re dealing with a bully. Hey, even adults deal with bullies. A lot of bullies move from pushing people around on the playground to making life miserable in the workplace. But if that bully is transformed by Christ, everyone’s problem vanishes.

The last thing you want is for your persecutor to grow more closely aligned with the devil. Pray the devil away. Pray the bully finds the peace and joy derived from a close walk with Jesus Christ. Your non-anxious, prayerful presence might even contribute to the conversion!

Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Life happens. Joy happens, sorrow happens. Stay in the midst of it all, and as you do, don’t be afraid to carry Christ into every situation you encounter. Again, such behavior is very “on mission,” and when we stay on mission, people are drawn to Jesus Christ.

As for the part about the company of ordinary people and not thinking you know it all—well, I humbly refer you to last week’s sermon.

Never pay back evil with more evil … never take revenge … Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”

 

Oooo, boy. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Turn the other cheek.” Remember those words of Jesus? Paul really is echoing Jesus here as he quotes from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs.

This is tough stuff. It’s hard to live out personally. It’s even harder to get what so many people call a Christian nation to put it into policy. We’ve been at war 16 years, people—16 years! We’re about to escalate in Afghanistan once again. Some new strategies may be in order.

Paul offers all this up not just as a nice idea, but also as a strategy that should lead to positive results. He is saying, Let your goodness stand in such striking contrast to other people’s badness that the bad feel ashamed, and ultimately they will change their ways. In modern terms, we call this “nonviolent direct action.”

And yes, it does work. All you have to do is study the strategies and results achieved by people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.

Yes, it’s also dangerous. Both the men I just mentioned died while living out such a strategy. But despite their deaths—we even can accurately say, in response to their deaths—larger victories were won.

Earlier this week, I put something on our church website and in our September newsletter arguing that this commitment to Christian nonviolence is precisely what we lack in our culture today. We need some brave Christians willing to stand against this tendency toward violence that is creeping into our national conversations.

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

After all that talk of peacemaking, Paul uses a conquest metaphor. We are reminded that we are in a war, a spiritual war that plays out all too often on a very physical level. As you enter the fray, enter it boldly, but understand that truths revealed by Jesus Christ are our weapons.

By the way, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Christ wins! And because we stand with Christ, we win, too!

What About the Jews?

Romans 9:1-13 (NLT)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

The Pain of Knowing

Romans 7:7-13 (NLT)

Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.

But how can that be? Did the law, which is good, cause my death? Of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death. So we can see how terrible sin really is. It uses God’s good commands for its own evil purposes.


 

We’ve been hearing a lot about the law, specifically God’s law given to the Jews, the last couple of weeks. Paul doesn’t always seem to be talking about the law in a positive way. But let’s go ahead and get on the same page with him: The law is holy, a representation of God’s will.

The problem is not the law. The problem, Paul is saying, is us. Sin, which seems to have the characteristics of a person in Paul’s writings, is clever and always finds a way to trick us. From the time we are born, and certainly from the time we first commit sins, we simply are too broken, too weak, for Satan and his minions not to find a way in.

The law’s primary role is to educate. Without God’s teachings handed down through history, we would have trouble distinguishing what is sinful from what is good, sort of the way we had trouble telling a noun from a pronoun until a good elementary school teacher explained the difference.

Paul also reminds us of a simple theological fact. Sin, Satan, demons and anything else we associate with deep, pure evil cannot create. Only God can create; even the most evil spiritual beings were created by God, becoming evil only because they were given free will and chose to turn against what made them.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” It is a collection of correspondence—fictional, of course—from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior demon, Wormwood, regarding how to ensure a human soul ends up in Hell. Here, Screwtape speaks disparagingly of God as Creator, as you would expect a demon to do.

“He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without his minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.”

In other words, God offers us the good life. Yes, the law is often couched in what we think of as “shalt nots,” but let’s consider the positives in drawing bright line boundaries around certain behaviors. We can do this by looking at the core of the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments. Let’s hear them King James style:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But of course, what this implies is we are invited to a special relationship with the only God who matters.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Look at it this way: There is something more than the stuff around us. There is a great being to worship, a being so great that he cannot be reduced to any object in the universe!
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Using the name of a god amounted to magic tricks; somehow, the god had to be manipulated for people to receive goodness from the god. But not Yahweh, not our God—he pours out love and grace, no magic tricks required.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Our God seeks rest for us and relationship with us.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Our God also wants us to maintain what should be, in a properly behaving family, our closest relationships, just as we maintain our relationship with God.
  6. Thou shalt not kill. Under God, we are invited to live in a society where we are not in danger of losing the greatest possession we have in this world, our lives.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Through marriage, a man and a woman are invited to a unique relationship, one built on a lifetime of trust. In many ways, we are invited to reflect in our marriages the relationship between God and humanity.
  8. Thou shalt not steal. Again, this is about the abundant godly society to which we are invited. We should never fear not having enough because someone has taken what is rightfully ours.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. In this godly society, truth should win out whenever justice is at stake.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. In giving up a desire for what other people have, we are invited to live lives of contentment, knowing the God whom we worship will provide for all our needs.

In a sense, the Ten Commandments were designed to do what the single commandment of Eden did. There, the One Commandment was, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” We are being taught by the Creator that with proper boundaries, Paradise is available.

But still, there’s that disconnect, our inability to live up to, or maybe we should say, live into the law God has offered us. What do we do?

Well, in this Easter season, we’re back to our core gospel message, a message Paul has already taken us through early in Romans. God saw that while the law educates us, it could not save us. We could not simply follow it and somehow become holy.

So God sent his son. We call him Jesus. The Son also educated us, helping us to better understand the deeper aspects of God’s will.

And then, he committed the great act of submission, allowing his perfect, holy self to be crucified in our place. His death freed us from the grip of sin and Satan. The resurrection proves the victory.

Believe, and know that in believing, we now have power to grow and become the kind of people we were made to be, holy and living out God’s will in ways we never imagined possible under a system of laws.

Triumph Over Sin and Death

Romans 5:12-21 (NLT)

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.


He is risen!

It is our great declaration, one usually made in our sanctuaries on Easter Sunday. At our Easter egg hunt Saturday, I asked the gathered crowd if anyone knew why Easter is important. One child said, “We look for Easter eggs!”

Well, no. We do that for fun, but that’s not the core meaning of the Easter celebration. Then a second voice called out, “Jesus rose from the dead!” That little guy got a high-five.

He is risen; Jesus was dead, killed in a most brutal manner, and then he was alive, is alive!

Even if you’ve heard the story before, I’ll bet you would like to hear it again. Every gospel has its version. Let’s look at how the Gospel of Luke tells the story. [Blog readers: You might want to take time to read Luke 24:1-12 reverently and attentively, as if hearing it for the first time.]

Do you hear it? Do you hear the astonishment of those first witnesses? The women, the faithful women, the ones who did not run away, who tried to attend to Jesus even in death, were the first witnesses, hearing the pronouncement of angels that he is risen.

We are told the men, the ones who had run in fear, the ones who had betrayed Jesus, thought it all sounded like nonsense. Jesus began to appear, however, to followers on the road to Emmaus, to the core disciples as they continued to cower, and to many, many others.

He showed them his scars. He showed them the crucifixion was real—his death was real. But I have defeated death, he was saying with his presence.

Our text from Romans emphasizes this great truth. “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

Think of it this way: We were born to sin. You may not like the idea—you might find it unfair—but if you believe God uses the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to reveal great truths, then you cannot deny it. Somehow, that first break with God, recounted in Genesis 3, broke all of us. If we live to an age where we become at all conscious of our actions, we cannot avoid offending God.

Because we were born to sin, we also were born to die. Paul seems to talk about death in a couple of ways. There is the death of the body, of course, a death that may come quickly because of our inherent fragility, or slowly because of inescapable decrepitude. But worse than that, there is a spiritual death, an inability to connect with God, to ever deserve God’s love, because our sin has made us unholy.

But don’t forget the key message today: He is risen! Paul presents Christ as victor, as the one who dove into death and defeated it from within. A righteous man dying not only destroys death, he makes possible eternal life.

This is relatively simple stuff. As church-going Christians, we can discuss ideas that are a lot more complicated. We’ve already had to do that some as we have made our way deeper into the book of Romans the past three months. But at its core, Christianity is simple.

The cross—it worked! The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—it proves the cross worked! Believe, and the resurrection is yours!

There are two kinds of people in Easter Sunday worship. Many of you came because you believe, and you want to celebrate the great truth of Christianity, the truth that Jesus has triumphed over sin and death. Hallelujah! I pray your hearts are leaping!

Some of you are here reluctantly. You came to make someone happy; you came out of a sense of obligation, it being Easter Sunday. If that’s you, I need you to listen to me:

GOD LOVES YOU. He loves you so much that he walked among his creation in flesh and died on the cross for your sins. He loves you so much that he suffered as a human and died as a human, feeling everything we feel, so that sin has no hold on you and you can have eternal life with him.

My words alone may not be enough to convince you. But these stories, these very old stories, have very new life in them. You likely sense the life in them touching your soul right now.

Know that today, you can live the story. Know that today, Christ’s triumph is your triumph!