sermon series

Think About the Future

Romans 4:13-25 (NLT)

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.


If you engaged with last week’s sermon, you’ll notice that Paul this week simply continues to discuss Abraham and the nature of faith. I want to focus on a particular idea Paul raises, the importance of hope as an attitude to bolster our faith.

I’m liable to sound a little like a self-help guru today, but frankly, the ones I’ve heard simply repackage ancient concepts found in the Bible, enriching themselves in the process. That’s between the self-help gurus and God, I suppose. Maybe I’m just jealous—I could’ve been rich, if only I were better looking and not feeling bound to give credit where credit is due.

Let’s try a little exercise. I’m going to say a phrase and then we will pause for a few seconds. Here we go: Think about the future.

So, did you get a generally warm, happy feeling, or did you find yourself growing a little anxious? When it comes to the future, are you bullish or bearish?

Some of you felt a twinge of anxiety or fear, and that’s normal. We can always find reasons to be a little anxious. Bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life we all learn at a fairly early age.

Whether we let that anxiety control us says a lot about how much hope we carry in our hearts, however. And again, as Paul is telling us, hope and faith are intricately linked. At times, they seem to me to be almost indistinguishable.

Abraham had hope because he had heard from God and kept hearing from God. God was saying to Abraham, I know you’re really old and you don’t have any children by your wife. I promise you, you will. And from that child will come uncountable descendants, and blessings on the whole world.

As we discussed last week, Abraham sometimes struggled with how to move forward in life, but his faith grew even as he made mistakes. He had hope for the future, a future beyond his very long life, and his hope grew stronger as God slowly began the fulfillment of the promises.

He saw those promises fulfilled to the point where he was able to die a happy and confident man, having lived a “long and satisfying life” (Genesis 25:7). He was one who knew God would, in some mysterious way, care for him and his offspring forever.

If you’ll allow me, I also would ask you to think about something else. Think about the promises God has made us. I’m speaking to you as believers, of course—we who call ourselves Christians have accepted as valid and trustworthy these promises I want you to consider.

We are promised that death ultimately is meaningless. Death had great power over us, but Jesus broke that power when he died on the cross. We no longer slam into death and stop. We pass through death, it reduced to a thin veil, and we move on to eternal life with Christ.

We are promised that healing and holiness are available to us now. We are not simply afterlife gazers, people biding our time for a reward to come. We know that a life in Christ means this life, now.

Sure, we remain broken. We struggle, like old Abraham did. We slip and we sin. We carry the pain of wrongs done to us. But the more we engage with God, the more we are changed in this life. We are allowed to taste holiness and heaven now. That means the days ahead in this life should be brighter than the days behind us.

We are promised that the pain and suffering we already have experienced will be put away, reversed, healed in full. This is maybe the most mysterious promise of all, but it certainly should give us great hope. Those terrible events that have happened or may happen will not have everlasting effects. Somehow, God will make even the worst tragedies temporary ones.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 tells us, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

See a bright future before you, Christians. Live as people with an unending future, and let hope and joy into your present lives, strengthening your faith.

Advertisements

Crux of the Solution

Romans 3:21-31 (NLT)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such a vision of the future is truly panoramic.

Crux of the Problem

Romans 3:9-20 (NLT)

Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. As the Scriptures say,

“No one is righteous—
   not even one.
No one is truly wise;
   no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
   all have become useless.
No one does good,
   not a single one.”
“Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave.
   Their tongues are filled with lies.”
“Snake venom drips from their lips.”
   “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“They rush to commit murder.
   Destruction and misery always follow them.
They don’t know where to find peace.”
   “They have no fear of God at all.”

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.


One night in college I was awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. For some reason my roommate, Derek, also was awake. Out of the darkness, he asked me, “Chuck, do you think people are basically good or basically evil?”

Remember, I was maybe 20 at the time. My non-pastoral, non-theological answer was, “For crying out loud, Derek, I’m trying to sleep.” Derek has always been persistent, though.

“No, really,” he said. “What do you think? Are we good, or are we bad?”

I drew on the distant memory of a Sunday school lesson and said I suppose people are basically bad—that’s why we need Jesus. Derek seemed unsatisfied, though. He’s always been the kind of guy who looks for good in people.

I don’t remember much of the conversation after that. I guess I fell asleep, leaving my friend troubled and alone in the dark. Again, I was not very pastoral when I was 20.

Judging from our text today, Paul would agree with my answer. Or more accurately, I was in agreement with his, my subconscious vaguely remembering these or similar verses.

“All have turned away,” Paul says. “All have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”

And it’s not just Paul’s opinion. Most of what he writes is a cobbled-together collection of quotes from the Old Testament, the result of his years of Jewish theological training. He is quoting from six different psalms and the 56th chapter of Isaiah to make his point.

We’re bad. Rock and roll bad, bad to the bone. We’re bad, nationwide.

Every time I hit one of Paul’s discussions of sin, I think of some of the really powerful sermons in history, the kind designed to crush listeners so they would run to the altar, weeping. There is Jonathan Edwards, of course, with that famous sermon many of us were required to read in high school or college, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Remember this part?

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

One man in attendance at this sermon wrote, “The hearers groaned and shrieked convulsively; and their outcries of distress once drowned the preacher’s voice, and compelled him to make a long pause.” I wonder what it would take to get such a reaction today.

Our own John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was no slouch when it came to such sermons, either. In “Original Sin,” Wesley takes the account of the total depravity of people in Noah’s day, a topic we touched upon last week, and considers whether modern people are any different.

Looking at stories and prophetic writings beyond the Great Flood, Wesley concludes that we in our natural state are no better than the wicked people of Noah’s day. “And this account of the present state of man is confirmed by daily experience,” he writes. “It is true, the natural man discerns it not: and this is not to be wondered at. So long as a man, born blind, continues so, he is scarce sensible of his want … . In like manner, so long as men remain in their natural blindness of understanding, they are not sensible of their spiritual wants, and of this in particular.”

In 21st century language, we’re not only bad, we are so spiritually broken from birth that we cannot sense how bad we are.

I think this somber message is much more difficult to sell than it was just a few decades ago. As a people, we are becoming much more humanist in our thinking. By that, I mean there is this undercurrent of thought where people assume the best aspects of being human can eventually overcome the worst aspects.

I have trouble seeing how humanism is actually achieving much, though. The modern world seems to be able to collapse into a heap of evil as quickly as ever.

Humanist thinkers also become comfortable with a relative kind of morality, a line of thinking not particularly useful for people seeking a relationship with a perfectly holy God. Relative morality generates thoughts like, “Well, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m better than the low-life creeps I have known and read about.”

Jesus warned against such thinking in a parable, by the way. It’s not been that long since we talked about it in worship at Luminary. At the temple, there is a Pharisee and a hated tax collector. The Pharisee gives thanks for his righteousness, and in particular for not being made like the low-life in his immediate vicinity. The tax collector simply acknowledges he is a sinner. And I’m sure you remember who was justified in his prayers.

Or, to draw on another lesson from Jesus, let’s get the logs out of our own eyes before we go grabbing at the splinters in other people’s eyes. We have to start with our own brokenness before we can help others.

I have the “Seven Deadly Sins” on the sanctuary screens today for a reason. As we enter the season of Lent, we need to meditate on them as we approach our time of communion. There are many other sins, of course, but the church has emphasized these seven for centuries because they seem to trigger so many other ongoing sins and so much separation from God.

Can we study these words, consider these evil acts, and genuinely acknowledge we are broken?

By asking the question, I suppose I am leaving you alone in the dark, the way I did Derek so many years ago. But here is what I did not know to tell him then: When we acknowledge our brokenness, our bad nature, we step toward great and glorious gifts from God, the kind of joy and peace no humanist can ever offer you.

Pay attention to our communion liturgy today, and you will hear what I’m talking about. Come back next week and hear Paul’s continuing message, and I’m sure you’ll find peace and joy as he continues the thought he has started.

God Is Faithful

Romans 3:1-8 (NLT)

Then what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Is there any value in the ceremony of circumcision? Yes, there are great benefits! First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.

True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him,

“You will be proved right in what you say,
   and you will win your case in court.”


“But,” some might say, “our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is. Isn’t it unfair, then, for him to punish us?” (This is merely a human point of view.) Of course not! If God were not entirely fair, how would he be qualified to judge the world? “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?” And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.


Paul continues to speak about the Jews. They are a special people, he tells us, chosen by God to be the revealers of his true nature. God has made many promises to them as a people, and those promises will be fulfilled.

For several centuries, people calling themselves Christians have conveniently forgotten this truth about the Jews’ special place in God’s great plan. These people have dared to go so far as to persecute and kill Jews. Their faulty logic and failure to heed Scripture don’t need rehashing here.

As Methodists, our biblically rooted first rule for living, “Do no harm,” should tell us all we need to know about persecution. We don’t persecute others, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t persecute Jews, we don’t persecute Muslims, we don’t persecute Hindus, we don’t persecute anyone. When in a part of the world blessed with freedom, we preach and teach biblical truths to anyone who will listen, but we live peaceably with others regardless of how they receive that preaching and teaching.

As Paul discusses the special role of the Jews, he also reveals something about God’s nature that’s worth focusing on today.

We of course know we are supposed to be faithful to God, to be true to God. But lo and behold, it’s a two-way street, one God drove down first! God remains faithful to the Jews, even though many have turned away from him. And in revealing himself in full through Jesus, who is Messiah first to the Jews and then to the world, God showed his faithfulness to all of humanity.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that God’s faithfulness toward us is the driving force behind history. If God were not faithful toward his creation, there would be no history.

We have no reason to expect such positive treatment from our creator. There are a lot of indications in the Bible that God feels what we would call “pain” when humans sin.

Genesis 6:5-8, the beginning of the Great Flood story, is a good example:

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord.

In the Great Flood story, death and chaos did follow. The surprising part is it was not complete. God left an escape clause for humanity, a way to continue. Noah found favor with the Lord.

It’s not that Noah was perfect or sinless. As best we can tell, he simply craved a relationship with God. He wanted to be right with God, to be aligned with God. And for God, that was enough to keep trying to heal that broken relationship with humanity, despite our sinful nature causing him pain.

Apparently, the merest turning of our eyes toward God is enough to warrant a response. God is holy; that is, his very being defines what is right and what is wrong, and he cannot tolerate sin forever. God also is love, however, and the loving nature of God makes him very patient. God chooses to keep loving us despite our sins.

This understanding of God’s ongoing faithfulness takes us to the core of Christianity, to that John 3:16 truth of what God is doing. God loves his creation so much that he took on flesh and lived among us. Being in pain already because of our sin, God went ahead and made his pain real in our world, dying on the cross for our sins.

He loves us so much he made reunion with him easy. Just believe in the work he has done.

A lot of people struggle with the idea of God being so faithful toward us that he actually pursues us. In fact, the ease with which salvation is received may be one of the biggest hurdles some people have to overcome to be able to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior.

A relationship with God is something to be earned, a lot of people think, particularly if they have striven for success in other areas. Don’t we first have to clean up our act?

No, we don’t. It’s that simple. God is so faithful in the promises he has made through time—to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the Israelites, to the Israelites again through the prophets, and ultimately to all of us through Jesus Christ—that he is just waiting on us to let him fulfill them.

Do you want a relationship with God? Just say yes. There’s no asterisk here, no fine print on a back page of a contract. Just say yes.

We don’t want to stop there, of course. God has also promised restoration, a driving out and destruction of sin. We can be the people God intended us to be. Don’t forget to say “yes” to that offer, too.

Sometimes, this process of spiritual growth does take time. It’s hard to lay down old habits and walk away from the comfortable mud holes where we’ve learned to wallow. We have to say yes to God’s offer of restoration on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

The offers of salvation and restoration are always before us. Why? Because God is faithful first. Our faith in him by comparison is a tiny, almost token response, but it is enough to gain us the eternal life we are continually offered.

 

The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.

Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.


The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience. (A lot of scholars argue he actually began the address to the Jews in the reading for last week’s sermon.)

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that even Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah tended to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: the Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council at Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

We can see the results of such righteousness in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite Psalms is the 51st, composed by King David after the full weight of his sin has fallen upon him. (He had recently been caught committing adultery and murder.) The psalm contains these words:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.

That psalm was written by a man seeking more than a legal remedy. He was far beyond sacrificing some bulls to atone for his sins. He had seen his brokenness, and in this psalm he begs for God to lay hands on him, to change him, in the process restoring his joy. It is a good psalm, a good prayer. On a personal note, I have to say that it has sustained me in times of brokenness and made me feel restored.

This heartfelt righteousness also appears early In the New Testament. We see the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph, described as a “righteous man.” The term is applied not in reference to his adherence to the law, but instead to the moment when he desires to show Mary mercy, despite believing she has become pregnant by another man and knowing how the law said she should be punished.

This kind of righteousness also allowed Joseph to hear from God directly in dreams and better understand the situation, taking Mary and the Messiah in her womb under his wing. A righteous man was the earthly protector of our infant savior.

And of course, the ultimate example of righteousness is the grown Messiah, Jesus. Being God in flesh, his understanding of God’s will was so powerful that he was willing to suffer and die so the power of sin could be broken.

If the law is a call to transformation, then Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ makes our transformation and the transformation of all creation possible, and he makes it as simple as us having faith in his work.

We will explore these ideas of righteousness and communion with God’s Spirit in coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s try to do what Paul urged the early Jewish Christians to do. Let go; let God work within.

There are actions to take. Seek God in prayer, seek God in Scripture. But in doing so, seek the changed heart that pleases God. Over time, we may find ourselves looking less like people of the world, but the world will be better for our presence.


The featured image is “King David in Prayer,” Pieter de Grebber, circa 1635.

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 place 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.

A Deep Longing

Romans 1:8-17 (NLT)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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