Category: Romans

Podcast: Life in the Spirit

Trinity Sunday offers an opportunity to examine Paul’s idea of life in the Spirit. According to Romans 8:12-17, living in the Spirit means that we don’t live by the “flesh” — which is a word Paul uses to identify that which is dying and passing away, that lifestyle to which we were slaves prior to coming to Christ.

Life in the Spirit means we are God’s children, and as God’s children we form habits as we are led by the Spirit of God. Those habits will bring us into conflict with the world that lives by the “flesh” and we will suffer as Christ suffered because we are living by the Spirit. But, Paul reminds us that if we suffer with Christ, we will also be glorified with Christ, too. Here’s the link to Life in the Spirit. 

Sermon: Nominalism – Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?

This is the third sermon in an eight part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.” I’m preaching this one tomorrow, and I hope your Sunday is a great one.  Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there, too!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
Nominalism — Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?

In his startling book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ron Sider said out loud what had become all too apparent — America’s most conservative Christians, evangelicals, live no differently than other Americans who claim no relationship to Jesus Christ.

George Barna, Christian pollster and trend watcher, said, “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century because Jesus’ modern disciples do not act like Jesus.”

Sider points out in his book, subtitled Why Are Christians Living Just Like The Rest of the World?, that Christians are no different than the general population when it comes to failed marriages, domestic abuse, sexual conduct, materialism, and racism.  And if you find that hard to believe, let’s do the numbers:

  • Marriage and Family. In 1999, Barna reported that divorce rates for evangelicals and the total population were exactly the same — 25%.  Brad Wilcox, a Christian sociologist pointed out that “Compared with the rest of the population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce.”  Sadly, in many families that stay together, domestic abuse occurs within evangelical families at approximately the same frequency as in the general population.
  • Materialism and Stewardship. By 2001, evangelical Christians were giving 4.27% to their church, down from 6.15% in 1968.  And, from 2000 to 2002, evangelicals who tithed (gave 10% of their income) dropped from 12% to 9%, and the trend continues downward.  One study pointed out that if all evangelicals tithed, we would have over $143-billion dollars to send to world missions, hunger relief, poverty eradication, and other ministries.  The UN has estimated that it would take $70-80-billion per year to provide the world’s 1.2 billion poor with essential services like basic health care and education.  In other words, if only half of evangelical Christians tithed, we could raise the standard of living for the world’s poorest to a more humane level.
  • Morality and Sexual Conduct. In 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention started a sexual abstinence program for young people called True Love Waits.  About 2.4-million kids signed the promise to keep themselves sexually pure until marriage.  But researchers from Columbia and Yale Universities tracked 12,000 teens who had signed the “I’ll Wait” pledge.  The results were disheartening — 88% of those who had signed the True Love Waits pledge had engaged in sexual intercourse before they were married.  Only 12% maintained their promise.
  • Racism. In a 1989 survey, George Barna asked different groups whether they would object to having an African-American neighbor.  Only 11% of Catholics and non-evangelicals objected.  16% of mainline Protestants objected, but 20% of Southern Baptists objected to having a black family on their block.  Hopefully, since 1989, some attitudes have changed.  Southern Baptists have gone on record as apologizing for the enslavement of black Africans, and for the role slavery played in the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention.  But, some have viewed that apology with cynicism, citing SBC studies which show that for Southern Baptists to continue to grow, we must reach out to minorities and establish minority churches, and train minorities for leadership positions within the SBC.  Still our denomination remains one of the most segregated of denominations in our nation.  11 o’clock Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.

The act of failing to live up to the teachings of Christ is called nominalism, from the Latin word nomen, which means name.  Nominalism, then, distinguishes that which is real from that which is in name only, or nominal.  In other words, evangelical Christians are for the most part, Christians in name only.  Our walk does not match out talk.

Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “I would become a Christian, if I could see one.”

How Did We Lose our Way?

Why did I include nominalism under these 7 cultural challenges that churches face?  Because culture plays a tremendous role in influencing all of our society, including those of us who claim to be followers of Christ.

Paul writing to Christians in the first century who were in the midst of the culture of Rome, had this to say about the Christians and popular culture —

1Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  — Romans 12:1-2

Christians in the 21st century, it seems, have become so enmeshed in the culture in which we live that we have been conformed to the culture — the world — rather than being transformed by Christ.  But how did this happen?  Well, there are several answers.

The Marriage of Church and State

The first answer to that question is found in the 4th century.  For its first 250 years or so, Christianity was a minority and persecuted faith.  All of the apostles were martyred, with the possible exception of John.  The story goes that authorities attempted to kill John, but he survived and instead was banished to the Isle of Patmos where he received the great apocalyptic vision we call the Book of Revelation.

That book, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, is about the persecution of the people of God, the church.  Written during the reign of the emperor Domitian, John’s vision gives hope to the Christians of the first century that their deaths were not in vain, that God saw their suffering, and that they had a special place in God’s kingdom.  And, most importantly, one day Jesus himself was coming with the whole host of heaven to vindicate the martyrs, and take them to their eternal glory as all things were made new by Christ.  In other words, God was giving hope to his persecuted people.

The early church was persecuted because the followers of Jesus were not like those around them.  In an age of dishonesty and everyman for himself, Christians were honest.  In an empire where sexual promiscuity was celebrated, Christians maintained the bond of marriage.  In a culture where the weak were viewed as a drag on society and were outcast or overlooked, Christians were generous and cared for the poor and the widows.  In a culture where rich masters owned slaves, Christians put aside positions of class in the ekklesia and slaves often served as leaders of the congregation.

Gerhard Lohfink has called the early church a “contrast society.”  And it was.  The values and lifestyle of the Christians of the first and second centuries contrasted dramatically with that of the culture around them.  Barry Harvey says the early church saw themselves as “another city” — in contrast to the great city of Rome, the Christian community became “another city” in governance, values, lifestyle, relationships, and conduct.

Because of their contrasting lives, Christians were easy targets for the failing Roman empire.  Nero was the first to blame Christians wholesale for the failures of his regime.  Subsequent emperors seized upon Nero’s idea, and expanded the blame placed on Christians until it reached fever pitch during the reign of Domitian.

But, as Christianity spread and grew, and Christians became more numerous, the empire began having second thoughts.  When Constantine ascends to the emperor’s throne, he needed to do something to bring a decaying empire together.  Christians were now as sizeable part of the population, and so Constantine decided to embrace Christianity as the unifying factor in his empire.

The famous legend of Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky, and Christ’s words to him, “By this sign, conquer” makes for a great legend, but Constantine was no committed Christian, only accepting Christian baptism as he neared the end of his life.

For centuries, the church celebrated their new found status in the empire, sharing some power with the emperor himself.  As is always the case when the religious community seeks favor with politicians, the church woke up one day several hundred years later to its own corruption and loss of witness.  The church had become nothing more than the extension of the state.

That’s the historical setting, but it doesn’t fully explain how we in the 21st century, almost 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, are still being conformed to culture, rather than to Christ.  And, how culture shapes us, rather than Christians shaping culture.

A Missed Chance at the Reformation

It seems that even the Reformers — Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others — also fell for the same fatal idea: church and state should be one.  Which meant that church and culture would become one, and we live with that bad bargain made 500 years ago still today.

Of course, Baptists and American evangelicalism contributed the idea that religious freedom should prevail in America.  That we should be free from government establishment or prohibition of religious expression.  Baptists were highly influential in persuading Thomas Jefferson, and other colonial leaders, to write the Bill of Rights, which first took hold in Virginia where the Episcopal Church has already been established as the official state church.   The Episcopal Church was disenfranchised, and freedom of religion became the law of the land.

But, escape from government control did not mean escape from cultural influence.

The stories of faith and freedom were so closely tied in the newly-born United States that we as a people assumed they were one and the same.  And, the slide into Americanized Christianity took place over that past 250 years or so.  Now, American Christianity contributed some great things to the cause of faith — we focused on the individual, not the class or family, so that individuals were free to trust Christ without the constraints of social status or family heritage.  As a matter of fact, John Wesley’s Methodism sought out the disenfranchised first in England, and then in America, and presented the Gospel to them as well.

But, God and country are not the same, and when pressed to pledge allegiance to one or the other, Christians should have chosen God, as they did in the first century.  Instead, too often we chose American culture.

An example of the choosing of culture over Biblical faith is the founding of our own denomination — Southern Baptists.  Prior to 1845, with slavery becoming more widespread in the South where labor intensive crops like tobacco and cotton dominated the economy, Baptists in the North began to object to Baptists in the South holding slaves.  That objection extended to the rejection of mission offerings from Baptists in the South, until such time as these southern Baptists divested themselves of their slave holdings.

Baptists in the South were outraged and offended.  So, in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was born, allowing Baptists in the South to send their own missionaries to China and India and Africa, without the judgmental interference of their Northern counterparts.  Clearly, our Southern Baptist forefathers gave in to the culture and the economy, rather than to the Gospel of Christ.  Of course, numerous passages of scripture were quoted and re-quoted justifying slavery, and bolstering the status of Southern Baptists.

With 150 years of hindsight, slavery is a sin of which we should still repent.  One wonders if a denomination born in strife, and on the backs of enslaved human beings, can or should survive.  That is a debate for future Baptists, but I wonder if the fractious history of our denomination, which continues to this day, is a part of our denominational DNA.

The State Cannot Impose Our Values On Others

History is full of failed moral experiments, Prohibition being one of them.  During Prohibition, our country learned that you can’t legislate one morality for all people.  While the Temperance Movement was thrilled when Prohibition passed, legions of Americans (including many in our own community) broke the law to either get a drink or make liquor out of economic necessity.

So, before I go any further, let me state that I do not believe that the Bible teaches that we as followers of Christ should impose our moral system, whatever it is, on others.  We cannot make people act like Christians, who do not follow Christ.  Of course, some laws that accomplish our purposes are laws passed for the common good.  Laws that protect children from being exploited either by unscrupulous factory owners, or pornographers, are good laws.  They serve Christian purposes, but also the higher good.  So, we are not opposed to laws that protect and define conduct that makes the world a better place for all.

Back to my illustration of Prohibition.  Even though it is now legal in many places, including Chatham to sell and purchase alcohol, it is not legal to drive while intoxicated, sell alcohol to minors, or sell non-tax paid liquor, known as moonshine.  All of those laws serve our Christian idea of good, but are not specifically Christian laws.

No, the answer to why we don’t walk like we talk is not found in the local town ordinance, the state legal code, or federal law.

We Lost Our Way, Because We Have Left The Way

I believe that Christians have lost influence with our society because we have lost our way, The Way of Jesus.  You and I could debate endlessly what a Christian could do, should do, and ought to do.  That, in part, is why we have so many denominations.  Some find great latitude in how to live the Christian life, others like our Amish brothers and sisters, follow a much more narrow path.

But being a follower of Christ is about being a follower of Christ.  When we began to look for the loopholes, the exceptions, when we begin to ask ourselves “where’s the line?” in our conduct, we have missed the point completely.  The Pharisees were far better a walking that fine line between religious legality and illegality.  Jesus completely dismantled their thinking every time he said, “You have heard….but I say unto you.”

For it is not in the letter of the law that we find Christ, it is in the Spirit of the law.  It is not a matter of how little do we have to do, or how much can we get away with in living and still be called Christian.  Rather, we should live our lives with Jesus, as though he were here, present with us.  For he is.

Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. 22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. 23He who hates me hates my Father as well. 24If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’

26“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” — John 15:18-27

Why don’t we walk like we talk?  Partly because we don’t want the world to hate us.  We want to fit in, we don’t want to stand out.  We want to be like everybody else, and that is our problem.  We want to be like everybody else, when we ought to want to be like Jesus.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except by me.”

Jesus did not say, “I know the way” or “I’ll teach you the way” or “This idea is the way.”  He said, “I am the Way.”  Period.  In the first century Christians were called followers of The Way.  It was Jesus’ Way because the Way was Jesus himself.

We do not walk like we talk because we are not following Jesus.

More than 25 years ago, Graham Cyster, a South African Christian struggled against the wickedness of apartheid — the institutionalized racism and genocide of the South African government.  Other groups were also working to move South Africa away from the apartheid, and Communists were among those working in South Africa to bring equality to all South Africans — black and white.

Graham Cyster was smuggled into an underground Communist cell of young people one night, in hopes of presenting the message of Christ.  Amazingly, the young Communists gathered that evening said, “Tell us about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” half-hoping for an alternative to the armed, violent struggle they knew they faced.

According to Ron Sider, Graham gave a clear and powerful explanation of the Gospel, telling how faith in Christ can transform individual lives.  He talked about how Christian love could break down the barriers that separated people, and quoted from the Apostle Paul that there was no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but that faith in Christ builds a new community where all God’s people live together in love.

One 17-year old exclaimed, “That’s wonderful!  Show me where I can see that happening!”  Graham’s face fell as he had to report that sadly, he knew of no place in South Africa where that was true, even though there were many churches in South Africa.

With that the young man cursed, and left the meeting.  Less than a month later, he had joined an armed band of Communist guerrillas who were committed to the violent overthrow of the South African government.

The world around us is not interested in what we believe.  Nor are most of them interested in where they will spend eternity.  The world around us wants to see that the message of Jesus, the message of God’s love is possible.  For if it is possible, then there is hope.  If it is possible, then there is a heaven.  If it is possible, then there is a God who loves even me.

Sermon: Accountable to God, Respectful of Others

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, September 14, 2008.  I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow.  

Accountable to God, Respectful of Others

Romans 14:1-12
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.4Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
 
 5One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
 9For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.11It is written: 

   ” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, 
   ’every knee will bow before me; 
      every tongue will confess to God.’ “ 12So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Two Ways To Start An Argument

You’re familiar with the old adage, “Don’t talk about religion or politics.”  Now, I must tell you that most old sayings come about because someone learned something and passed it on.  I can imagine the person who came up with this line.  They had probably been invited to a friend’s house for dinner where some other guests, unknown to this person, were also invited.  As the group settles in and is getting to know one another, our unlucky subject says something like, “Well, what do you think of that Sarah Palin?”  You can imagine the responses.  And then, someone mentions “lipstick” and chaos ensues.  

Our hapless friend, trying to change the subject, tries again.  ”Wow, didn’t the Pope look really great in that new outfit he had on the other day!” All of a sudden, 600 years of Catholic-Protestant conflict erupts again, and you would think you were in Northern Ireland.  So, we’ve learned not to talk about religion and politics because everybody has an opinion, which is not necessarily the one we share.  

The only time I have successfully negotiated both subjects in the same night was when I was in Shanghai.  I was the honored guest of the factory president, and my Chinese hosts had taken me to a very special restaurant where the only item on the menu was snake.  And, fried snake does taste a lot like chicken, only with less meat.  That night, my hosts asked me both about politics (Bill Clinton had just been caught in the Monica Lewinsky affair and this was very amusing to the Chinese); and, religion.  They were equally interested in both subjects, and it proved to be a very interesting evening.  

And, not only do people avoid talking politics and religion, but we even avoid talking about religion among religious people.  Why?  Because we don’t agree.  I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and there is a large denomination there that believes baptism is essential to salvation.  Baptists don’t believe that, and so you can imagine the conversations that cut across neighborhoods and families.  Debbie’s mother reminded us this week that one of Debbie’s great aunts was a member of the baptism-is-essential denomination.  Her husband was Baptist.  Every Sunday Uncle Arthur would drop Aunt Ruby at her church on the way to his.  They never agreed, but they cobbled out a congenial standoff even in their different beliefs.

More Than Agreeing to Disagree

Bob Dylan has a famous line in his song, The Times They Are A Changing.  Dylan sings, “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.”  And, so we have adopted an “agree to disagree” status that seems to say, “Okay, you can believe what you want to, and I’ll believe what I want to and it’s all good.”  But, that’s not what Paul is saying here.  

Paul is talking, first of all, to Christians.  He isn’t addressing the pluralistic society that was the Roman empire.  He’s talking to Christians, specifically to Christians in Rome.  And he says, “Welcome someone weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of arguing with them over unimportant matters.”  So, let’s look at this more closely.  

We need to understand what he means by “weak.”  Now we might think that Paul means new Christians who don’t know a lot about Christianity yet.  But, that’s not it.  Or, we might think that Paul means those whose faith is not strong — they can’t stand up to ridicule or peer pressure or temptation.  But, that’s not what Paul means by “weak” either.  

By “weak” Paul means Christians who are still struggling with issues of how do I live out my Christian faith.  He gives two good examples.  The first example is about food.  He says the strong Christians eat meat, and weak Christians might eat only vegetables.  Now, this kind of hits home because Debbie and I don’t eat much meat.  As a matter of fact, we don’t buy meat when we’re eating at home.  We eat mostly vegetables and grains, and have been trying to do this for over 10-years.  Sometimes with more success than others.  

Now, the whole vegetarian thing is really interesting to some people, but we started on this practice after reading several of Dr. John McDougall’s books.  I used to weigh about 40-lbs more than I do now, had high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and needed to do something different.  Dr. McDougall’s research among Hawaiians found that the older generation which ate mostly vegetables was much healthier than the younger generations that ate the modern American diet of burgers and fries.  Anyway, to make a long story very short, 40-lbs later both my blood pressure and cholesterol are in great shape.  I could lose a few more pounds, but Dr. McDougall doesn’t live in Chatham where everyone is a great cook, so I’m doing the best I can.  

But, that’s not really Paul’s point.  The problem in Paul’s day wasn’t a health issue.  As a matter of fact, Paul says the “strong” Christian is the meat eater, and the weak Christian is the vegetarian.  For Paul, this dietary choice was not a matter of health, but of theology.  In first century Rome, meat was sold in the butcher shops of pagan temples.  Worshipers would offer a slab of beef or pork to their god, leaving it on the altar of the pagan temple.  The temple priests would take the meat as an offering, but then sell it in their butcher shop as a way to raise money.  The only problem was that the practices of many pagan temples involved immoral acts as official parts of worship.  I won’t get too graphic here, but the behavior was abhorrent to Christians, many of whom had left the worship of pagan gods when they came to Christ.

So, the dilemma for the new Christian was — “Can I eat meat or not?”  Christians who were Jews had a further problem — their meat had to be what we call “kosher” — prepared under strict practices and the supervision of a rabbi.  In Rome, that was hard to come by.  So, Paul characterizes these Christians who don’t know what to do about this pagan, non-Kosher meat as “weak.”  Strong Christians like Paul realize that all foods are clean, that meat offered to an idol is still from God’s hand, and that everything belongs to and comes from God.  So, for the strong Christian this is an issue they have moved beyond.  Weak Christians are still struggling with this.

Now, to be clear, Paul says we do have an obligation not to offend weaker Christians.  In I Corinthians, Paul says that it doesn’t matter to him where the meat comes from, but that if his eating meat offered to idols offends weaker Christians, he will not eat it.  And by offend, Paul doesn’t just mean they are critical of him, but that his eating meat actually could cause them to lose their faith.  

Paul also uses the idea of special days.  We know that Jews celebrated special feast days, but Gentile Christians would not be aware of or understand the significance of those days.  Also, Gentile Christians would eventually reinvent some pagan holidays, infusing them with new Christian meaning.  The most significant of these reinvented holidays is Christmas, with its origins in the Roman holiday, Saturnalia.  

A Lesson in Respect and Relationship

Paul’s point in all of this is that we shouldn’t criticize fellow Christians if they practice differently than we do.  John Wesley had a saying I like.  Wesley founded a movement in which there was great diversity, and yet great commonality as well.  Wesley’s philosophy was “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”  Apparently, this was not original with Wesley, but is attributed to Rupertus Meldinius, a 17th century German Lutheran theologian, slightly ahead of Wesley in time.  Whoever said it first, the idea is the same — agree on the basics, allow liberty of thought on the peripheral issues, and do both in love.  

Which is great advice, but there is a theological reason for what Paul is saying here.  Paul reminds us that whatever our discussion, we are not just talking to each other.  We are not just accountable to one another.  The strong cannot overrule the weak in the Christian community, no matter how sure or mature the strong might think they are.

When our girls were in elementary school, it was interesting to hear the phrases they brought home.    One day Laurie was attempting to get Amy to do something Laurie thought she ought to do.  Laurie is three-and-a-half years older than Amy, and of course, thought she was always right.  Well, that worked pretty well until Amy started to school, too.  One day as Laurie was telling Amy what to do, Amy turned to her and said, “You’re not the boss of me.”  Now that wasn’t a phrase we used at home, so she had learned it at school.  Asserting her own ability to choose, Amy staked out a new position, no longer the compliant little sister.  

Of course, the history of the Christian church doesn’t exactly line up with what Paul is saying here.  The church got pretty touchy about differences of opinion, and so you have little things like the Spanish Inquisition, where people were actually tortured until they recanted their alleged heresy.  Interestingly, the Spanish Inquisition was started by Ferdinand and Isabella (yes, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed a guy named Christopher Columbus).  They took over religious persecution from the church itself.  And, this wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, inquisition.  Books were banned, errant Christians were tortured, and some were killed.  All in the name of preserving Christianity.   This is not what Paul had in mind.

Our respect for others in the faith comes because we are all accountable, not to each other, but to God.  We are God’s servants, and whatever we do — eating or observing holidays — we do as unto God.  

Paul says, if we live or if we die, if we eat or don’t eat, if we observe special days or don’t, we are doing all of this to the Lord.  Why?  Because we are God’s new people — Jew, Gentile, meat-eater, vegetarian — we are God’s new people.  We are a race that now transcends culture and custom, we are living the new kingdom of God, anticipating God’s rule and reign in God’s creation.  

We Are Accountable to God

Paul echoes Isaiah and will repeat this message in Philippians — “As I live says the Lord, Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

We are accountable only to God.  Not to each other, not the weak to the strong, not the simple to the clever.  We are accountable to God, whether we live or die, whether we eat meat or not, whether we observe sacred days or not, we are accountable to God.  That is why, Paul says, that Jesus died and came back to life – to be Lord of the living and the dead.  In other words — everyone for all time and eternity.  

So, what would this look like, this mutual respect for other believers?  For one, all denominations would disappear.  Denominationalism is simply the emphasis of one or more theological points over another.  So, Baptists baptize by immersion, Presbyterians sprinkle, and Methodists do both.  But, we all agree on Jesus.  We all agree on his life, death, burial, and resurrection.  We all agree that he is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.  That’s the essential.  

What else would be different?  Churches wouldn’t split or have controversies.  We would find ways to work out our differences, or hold them respectfully clinging to the things that do unite us.  We would not criticize each other, but seek the best for one another.  We would seek to advance God’s kingdom and not our own agendas.  We would find common ground to unite us, rather than old arguments that divide us.  We would work together for common cause, regardless of who got the credit as long as God got the glory.  We would be the body of Christ, healthy and functioning as God intended for us to be.

And, the world?  Oh, the world would see Jesus.  Not Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics — the world would see our Lord, our Savior, our King.  The world would see a new way to live, a new kingdom to replace the old empire, a new ethic, a new generosity, a new love one for another.  Listen to what N. T. Wright says –

“Final judgment matters because God is committed to putting the whole world to rights; God will judge through Jesus the Messiah, calling each of us to account….We do not liver to ourselves; we do not die to ourselves.  It isn’t up to us what we do or don’t do.  It is up to the Lord, the master whom we serve and who will one day require an account.”  – N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part Two, pg 103.

 

Sermon: A New Debt for A New Day

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, September 7, 2008. I hope you have a wonderful day at your church.

A New Debt For A New Day

Romans 13:8-14

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

A World in Debt

Sometime today, according to the Washington Post and other media organizations, the federal government will take over the two organizations chartered to underwrite the mortgages of millions of homes in the United States. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which sound like an eccentric aunt and uncle from the country, have fallen victim to the subprime mortgage mess. So, the federal government will take them over, fire their CEOs, and guarantee their loans. Both Barack Obama and John McCain agree this is a necessary step to shore up the sagging confidence in the US financial markets.

Our society operates on debt, and the action of the government indicates that confidence in the soundness of that debt is critical to our economic survival. For a long time, our nation was one of the few that had a successful debt economy. If you wanted a home or a car or a washing machine in most other countries, you had to pay cash. But, with our American ingenuity, we created the “debt society” telling each other and the world we no longer had to delay our grandest wishes, we could have them now, and pay for them later.

And other nations began to copy us. I read recently of the rise of automobile sales in China. Just a few years ago when I made regular trips to China, there were few dealerships, no financing, and only the very wealthy could afford an private automobile. Today all that has changed and increasingly affluent Chinese are buying their own cars on credit.

On one visit to the Mexican town of Juarez, across the border from El Paso, I stood in front of the maquilladora factory of a large electronics manufacturer. A large truck, like a U-Haul, was parked in front of the factory entrance. The rear door of the truck was rolled up, and inside there was a washer, a refrigerator, a stove, some TVs, and other household appliances. I noticed men and women walking up to the truck, reaching into their pockets, to hand the man standing in the back of the truck a handful of money. I asked the sales rep with me to explain the scene. I thought these workers were buying new appliances. “No,” he said, “the appliances on this truck are models. These workers can buy appliances like these on credit, but they have to pay some each week.” And I realized that we had successfully exported not only our low skill jobs, but the American practice of buy now, pay later.

Paul’s Encouragement to the Church in Rome

Those examples bring us to our text today. Romans 13:8-14 begins, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” I have actually heard this text interpreted to mean “stay out of debt.” Which might be a very good idea, but Paul uses the idea of debt here to teach us another lesson.

Paul is saying, “Don’t owe anybody anything except the debt of love.” Now, it would really be much easier for us to talk about getting out of debt today. Dave Ramsey has a wonderful course he teaches under his Financial Peace University, that teaches folks how to become debt-free. Ramsey started on the radio in Nashville, where he lives and his financial counseling business is located, because he lost everything when the real estate market collapsed during the last financial scandal. But, that’s not Paul’s main point.

Paul is reminding the Christians in Rome that the debt they owe, and the only one they can never pay, is the debt of love. Rome was the Washington DC, Paris, London, Shanghai, and Riyadh of its day, all rolled into one. It was the home of the emperor, the seat of power, the stuff of legend. And Christians in Rome were in the insignificant minority. And yet, Paul says they owe a debt — the debt of love.

Paul reminds the Roman followers of Christ that love doesn’t take another person’s wife or husband, doesn’t take their possessions, doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even want what they have. Love is the fulfillment of the law, and Paul quotes both the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus when he reminds them to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

But who were their neighbors? They were the Roman authorities, the ruling classes, the pagan temple goers, the adulterous men, the sexually promiscuous Romans. Roman culture exuded a sexual flavor unlike many before it. The Roman theater was reserved for men only because the plays presented were so bawdy. The well-to-do Roman citizen kept not only a wife, but also one or more lovers at his disposal. Respectable women were required to stay at home, but respectable men could do anything they wished. It was a culture saturated with sex, power, and possessions.

Sound familiar? Well, we are not that far from Rome ourselves, as countless speechwriters, commentators, and preachers have pointed out over the years. But, Paul reminds Christians that in the midst of this pagan, licentious society, they are to live lives of love. But more than that — they owe a debt of love to those around them.

A Debt That Cannot Be Repaid, But That Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Try

Love, Paul implies, is a debt we owe that can never be repaid in full. When we moved from Atlanta to Fort Worth for me to attend seminary, we were pretty poor. The church I left paid me about $12,000 a year, and even in 1976 that wasn’t big money. So, when we moved, we took all the cash we thought we had out of our checking account, leaving just enough to close out the account and pay the service charges.

As you can imagine, we cut it too close. So, in a few weeks, we got a notice from the bank that we owed an overdraft charge. I dutifully wrote out the check, mailed it to the bank, and thought that was that. All taken care of. Well, apparently, the bank received my check just after the deadline for avoiding another service charge. So, a few weeks later, another notice arrived, for the same amount I had just paid. I sent another check, realizing what must have happened. And guess what? That’s right, the same thing happened again. I finally called the bank to explain my predicament. I explained that I kept sending in money, and they kept charging me, and would this ever end? The bank representative was very kind, waived the fee, and applied my last payment, closing out the account.

But our debt of love isn’t so easily resolved. It never goes away. There is never a moment at which we catch up, get a credit on the books, and can skip the next payment. Frustrating? Not really, and here’s why:

Paul says something wonderful is happening — the night is ending, the day is dawning, a new day is coming. Salvation is closer than when we believed! All the more reason to love with wild abandon.

A New Definition of Love

But, Paul redefines love for them and us. He reminds them that what Roman society calls love — wild parties, sexual immorality, the deeds of darkness — is not love at all. Paul challenges them to put on Christ — like you’d put on a new coat. Clothe yourself with Jesus, not the stuff that masquerades in the culture as love.

We may not have the Roman definition of love, but our society also has an inadequate understanding of love. We have glamorized love in all its romantic (which comes from the root word Rome) glory. Or, we have turned love into a sappy kind of sentimentality that is like a gigantic warm fuzzy. But, that’s not the love Paul is speaking of either.

The love Paul talks about is the love Jesus has for this world, and we are to have to others. It may have its sentimental moments, but mostly it’s about hard work, sweat, and inconvenience. It’s about putting others first, about giving of ourselves, about caring for others, about opening our eyes to what God has done for us, and living that before the world.

Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” Okay, that’s great for Mother Teresa, after all she was a saint, or will be pretty soon. But, let me tell you a story about Mother Teresa herself.

I finished reading Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irrestible Revolution, this week. It’s about Shane’s journey to find his way as a lover of Jesus. On his journey, one of the things Shane did was to write Mother Teresa, asking if he could come to India to help with the work she was doing. He wrote and waited and waited. No reply. Finally, he contacted a nun here in the US, and asked for Mother Teresa’s telephone number. Amazingly, she gave it to him, and he called it. Shane said he expected someone to answer in a very professional manner, but instead, after the phone had rung several times, a woman with a raspy voice said “Hello.”

Shane explained he was calling for Mother Teresa. The raspy voice said, “This is Mother Teresa.” Being a smart-alec, Shane started to say, “Yeah and I’m the Pope.” But he restrained himself, only to realize he was really talking to Mother Teresa. He explained that he wanted to come to India for the summer. She said, “That’s a long time.” So, Shane said he could come for a month, or a couple of weeks or a couple of days. “No,” Momma T (as he calls her), said, “come.” And, so he did.

He arrived in India, tells wonderful stories of the experiences he had helping with the work of caring for the dying. But he noticed as they knelt to pray each morning, that Mother Teresa had terribly misshapen feet. He didn’t want to ask, but in talking with a nun one day, the subject came up. The nun asked if he had noticed Mother Teresa’s feet. Shane said he had, but didn’t want to ask what had happened to her. So the nun explained.

The Missionaries of Charity received lots of donations, she said. Often the donations were the cast-offs and included clothing, and occasionally shoes. She explained that Mother Teresa would search through the shipment of shoes, looking for the worst pair, which she took as her own. Years of wearing ill-fitting worn-out shoes had left her feet misshapen and painful. That’s the kind of love Paul is talking about.

Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic worker movement, said, “Love is a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, but it is the only answer.”

St. Vincent de Paul said that when he gave bread to the beggars, he got on his knees to ask forgiveness from them. In the early Christian church, one of the signs of Pentecost was that there was no unmet need among them. Paul, writing to another church, the church in Corinth, talks about spiritual gifts. But he says —

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

If as many books had been written about Christian love as have been written about spiritual gifts, the church would behave differently, and the world would be a better place.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Love Is No Easy Road

Have you ever used one of those blood pressure machines at the drug store? When I go to a drugstore that has one, I usually try it out. You know how this works — you sit in the seat, put your arm into the stationary cuff, and punch the button. In a few minutes — if you didn’t move — the machine will display your blood pressure. Mine is usually good, so I’m usually pretty proud of myself.

But this week, I had the opportunity to check my “love pressure” and I didn’t come out so well. I can’t tell you the details, but I was trying to help someone here in our area. The situation didn’t work out, and I explained that to this individual. I expected a big “thank you for trying” email. Instead, I got a really good chewing out. Well, I was livid. I wanted that person to get straightened out, to see the light, to treat me better, to appreciate my efforts. And, I spent far more time on seeing that that happened than I should have. And it got me absolutely no where.

As I was rolling around in my anger and hurt, I thought about this sermon. I really hate it when that happens. And I realized that’s what Paul meant — Owe no one anything, except the continuing debt of love. It doesn’t matter how I was treated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if I’m not appreciated — I’m supposed to love. It doesn’t matter if my best efforts are misunderstood — I’m supposed to love.

What amazed me was the anger and resentment, and even retribution, that burst into full bloom before I had any idea of what was really happening. So, this business of “the love debt” is no easy road.

In front of us today, on this communion table, is the graphic, tangible evidence of love — unconditional, unearned, unappreciated. Jesus loves us that way. So, this memorial is not just about death and blood and broken bodies. It’s about love. This scant meal of bread and wine is a reminder — a memorial — of love. That’s why we take it. To remind ourselves of the debt of love we owe, that we can never pay. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. “Owe no one anything, but love.”

Sermon: Living Sacrifice, Graceful Service

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching Sunday, August 24, 2008, from Romans 12:1-8. I hope you have a wonderful day on Sunday.

Continue reading “Sermon: Living Sacrifice, Graceful Service”

Sermon podcast: “Imprisoned by God’s Mercy”

Okay, I’m trying to get back into the routine of posting my sermon podcasts every week.  Here’s my sermon from Sunday, August 17, 2008, titled “Imprisoned by God’s Mercy.” The lectionary text was Romans 11:1-2, 29-32.  I hope it’s helpful.

Sermon: “Imprisoned by God’s Mercy” – Sunday, Aug 17, 2008

Imprisoned by God’s Mercy

Romans 11:1-2, 29-32 Continue reading “Sermon: “Imprisoned by God’s Mercy” – Sunday, Aug 17, 2008″