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″

Sermon: On Your Lips and In Your Heart

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching Sunday, August 10, 2008, from Romans 10:5-15. I hope you find it helpful. Have a great Lord’s Day!

On Your Lips and In Your Heart
Romans 10:5-15

5 Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: 9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Looking for God

Last year, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love, was a national bestseller. In case you missed it, it’s the story of how Elizabeth found really good food in Italy, had an awesome spiritual experience in India, and found love in Bali, Indonesia. Elizabeth was on Oprah, which is always good for selling books, and her book sold hundreds of thousands of copies, which in the book publishing world is a major success.

I think part of the reason for the book’s amazing sales was that it touched themes common to all of us. We all enjoy a good meal, want to be spiritually alive, and are suckers for stories of true love. So, Eat, Pray, Love was a runaway bestseller. Listen to what Elizabeth Gilbert says about her search for contentment –

“I have searched frantically for contentment for so many years in so many ways, and all these acquisitions and accomplishments — they run you down in the end. Life, if you keep chasing it so hard, will drive you to death. Time — when pursued like a bandit — will behave like one; always remaining one country or one room ahead of you, changing its name and hair color to elude you, slipping out the back door of the motel just as you’re banging through the lobby with your newest search warrant….At some point you have to stop because it won’t. You have to admin you can’t catch it. That you’re not supposed to catch it. At some point…you gotta let go and sit still and allow contentment to come to you.” Eat, Pray, Love, p. 155

Elizabeth Gilbert tells the story of how she found her contentment both spiritually and emotionally by traveling to Italy, India, and then Indonesia. But, Paul tells us how we can find ours, without traveling at all.

Remember we’re in Romans, and Paul is talking about faith. In chapters 9-11, Paul specifically is talking about his people, the Jews. And, he’s explaining the difference in trying to live by the law and living by faith. Paul says the law of God is a good thing, because the law was meant to bring us to God. But somehow the law has become an end in itself — God’s chosen people have thought that the law was salvation, that living by the law was their ticket to favor with God. Paul thinks they missed the boat. And so in this passage, he talks about how we really find God.

We Don’t Find God Someplace Else

Have you ever traveled a long way for something you really wanted. I must confess that when we lived in Nashville, I would stop at the coffee shop, at least twice a day. There was a little place, Zoe’s Coffee Shop, right around the corner from our little office, and I would make a coffee run about mid-morning, and then about mid-afternoon. Then we moved to Fayetteville, TN 80-miles south of Nashville, and no coffee shop. Withdrawal was hard, gas was cheap and I drove 80-miles to the nearest Starbuck’s one day because I was desperate for a grande soy latte. Which might not mean much to you, but was very important to me at the time. But it gets worse. After a few months here, I drove to Lynchburg to the new Starbucks that had just opened on Wards Road. Sometimes distance makes us want things all the more, but Paul reminds us that we don’t have to go to exotic places looking for God.

Paul’s argument begins here in verses 5 through 7:

5 Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Paul is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 30, which reads —

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”

Moses is speaking to the people, laying out God’s expectations for them. God expects them to obey Him, to follow Him, to love Him. In return, God will bless them. If they don’t obey, follow, and love God, they will not be blessed. As a matter of fact, in Deuteronomy 28-29, Moses predicts that the nation will not obey, follow, and love God, and will not always dwell in the land of promise, but will go into exile until they return to God.

So, Deuteronomy 30 is a reminder that obeying, following, and loving God is not beyond our reach. We don’t have to go to heaven to get the instructions, we don’t have to cross the ocean in search of God’s plan. Now, when Paul quotes this passage, he changes it a little. Paul says we don’t have to go to heaven to bring the Messiah down, nor do we have to go to hell to bring the Messiah up. So, he makes the illustration, the reference to Deuteronomy 30 fit his argument. Every devout Jew knew Deuteronomy 30 — the promise that God was near. Paul says this promise is found in the Messiah who became the law and satisfied the law. All very complicated and a little boring to us, but very important for devout Jews who wanted to live by God’s law.

The bottom line — You don’t need to look for God in some far off, remote, impossible to access place. God is here — the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart, Paul says.

We Are Wired For God

Paul says, “the word is near, on your lips and in your heart.” I like that phrase. Our ability to find God is right here. Not in Italy, India, or Indonesia, but right here. As a matter of fact, we are wired for God. Rick Warren calls it our purpose in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life. We are made to be tuned in to God. To get what God is saying to us.

Next year, 2009, broadcast TV will change from analog to digital. What that means is the TV you have now, unless it is high-definition ready, will not be able to receive the signal from the TV station. Now, there are various ways around that — you can get a converter box, or you can subscribe to cable TV. But, without doing something, you won’t be able to watch television. (Which actually is not such a bad thing. We’re into almost 1-year without TV, and we’re surviving quite well, thank you. But, that’s not my point.) My point is, the new TVs will be hardwired — designed intentionally — to pick up the new digital signal from the broadcasters. We’re like that — designed, hardwired — to tune into God.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man and only God can fill it.” When our granddaughters were here this summer, Vivian brought a 150-piece puzzle to work. It was some Disney princess — Ariel, I think — and lots of seaweed, bright colors, and sea creatures. So, she asked me to help her work the puzzle, and we set in. The thing about puzzles is, their puzzling. Even to grandfathers. So, I was relying heavily on the picture on the box, but still things didn’t seem to fit together. Until we found a key piece that unlocked the mystery to almost half the puzzle. Once we had that piece in the only place it would fit, everything else came together. Paul says, “God has given you the key piece of the puzzle. It’s on your lips and in your heart. Now use it.”

Say the Secret Word, Win $100

Speaking of TV, when I was a kid, Groucho Marx hosted a game show on TV called, “You Bet Your Life.” Now, I didn’t know who Groucho Marx was — I was really young — and I thought the show was kind of boring. Later I would develop an appreciation for the movies of The Marx Brothers, but as a 6-year old, I wasn’t that impressed. But, I do remember one part of the show. There was a secret word each episode. And Groucho would usually remind the contestants, “Say the secret word, win $100.” A hundred dollars was a lot more money then, than now. And, when a contestant inadvertently said “the secret word,” a bird with a cigar (or was that Groucho with the cigar?) would drop down on a wire, with the $100 in its beak. TV was a lot slower then. But you get the idea.

Paul says there is a “kind-of-secret-word” that’s on our lips — “Jesus is Lord.” And that by saying, “Jesus is Lord” we are saying the word that brings us into a new relationship with God. And remember, he’s talking about the Jews specifically, but it also applies to non-Jews he says later.

“Jesus is Lord” means to us that Jesus is God, that Jesus is the ruler of our lives, that Jesus is our savior. But, in Paul’s first century world, to say “Jesus is Lord” carried serious significance. Paul, a Jew, is a Roman citizen. He is writing to Christians in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Caesar is head of the empire, and the appellation given to the emperor, and required of Roman citizens at least once a year was the tribute, “Caesar is lord.” Meaning that Caesar was the supreme authority, the head of everything there was, the ultimate ruler, the giver and taker of life, the supreme political personality, the source of prosperity, the author of justice, and the deliverer of retribution. Caesar was all. And, Romans knew it well. Time is too short to discuss the intrigue of the Roman system, the attempted coups to displace emperors and the revenge of an emperor over his enemies when those plots failed.

So, to say, “Jesus is Lord” meant that Caesar was not. To say “Jesus is Lord” meant that there was a higher power, a supreme ruler, one above the emperor, an absolute Lord who demanded total allegiance from those who followed him.
And, this confession was made possible by what the confessor believed — “That God had raised Jesus from the dead.” Not that Jesus had died on the cross. There were witnesses to that event, as important as it was. But that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Why?

Because in the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus. The Romans threw at Jesus the worst they had — death by crucifixion — and seemed to be victorious. They killed Jesus, took his body down off the cross, laid it in a tomb, and sealed it with the seal of the full authority of the Roman Empire.

But God wasn’t finished. God raised Jesus from the dead. God brought Jesus back through the dark door of death which had previously been a one-way door. Now death is vanquished. Life is victorious. And Life, God’s life-giving power, life in the resurrection is the indication that the Kingdom of God has come. That Jesus is really God’s son, that God has broken into history to make all things new.

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses says –

Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

So, that word “Jesus is Lord” that is on your lips, comes from your heart. The Jews thought that physical circumcision was the mark that distinguished them as God’s people. But, even Moses says to them, “God will circumcise your hearts” — God will change your heart and that will be the sign that you are God’s people.

The Divine Surprise

Then, Paul asks a very famous question?

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

About right now you are expecting me to break into a rousing chorus of “So Send I You” or “Who is on the Lord’s Side?” or any of a number of hymns that challenge us to go and tell, or send missionaries to go and tell the gospel story. And that’s what I had always thought Paul was saying here. “Let’s send some missionaries to the Jews!” Or anyone else who has not heard the gospel. And, the lectionary framers were also convinced that this is what Paul had in mind, because the revised common lectionary reading stops right here. End of story. Send the Light! Spread the word! Send some preachers!

But, remember Paul is talking about the Jews first. Here’s what he says in verse 18, as he answers his own question –
But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:
“Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”[i] 19Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says,
“I will make you envious by those who are not a nation;
I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.”[j] 20And Isaiah boldly says,
“I was found by those who did not seek me;
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”

Kind of changes things, doesn’t it? “Did they not hear?” Paul asks. To which he answers, “Yes, of course.” And then he says two things — the Jews and heard, and even those who did not seek God, God revealed himself to them, too.

Isn’t that amazing? The Jews have heard. And, to make things even better, God has also revealed himself to others who were not even seeking him. In other words, the Gentiles.

So, what does all this mean? Here it is, in the Reader’s Digest condensed version –

  1. God is really close by.
  2. God has given mankind the capacity to recognize and follow him. Jesus is Lord, because God raised him from the dead.
  3. God has put the word out. To the Jews first, but also to those who aren’t even seeking him. God is far more eager for us to know Him than we can imagine.

Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to tell, to go, to send missionaries, and all of that. But, it means that God is the first missionary. God sent Jesus — God in the flesh — because God was so eager for us to know Him. God sent Jesus to the people God made, the people in whose heart a puzzle piece was missing. God sent Jesus to fill that empty spot in our hearts, to follow with our lives, to love with our being.

So, we don’t have to go to Italy, or India, or Indonesia to find God. He is here, showing himself to us, in a thousand ways, calling all persons to himself. And for what? Paul says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

We think that means going to heaven when we die, and it does. But that’s only part of it. “Salvation” — soter in Greek — meant to be saved from danger, but it also means to be made whole, to be made well, to be restored to health, to be what we are supposed to be. To be saved is to be healed, to be made whole, to be made our true selves — persons made in the image of God, who one day will be with Him in glory.

Brian Jones tells a remarkable story in his book, Getting Rid of the Gorilla. In his short story, “The Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway describes this event.  Hemingway wrote —

“Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive of the name Francisco, and…a father…came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said:  “Paco meet me at Hotel Montana noon Tuesday.  All is forgiven.  Papa.”  So many young men went out to greet their fathers, eight hundred in all, that an entire police squadron had to be deployed to restore civil order.”  — Getting Rid of the Gorilla, p.201

That is the God we owe our lives to.  The one who constantly seeks us out.  Who reveals himself to us.  Who longs to forgive his people and make them whole again. 
The journey is not a journey to find God. The journey we are on is a journey with God. And He’s waiting for us not in Italy, or India, or in Indonesia, but right here in Chatham. Waiting for us to speak that word that is on our lips and in our hearts — “Jesus is Lord.”

Sermon for Sunday, Aug 3, 2008: “Good News for the Jews…And Us, Too!”

This is the sermon I’m preaching Sunday, August 3, 2008, from Romans 9:1-5. And, check out Holy Fools, by Matthew Woodley — I quote from Matthew’s new book in this sermon, and I think you will find the book helpful and encouraging.

Good News for the Jews…and Us, Too!
Romans 9:1-5

1 I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

I Would Give Anything

As a pastor I have sat with families who are grieving the loss of a beloved member of their family. I have heard husbands and fathers, wives and mothers say the same thing, “I would give anything if it could have been me.” Those words are especially poignant at the death of a child or young person. Parental love is so great, and grief so overwhelming, that the desire to take the place of someone we love to save them from death is a common desire.

Paul expresses a similar thought here, when he says,

“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”

Paul is not saying this lightly or carelessly, and he has the credentials as a Jew to back up his statement. In Philippians 3:4-7, he says:

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ (the Messiah).

Paul was an outstanding Jew, an aggressive Pharisee, and scrupulously righteous, but he scrapped all of that when he met the risen Jesus on the Damascus road. Paul’s fierce devotion to Pharisaic Judaism was quickly overshadowed by his new-found commitment to Jesus, the Messiah of God. Amazingly the one event that all Jews looked forward to was the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah of God, in Greek known as Christos, or the Christ. So, Paul is not relinquishing his Jewishness when he encounters the Messiah, he is actually finding fulfillment as a Jew.

For Paul to say then, “I would gladly be considered accursed for my people the Jews,” is profound. And, to make his point unmistakably clear, Paul explains that to be accursed is to be cut off from the Messiah. Paul is willing to give up his own knowledge of Christ if the Jews could then discover Christ. Paul is convinced that Jesus is God’s Messiah and he wants his people to be convinced as well.

When Others Don’t Share Our Passions

Have you ever had this experience? You’ve read a book or seen a movie or heard a song that you just love. In your enthusiasm you tell your family, your friends, your co-workers — anybody that will listen. And when you do, you say things like –

  • “You’ve got to read this book. It’s the best story I’ve ever read.”
  • “This song is amazing. You’ve got to hear it!”
  • “That is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. You’ve got to see it!”

Seldom does our enthusiasm for the book or movie or song transfer easily or quickly to others. And when our friends and family and co-workers just look at us and say nonchalantly, “Okay, if I have time,” we are crestfallen, crushed by their inability to see how wonderful the book, movie, or song really is.

Several years ago, Debbie and I saw the movie, Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The movie is a quirky, fun, dramatic, musical, comedic one-of-a-kind film. It was nominated for Best Picture, but didn’t win. And, I loved the movie! I liked it so much, Debbie gave me the DVD, we had friends over to see it, and I raved about the story line, cinematography, and cleverness of the film. I liked it so much, that on a trip to Shanghai, I found a bootleg copy of it at the DVD knock-off store across the street from my hotel, and watched it again in Shanghai. Which beat watching the Chinese warrior movies on CCTV. Unfortunately, outside of Debbie, few shared my enthusiasm for the movie. I was a frustrated fan of a really great movie.

Paul felt a similar frustration. He said he was in “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” because the Jews don’t get it about Jesus. Few other Jews, other than the original disciples, were as enthusiastic about Jesus being the Messiah as Paul was. So, why didn’t the Jews get it?

The same reason that our family and friends and co-workers don’t share our enthusiasm for a book or movie or political candidate: they don’t see it the way we do. Paul, you remember, encountered the risen, living Jesus in a blinding light on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus. The encounter was not a vision or an apparition or a hallucination — Paul’s experience was a real face-to-face meetup (to use the modern jargon) with a man thought to be a failed revolutionary, put to death by the Romans, buried in a borrowed grave, and relegated to the refuse heap of history. But Jesus was alive! He was a living, breathing, talking person who appeared to Paul a couple of years after everyone in Paul’s Pharisee circle thought they had put an end to the self-proclaimed son of God. Paul was on a mission to rub out the few remaining disciples of this dead, false prophet, when he met Jesus face-to-face. Up close and in person.

Fear eventually gave way to wonder, and Paul realized with the help of others that God was at work, and that this Jesus whom he had despised, whose followers he had killed and terrorized, was God’s Anointed One, the Messiah promised to the Jews. Now, Paul wanted everyone else to see it, to understand it, to follow this Jesus, too. But, they didn’t get it, couldn’t see it, were closed just as he had been.

So Paul wishes that if it took his being cut off from Christ to bring the Jews to Christ, he was willing to do it.

The New Based on the Old

Paul begins to make a case for why the Jews should embrace Jesus as the Messiah –

  1. Theirs is the adoption as children of God.
  2. Theirs is the divine glory.
  3. Theirs are the covenants.
  4. Theirs the receiving of the Law.
  5. Theirs the temple worship.
  6. Theirs the promises.
  7. Theirs the patriarchs.
  8. And from them the ancestry of the Messiah, Jesus.

And so there it is — a chronological, historical, rational walk through the history of the Jews to prove why the Jews should get it about Jesus.

Too often, Christians have given the impression that we are the new thing God is doing, and the Jews were about the old thing. We even refer to the two divisions of the Bible as The Old Testament and The New Testament. We have believed that Jesus came to save the world, and when the Jews rejected Him, He moved on to the Gentiles. We are as blind to our connection to the Jews, as many of them are to the Messiahship of Jesus.

But, if we read Scripture with seeing eyes, we read, not two stories, but one. Not two ways that God dealt with people, but one. Not two means to salvation, but one. Not two promises for the future, but one. All bound up in the plan of God for all people — Jew and non-Jew alike.

Let’s look more closely at what the Jews have going for them:

When Paul says that “the adoption as children” belongs to the Jews, he reminds us that God called Abraham out of paganism, adopted him as a father adopts a son, and promised to make him the father of a great nation.

When Paul says that “the divine glory” belongs to the Jews, he paints mind-pictures of the shekinah glory of God leading the nation of Israel with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, the presence of God settling over Mount Sinai, the manifestation of God over the Tabernacle, and the glory of God inhabiting the Temple.

When Paul says that “the covenants” belong to the Jews, he means God’s first agreements with his people — with Adam and Eve in the garden, with Noah and the flood, with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob. And always, the covenant was the same — God promises to be their God, and he asks that they promise to be His people. God always keeps the covenant, even when his people break it. God always repairs the covenant, even when the breach is the act of His rebellious children.

When Paul recounts that “the receiving of the Law” belongs to the Jews, he conjures up memories of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. Those stone tablets became the emblem for how God’s people would be different from all other people. How God’s people would love, worship, and obey the one true God; and, how they would treat others. The Law, God’s Law, was a radical way to live. God outlawed idolatry, invoking the deity’s name in vain, working on the day set aside to honor God, disobeying parents, coveting the relationships and possessions of others, taking human life, violating marital commitments, and so on. Radical laws that set God’s people apart from the “do whatever it takes to survive” culture in which they lived.

When Paul says “the Temple worship” is theirs, every Jew instantly sees the image of the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. Gleaming white stone, the glistening solid-gold cluster of grapes hanging over the massive entrance, the crowds at Passover, the priests that ministered in the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, and the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. Jews would know the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Lights, the ritual, the ceremony, the bustlel of temple stalls and vendors, and the calls to prayer three times a day. This was truly God’s house, the place where heaven and earth met. The Temple of the One True God, YHWH, the God of the Jews. There was no other building like the Temple, there was no other worship experience that came close, and every Jew who did not live in Jerusalem, and could not get there for Passover, said, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Theirs are the promises, Paul also says. Promises for what? Promises contained in the covenant God made with his people, but promises that God continued to fulfill. Promises to Abraham to make him father of a great nation. The promise to Moses to take the nation back to the land of promise. The promise of prosperity, if God’s people would obey and observe God’s law. The promise to be their God. The promise of forgiveness and atonement for sin. The promise of relationship. But, ultimately the promise to send One who would make everything right. The promise of the Messiah. The ultimate promise, the promise to end all promises, not because God was tired of dealing with his people, but because the Messiah would stand between God and nation, between Perfection and imperfection, and make all things new.

And the patriarchs. The “fathers of the nation.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham who followed God. Isaac who became the child of promise. Jacob who wrestled with God for his blessing. Not perfect men, but real men who struggled in their obedience, failed in their humanity, and most of all, loved God passionately. These were the forebears, the examples, the inspiration, the first triad of generations that forged the familial bonds between God and his people.

And finally, the Jews are the family from which Jesus, the Messiah, comes. Jesus is no stranger, no foreigner brought in from the outside. This is and has been God’s plan all along. This is why God called Abraham. This is why God spared Isaac’s life as Father Abraham was about to sacrifice him to God. This is why Jacob was allowed to wrestle with God. This Jesus is the root of Jesse, the likeness of King David, the wisdom of Solomon, the power of the prophets, the simplicity of the shepherds, the strength of a Samson, the gentleness of a child, and the salvation of his people, and God’s creation. How could the Jews miss this? Were they too close to Jesus? Was his hometown of Nazareth too plain a place? Did they expect something else?

Whatever the reasons, Paul is amazed that the Jews don’t get it, and he’s will to give up that for which he has “counted all things loss” in order that the Jews might know Jesus as their Messiah.

What Is It That We Don’t Understand?

Okay, so we all know that as a people, the Jews to this day still don’t accept Jesus as their Messiah. And, because of that, Christians have said a lot of unkind and outrageous things about the Jews.

  • The Jews for centuries were called “Christ-killers,” even though Jesus was put to death under the Roman system of capital punishment. The Jews were blamed for Jesus death, even though Jesus himself said that no one was taking his life, that he laid down his own life freely. But, still that insidious lie persists.
  • The Jews have been reviled and the evil that has fallen to them has been explained as their punishment for rejecting Christ. The Holocaust, when 6-million Jews died, was too often seen as the judgment of God on an unbelieving people.
  • The Jews have been portrayed as scheming, dishonest, money-grubbing charlatans since Judas betrayed Christ for a bag of silver. Even Shakespeare got into the act with his character Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice.
  • As the Christian Church gained ascendancy in the Roman Empire, Jews replaced Christians as the minority to be persecuted and discriminated against.

Next week we’re going to discover that God isn’t finished with the Jews. That God hasn’t cancelled his covenant with the Jews. And, that even the disobedience of the Jews becomes the occasion for God’s mercy toward them and the rest of the world. But, that’s for next week.

This week, however, we have to put ourselves in Paul’s place for a moment. And, we have to ask ourselves,

Are we passionate enough about Jesus to give up our lives so that someone else might know God’s Messiah?
In his new book, Holy Fools, Matthew Woodley, pastor of Three Village Church on Long Island, reminds us of several people who gave up their lives of comfort, or privilege, or wealth, or even health, so that others might know God’s Messiah, Jesus. These people followed Jesus “with reckless abandon” according to Woodley, and because of their self-sacrifice, made the cause of Christ known to others. Listen to some of their stories:

  • A young man named Hudson Taylor shaved his head except for a long pigtail, donned Chinese robes, and ate with chopsticks to win the hearts of the Chinese among whom he served. Accused by his friends and fellow-missionaries of losing his mind and abandoning his own culture, Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission, opening the door for the gospel in a land that less than a 100-years later would close to outside missionaries.
  • A young woman in France named Christiana had an aversion to foul smells. But, ignoring her own nauseating discomfort, she felt compelled to bring the love of Christ to the peasants of France, even to the point of caring for them in illness and injury and dressing their festering wounds.
  • And then there’s Damien the Leper, although he was not always called that. His name was Joseph de Veuster, born into a Belgian farming family. Joseph studied for the ministry, sailed to Hawaii, where served a comfortable church as pastor. In 1866, Hawaii experienced an outbreak of leprosy. Those afflicted with this disfiguring, ultimately fatal disease were shipped to the island of Molokai to live in isolation and die a solitary death. At his own request, Joseph asked to to move to Molokai to minister to the lepers. He addressed them as “my fellow lepers” and ignored the counsel of his superiors never to touch a leper. Joseph moved among the outcasts, hugging them, encouraging them, touching them. He taught them how to build houses, play instruments, and they even formed a band to play in worship. Eleven years on the island and Joseph so identified with the lepers that he was truly one of them. One evening while soaking his feet in hot water after a long and tiring day, Joseph noticed that he could not feel the water on his feet. He had truly given up his life that his fellow lepers might find eternal life.

The point of Matthew Woodley’s Holy Fools is summed up in a quote from Soren Kierkegarrd –

The greatest danger to Christianity is…not heresies, heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism — no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet.
Kierkegaard continues –

Christianity does not oppose debauchery and uncontrollable passions as much as it opposes this flat mediocrity, this nauseating atmosphere, this homey, civil togetherness, where admittedly great crimes, wild excesses, and powerful aberrations cannot easily occur — but where God’s unconditional demand has even greater difficulty accomplishing what it requires: the majestic obedience of submission. — Holy Fools, p. 164-165
Are we so excited about finding Jesus, that we would give up our knowledge of him so that others could know him? Are we excited enough about Jesus to give up even our comfort, or our possessions, or our time, or our energy, or our preferences for worship so that others might know him?Fortunately, neither Paul nor we have to give up Christ. There is plenty of Jesus to go around. And our giving up our own faith would not lead others to faith, and Paul knew that. But Paul also knew that he had discovered God’s plan for the world, starting with the Jews. He wanted others to know the promise of God. He was willing to do whatever it took. Are we?

Sermon: Setting Your Mind On the Spirit

Setting Your Mind on the Spirit
Romans 8:1-11 NRSV8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

8:3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,

8:4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot,

8:8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Dead Man Walking

Years ago, prisons in the South were notoriously corrupt and cruel institutions. Paul Newman’s movie’s Cool Hand Luke, showed the meanness of life in the county workcamp. Robert Redford starred in Brubaker, the story of a prison camp warden who tried to clean up the savagery, not of the prisoners, but of the guards themselves. Mississippi’s infamous prison camp, Parchman, was particularly known for its use of deadly force against prisoners. One prison’s death row delivered its charges to the electric chair by announcing the prison procession with these words — “Dead man walking, dead man walking here.”

That phrase, Dead Man Walking, became the title for Sister Helen Prejean’s book by the same name, recounting her experiences ministering on Louisiana’s death row. For the condemned who walked from death row to the electric chair, the announcement, Dead Man Walking, served only to confirm their ultimate fate.

Romans Contrasts Life and Death

We continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome this week. And, if you recall last week’s passage from Romans 7, Paul says that we’re struggling to live up to God’s law. As a matter of fact, we can’t do it. Paul said in Romans 7:24 –

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

In other words, we’re dead men walking. But the good news it that Paul then answers his own question by saying –

Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

But, then Chapter 7 concludes with a less than optimistic statement –

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

So,which is it? Am I a dead man walking — trapped in a body of death brought about by sin, to which I am a slave? Or Has Jesus the Messiah — the Christ — delivered me from the death sentence that I have been under? And that brings us to Chapter 8.

No Condemnation

Paul begins this chapter by saying –

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
So what changed in the space of one verse — from the end of chapter 7 to the beginning of chapter 8? Just this, and we find it in Romans 8:2. Paul gave us the punchline in verse one, and now here’s the explanation —
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

We are not condemned to “death” — we are no longer dead men walking — because a new law, another law, a higher law, the law of the spirit of life has set us free from the law of sin and death. So there it is — there’s a new sheriff in town, a new law as it were, that overrides, cancels out, precludes the old law. This new law is called the Law of the Spirit of Life.

What’s Up With This New Law of the Spirit of Life?

Okay, stay with me here for we have to cover a lot of territory quickly. Here’s the overview of the situation that God is dealing with:

  1. God gave The Law to Israel to distinguish Israel from all other people, as uniquely the people of God, so that Israel might be a blessing to the nations.
  2. Israel, due to the weakness of humanity, was not able to live up to God’s calling.
  3. Israel’s failure meant that God had to fix the problem.
  4. So, God sent Jesus, God in human form, to solve the problem. God did not outsource this work to someone else. God appeared, in the form of a man, in the flesh, as the Messiah of God to the nation of Israel.
  5. The Messiah not only was the hope of the Jews, but the Messiah actually took on the character of the nation of Israel before God. That’s why Jesus spoke of his body as The Temple. He became the Temple — the dwelling place of God. Jesus spoke of his ministry to gather the lost house of Israel as a hen gathers her chicks. Jesus spoke of the sacrifice of death that he would offer — the sin sacrifice — for the sins of the nation.
  6. The sin of the nation then was collected in the Messiah.
  7. God condemned that sin in Jesus’ flesh (remember the serpent in the wilderness — that which kills you saves you) and nailed sin to the cross.
  8. But God, after condemning sin, confirmed Jesus as Messiah by raising him from the dead, thus breaking sin’s only hold on humanity — death.
  9. But not only that, but the Spirit of God then comes to live in each of God’s people. And that Spirit is the new law — the law of life, not the law of sin and death.

A Look at the Spirit

Which now brings us to the notion of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the indwelling presence of God whom Jesus said to the disciples…”is with you and shall be in you.” Meaning that Jesus as God was with them, but one day the Spirit of God would be in them. Previously, the Spirit of God had been thought to be only in The Temple, or on certain leaders or prophets. But now the mark of the new people of God is God’s indwelling Spirit.

When we think of the Holy Spirit, depending on what your tradition is, we come up with some pretty bizarre thoughts. We think of the ecstatic gifts of the Spirit — speaking in tongues, the gift of healing, the gift of prophecy, the gift of supernatural knowledge, and so forth. Paul talks about these in his letter to the Corinthians.

Or when we think about the Holy Spirit, we think of problems. The charismatic movement which divided churches into those who had the “baptism of the Spirit” and those who didn’t. Or the Pentecostal movement where worship services are more free-form that we as Baptists are used to.

But when Paul talks about the Law of the Spirit, or the Spirit dwelling in God’s people, here’s what he means. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma. It is the word from which we get our words pneumatic, pneumonia, and so on. Pneuma literally means breath or wind.

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word for Spirit is ruach — which also means breath or wind. It is God who breathes into newly created mankind, the breath of life. Without that breath, that spirit, that wind of God, there is no life. And, part of the image of God in which man is created is the life-giving breath of God given by God himself.

When we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus breathing the Spirit onto the disciples in a new act of creation — the beginning of Christ making all things new.

It is this Spirit, this breath, this wind of which Paul speaks when he talks about the Law of the Spirit of Life.

God’s breath is now breathed into, not just the human race as a whole, but uniquely into every follower of Jesus, the Messiah. Why? Because we are the new people of God, the new Israel, we carry the gospel — the good news — that God keeps his promises.

The Spirit is Life, Sin is Death

In Romans, Paul has drawn several contrasts:

  • sin vs. righteousness
  • the old Adam vs. the new Adam
  • death vs. life
  • flesh vs Spirit
  • Law of Sin and Death vs Law of Spirit of life
  • those not in Christ vs those in Christ

All of these contrasts are saying the same thing — living according to God’s plan leads to life, living according to “flesh” (that which is corruptible, decaying) leads to death. So, the contrasts are clear — God has made a way by fulfilling the original law, to create life again, defeating the enemy called death.

How Do We Set Our Mind on the Spirit?

The Law of the Spirit is about life, first and foremost. It is about life as God originally intended it. It is about life that if abundant and at peace with God. It is about life that leads to the new heavens and the new earth in the eternal presence of God as God had always intended it.

So, how do we get there. Well, we only get there through the one who carried sin to the cross, Jesus. We only get there through the one whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead, Jesus. We only get there by recognizing that the sin offering of Christ on our behalf fulfilled the Law of God, condemned sin, and paid our penalty. Then, the resurrection of Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed, broke the power which sin held over humanity. And, broke it decisively, once and for all time, future life guaranteed by God.

So, we choose life. Life in all its forms, life in all its expressions, life which uplifts, gives hope, helps others, is generative, life which transcends the time we have on this earth, and whose values are eternal values, not values of that which is failing and dying all around us. Life is a choice Jesus has placed before us and it’s ours for the choosing.

We have a cat. Actually, we don’t have a cat, but Jack and Jean Willis have a cat who spends lots of time visiting in the neighborhood. Debbie calls him Pretty Kitty, and he is a rather striking cat. We have taken to feeding him, and in the winter a couple of years ago, Debbie started letting Pretty Kitty come inside to get out of the cold. And, mostly he is well behaved, at least until recently.

Somehow, Pretty Kitty started scratching the furniture. You know how cats do that — put out their paws and work their claws back and forth in this little catch-and-release routine that eventually shreds the legs of your chairs and sofas. Pretty Kitty earns a trip back outside everytime he does that . Lately, he’s been spending lots of time outside.

Last night I felt sorry for him, so I brought his dish in from the back porch, put fresh water in his bowl, and let him in. As a signal to him to be on his best behavior, we put two scratching posts in the den — one in front of his favorite sofa leg, and another in front of a chair leg that he also favors.

So, in he comes, eats and drinks some in the kitchen, just like old times. Walking into the den, he paused to check out the scratching posts blocking his normal targets. He actually walked over to the sofa, sniffed around, and then walked to the other end of the den and began his grooming routine.

He sat on the rug for awhile, then went behind my chair and continued that combination of licking, biting fur, and licking some more that cats do to keep themselves tidy. But suddenly, without warning or provocation, he silently positioned himself behind the right rear leg of my chair, and began — you guessed it — to scratch on the chair. As if to say, “I see those scratching posts over there, but I’m still the Cat and I’ll do what I want to.”

Immediately, I yelled for Debbie (in the midst of making a phone call) and out the door Pretty Kitty went. Banished again. All because he made the wrong choice. He chose scratching over behaving. He can’t help it, he’s a cat.

But Paul says, we can help it. Or more accurately, God in Christ can help it for us. We can choose to live by our own whims, by our flesh, which leads to death. Or we can choose the road to life, the law of the Spirit of life. We no longer are dead men walking. There is now no condemnation, Paul says, to those who are in Christ Jesus. Sentence commuted, pardon granted, prison doors opened, prisoners set free, debt paid, life restored — all because Jesus took sin to the cross where God condemned it and not us, nailed it to that tree, and then beat Sin at its own game by defeating Death.