Season after Pentecost (Proper 14 [19]): The Epistle Passage – Going another round with Paul

The late afternoon/early evening that I sat down to write this, it got up to 97 degrees with hotter weather for tomorrow. So what better time to sit down and wrestle more with a passage from Romans!

“Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” (Romans 10:5)

As I prepared to write on this passage, I had to wonder which law (from which righteousness comes from) Paul was referring to? The law that convicts and does nothing to free us. Or the law that liberates us and makes sin no more? If one did, as I did, and consulted a trusted commentary/commentator, one would learn that Paul’s reference to Moses did not mean the Judaic law, but “law” as guidelines and precepts that the Lord God through Jesus Christ established.

“But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” (Verses 6 – 7)

The commentator I consulted (thank you again Albert Barnes) said that righteousness from faith does not demand that one goes far distances or undertake arduous travel. No, there is a way much closer at hand.

“But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim) because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Verses 8 – 9)

Now, this is not exactly what the Israelites understood as what Moses was saying at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Nor does Paul say that is what Moses was saying. The “takeaway” concept is that believe in God is what is required. This is something that has come up again and again in my readings, that we cannot earn salvation and righteousness through what we do or how we act. It is a blessing and gift from the Lord God and Jesus the Messiah. Our correct living is (or should be) a response to that gift and blessing. But so often the response and the acting get intertwined and we believe that our good actions are what gains us salvation.

“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” (Verses 10 – 11)

To make clear, confession is worthless unless you believe in the Divine that you confess to, and are sincere in both confession and belief. It is not enough to beat one’s chest and pray/bray aloud one’s faults. Belief is necessary and a contrite heart is mandatory. But other than that, not qualifications are necessary.

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Verses 12 – 13)

Paul, however, takes it one step further. Because, he is . . . . . you know, Paul.

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Verses 14 – 15)

Paul is giving leniency for those who have NOT heard the good news of Jesus Christ. If I can conjecture, it might be an exhortation to share and proclaim one’s faith. Reading further on outside of this passage Paul has not said so explicitly. He does however say the the proclamation concerning Jesus Christ was in Old Testament scripture (as we name it). And if the Jews did not believe in God and Jesus Christ because of what had been set down before them – that was their fault and their eternal loss.

If they may seem rather shaky reasoning, beloved reader, set it aside. And consider, there are very few parts of the world that are not acquainted, at least in passing, with the message of Jesus Christ. And for those places, the same exemption stands for them as Paul explains it. But for those who have heard and have NOT believed, it will not go well with them. Paul is being stern. And I can’t fault him for that. For Paul, this is literally live and death stuff. Take it, and make of it what you will.

There are other approaches to evangelism and salvation. Other perspectives and expectations. And in the heat of the day I just cannot be as exacting as Paul is.

Look to your own inner spirit and soul. Discover and discern what you believe and what you believe in. May the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts and meditations, and bring you through the “heat” of your life. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 11 [16]): The Epistle Passage – Tackling Paul and scripture from Romans once again.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12- 13)

I am really trying to come with a positive attitude to Paul’s writings to the Romans. It is not that I disagree with what Paul is saying. Nor is it because I do not understand what he means. The difficulty comes in wading through Paul’s style of discourse. Paul’s letter to the Romans has been studied by many. And once the reader gets past the stylized way that the book is written, there really is good theology here. And that might be part of where my struggle comes from; the theology is so complete and so pervasive that there is more that can be said and/or added. And nothing that should be taken away. Since I dislike simply commentating to reiterate the obvious, I find myself left with little to say.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Verse 14)

Should I simply “preach” what I assume you know so well, beloved reader?

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Verses 15 – 17)

If I thought you were all new believers (as this year’s RCL is compiled with that in mind), perhaps I could see my way to reiterating and underlying what Paul says. But I have to assume you are, for the most part, established believers. And have already chosen the course of your faith life.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope
that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Verses 18 – 21)

As an aid to navigating through these passages from Romans I have consulted with my favorite commentator, Albert Barnes. I can always count on him to give my thinking guidance and inspiration. He said of verse 18, “It should be borne in mind that the early Christians were comparatively few and feeble, and exposed to many trials, and that this topic would be often, therefore, introduced into the discussions about their privileges and condition.” He also says of verses 19 to 23, “Perhaps there is not a passage in the New Testament that has been deemed more difficult of interpretation than this Romans 8:19-23; and after all the labors bestowed on it by critics, still there is no explanation proposed which is perfectly satisfactory, or in which commentators concur. . . . . The main design of the passage is, to show the sustaining power of the gospel in the midst of trials, by the prospect of the future deliverance and inheritance of the sons of God. “

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Verses 22 – 23)

It is interesting to consider that Barnes feels a more accurate translation of “creation” used verses previous to verse 22 was not creation per see but the new Christian. That the new Christian would have trials and tribulations that could and would only be resolved through the Lord God and Christ Jesus. And such difficulties are upon “the creature” (as referred to by Barnes) because of the fallen nature of the entire world, which Barnes feels is what the term “whole creation” refers to.

“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Verses 24 – 25)

It is part of the indomitable human spirit to believe and hope. Not just in the sure things but the unseen uncertain things. In fact, sometimes the stronger hope is in the unseen and unknown. For there lies possibilities that are far beyond what is in our own comparatively limited experience.

As always, I owe a great deal to Barnes’ careful work with the scriptures. It seems amazing to me that a man who wrote some many decades before me could speak to my heart and open my thinking in terms of scripture passages. But that is no less amazing to me than the way these reflections seem to come together – where my thinking seems so scrambled but than aligns to give a coherent discourse on scripture. I can do little else but step back and praise the Lord God! The same Lord God that Paul wrote about; will wonders never cease!

Fourth Week of Advent: The Epistles Passage Year A – Now that’s an opening salutation!

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,” (Romans 1:1 – 6)

First of all, let me say I am feeling much better tonight. Last night when I sat down to write, I was feeling pretty shaky – went through some things. But tonight I am on much more solid ground.

Paul was also on solid ground when he wrote this opening. Paul (or should I say the writer of the letter to the Romans) can pack a lot of theology in a small space. So much so that it stands as a good introduction to Jesus Christ whose birth celebration is coming close at hand. God promised through the prophets in holy scripture the coming of God’s Son who was also the main topic of the gospels. This Son also stood in line of the descendants of David, which made him in the kingly line but also of flesh. However, this Son was also divine as the Son of God and had power which was shown most evidently in the fact that he rose up from the dead, AND by doing so saved all humanity past, present and future (that is not said explicitly here, but Paul has certainly pushed that point other places and probably does later on in his letter.) This Jesus calls forth obedience and in obeying those called belong to Jesus. Not a comprehensive ‘exegesis’ but not bad for a brief overview/run through. It is only after saying all that, Paul says, “Hello.”

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Verse 7)

This opening answers three fundamental questions that the believers in Rome might ask. First, who is Paul? Second, what does he believe? And third, what does Christian faith mean for us? It is, beloved reader, a solid foundation for the beginning of any missionary initiative.

Now, you might wonder, why are we considering missionary initiatives at Advent? I want you to know that I don’t pick out which passages the Revised Common Lectionary has at any one time (although I do decide on the order that I present them). I am emphasizing though the missional nature of this passage because this Advent season I am looking beyond the birth of Jesus Christ to Jesus Christ’s (and the Lord God’s) purpose in being born into the world. Year A of the lectionary cycle concerns the calling of new Christians. And the newest of the Christians were the ones who came to know Jesus in the flesh. Jesus came for them – not just for them but for all who would believe because of them. Paul was not too far distant from Jesus’ life. And the believers he taught were part of the first generation of believers. Paul, in his letters, wanted to get the theology set down correctly so the belief (according to his theology) would be correct. And, he liked splashy openings!

How different, yet how the same, was the Lord’s opening salutation of the birth of God’s Son. Born in a stable, yet announced by angels. Merely an additional number in population of Bethlehem, yet visited by wise men. And the story just grows from there!

WELCOME ONE ANOTHER . . . In joy, In peace, In hope

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God . . . May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:7,13 from Romans 15:7-13 )

In between verses 7 and 13 Paul quotes from portions of the Old Testament that point to the inclusion of Gentiles into the Lord’s plan. As I said previously the believers in Rome were a mix of Jews and Gentiles – sometimes it seems that Paul writes as if they were mostly Jews, and other times as if they were mostly Gentiles. Maybe Paul is wanting to address both so that whatever mix is present at the reading of this letter, they feel addressed and understood.

But whatever the proportion, Paul stressed several times that all should live in unity and harmony, offending no one and welcoming all. And it seems to me that Christians in the United States have much in common with the Christians in Rome during the time that Paul was preaching and evangelizing. We and they live under a government that expects allegiance while gathering under its a diverse group of people. The government likes to portray itself as benevolent, but up to and including obedience and conformity. Anything outside of that is frowned on and nudged into changing. Unfortunately corporate Christianity has done the same thing, gathering many diverse people but exerting force on them to change and conform. We are to be under the rule and auspice of the Spirit, and not any regulation put together by humanity. But, . . . wait, . . . I am starting to sound political; Paul has that sort of effect on me.

Joy, peace, hope. Right relationship, justice, shalom. These are the attributes we need to strive for and live under. Nothing else will do.

May you gentle reader welcome all believers from every part of the world, and work diligently to spread joy, peace and hope empowered by the Spirit. Selah! And shalom for your day.

DEBT OF LOVE . . . Here’s to never getting out of debt!

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law . . . Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8,10 from Romans 13:1-14 )

The book of Romans has sometimes been seen as the “legalistic” book of the New Testament. It was written for and to the Christians in Rome who lived under the scrutiny of the Roman government, and one gets the since it was not easy to walk the line between being a citizen of Rome and being a Christian. The same could be said of the current situation in the United States.

The letter to the Romans is slightly different than to the other churches – at its writing Paul had not yet been to Rome but intended to go. The letter to the Romans was more of an introduction to Paul’s self than it was a following up of a visit. [Paul did end up in Rome, as they say, a guest of the Roman empire. Paul also wrote letters while in Rome, but his letter to the Romans comes before his being there.] But Paul, being Paul, quickly forget that he was going to be soft-spoken as befits an introductory letter and started to preach/exhort. Oh well! At least the Roman believers knew what Paul was like before the opportunity to meet him arose.

But as I was saying, the letter to the Romans concerns rules and regulations, and I think many of the Roman believers had been Jews, so the fulfilling of the law was an important consideration for them. They went from living religiously under Jewish law to Christian practices, all the while living in forced obedience to Roman law. Not an easy task. It is not quite the same thing as our modern situation because the United States claims to be a “Christian” nation (don’t get me started on why the quote marks are needed) and so as citizens we are free to practice our “Christian” faith (again, need for quote marks). So how then might we read the book of Romans? And particular to this day and these excerpted verses, how might we read them?

The second part, “love does not wrong to a neighbor” is right relationship, justice and shalom language. And if we extend our who our neighbor is . . . . we are encompassing more than North America. But the first part, “owe no anything” – there are several ways that can be taken, the most obvious to my mind as financial because of the word “owe.” But I quickly set that aside, as you should also gentle reader and pursued other thinking.

In verse seven Paul urges his readers to give others what is due to them, whether it be taxes, respect, loyalty etc. Verse eight then means the only thing that should continue to be given or “owed” is love – you should never stop giving love to others, for that is fulfilling the law. It is my addition to Paul’s exhortation that we should never stop owing and paying people love; or to put into non-monetary terms, our love of others should never come to an end.

May you gentle reader continue to love all humanity and cherish all of creation. Selah! And shalom for your day.

SET YOUR MIND ON THE SPIRIT . . . Still and Again

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6 from Romans 8:1-17 )

Last time I wrote on this verse, it was an election year. Now we are in the year after an election. And have just come through a stand off between the two major political parties in the United States. Opinions this year have become more volatile than five years ago, and even from one year ago. Criticisms of the government have become more vocal and more “mudslinging” with each successive year. The next three years, I fear, will see more heated opinions and more derogatory comments. I do not look forward to it, and wish fervently that I would not have to hear, read, or see those comments.

Five years ago the posting for this verse was one of the first of my statements about being intentional about not being pulled in to political matters. I have have repeated those sentiment so often, it would be useless repetition to direct you to it gentle reader. I could exhort you to set your minds on spiritual matters as Paul exhorted his Roman readers. But again, that would be repetition. So what can I say that is new? You know, of course, to keep you mind on the Spirit and spiritual things is the way of peace. And the way to right relationship, justification, shalom. You know these things because the Spirit tells you, the bible tells you, ministers and preachers tell you, and last of all, I tell you. So . . . do you?

It occurs to me . . . especially when I look back five years ago . . . that I have written copiously on spiritual matters, faith issues etc. Some evenings I say “I don’t want to write!” And I wonder what more I could say?! But something draws me to read the scripture, and once reading them, reflecting on them. And to write a few words or maybe just a title. Then a few more words. And before you know it, I have written yet another post. And I think . . . . maybe this is “life” and “peace” but not the way I thought life and peace would be.

By my count, there are 56 more days of right relationship, justice, and shalom focus. And then and new year with a new theme. But if the past 309 days have taught us anything, this triad of thought does not go away, but just goes by different terms. And so do the practices and disciplines that go with it. So . . . still and again, set your mind on the Spirit, and live in peace! Selah! And shalom for your day.

JUSTIFIED BY FAITH . . . . A favorite theme of Paul’s

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ …” ( Romans 5:1 from Romans 5:1-21 )

Many times when I read the epistles from Paul I remember back to classes when I was in seminary – in one particular class we studied the epistles of Paul, or at least one of his writings. I remember the professor talking about the cues and clues in Paul’s writing that helps the reader understand the format and intent of the letters, and how Paul constructed his letters.

I have incorporated into my studying of Pauline letters the approach he taught such that it is no longer a conscious reminder of how to read the letters of Paul, but an automatic method. For example, the word “therefore” means that Paul is concluded one unit of thought and is ready to move on to the next unit, so look for a shift. Also, the phrase after “therefore” will probably in a very shorthanded way sum up the much larger point Paul was trying to make. In chapter five Paul uses the Greek word that means “therefore” in English three times, and since it is a short chapter you can correctly conclude that Paul is seeking to say much in a short amount of space.

There are other things about Paul’s letters I learned, some specific to certain letters and other things more generally speaking. But it was not my intention to give a lesson on Paul. Nor, actually, a lesson on Romans – we only spend seven days looking at verses from Romans.

It is surprising to me though, how much of Christian faith is derived from Paul’s writings. Take the notion of being “justified by faith” – which is actually a pretty large and complicated notion. So much so that I would be hard pressed in a short amount of time to cover all of it. Even Paul’s explanation in chapter four of Romans has been expanded upon over the years. Paul is not afraid to tackle the tough issues – I have said in the past that I have not always agreed with Paul, but I admire his chutzpah!

Knowing Paul’s faith story, you can understand why being justified by faith is very important to him, and why he recommends and exhorts it to others. It would be fair to say that if Paul had not advanced that theory and theology, Christianity would have had a hard time getting off the ground.

May you gentle reader find security and comfort in your faith, knowing that the depth of your faith in our Lord has granted you justification, and may you have peace with God. Selah! And shalom for your day!