Season after Pentecost (Proper 17 [22]): The Epistle Passage – Preacher and Seeker read Paul out loud

Preacher:“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”
Seeker:
If you must compete, beloved listener, with you brother and sister – let it be a competition of caring, a race to show compassion, a contest of warm and giving hearts.
Preacher: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.”

Seeker: Gladden and hearten the spirit of others by zealously seeking their good. Our Lord Jesus Christ was quick to minister to others, and set before us a servant role. Let no one be a master over another, but work together as joyful companions called to the common good by the Lord God.
Preacher: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”

Seeker: When you tire, beloved listener, your fellow believer will be there as you have been there for others. And where then is a stranger among you, treat that person as a friend who you are getting to know. The body may tire, but hope in the Lord will revive you. There may be suffering, but you are not alone. So hold on to your faith, and rely on the Lord and those who are with you in faith.
Preacher: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

Seeker: No one is truly a stranger, because we are all children together under the Divine. Show compassion, as our Lord God Jesus Christ showed compassion. Look into the face of the stranger, and you will see the face of God.
Preacher: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Seeker: That is not to see this life will be easy, and that you will not have hard times. While you may extend a hand of friendship, it may not be accepted and even pushed away. It is easy to love those who are lovable. The test, beloved listener, is to love where it is hard. Ask the Lord for love that will not fade away under the strain of persecution. The Lord Jesus Christ knows what it is like to bear up under persecution. There will be recourse and refuge, so that you may rest and be renewed.
Preacher: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

Seeker: Rejoice! And rejoice that you have believers to rejoice with. But also, uphold one another, sharing with one another; grief shared passes, and the Lord of Light will shine upon you both.
Preacher: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

Seeker: We all live and love under the tender eye of the Divine. Be there for your fellow believer, as your fellow believer is there for you. There is nothing to be gained by keeping your self apart from the rest of humanity, and everything to be lost. We were made for companionship.
Preacher: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

Seeker: You know, beloved reader, what gladdens your heart and lifts your spirit. Make that a gift to your neighbor, both near and far. Think on the good of this life, and leave what is not good where it is.
Preacher: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Seeker: Live so that no one may call you their enemy. And do not consider anyone your enemy. There is enough trial and tribulation in this life; do not add to it by creating it between you and another.
Preacher: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9 – 21)

Seeker: The good that you do, beloved listener, will spread out before you. It will multiply in the very air, and will settle on those around you. It will soften the human heart and heal the human spirit. Let no opportunity pass where you can show compassion and care. And you will find the same in the most unexpected places. I say again, look for the good and embrace it. Nurture it, and it will grow in the heart of every person you meet. Selah!

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Season after Pentecost (Proper 16 [21]): The Epistle Passage – Our function and call within the Body of the Lord God

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

Often times there is the presumption that what we do with or to our bodies is separate and distinct from what we do with our thoughts. The body, being base, is assumed to do base things. But the mind, being elevated, should not do what is base and sinful. But Paul does not make this allowance. That is not to say I do not see in the epistle evidence of body/mind connection thinking; just simply an exhortation to be as pure in body as in mind.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Verse 2)

Here we have the same exhortation to keep the mind and thoughts pure also.

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Verse 3)

Paul has on many occasions exhorted his readers not to be boastful or proud of things done with their own strength and might, but to boast in what the Lord has done and is able to do through them.

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,
so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” (Verses 4 – 8)

And the Lord God can do through us; not just one type of service to the world but diverse work. Some teach or prophecy. Workers like Paul minister by spreading the word of God. Some lead, and some uphold the body by compassion and cheerfulness. What do you do for the body of believers in God? What is your call as voiced by the Lord?

Keeping our bodies and our minds pure and holy is not the only way to worship the Lord, or give testimony concerning the Lord. I pray, beloved reader, that Lord God might reveal to you your function in the body of believers. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 15 [20]): The Epistle Passage – Once again, Paul speaks forth

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (Romans 11:1-2a)

Paul, being a Jew and standing firm in that identity, does not believe God can be seen as starting over called a new people. But the Jewish people are not the only ones who are inheritors of God’s favor and blessing. Those blessings are not given lightly, as Paul says further on in the passage.

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Verse 29)

What was promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and brought about through Joseph and his brothers will not be taken away. But it as been expanded to cover more people, all people actually.

“Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.” (Verses 30 – 31)

Now these verses are interesting. Paul’s audience, the Gentiles, were at one time disobedient and sinful. But through Jesus’ act salvation and mercy they were redeemed. Paul contends (or at least that is one impression one subscribe to) that the Jews can see what has been given to the Gentiles and still claim it for themselves.

As strict as Paul can be at times, he is all for second chances as he was given a second chance.

“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (Verse 32)

It is interesting to think and consider how Paul who was once Saul – how his life influenced his preaching and teaching. It would not make so much difference if Paul had been no major a teacher than some more contemporary preachers; even considering such preachers as Billy Graham or other such preachers of renown. You see, Paul did not just preach but established scripture. His life experiences and perspective crafted theology as it is taught. And every once in a while that realization creeps under my skin and just itches! I am not saying Paul is wrong; just that the twists and turns of his life have impacted almost 2000 years of Christianity.

And I would go from that point to mount my soapbox about Paul. But the other thing I remember is that Paul never meant to be so influential. So there you are. Paul speaks forth, and we diligently take note.

It is true, we see grace and mercy lived out in the lives of others, and we covet it for ourselves. It is true that everyone has been disobedient, and the Lord God grants mercy to us all. And it is very true that the blessings, gifts, grace, mercy and calling of the Lord God stand forever. Furthermore, beloved reader, it is very very true that no person or group of people have been rejected by the Lord God. No matter their lineage or pedigree, no person is accepted by the Lord God on that basis alone. Nor are they rejected because of lineage, pedigree or self-identification. All are eligible for grace and mercy upon confession of and forgiveness from the Lord God. Selah!

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 13 [18]): The Epistles Passage – Mapping some slippery slopes with Paul

I am speaking the truth in Christ–I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit– “ (Romans 9:1)

Call me a skeptic of long running, but many times when someone tells me they are speaking the truth, I prick me ears up and discern whether they are really lying. Maybe it is because part of my professional life has been discerning between absolute truths, somewhat truths, convenient truths, and outright non-truths. Do I doubt Paul? No. But for my sake, I wish he had phrased it some other way.

So is his absolute truth? The gospel he is talking about? If so, I believe him. Much of what he says aligns with what others have said, and my own experience. Or, is he talking about what he is about to say?

“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” (Verses 2 – 3)

That is a lot of sorrow for one man to carry around. And a pretty severe wish on behalf of another. Really, cut off from Christ? Is this not the man just a few verses ago who said that nothing could separate us from the love of Christ? And what is the love that Christ has for us but Christ himself made manifest? Or is this a “safe” wish because Paul knows that his wishing it would not make it happen? Seems to me we are right back where we started with Paul vowing that he is telling the truth.

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” (Verses 4- 5)

What is not out rightly stated is that Paul fears if they do not accept Christ and profess faith that Jesus was the Messiah, they will be lost. The whole purpose of them being a people called by the Lord and a light to the other nations would be lost. It was for their sake, firstly, that Jesus came. Then for the benefit of the Gentiles and all the other nations, and all people. But the “Jews”, meaning religion/nationality of those born into Judaism, have rejected Christ. And not all Jews, but as a nation and as a corporate people they have rejected Christ. And Paul grieves this.

One may suppose, I imagine, that it is no different than Christians mourning for all the non-Christians who do not know and believe in Jesus . . . . . as they believe. Here’s the thing though, how do we know what is in the heart of others? How do we know how they respond to and recognize the Divine. Paul, in his Pauline way, is being kind of presumptuous about the Jews. And that irks me just a touch. But I am irked more when that presumption is magnified by some Christians who draw very narrow boundaries for Christian faith. I actually much prefer Paul’s wish to draw them in no matter the cost to himself than Christians segregating out those who do not believe as they do.

Yes, beloved reader, I am not sure where all of this puts me in regards to my . . . . . regarding of Paul. Nor my regarding of Christians who do not believe as I do. There are some slippery slopes here. Beware!

We are on safe ground, though, if we commend all people to believe in the Lord God, and trusting that the Lord God knows their hearts. May you seek out the Lord God, beloved reader, and may nothing keep you from faith in the Divine. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 12 [17]): The Epistles Passage – It can be a hard life, beloved reader

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Paul has just got done exhorting us to hope, just as I have commended to hope even though you cannot see what you have hoped for. Then both Paul and I say “likewise” the Spirit helps us. Yes, I think I am on the other side of a passage from Paul that I struggle with. But that does not mean it is easy coasting from here on out.

“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Verses 27 – 28)

I want to let you in on a little secret beloved reader (that you may already know); the Spirit and God are . . sorta One. What I mean is that God “knows what is the mind of the Spirit” because God is the Mind of the Spirit. At least that is true in Triune theology. Less easy to prove is that “all things work together for good for those who love God . . .” That’s not to say that it is not true; but when you are in the middle of “less than good” things, it is hard to know that it is all going to work out for “good.” Or maybe you can embrace the idea that whatever happens God will use it to work out good purpose.

Now, that would be a theological mouth-fill if it were not spoken by Paul. Paul who had been Saul, who had been imprisoned and tortured, who had to flee for his life, who had to endure much grief and distress and pain. The man knows suffering, and knows that thus far in his life the bad has worked out to positive outcomes.

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Verses 29 – 30)

In other words, if you feel picked on, used, and abused – you probably were. But for a reason. What you are going through will have an outcome that will bring about glory to God. Okay, you sort of have to want that to happen in order to withstand the tough times. But think about this; if you do have tough times, it may just be that the toughness will result in something awesome. That is not to say that God allows us to be whipped around, or that the Divine whips us around. What it is saying is that God is going to work things out in ways we could never image!

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Verse 31)

God is mightier than anything that comes up against us. We may not mightier or stronger than anything we might encounter. Situations and circumstances may be more than we can handle, and we may get ground into dust. But we will be God’s dust! And that, beloved reader, is better than being just plain dust!

“He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Verses 32 – 35)

You see, that is Paul’s litmus test. Not that we will have an easy life, but whatever happens in our life will not necessarily prevent us from rejoicing glory and reward from the Lord God. If you look at life from Paul’s mindset, being ground into dust for the Lord God is a privilege! Yeah, I have one or two things I would like to say to Paul about that too. But he has a point. This world & the favors and ease that it offers is not something we should regard as important.

“As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Verses 36 – 39)

Hard times, rough conditions, stress and turmoil, suffering and death – they are all apart of this world. We either endure . . . . . well actually there is not much other choice. We endure until we can no longer endure. But once endurance is done, and our lives are over, there is something beyond that. It all comes back to hope. And the Spirit who is there for us, groaning in ways that we could never groan ourselves. And praying, in ways so deep that it goes beyond words. Whatever hardship comes our way, we are not alone. Maybe helpless, but not alone. And, beloved reader, that Presence may make all the difference! 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!