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!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 10 [15]) : The Epistle Passage – Wrestling with Paul’s theology again

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 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, 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.” (Romans 8:1 – 4)

If you have been following along, beloved reader, with my commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, you have read/heard how I have been wrestling with Paul’s theology. It is helpful in my wrestling to read that according to Paul the law has been weakened by the flesh. I am not sure why Paul has this few of the law. From previous comments Paul has made I have understood his perspective to be that the law defines what sin is but is not helpful in determining how would should live. Or perhaps Paul is echoing some of Jesus’ perspective on some of the Jewish leaders of his time, that they have sought to circumvent the spirit of the law and have so weakened it by reinterpreting the letter of the law to the Jewish leaders’ own advantage. The law, neither in it letter nor in its diluted spirit can save us; only the Spirit of God brought to us through Jesus can do that.

Do not forget that when Paul was Saul, he strove to up hold every letter of the law, but it did not set him right with God. His encounter on the road to Damascus might have impacted his theology a great deal.

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. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Verses 5 – 6)

To Paul, then, the law represents things of the flesh – prohibitions and regulations. The Spirit represents life and correct living. It is also helpful to remember that Paul and his teachings were on the leading edge of Christian living; introducing new ideas and concepts that we in our modern time have come to understand and incorporate into our world view of Christian living. That is why I think, and said what I said concerning what Paul might have to say to our modern world. I think Paul would have been savvy enough to know that his world is not our world, and that his message and letters might have been different for our modern age. But some things would have remained the same.

“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, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Verse 7)

Our modern world is consumed with the “flesh”, worldly things and worldly agendas. Not as it was back in Paul and Jesus time, but according to modern definitions. The message to Christian now would still be . . .

“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.” (Verses 8 – 9)

This perspective also relates back to what I was trying to emphasize yesterday, that the definition of lineage has changed and that the determinant of being in the family of God has been broadened to encompass all people.

“But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.” (Verses 10 – 11)

Paul is speaking about which law, the law of flesh or the Law of the Spirit, should be used as the determinant for correct living. That the law of the flesh should not have hold on you, but the law and example of the Spirit should. I add to this that living according to the Law of the Spirit, we are apart of the same family. I do not think Paul would disagree.

Paul’s dividing of the flesh and the spirit (meaning the human spirit) has caused problems, setting the body against the human spirit/psyche, condemning the physical while elevating the mind. We know that the body and the mind are so intertwined that one can not neatly divide one against the other.

Oh beloved reader, theology can be such a mishmash – terms and definitions changing and evolving. Praise to the Lord God that the Divine is a sturdy concept, including all peoples and all ways of living, holding them to the standard embodied in Christ. May the Spirit of the Divine be with you as you wrestle with the issues in your life. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 9 [14]) : The Epistle Passage – Paul leads us through an obstacle course of theology

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

What Paul, the writer of Romans, wants to do is follow God’s will. What he says he ends up doing is the opposite of God’s will and that is human willfulness. Now to be clear, we have free will and can do whatever we please – as long as it is within human capability. And it is clear enough that humans can do God’s will; it is a choice, just as following human will is a choice.

“Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.” (Verse 16)

If you feel a little confused, beloved reader, do not feel bad. I am a little confused too. I am familiar with the “not doing what I should; and doing what I should not” discussion, but this seems a little bit different. So I am going to carefully work my way through the verses until it becomes clear in my mind. I owe any clarity to Albert Barnes’ careful work on this passage.

When I referenced various translations, it seem that Paul is saying rules and laws are a good thing because they function to keep him in line. And God’s rules and laws tell Paul exactly what he should not do, and teach him what he should do.

“But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Verse 17)

Paul states that he considers himself saved and redeemed, but within his human nature, and every human nature, is the impulse to sin.

“For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Verse 18)

It is here that Paul puts forth his theory that humankind is sinful, and it is only because of the intervention and teaching of Christ that he (or anyone else) does good.

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Verse 19)

Now here is the clearer statement that I am more familiar with. It would seem that the verses that came before are a build up (in my perspective) to the clearer statement that is in my memory.

“Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” (Verses 20 – 21)

Here again, Paul sets forth the idea that the law (that is, strict rules and regulations) are more apt to tell us what we did wrong, and entice the imagination to do wrong!

“For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Verses 22 – 23)

It is unfortunate that in our English language the word “law” does not have the nuances Paul gives the word in Greek. Or maybe Paul is inserting his own nuanced meanings when he uses it in different contexts. “Law of God”, “law at war”, “law of my [Paul’s] mind”, and “law of sin”; for Paul these seems to have different shadings and meanings. Yes, actually, we know what he means. Paul loves the guidance and instruction of the Divine, but his baser impulses gravitate to human weakness and tendency toward sin which means the strict laws of forbidding certain actions are more apt to rule his thinking than God’s grace and mercy.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Verses 24 – 25a)

Paul does seem to have placed himself in a muddle, and we as readers battle to find understanding, and then battle to find our way through it. But you know, beloved reader, there is an easier way. Just follow the example of Christ, and take your guidance from the Lord God. And depend on the mercy and grace that is ours. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 8 [13]) : The Epistle Passages – Paul discerns between law and grace

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.
No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:12 – 14)

On the one hand, Paul (the attributed writer of Romans) is a stickler for details and all things proper and in order; he rarely allows any wiggle room on any issue. On the other hand, he is such a idealist! Now, if he means that sin will no longer hold us back from unity with the Lord God because our sins have been and will be absolved, then I would agree. But the issue of whether sin has control over us in as far as our actions, that is a tougher one to figure out. My favorite commentator, Barnes, said it was Paul’s aim not to appeal to law and legalistic reasoning to avoid and stay away from sin. But to appeal to the human conscience and convictions under the terms of grace. Perhaps that law invites to skirt it or defy it, thereby leading to sin. But grace understands and forgives so there is no need to defy authority.

Paul then goes on to ask a familiar question . . . .

“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Verse 15)

“Me genioto” which in the ancient Greek means “by no means!”

Again, grace does not encourage acting out but in fact gives reason not to challenge the Divine but to comply with the Divine’s guidance. At least, that is Paul’s reasoning. He goes on to explain how grace has hold of us.

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Verses 16 – 18)

I really wonder sometimes what Paul would make of our modern world. Which side of him would be more forthright: the legalist who expected that every part of wise Christian living would be adhered to; or the pleader of grace and mercy, under which he placed himself.

“I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Verses 19 – 23)

Things were so clear to Paul; good and evil, sin and righteousness, grace and law. We live in a world, beloved reader, that is filled with murkiness, gray areas, and half truths that bleed into both pure truth and clear evil. And let’s not forget “fake news” and other the other derivatives of that. Maybe we need a little “Paul” to clear away the uncertainties. But, if we need a little Paul, we need a whole lot of Jesus! And I would say, that sounds like the correct kind of proportions! Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 6 [11]) : Epistle Passage – The Beginning of Faith

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)

Boasting – it is not something that you would expect a believer in God to do. We are exhorted to be humble, not bragging about our accomplishments according to worldly measures but claiming only that which we need for belief. But we stake a claim in having salvation from God based on Jesus Christ’s actions for us and our belief in that. So yes, we can confidently state that God is our side because we have stated we are on God’s side. But the writer of Romans does not stop there.

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Verses 3 – 5)

It is not that the writer of Romans (okay, Paul) is wrong, nor that he does not have correct the progression of suffering to hope. But who amongst us can claim the type of suffering that Paul went through. For that matter, it is a select group who can claim suffering because of their faith in the Lord. Not suffering because of worldly events, but suffering because we hold firm against oppression and persecution as a result of our faith.

But should we wish suffering upon ourselves? Should we invite suffering to prove the depth of our convictions? Should we twist the events that life brings up and mold them into suffering so we can claim allegiance with those who have suffered for their faith? And just how much “general” suffering do we have to go through before it is enough to gain us admittance to the group of those who have suffered while professing faith in God. Because this blog reaches nations other than the US I cannot know for sure that there are readers who have not suffered for their faith. If so, they are among the select group I mentioned above. And I honor them.

But just as I think we have not part or claim to what Paul is talking about, I read the next verses.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Verses 6 – 8)

And suddenly we are part of the group that Paul is talking about! Yet it does not really make us feel much better, does it? Be grouped together with “sinners” who have so completely drenched themselves in sin that it is only because of Jesus Christ’s grace, benevolence, and mercy that we have any hope of forgiveness.

Paul’s writings can be bitter pills to swallow. Fortunately we do have the grace of God to help us accept forthright writings from Paul. And Paul is not the only person who speaks about following the Lord God and Jesus Christ. Where Paul invokes stern faith and expectations, others give compassion and unconditional acceptance. And finally, beloved reader, let me reiterate where Paul started out, that it is the unconditional love and acceptance of the Divine that anchors our hope. Selah!

Holy Week – Wednesday: The Gospel and Epistle Passages – Hope is Nigh

We approach this gospel passage sort of backwards. Tomorrow we read the first part of chapter 13 in the gospel of John. Today, we are focusing on the portion of the passion where Jesus singles out Judas.

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples–the one whom Jesus loved–was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:21 – 25)

Who is it? Who do we point the finger at? Who is guilty of turning against God and the Messiah Jesus Christ? Who has acted contrary to authentic Christian living?

You see, once you start asking the broader questions, Judas’ guilt starts to look like other sinful behavior. I am not sure if that is a good thing . . . . . or not. Many tend to have a “superior attitude” towards Judas’ sin. They think, I would never betray the Master like that. But that is a journey onto a slippery slope.

“Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” (Verses 26 – 27)

Now the writer of the gospel of John gives Judas an exit plan. It was not truly Judas the follower of Jesus who betrayed him, but Judas who allowed Satan to influence his choices. But again, I caution you gentle reader, do not think you are immune to the influence of evil and really bad choices. The influence of evil was with Adam and Eve in the garden, and they did not ignore it. Why should we suppose that hundreds of generations down humanity is resistant to that influence. And in the same way, we now are not any more resistant. I am not talking about at in individual level, but humanity as a whole. Yes, sin is wide spread throughout humanity but each of us has a thresh-hold where we do and do not go astray.

“Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” (Verses 28 – 30)

No one but the Divine knows completely what is in our hearts. What our intent is, and what our thresh-hold of sin resistance is. I do not know yours, beloved reader, and you do not know mine. In the same way, you do not know what I need to be forgiven for, and I don’t know what you need to be forgiven for. The truth and hope that we carry with us is that Jesus and our Lord God has forgiven us. Beloved reader, even Judas is forgiven.

“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” (Verses 31 – 32)

It is Wednesday of Holy Week. The week is half gone, depending on when you read this. We turn our attention now to the latter part of the week, and the events that are to come. In the first Holy Week, the hope of forgiveness is not quite there yet; hoped for, but not quite realized. By the time Paul writes, however, our hope has come. Let us endure through the next few days then, knowing that the greatest event that humanity might know about is just a few days away.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

 

Liturgy of the Palms: The Gospel Passage – Following in Jesus’ footsteps, wherever they may lead

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” (Matthew 21:1 – 3)

I am sitting here, late at night, pondering these verses from Matthew chapter 21. I am thinking also of the question I posed yesterday: how far should we take our emulating Jesus Christ? Set aside for a moment the fact that we are looking at one of the two Palm Sunday passages rather than the passages concerning the Passion of Christ. For they speak of one and the same Jesus Christ. Do we have the foresight to know what will happen, enough to say go to this place and avail yourself of such a thing using based on the the authority of our identity? Most likely not.

Perhaps, beloved reader, this is not the time either to consider to what extreme we should emulate Jesus Christ. But it is exactly the time (or a little earlier) that yesterday’s passage from Philippians was referring to. Should we set aside the question for a longer time? No, I think not.

“This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Verses 4 – 5)

Should we have been taking notes earlier in Jesus’ ministry as to what and how to emulate Jesus? Most likely.

“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Verses 6 – 9)

In my reading of the bible, and the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, I always know that by this point the events have taken on a life of their own. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem so adorned, or unadorned as the prophecies take pains to point out, portents the end of the story. In mounting the donkey/colt, Jesus is taking one more step and large step to his crucifixion.

“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Verses 10 – 11)

Whatever lessons in our living our lives that we were supposed to learn are over. Now we see how and to what lengths the Messiah is going to go in sealing and searing those lessons in our being. And that . . . . that extremism is a lesson in and of itself. Up to now it has been “be nice”, “do good things”, “turn the other cheek”, “think not of self but of others”, and other Christian adages and guidelines. But at this juncture and from this point on, it is a commitment to the way we are supposed to live. A commitment that must be kept no matter the consequences. And that, beloved reader, might just be what the writer of Philippians (Paul) had in mind. We are not Christ. We can try to follow in his footsteps, but at some point the “Divineness” of the gets beyond our abilities. But we can have the same commitment to living an authentic Christian life as the authentic Christ did. Selah!