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!

Advertisements

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!

Fifth Sunday of Lent: The Epistle Passage – The bringing of life in the Spirit

Think of this as the “antidote” passage to yesterday’s theme of bringing those “dead” & dried up back to life!

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
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.” (Romans 8:6 – 8)

What the writer of Romans (Paul) meant was that thinking of earthly and/or worldly concerns is wrong thinking. I was just teasing about above! The Ezekiel passage was not concerned with the living body as much as it was concerned about hope in God and faith in God’s nature. And really, what was being revived with the spirit. Remember in the passage from Ezekiel that the body was nothing without the spirit within. And human spirit is called out/by/to Divine Spirit.

“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. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (Verses 9 – 10)

What Ezekiel prophesied for the nation of Israel, Paul proclaims as belonging to all people.

“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.” (Verse 11)

Now, despite what theology Paul might have put forth, we cannot be sure what it means for us to be given life in our mortal bodies. My “friend” Albert Barnes believes this means that the body which is by its nature sinful can be redeemed to be in service to God. Other commentators tend toward the resurrection or life after death theory/theology; maybe more of the Ezekiel-type reanimation.

As for, I just thought it made a good pairing after the Old Testament passage. But I do believe that the Spirit of the Lord God can live through and direct our spirit. Imperfect we may be, and we may not 100% authentically do everything God would have us do. But we can give our will and free choice over the Divine and live according to those precepts. Selah!


Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Gospel Passage – The Coming of the Light

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” (Ephesians 5:8 – 9)

“Live as children of light” – there are so many interpretations , good interpretations, that can be made of this. The first of which is, behave yourselves. Second, believe that you are “children of light” and find comfort in that; that you are forgiven, blessed, and loved. Third, live unconcerned about what will happen to you and how you will manage, because as children of light your needs will be taken care of by the Source of All Light. I’m not sure if the writer of Ephesians, Paul, meant all that. But I do.

“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Verses 10 – 14)

Imagine, beloved reader, everything that has been done and said will be seen. Everything! The writer of Ephesians, Paul, does not state explicitly how this happens, or at least it does not seem to be directly and openly stated. But I will.

The more shameful and sinful an action or statement is, the more the perpetrator will try to hide or disguise it. Beware, however, of those who do not try to disguise their terrible actions or statements. Flee from them! But, I start to digress. The deeper the shame and sin is hidden, the more likely our Lord God and Jesus Christ, and the gospel, is to disclose and reveal it. And when it disclosed and reveal and the perpetrator is unrepentant, the graver the consequences.

This process is part of the journey of Lent. We willingly disclose and reveal where we have gone wrong. The Divine grieves and mourns our missteps, and gives us reassurance that our repentance will be meet with Divine grace. It makes no sense, beloved reader, to hide what is shameful; it will be brought to let. Better for us to reveal it to the Divine and be in line for mercy and grace than to try to hide it.


May the Lord God’s mercy and grace be yours in abundance – greater abundance then your need! Selah!