Category: Romans

God’s Irrevocable Covenant – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11A (Romans 11)

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion — Art Institute of Chicago


Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 New Revised Standard Version

11 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. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.  

29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

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  O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?” 

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.  (Rom. 11:33-36).

 

Proclaiming Good News and Making Confession of Faith – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10A (Romans 10)

Romans 10:5-15 New Revised Standard Version
 

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 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). 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. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 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. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 

14 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? 15 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!”

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                It’s done differently in different faith communities, but if we’re part of a faith community at some point in our lives we’ll be asked to confess our faith. It might be during baptism or confirmation. It might take place weekly in worship as communities recite one of the creeds. Even in non-creedal churches, like mine, we still find ways of confessing our faith in God. It could be in our hymns, our prayers, or in our sharing at the table.

In the reading from Romans 10, which is designated for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14A), reference is made to both the confession of faith and its proclamation. Both of these actions require, words spoken either in a confession of faith or in the proclamation of that faith. The reading opens with a reference to Moses, righteousness, and the Law. Paul is in the midst of a lengthy section of his letter dealing with the Law, which he contrasts with faith. He’s concerned about the fact the majority of his fellow Jews haven’t had a “come to Jesus” moment. He suggests that they have embraced righteousness that comes through the Law, but he wants them to embrace righteousness that comes through faith.

Paul is focused on a righteousness that comes through faith. That concern leads to this word about confession. He takes up a quotation from Deuteronomy 30:14, as the springboard for what follows: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” With that reference in mind, I want to move to references here to confession and proclamation. Again, whatever we say here has to stay clear of supersessionism. Paul has concerns about his own people, but we shouldn’t take up that part of Paul’s concerns. For Paul, the righteousness that comes through faith is available to everyone.

With the reference to Deuteronomy 30 that speaks of the word that is on our lips and in our heart, which is the “word of faith that we proclaim,” we hear that if we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead we will be saved. That is the starting point. This confession is a bit more detailed than Peter’s confession in Matthew 16, but it’s similar.

Salvation, according to Paul, requires a heart-felt confession of faith in Jesus. It begins with a public confession of faith in Jesus, whom we proclaim as Lord. Even non-creedal communities make this creedal confession. But, it’s not enough to recite words. We have to take them to heart. He’s not interested in what is called a cultural Christianity that is only skin deep.  Thus, to confess Jesus as Lord is to say that he defines who we are in relationship to God and one another. What does this mean? suggests that for Paul the focus will move from watching the boundaries to living out of the center. She writes:

The Christian faith creates an entirely new geometry. The circle of believers that was once defined by its boundaries, the law, is now defined by its center, Christ. The attention to who is in and who is out is no longer the focus. Rather the focus is on the One who calls and claims, redeems and loves. We are called to start in the center and live as though the circle is infinite—which, of course, it is.  [Martha Highsmith, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, p. 328].

To live from the center doesn’t make the life of faith any easier than living with an eye to the boundaries, it simply changes the focus.

While Paul is often portrayed as a rather narrow figure, if we pay attention to his words, he is focused not on exclusion but inclusion. Notice that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. Those boundaries have been removed so that the two can come together as one body. If we listen closely to this word, we likely will hear voices of dissension within the community. The concern here might be the integration of Jew and Gentile Christians. We know from elsewhere, including Galatians, that Paul is dealing with this challenge. So, he wants to move the focus from the externals to Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.

In our day we continue to struggle with inclusion. Our churches remain segregated along racial/ethnic lines. We remain divided along theological lines as well. The Eucharistic Table, which should be a place of inclusion remains a place where not all Christians are yet able to gather. We’ve discovered that true unity as Christians is difficult to achieve and maintain. It will remain a challenge until we have faced the realities of our world. Until we affirm the premise that Black Lives Matter, we cannot truly say that All Lives Matter. For we who are white and inhabit predominantly white churches, the same is true of our LatinX, Asian, and LGBTQ siblings. Let us then take to heart Paul’s declaration that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

As we sort out these realities, seeking to live into the center, we hear a call to proclaim the news about Jesus. After all, “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?” (Rom 10:14). Then comes word to the church, how will they hear if no one is sent out to proclaim the good news? To top it off, Paul draws a word from Isaiah 52:7, though he edits it for his purposes, to speak of the beauty of the feet of those who proclaim the good news. This leads to a further question, what does mission look like in the twenty-first century? How do we proclaim the good news that focuses more on dialog than conversion, especially when it comes to Jewish Christian relations? Sarah Heaner Lancaster suggests that “dialogue allows Christians to bear witness to faith in Jesus Christ as we explain what we understand to be the significance of Jesus for ourselves and the world, but such witness is made without a feeling of superiority or attempts to coerce belief. Dialogue also requires listening to Jews express their own convictions and insights. It includes being willing to listen as pain and fear from centuries of persecution or personal discrimination are expressed” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 181].  In this, there is good news!

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

An Elect People — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Romans 9)

Romans 9:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 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. 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.

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                This reading from Romans is a bit truncated. It starts with a lament and concludes with a word of thanksgiving, but it feels like something is missing. It feels like there is more to this story than has been revealed in these opening lines of chapter nine. The truth is, there is more to the story. This is the opening paragraph of a conversation about the relationship of the emergent Christianity with its Jewish parentage. It is the kind of reading that lends itself to supersessionism. So, we must tread carefully.

                If we remove verses 1-3, we celebrate Israel’s chosenness. To Israel belongs adoption, glory, covenants, the law, worship, promises patriarchs. Indeed, even the Messiah (the Christ) belongs to Israel, at least according to the flesh. So, blessed be God. If this is true, then why is Paul expressing his great sorrow and anguish? If we follow the story into verse six, we get a sense of why he might be filled with sorrow. Though Israel is the elect of God, not all Israelites belong to Israel. That is, Paul is suggesting that spiritual descent, rather than physical descent is what counts in determining whether one belongs to Israel.  “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants” (Rom. 9:8). Here is where the trouble begins, at least for interpreters of Paul’s Roman letter.

                We need to read these verses with the larger context of Romans 9-11 in mind. Paul is grieving because his people, Israel, did not fully embrace Jesus as Messiah. At points in these chapters, it may appear that Paul is suggesting that God has abandoned the original covenant. While he gives that impression at points, in the end, he is clear that the covenant is everlasting (Rom. 11:29). Nevertheless, there is a lot of turmoil yet to be experienced.

Truth be told, these are difficult chapters to interpret, which means there is a lot of room for misinterpretation and misapplication, including support for anti-Judaism and antisemitism. It does appear that the rejection of Jesus as messiah has its consequences, which is why Paul is grieving. Nevertheless, in the end, Israel will be saved. We might start with the premise that while Paul heard the call to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles, he hadn’t forgotten Israel. So, he wrestles with the question of where Israel fits into this new work of God. He’s already affirmed in chapter 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Certainly, that applies to his fellow Jews (Rom 8:38-39). As Kyle Fedler notes “the key to today’s lectionary text is 9:6, which is really just a restatement of 8:38-39. Indeed, this verse is the key to Romans 9-11: ‘It is not as though the word of God had failed.’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 306]. While the reading ends with verse 5, it is wise to continue reading, to be reminded that while we may be unfaithful, God is always faithful to the covenant. We might want to think in terms here of Paul’s feelings about the reluctance of the majority of Jews to adopt his messianic vision. He believes there are consequences to this rejection of Jesus, though not eternal ones.

                So, what should we make of this reading? It is brief and a bit ambiguous. What message might it have for us? One takeaway that we must avoid is the suggestion that has plagued Jewish-Christian relations for two millennia. That suggestion is that God has rejected the Jews in favor of Christians as the new people of God. God will remain committed to the covenant whether or not the people remain faithful.

                One word we hear in these opening lines is Paul’s sense of solidarity with his people. He wished they would respond as he had, but he doesn’t separate himself from his people. He celebrates the blessings that belong to the Jewish people, including the covenant and the messiah who emerged from within this people to bless the broader world. So, we who are Gentiles can read this as a reminder that the blessings that come to us as followers of Jesus have their origins in the Jewish people, who gave us Jesus the Messiah.

                Might we, following Karl Barth, hear in this a word about the church as being counted as among the elect of God without displacing Israel? Barth suggests in his commentary that in making this statement Paul is reluctantly breaking with the Pharisees. There is a sadness here, but he is part of a new community, the church. But, perhaps the word to us, as the church is that we should not take our place in God’s realm for granted. As Barth puts it: “In so far as ‘God’ is that which we, in the company of all other men, can know and define and worship, the assertion stands. In so far,  however, as God is He that ruleth all things,  there is embedded in the assertion a doubt, nay more, a complaint and an accusation: God does not belong to the Church.” [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 339].

                Perhaps that is the word we should take to heart here, as the Church. God doesn’t belong to us. We don’t possess God. God transcends our grasp. Perhaps that means we don’t get to control access to God. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it: “God remains in control and will accomplish God’s redemptive purposes. The missional life of Christians is expressed by how we live, share, and work for justice with others who are also God’s people” [Preaching God’s TransformingJustice, p. 344]. That, I believe, is a word worth hearing!   

 

If God Is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8A (Romans 8)

Le Trinite — Cristoff Baron
Romans 8:26-39 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

26 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. 27 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. 

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 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. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 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? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 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. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;

 

    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.

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                At times like this, as the entire world is enveloped by a pandemic that has affected millions, how do we pray? What words fit the occasion? As a pastor and preacher, I know I’ve struggled at times at finding the words to share in worship. When Paul wrote these words we have before us, he didn’t have a pandemic in mind. However, the words remind us that no matter our situation, the Spirit will intercede for us, using our mumbles if nothing else to speak to God. With this promise of the Spirit comes a promise—Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

                This is the third reading from Romans 8 that the Revised Common Lectionary invites us to consider. We’ve been assured that in Christ there is no condemnation. Instead, we experience freedom from sin. We’ve been assured that the suffering of the present is nothing when compared with the glory that awaits us. Now, we hear that the Spirit prays for and with us. Because God sees our hearts, God hears our prayers, even if we’re not able to articulate exactly what’s on our hearts. If you view this reading from a certain angle, with an openness to the possibility, you might see here hints of the Trinity.

                Paul speaks of the Spirit using our sighs or groans to communicate what is on our hearts, but which we can’t find the words to express. In a previous paragraph, Paul spoke creation itself groaning as it awaits its liberation, even as we groan as we await our redemption (Rom. 8:19-25). So, the thought is continued, only that now we know that the Spirit groans along with creation and God’s people as we await the revelation of God’s future for us. This reference in Romans 8:26, which suggests that when we, in our weakness, can’t find the words to pray, has been interpreted in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles as a reference to the gift of tongues or as it’s sometimes described—a prayer language. While Paul likely, in my estimation, doesn’t have this idea in mind, the concept of a prayer language, as I was taught it in my Pentecostal experience does make sense [on the gift of tongues or glossolalia, see my book Unfettered Spirit, pp. 122-126].

                The promise of the Spirit’s act of intercession leads to another promise, and that for those who love God, things will work out for the best. In making this claim Paul brings in the word predestine when it comes to those who will love God. That is, God directed that those who embraced the call would be conformed to the image of Christ so that Christ might be the firstborn of a large family. As we discovered in the previous reading, we have an inheritance, together with Jesus, for we are children of God by adoption (Rom. 8:14-17). This word about foreknowledge and calling serves as a sign of God’s initiative in the process of salvation. God makes the first move in Christ. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes: “Paul’s remarks about predestination are words of encouragement to the recipients of this letter that God would, in fact, bring the goodness of salvation out of their suffering. Paul is not speaking here of predestination as determinism of all events. Nor is he speaking of any theories of predestination that developed much later (such as eternal decrees)” [Lancaster, Romans, Belief, p. 150]. In other words, Paul isn’t a Calvinist. What Paul is focused on here is God’s initiative and faithfulness to the purpose of salvation, which in 2 Corinthians 5:17ff, he defined in terms of reconciliation. One can, regarding salvation, envision as did Origen, that this involves some form of universal salvation. For those of us who operate from a more open and relational perspective, the way forward lies open, though God will remain committed to the reconciliation of all things. Thus, as Karl Barth suggests, those whom God calls, God foreordains to be conformed to the image of Christ. The way I read Barth’s reading of Paul, is that God has disclosed that those who love God will take up their calling to “bear witness to the death of Jesus and consequently to his resurrection” [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 323].

                That leads us to Paul’s next point: “if God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31 CEB). Since God risked God’s own son to reach us, then who can bring a charge against God’s people. The one who was crucified and raised serves as our defense attorney. Since this is true, nothing can separate us from Christ’s love, not “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (Rom 8:35). Paul draws from Psalm 44:22, to speak of the threat of death that faces the people of God, but victory is assured. This assurance, at least as I read the text is not based on a deterministic understanding of reality, where God orchestrates things. No, it is because God will not give up the cause. God in Christ perseveres. Therefore, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not death or life. Not angels or rulers. Not present things or future things. No form of power or anything created can separate us

                Living in and through difficult circumstances always raises questions about the nature of faith and even the existence of God. Paul’s response is simply this, while suffering may occur, God goes with us. The short term may involve suffering, but in the long term, we will be more than conquerors. That is because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In this, there is hope, “for if God is for us, who can be against us.”  

Note on the image: the artist, Cristoff Baron had a series of pieces, this being one of them, which I viewed while visiting the Strasbourg Cathedral of Notre Dame in France (September 2019). 

 

Claiming Our Inheritance – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7A – Romans 8

Claiming Our Inheritance – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7A – Romans 8

Romans 8:12-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 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. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 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!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 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. 

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 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. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 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. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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                In movies and TV dramas, the reading of the will is always a moment of tension. What will I get? Will I be included or excluded? If you saw the recent movie Knives Out, the drama is centered on the inheritance (spoiler alert—people get murdered because of the inheritance). Of course, an inheritance can lead to blessing, if it’s shared. But the reading of the will does suggest a moment of transition. Whatever the outcome, one’s life will be different!

                Here in Romans 8, Paul speaks in near-apocalyptic terms of the prospect of moving from the present age into the future age. While the current age involves suffering, the coming age will provide freedom from suffering—both for the children of God and for creation itself. That future hope, in Paul’s terms, involves glory. This is the inheritance promised to God’s children.

According to Paul, if we are in Christ, something he’s been developing throughout the letter to the Romans, then we are children of God. Here in the reading for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, we continue our reading of Romans 8. Paul begins by contrasting the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit, which he had explored in the opening verses of the chapter. Paul is concerned that his readers embrace the way of the Spirit, rather than the flesh. If we live according to the Spirit, then we will experience life and not death. Here in our reading, Paul reaffirms the relationship of the Christian to the Spirit. If we are led by the Spirit, then we are children of God, literally sons of God (in verses 14-15, whereas Paul switches to the inclusive tekna in verses 16-17). It is a status that we share with Jesus the Son of God (Rom. 8:3). As such, we are no longer slaves to fear, for we are children of God by adoption.

                That word adoption is key here. In the Roman world, adoption was a common method of passing on an inheritance. Julius Caesar adopted Octavian (Augustus) as his heir, and Octavian used that adoption as the foundation for his claim to leadership in Rome. The same was true of Tiberius, who was adopted by Augustus (and on it goes). And, one could be adopted out of slavery (remember Ben Hur?). The reader would have understood the importance of adoption. So, having been adopted into the family of God, we can call out “Abba! Father!” This we do through the witness of the Spirit of God.

Since we have been adopted by God as God’s children, that makes us heirs of God, together with Jesus, whom we confess to be the Son of God. Note that Paul reminds the reader that if we are joint-heirs with Jesus, we shall likely share in his suffering. In making this point, Paul reminds us that to be in Christ does not free us from suffering, for Jesus himself suffered. Karen Chakoian writes that suffering is not to be seen as divine punishment or a sign of divine absence (something to remember in this time of pandemic). Thus, “suffering in no way negates the glory, truth, and promise of the resurrection. Rather, suffering offers evidence that these Christians are in fact already united with Christ” [Feasting on the Word, p. 259]. With this in mind, they can affirm that the inheritance (glory/salvation) is greater than the suffering.  So, while once we were enslaved, now we are children of God through adoption, and therefore, we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. Here is how Karl Barth describes this reality, in relationship to Abraham.

Like Abraham (iv.13), we are heirs of the promise, heirs of the world which God has blessed and made good, heirs of the eternal life and being and having and doing of God Himself, which, because of sin, had become invisible and indescribable, unreal and impossible. Living in the flesh, we await and hope for resurrection, we await our body with its new predicates. Of this hope our present life is the reflection, impress, and witness. Pledged to hope, our life finds there its goal. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 300].

 

Therefore, let us claim our inheritance, as heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Jesus, and live accordingly.

                As heirs with Jesus, we know that living with and for him, may include suffering. But this suffering, Paul suggests does not compare with the future glory that awaits us as we inherit eternal life. But we are not alone in awaiting the fruit of our inheritance. According to Paul, creation itself awaits the opening and reading of the will (to use my opening analogy). Creation, Paul tells us, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19). Indeed, creation, which has been subjected to futility is groaning in anticipation of its liberation. In other words, even as we are redeemed, so will creation be redeemed. In this age of debate over climate change and its related environmental challenges, it is a good reminder that God is concerned not only about humans, but creation itself. This suggests a symbiotic relationship between us as children of God and the broader created order.

                When we read Paul here, we need to use our imagination so we can envision the cosmic nature of God’s relationship with creation. Yes, God is concerned about us, and about the world we live in, but as our minds stretch to take in the larger universe, we need to consider how God might embrace the universe as a whole. I’m enough of a science fiction fan to consider the possibility that we’re not alone in the universe. So, how might the larger universe await the revealing of the children of God? In this regard, what is the expectation for the future? How might the hope of glory be revealed, which includes, according to Paul, the redemption of our bodies? It is in this spirit that we wait, patiently, for the reading of the will so we can claim our inheritance.

 

Picture Attribution: Fowler, John. Rising Star, Milky Way, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56313 [retrieved July 12, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Milky_Way_-_28_June_2014.jpg.

Freedom in the Spirit – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6A (Romans 8)

Romans 8:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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. 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. 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. 

 

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. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

 

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                The Second Reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is something of a reprise of the reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. That reading focused only on verses 6-11, so when we visited that reading we didn’t hear the opening word of the chapter, which pronounced a not guilty verdict on those who are in Christ Jesus. That is, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The slate has been wiped clean. This is good news. It suggests we get to start life anew. That is because, in Christ, the Spirit of life has set us free from the spirit of sin and death. But, we need to be careful with what we do with this pronouncement. It’s not a perpetual get of jail card that we can use to do as we please. That would involve giving free rein to our own worst instincts, which is something Paul or Jesus would want us to do.

                When I wrote my reflection on Romans 8:6-11 for Lent, we were in the early stages of a pandemic that continues to this day. It appeared on March 24th. We knew that something big was happening, but we didn’t know what the future held. We hoped that we could be back to full strength for Easter Sunday. That was not to be, and as we pass the 4th of July weekend, cases are surging once again across the country. As we face this ongoing reality, what word might Paul have for us?

While Paul doesn’t directly address the pandemic, he does suggest that there is a path that leads to life and one that leads to death. We can think in spiritual terms only, but I think we might miss something if we only think in terms of the afterlife.  It’s good to know that when we stand before the judgment seat of God we can turn in our not guilty card. But what about the life and death issues that face us each day during this pandemic? When I consider this question, I need to confess that I live a fairly sheltered life. I live in a suburban community that has a low number of cases and deaths. But the city of Detroit, which lies just ten miles to the south from my house, has been hit hard, with African Americans suffering the greatest numbers of cases and deaths.

As I ponder these realities, I wonder about the choices we face. Like I said, I can live my life fairly safely. I can control my interactions with the public, unlike my brother who works in a grocery store or the folks that work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other similar places of work. Then there all the first responders, who also put themselves in danger. They have fewer choices because their jobs are risky. But whatever situation we find ourselves, we can consider the choice between the Spirit of life and the spirit of death. Paul speaks of either having a mindset on the flesh or one set on the Spirit. The choice is ours. I think it’s interesting that the Common English Bible uses the word selfishness where the NRSV uses flesh. While I don’t want to press this too far, could we be indulging the flesh if we refuse to wear masks and keep our distance from one another? On the other hand, might we exhibit our connection to the Spirit of life when we wear masks as a sign of our love of neighbor? Again, I realize I’m reading something into the text, but there are times when we simply need to take every opportunity to address the challenges of our day.

Even as we come to terms with the pandemic, we are also facing the reality that our nation’s history has a very problematic underside that is rooted in white supremacy and racism, which is America’s original sin. So, I want to add into the mix here this word I encountered reading James Baldwin for the first time. In a letter to his nephew, Baldwin writes:

 This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. [Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (p. 7). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

So, what might Paul have to say to us about the lingering legacy of slavery in the United States? How is it an expression of the law of sin and death, which we’ve been able to eradicate from our land? Paul does suggest that Jesus came into the world to deal sin and death a blow, by taking on sinful flesh. This is the good news. The bad news is that Christians, including me, find it difficult to live into that good news.

                It should be noted, that when Paul speaks here of the Law, he doesn’t have the Torah in mind. He’s speaking more generally of the values that are expressions of the spirit of death. To be in Christ is to have broken free of that law, but we have take hold of that offer so that we might participate in Jesus’ act of taking on sinful flesh so that sin might be dealt its own death blow.

                The call here is to live according to the Spirit, who brings life. Paul invites us to set our minds on the things of the Spirit and not the things of the flesh (and flesh he doesn’t mean the body, but the passions that lead us away from the things of God). So, what are we talking about here? We might think in terms of arrogance, narcissism, and similar passions. These are rooted in living our lives outside of a relationship with God. In fact, the flesh is hostile to God and the things of God. If we define God in terms of love, then it’s hostility to the love of God and others. So, getting back to the pandemic, might we think of wearing a mask as an act of love that reflects our relationship with the Living God. After all, we know that wearing a mask can deter the spread of the virus. So why do many people, including Christians vociferously object to wearing a mask? This includes preachers! Since this is true, it should not surprise us that churches that have flouted the rules have spread the virus. All this has been done in the name of “religious freedom,” though I think this is more about flesh (selfishness—CEB) than the Spirit. This is especially true since this can lead not only to spiritual death but physical death.

             When it comes to freedom, there is a sense of limits. As we consider this message from Paul, to whom do we owe our allegiance? Who/what has dominion in our lives? The choice is ours. We can give our allegiance to the Spirit or the flesh. One way leads to life and the other to death. May live in the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, and gives life to our mortal bodies. That is true freedom!

Resurrection of the Dead, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57310 [retrieved July 5, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plaque_resurrection_dead_VandA_M.104-1945.jpg.

 

Why Do I Do These Things? — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5A (Romans 7)

Rembrandt, Apostle Paul
Romans 7:15-25a  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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                Why do I do these things? Why can’t I seem to do what is right? Right now the issue of racism is raging across the globe as we reckon with continuing reports about profiling and police violence against people of color, especially people who are black. Names such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain have become part of our consciousness. While we speak of “Black Lives Matter,” we also are facing the issue of whiteness as an ideology. That is, the ideology that white Euro-American culture is superior to other cultures, and that white people are genetically superior as well. It is in this context that we hear Paul ask why he does that which he hates. He attributes it to the sin that dwells within him.

                We can debate whether sin is genetically or socially determined, but whichever choice we make, it does seem that Paul is correct that sin is a problem. Living under the dominion of sin is, Paul noted in chapter six, deadly. However, to live under Christ’s dominion leads to life (Rom 6:23). The promise of baptism is freedom from sin, but Paul recognizes that even he struggles with the power of sin. He’s no Vulcan who has learned to suppress his passions with logic. These passions that drive behavior live too close to the surface and are difficult to control.

                To affirm the premise that sin exerts power over our lives, even when we resist, doesn’t mean we’re totally depraved or unable to do anything good. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, this is about human nature. Instead, it is a question of where sin resides and exercises control. That is the self. It is like a virus that has taken root in our lives, driving our behavior in ways that are contrary to our nature. In fact, as Lancaster points out, for Paul sin resides closer than the good, which is why it has so much power. [Romans, pp. 127-128].

                In his discussions of law, the problem isn’t with Jewish law. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The problem is with the will not being strong enough to live according to these instructions. Concerning the definition of sin, it’s not really about breaking rules. Instead, it is a distortion of our relationship with God. It is a turning from centering our lives in God to centering our lives in ourselves. Thus, as Harold Masback writes: “The very turn to self-assertion unleashes a ‘fleshliness,’ the self’s insatiable desire to secure its own acceptability through acquisition and possession rather than through trust in God’s love” [Masback, Feasting on the Word, p. 209]. As Paul reflects on his situation in life, he confesses to being conflicted. He would like to do otherwise but seems unable to do so. Now, if we’re not inclined to do what is right, then there is no conflict. The conflict comes into play when we desire to do what is right and find sin overpowering that desire. The only way out is grace. It is grace that overcomes the power of sin so that we might live into God’s desires for us.

                In our day we are beginning to recognize that sin is not only personal it can be systemic. Racism is systemic. We’re not born racist, but the system quickly forms us. Before we know the difference between ourselves and others, the virus has begun to spread. Thus, as Sarah Lancaster points out “recognizing this problem helps us see how deeply conflicted we really are and how thoroughly dependent on grace we must be.” [Romans, p. 130].

                The title of Kerry Connelly’s book speaks to the dilemma we’re facing as believers. The book is titled Good White Racist? How can I be a racist and be a good person? Connelly writes that “We hid from our own shadow side, unable to hold the paradox that as generally good people, we can do incredibly bad things” [Good White Racist? p. 11]. That’s the point Paul is making. Good people can do bad things. This is true even when we want to be different. I look at myself. I am committed to being anti-racist. My denomination provides anti-racism training, which I’ve taken. As chair of our Commission on Ministry, I require it of my colleagues, both new and old. I know better, and yet I see evidence that racism is lurking just under the surface. It’s present in the form of implicit bias. It’s present in the sense of white superiority. It’s present in white privilege.

                Paul’s discussion of sin has long been problematic for liberal Protestant Christians. We want to believe that if we educate ourselves, we will reach that utopian place of justice and peace. It’s enticing. I want to affirm it, but then I hear a voice like that of Reinhold Niebuhr, who pulls the rug out from my illusions. In Moral Man inImmoral Society, Niebuhr writes that “while it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible to grant to others what they claim for themselves” [Niebuhr, Moral Man in Immoral Society, p. 3].  He notes that educators have “given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise.” [Niebuhr, p. 3]. But, there’s no evidence that this true. Instead, he suggests that the only way forward is through some form of coercion. That goes against the grain of my own theology, which suggests that divine love if it is truly love, is non-coercive. It does put me in a bind.

                Paul has put his finger on our dilemma. He raises questions that I’ve yet to fully find answers to. Perhaps the place to start is to recognize that the challenges we face are rooted in spiritual realities. We find it difficult to tackle the problems of our age because we believe that with a bit of education, we can overcome them. The fact is, literacy and education are universal in the United States, but we still can’t figure out how to overcome racism or provide for the common welfare of all residents. So, maybe we need to look at this from a spiritual perspective. In other words, perhaps the issue isn’t the law, it’s our personal and corporate enslavement to the power of sin, which has taken root in our lives. We claim for ourselves freedom, but are we truly free? So, perhaps racism is itself an inherently spiritual issue. Perhaps the very systems in which we live are spiritually compromised. It’s in that context that together with Paul we can cry out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (vs. 24). Perhaps the answer is to be found in that declaration of thanksgiving that Paul provides us: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vs. 25a). This is a recognition on Paul’s part that he can’t save himself. He needs help, and Jesus is there to provide it. Just reach out and take hold of the promise. That may seem like a copout, but perhaps it is the starting point for change. As they say in Twelve-Step programs change begins when we admit we have a problem we can’t solve on our own.


Picture attribution: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Apostle Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55240 [retrieved June 28, 2020]. Original source: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=1198.