Category: Romans

Reckoned as Righteous – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2B (Romans 4)

Romans 4:13-25  New
Revised Standard Version

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

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                How might a person be reckoned as righteous? Is it by faith or by keeping the law? Is it even possible to keep the law so as to be judged righteous before God? And what does being so reckoned lead to? According to Paul, it may have something to do with the inheritance given to Abraham and his descendants. What would that be? According to Paul, that inheritance given to Abraham and his heirs is the world (Rom. 4:13). To suggest that it is through the law, again according to Paul, would make faith null and void. Therefore, the inheritance must be an act of grace received through faith. That sounds like a message Martin Luther would embrace! The idea that we are justified by faith has been a central part of the Christian confession, but like everything in life, things are more complicated than what might be revealed in a simple slogan like sola fide, sola gratia (faith alone, grace alone).

                Here in Romans 4, Paul focuses our attention on Abraham our Ancestor, who believed God and therefore was reckoned or counted as righteous (Rom. 4:1-3; Gen. 15:6). The premise of chapter 4 is that Abraham’s relationship with God rested in God’s
grace and did not depend on his adherence to the law. If by law, one means Torah, then he would not have had that available to him, as it was revealed at Sinai. What Paul is getting at here is that Abraham’s relationship with God, a relationship that declared him righteous, which made him the recipient of God’s promise, rests on God’s grace, which Abraham received by faith. It is through faith that he and his descendants shall receive the inheritance (vs. 13). The promise that is spoken of here is summarized in a word given to Abraham by the Angel of the Lord: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). Interestingly enough, in Genesis 22, the blessing is pronounced after Abraham showed his willingness to offer Isaac, the chosen one, as a sacrifice in response to God’s request.   

                Regarding the Law, in this chapter, Paul seems rather negative. But, I wonder whether Paul should be seen as rejecting the Law. It seems to me that Paul wants to broaden the possibilities by which one is included in the covenant community. He’s concerned that the requirement to be circumcised would be a stumbling block to Gentiles (Rom 4:9-10). In Paul’s mind, Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. Circumcision was not a requirement for this declaration, but it did seal the relationship, much like baptism seals the commitment Christians make to follow Jesus. Now, it’s true that Paul did say that the law brings wrath and if there is no law there is no violation, but isn’t that a technicality? It’s like saying, if we don’t get tested for COVID-19 then we don’t have COVID. 

                If we look closely at Paul’s message, we’ll see that if received by faith, the promise is extended both to those who are adherents of the Law (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles) (Rom. 4:16). Perhaps that is the key for Paul. He is emphasizing a broader view of what it means to be a descendant of Abraham. As Paul reminds us, Abraham is not only the father of Israel but is the father of many nations. Therefore, while Israel is included in the inheritance, others are as well. That is true for both those who are adherents of the Law and those who are not. As Karl Barth writes:

Since the heirs are what they are not through the law by of faith, not as a consequence of moral and historical status but according to grace, it follows as a matter of course that participation in that company cannot be confined to those who have been made children of Abraham according to the law, cannot be limited to the historical Israel, or to those who accept a particular and definite and historical tradition and doctrine, or to those who are members of some particular ‘movement.’ Such limitation in the number heirs makes the inheritance itself more than insecure (iv. 14, 15). As the recipient of the promise, Abraham stands outside every historical and particular company of men; similarly his true seed, being the race of believers, likewise stand outside. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, pp. 138-139].  

I might be taking this a bit farther than Barth might, but it does seem to make sense that if inclusion in the family is by grace, then we might see this as broadening out beyond believers in Jesus. It is worth pondering for a moment that Muslims understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham through Ishmael. So, what does it mean for Abraham to be the father of many nations?

                I sense that Paul might take a narrower view of who is included among the heirs than I just suggested, but it’s worth pondering. For Paul, Abraham is understood to be the ancestor of those who believe and walk in faith. For Paul that involves who
“believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24-25).  Thus, in Paul’s mind, circumcision isn’t a requirement when it comes to being judged righteous (justification). Only faith is necessary. It is worth noting here that the lectionary reading from Genesis 17, stipulated for this Sunday, excludes the verses that refer to circumcision as the seal of the covenant. While the lectionary creators set aside reference to circumcision, it’s there in Genesis 17 (Gen. 17:9-14). Paul is aware of this and acknowledges it (Rom 4:11). Of course, all of this takes place before the Law is instituted at Sinai, but circumcision was instituted long before Sinai.

                Paul draws on the promise of God made to Abraham and Sarah as a foundation for the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. He suggests, again just before our reading, that Abraham is the “ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (vs. 11). While Paul doesn’t seem to have a problem with the Law as it applies to Jews, he does not see the Law as the appropriate means through which Gentiles will be included in the blessing promised to Abraham. After all, Abraham received God’s call by faith, believing that though he and Sarah didn’t have children of their own, somehow God would take care of that problem. In other words, they trusted God’s promise.

                Now, if you follow the story of Abraham, you know that Abraham did try on occasion to take matters into his own hands. Nevertheless, Paul wants to claim that the promise made to Abraham was an act of grace. Therefore, those who are considered heirs with Abraham, are recipients of the same grace. That means that Gentiles enter the covenant community that is rooted in the promise made to Abraham through faith in Jesus.

                If we read Paul here through the lens of the covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah, which is a covenant of blessing (Gen. 12, 17), then it seems right that we should embrace our place in the family with humility. After all, it is not by biological descent that we Gentiles trace our heritage back to Abraham. Rather it is through an adoption that Jesus engineered on our behalf. For that, we give thanks that by God’s grace we’ve been added to the family that inherits the earth.

A Mystery Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4B — Romans 16

Romans 16:25-27
New Revised Standard Version

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

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                Everyone loves a mystery. Mystery novels have been published for decades and continue to be popular fodder for reading. When it comes to the things of God, well there’s mystery there as well. After the age of Enlightenment dawned many sought to establish a more rational version of the Christian faith. Thus, John Locke and others spoke of a “Reasonable Christianity.” With this emphasis on reason, mystery was deemphasized, at least in mainstream Protestantism. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that with this proclamation of a reasonable Christianity, the divinity of Christ and the teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic.

                Mystical theology, of course, continued to be promulgated in some sectors of the Church, especially in the Eastern Church. Therefore, in this postmodern world, it’s not surprising that Eastern Christianity has begun to attract the attention of many who find that a rationalistic version of the faith leaves one cold. Sometimes the attraction to the mystical theology of Eastern Christianity is experiential, at other times it is the theological side of things that has proven attractive because it provides a way of embracing divine realities that lie beyond our ability to fully comprehend or explain. This is especially true for those of us who embrace doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. But, as the late Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky writes regarding the relationship of theology and mysticism: “There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.” In fact, Lossky calls mysticism “theology par excellence” [The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 9]. While I embrace the place of reason in religion, I must confess that I’m beginning to agree with Lossky.  

                With the arrival of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we reach a pivotal moment in the Advent/Christmas season. The lighting of the fourth candle invites us to enter into the mystery that is the incarnation. The season invites us to ask the question: who is this Jesus who the Gospels proclaim to have been born in Bethlehem? This is the final Sunday before we light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve to signal the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The message of the incarnation is that in this person as Jesus the “only wise God” whose presence has been shrouded in mystery has been revealed to us. Regarding the mystery of the incarnation, Gregory of Nazianzus, a leading fourth-century theologian, proclaims that “this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that is in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.” [Festal Orations, p. 63].

                This reflection on the mystery of God, as revealed in this final stage of our Advent journey is rooted in the reading from Romans 16 as stipulated for this day by the Revised Common Lectionary. This brief doxology, which closes out the letter to the Romans, may or may not be Paul’s work. Although the doxology is absent from some ancient manuscripts or appears elsewhere in the letter in still other manuscripts the doxology speaks to the good news Paul and others have proclaimed through the ages. Therefore, whether or not Paul wrote these words, they celebrate the work of God that brings salvation to Jew and Gentile.

                According to the letter, God has strengthened the readers through Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel. In preaching about Jesus, Paul has made known the “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” to the Gentiles. He has done so at the command of the eternal God so that Gentiles might be brought to “the obedience of faith.” Something similar is revealed in two other letters that may be post-Pauline—Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, we read that “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:  that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5-6, see also Col. 1:6-7).

                For Paul, God is the one who is at work to bring about this mystery. At the beginning of the letter,  Paul offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having been given the opportunity to announce the Gospel of  God’s son (Rom. 1:8-9). Now, he closes the letter with a word of thanksgiving to God for having the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. As Paul makes clear, he does this as a servant of God, who strengthens those who receive the Gospel.    

                Returning to the mystery of God that has been revealed through Paul. The word revelation there is in Greek apokalypsin. That word should look familiar because it is the foundation for words like apocalyptic.  That is the kind of vision that Paul pursues. For him, the day of the Lord was close at hand (remember that Advent envisions two advents, one in the past and one yet to come). We may be getting ready for Christmas, but that’s not what Paul has in mind here. After all, Paul never speaks of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he’s focused on the mystery that impacts the future, and which has finally been revealed. This is the mystery (mysterion) that has been disclosed/revealed after long ages through the prophetic writings to the Gentiles. This is important to Paul because he saw himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. It was his mission to bring the word of Jesus to people outside the Jewish community. He didn’t deny the revelation made known to the Jews, but now what was known to Jews could now be extended to Gentiles through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Now they too could prepare for the coming of the Lord.

                The call given to Paul is to “bring about the obedience of faith” in the Gentiles, and all of this is for the Glory of the only Wise God. The glory that emerges out of the revealing of the mystery of God to the Gentiles has eternal  ramifications. That is the mystery that has been under wraps until the coming of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Therefore, we can sing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,

and open furrows, the sowing of our God.

All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;

it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. 

[“All Earth Is Waiting,” Alberto Taulé]

     

Who Am I to Judge? Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A (Romans 14)

Who Am I to Judge? Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A (Romans 14)

Judgment Day – Aaron Douglas
 
Romans 14:1-12 New Revised Standard Version
 

14 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also, those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written, 

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,

 

    and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 

 

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 
 
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                Pope Francis raised a few eyebrows when in an impromptu conversation with the press on board his plane in 2013, he responded to a question about his view of homosexuality in the church, he simply said: “Who am I to judge?” Now, the church’s policies haven’t changed all that much, but the answer opened a conversation about who has the responsibility for judgment. Even though he’s the Pope, he declined to excise judgment in this case. For those of us who come from an open and affirming posture, this was pretty groundbreaking. The thing is, it’s to judge other people. We size each other up according to weight, height, education, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. When we do so, we often depend on stereotypes. That’s understandable. Stereotypes provide us with categories to judge whether a person is worth getting to know or can be trusted. Unfortunately, too often we both prejudge and misjudge. 

 

                The topic of judgment comes up as Paul brings his letter the Romans to a close. It’s important to remember that this a congregation that Paul not only didn’t found, but it’s one he’s never visited. This letter is intended as an introduction to the community since Paul is hoping to visit this previously established Christian community. He’s heard reports that there are dissension and division within this community of believers. While we can’t date it with certainty, a date around 57 CE would fit. So, we’re still in the early decades of the Christian community. The church is starting to attract Gentile believers, but it still has a significant Jewish component. And apparently, they’re not always on the same page, especially when it comes to issues like eating or honoring particular days.

 

One senses from reading the letter that the community is being divided over matters involving their eating habits and the celebration of certain days. If, as some believe, the Jewish and Gentile members of the community are struggling to find a place of unity, then this makes sense. Now, as to the identity of the weak and the strong, that’s uncertain. It’s quite possible that the weak are the rule followers and the strong are the less scrupulous, but we simply don’t know. There are all kinds of issues at play. Jewish Christians might be concerned about kosher rules and thus choose a more vegetarian diet, while some Gentile Christians might feel less constrained and be more likely to eat meat with abandon. Of course, as the conversation in 1 Corinthians suggests, there is the issue of where the meat comes from. Should one worry if the meat comes from a temple? Some would say yes, and others, no. In any case, as a meat-eater, I ask my vegetarian and vegan friends not to judge me too harshly, and I shall try to do the same in return!

 

Whatever the case, Paul seems to be saying to the community: “who are you to judge?” Leave the judgments in such matters to God. If some eat meat, fine. If some stick with a vegetarian diet, then that’s fine. If some observe certain holy days and others don’t, well that’s okay as well. Of course, this can make for a more complicated community dining experience. In Acts 15, the issue of Table fellowship comes up, in light of the introduction of Gentile believers into the community. The Jerusalem Council gave a word of guidance to these new communities, asking that “they abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” (Acts 15:29). Perhaps that word of guidance has fallen to the wayside as the church expands.  The concern here is finding a way of living together in peace, recognizing that people will have different understandings of certain things like food and ritual. One may fast regularly (my Muslim friend regularly fasts as an expression of his commitment to God), and others (myself numbered among them) rarely fast.

 

The issue here isn’t tolerance, as if we should agree to disagree. Paul’s concern is centered on the question of unity in Jesus Christ. For Paul, the church is the one body of Christ, so it should exhibit unity of purpose and concern for one another. That doesn’t mean we agree on every issue. But Paul does have in mind a particular temperament. It asks us to delve deeper beneath the rhetoric to the humanity of the person with whom one disagrees. It’s easy to see one’s self as pursuing a righteous cause and believing that the one we disagree with as somehow pursuing something demonic or evil. That doesn’t mean we don’t advocate strongly for our position, but it does mean recognizing the deeper humanity present in the other. Again, a stereotype is easy to make use of, but it can lead us astray. Again, that doesn’t mean we don’t stand for matters of justice. It has to do with the way we view the humanity of others and forget that they too are created in the image of God. Another way of putting this is to approach such actions with humility. As William Greenway puts it:

First and last we argue for the right and struggle for the good, not for the sake of ourselves or our own opinions or identity—or even for the sake of the church, justice, or the good—but because we are moved by love and concern for every particular other, which is to say, because in life and in death we belong to God [Feasting on the Word, p. 66].    

 

Ultimately, according to Paul, in this letter at least, we are to hold ourselves accountable to God, and God alone. After all, each of us will stand before the judgment seat of God.  Indeed, when it comes to life and death, we are reminded by Paul that we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” That is because, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” That is because Christ is Lord of the living and the dead (Rom. 14:7-9). When we think of ourselves as judges of others, our judgments tend to be rooted in self-centeredness, but Paul wants us to understand that we belong to God, in Christ, to “whom every knee will bow” so that “every tongue shall give praise to God” (Rom. 14:11, quoting Isa. 45:23). Thus, we shall be accountable to God, and God alone. Or as Karl Barth puts it:

 

Uncertain are all our questions concerning the salvation of others, whatever form our questions take; feeble are all attempts to assess the value of another’s relation to God, whether the assessment be conservative or radical. All is subject to the judgment of God. Judge Not is therefore the only possibility. And yet, even this possibility is no possibility, no recipe; it provides no standard of conduct. We have no alternative but to range ourselves under the judgment that awaits us, hoping—without any ground for our hope—for the impossible possibility of the mercy of God. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 515].

 

May we place our hope in the mercy of God and cease our attempts at usurping God’s role as judge.

 

 

 
  Image attribution: Douglas, Aaron. Judgment Day, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56259 [retrieved September 7, 2020]. Original source: Anne C. Richardson.
 

Putting On Jesus Christ – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14A (Romans 13)

 
Romans 13:8-14 New Revised Standard Version
 

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

 

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                We encounter this reading from Romans 13 amid difficult times, when politics, pandemic, and racial unrest have mixed. The verses just before our reading, verses not included in this lectionary cycle, encourage the readers to subject themselves to the political authorities because they have been instituted by God. Once upon a time, this passage was the foundation of the theory of divine right monarchy. In the seventeenth century, an alternative view of this emerged that was connected to figures such as John Locke that declared that the voice of the people was the voice of God. We still struggle to make sense of those verses. That passage ends with Paul telling the Romans to pay their taxes and give honor and respect to those to whom it is due. I’ve cut my scholarly teeth on advocates of divine right monarchy, but my political allegiance leans toward the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” position. But that’s really not the focus of our reading for Labor Day Weekend, for Paul turns the tables a bit and tell us to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” If we do this, then we fulfill the law—not the law of the land, but the law of God, which transcends the law of the land. To fulfill the law of love is to fulfill all law.

 

                Paul makes the point, which I’ve long held, that if we fulfill the command to love our neighbors, then we fulfill the second table of the Law. If you love your neighbor you won’t commit adultery, commit murder, steal, covet, or as Paul says, break any other of the commands. That’s because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” I wonder, how does this declaration fit with what went before? Paul seems to want the people who form the church to live in such a way that their behavior serves as a witness to Christ. Paul isn’t naïve. He understands the world in which he lives. He knows that the ways of Rome aren’t the ways of God’s realm. He also understands that the Jesus Movement is a small community, and so it has to navigate these realities as best they can. What they can do, however, is give evidence of the law of love. This, by itself, is subversive. Rome understands power, and its definition involves brute force.

 

                From the command to love, Paul moves into an eschatological mode, urging the readers to wake up to the moment of salvation, which is near at hand. We must remember that Paul has an apocalyptic perspective, believing that the realm of God will break in quickly, which would mean that the days of Rome’s hegemony were numbered. They were living through the darkness that is night, but the day is about to dawn. The contrast between light and darkness, night and day are prominent images in the New Testament. We see this especially in the Johannine literature, but also in Paul’s letters. In the ancient world, when a candle might be the only source of light, except on a moonlit night, people feared the darkness. Things went bump in the night, so you waited for dawn to break. In Paul’s mind it wasn’t fear of demons in the night, but rather his anticipation that day is about to dawn. So, it’s time to wake up and get ready for the coming of the Lord.

 

In our day of racial polarization, the images of light and darkness have taken on a problematic dimension. Light has been equated with whiteness, and thus light/white is understood to be good. This is unfortunate because the imagery has great power if we can remove the racialized elements. For Paul the dawn is near, and with it comes salvation in Christ. Paul encourages the readers to live honorably as in the day, and put aside the markings of the nightscape, such as reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. These are the activities of the night when good people should be at home in bed.

 

So, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Paul often speaks of the “flesh,” by which he isn’t thinking of the body itself, but the ways of the world that stand opposed to the things of God. Remember that in chapter 12, Paul urges believers to offer their bodies to God as a living sacrifice. He tells them not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:1-2). So, when he speaks of “making no provision for the flesh” he’s thinking in terms of conforming to the patterns of this present age. As proof positive, all that his readers needed to do was look around to see what was happening in the city of Rome. Yes, obey the authorities, but don’t follow the adage that “when in Rome do as the Romans do!” Instead “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). That is, put on Christ, by that Paul means giving allegiance to Christ. If we read this in light of the opening verses of chapter 13, Paul has placed the Roman authorities in their proper place, as subservient to the realm of God.

 

It is wise to heed these words at this moment in time when it is easy for us to get wrapped up in the political realm as if our political parties are ultimate. They have their place, but they are not Christ. To replace Jesus with the flag is idolatry.

 

Image Attribution: Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56412 [retrieved August 29, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/36847973@N00/3342340183.

 

Holding Fast to the Good — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13A (Romans 12)

Romans 12:9-21 New Revised Standard Version

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Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

What is the good? According to Paul, it’s rooted in love. This love is meant to be genuine. So hate what is evil, but hold on to what is good. We live in challenging times. All across the globe, the powers of division and hate are on the rise. It often takes on political dimensions, but it runs much deeper. It seems to have taken root in our souls. I notice it in myself. There is anger in the air. While that is true, it’s not the anger that’s the problem. It’s the way we experience it. When I participated in community organizing training, the trainers emphasized the importance of channeling anger against injustice toward change. That is how I read the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a call to channel anger at injustice toward changing the status quo of white supremacy. I affirm this premise, but at the same time, love must guide how we engage the world. It is the love that comes from God that enables us to channel anger against injustice toward transformation. Now, the love that is required here, the love that Paul speaks of in this passage isn’t sentimentality. If we consider the two great commandments, love of God and neighbor go together, and the love of neighbor must involve seeking justice for our neighbor.

If we look back to the reading for the previous week (Romans 12:1-8) and focus on verse 2, we will hear Paul urging us not to be conformed to the patterns of this world or present age. Instead, he urges us to be transformed by the renewing our own minds. What follows in the reading for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost is a fuller expression of what this transformed life looks like.

What Paul describes here in verses 9-21 of Romans 12 is rooted in that opening declaration. It is a continuation of his urging of the followers of Jesus to present their lives to God as a living sacrifice, which is our logikos or reasonable worship. What Paul describes here is a different way of living than prescribed by the powers that be. It is a way of living marked by love, by grace, by forbearance. It is a call for hospitality to strangers and compassion for those in need. It’s realistic and yet hopeful.

                It’s realistic in that it recognizes that some will persecute the followers of Jesus, even if at this point there wasn’t any evidence of wide-spread persecution. Some of what Paul addresses here might be more internal than external since we’ve already seen Paul address in chapters 1-11 some of the internal disputes between Jewish and Gentile believers. Who he might have in mind here is not clearly defined, but whoever is being addressed, Paul tells them not to curse their opponents. It offers a realistic picture of life, in that it recognizes that some will do evil. While this is true, we are not to return evil for evil. Instead, live peaceably with one another.

Now when Paul wrote these directives, this emerging community was a powerless minority religious community. They lacked support and sponsorship from the government. They appeared to many in their communities to be a rather strange group. They had the markings of Judaism, and yet they were different. One reason for suspicion was that they failed to observe the religious traditions of their neighbors, which made them look unpatriotic. Offering sacrifices to the local gods was the equivalent of saying the pledge of allegiance. So, it’s no wonder this community faced persecution. They were dangerous. But Paul encourages them to leave things in the hands of God. He draws from Deuteronomy 32:35, in leaving vengeance in the hands of God. He draws as well from Proverbs 25:21-22, in suggesting that if we feed our hungry enemy or give drink to the thirsty enemy, we place burning coals on the enemy’s head. We may find the reference here to vengeance to be unsettling, but we feel that need to set things right. Paul says, leave it in the hands of God.  

               It is a word of hope, hope that is rooted in a community that is defined by love. In fact, Paul encourages the community to outdo each other in showing love for one another. We all enjoy a bit of competitive spirit, so what better way than through being zealous in our service of Christ through the love of one another. If there is to be hope as we move forward through these times, it will require a sense of community, a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. Hope is found in the community we call the body of Christ. And this hope is rooted in love, which as Rochelle Stackhouse points out is “energetic and profoundly optimistic, and rather countercultural in nature.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 16].

So, how do we live out these core values in our daily lives, so that we might demonstrate what the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ really looks like? Paul closes this selection with this admonition “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Perhaps we can think here in terms of what some call spiritual warfare. As Richard Beck reminds us that if we only think in terms of social justice as an expression of God’s calling, we will miss something deeper. We miss the deeper spiritual dimensions, which is why loves is required. Beck writes that “love is what prevents the political struggle from dehumanizing and demonizing flesh and blood” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 61]. Thus, following Beck, “Spiritual warfare is putting love where there is no love. It is the action of grace in territory controlled by the devil, being true to love in a world that is cold and lonely and mean. It is the kingdom of God breaking into and interrupting our lives” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 184]. Therefore, let us hold fast to what is good, as revealed in Jesus.

Heart with Cross, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57557 [retrieved August 22, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/29807771@N02/5964131678 – liv4gss.

Transformed, Gifted, and Called to Service – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12A (Romans 12)

Romans 12:1-8 New Revised Standard Version
 
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
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                My friends, if you are followers of Jesus, present your bodies to God as living sacrifices, which is your spiritual worship. Be transformed as well by the renewal of your minds, so you can discern what is good, acceptable, and perfect. This call to offer our bodies and allow for our minds to be renewed includes the word “therefore.” In using this word, Paul seems to be telling us that what is to come is rooted in what he had written previously about God’s grace and righteousness. What is to come is rooted in Paul’s word of assurance to Gentile Christians that in Christ they get to share in the blessings that come with adoption into the family of God. So, now offer yourself to God. Make yourself useful. Think properly of yourself, because in God’s realm there’s no room for narcissism. So, think correctly of yourself and don’t be conformed to the things of this world, for you are numbered among those who have been transformed by the renewing of your minds.

                The way I read the call to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, is that Paul is reminding us that God wants our bodies as well as our minds. There might even be a bit of a warning, reminding these followers of Jesus that they might face persecution and even martyrdom as a result of their decision to follow Jesus. So, what does mean for us, living in the 21st century? How do we offer our bodies to God in a way that is an act of spiritual worship? Whatever the case, for Paul there is no distinction between the body and the Spirit, even as he reminds them and us not to be conformed to this world. As we consider Paul’s message here, it is wise to remember that he not only speaks to individuals, which is the common way for moderns to read texts like this but also to communities. Thus, as Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, the word Paul offers here applies to the whole community, which “needs to discern and to enact together the will of God” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 206].

                In considering Sarah Lancaster’s word here about the community discerning together the will of God, I’m reminded of the title of David Gushee’s important book about the inclusion of members of the LGBTQ community in our congregations. He deliberately chose the title Changing Our Mind to reflect the corporate nature of this transformative moment.  So, he writes that the reason why he uses the singular “mind” rather than the plural “minds,” “because I believe the question that matters is whether the collective mind of the Church universal can and ought to change. The issue is not whether some Christians as individuals change their minds, but whether the Church universal will or should change its mind collectively. And that takes disciplined reflection together, in community, with all hands on deck making their best contribution” [Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics,  Read the Spirit Books, (Kindle Locations 473-476)].

                If Paul is writing not just to individuals, but also to communities as a whole, we can consider together what it means to belong in a community that Paul defines in terms of a body (as he does in 1 Corinthians 12 as well). In this community, there is no room for the ego because God assigns us to our duties through gifts. Know this, that in the body not every member has the same function. To say that doesn’t mean that some functions are more important than others. It simply means that we all have different gifts that enable us to fulfill our roles in the community.

                Paul’s discussion of gifts is much briefer here than in 1 Corinthians 12, but it is sufficient for its purpose. Paul reminds us that in the community we all need each other. As a pastor, I should know this. As the author of a book on spiritual gifts, I should be even more self-aware. However, I too cannot only seem myself as indispensable but act as if everything depends on me. To embrace this message of spiritual gifts is to think “with sober judgment.”

                What is true of congregations, and our place in them, but could this be extended to the church as a whole? Might we look at our diversity in terms of worship and governance and even theology as expressions of how the body is gifted and called? Therefore, we needn’t compete with each other. As one who has embraced an ecumenical vision, this is a welcome idea, for as Rochelle Stackhouse suggests “To apply the words of Paul throughout this passage to each of us n our roles in the body of Christ brings us to a sobering reflection on the dysfunctional body that may impede the enactment of God’s will in the world today. Reflecting on ecumenism within Paul’s framework of body metaphor brings hope and possibility to what too often seems an enterprise fraught with struggle.” [Feasting on the Word, 378].

                Returning to our relationships within a congregation, we can also take from this a reminder that in Paul’s mind to be a follower of Jesus is not a solo activity. We’re supposed to do this thing called Christianity together. I know it’s not easy. Congregations are made up of imperfect human beings. If we look around at the gathered community, to use a different metaphor, from a Christmas TV show, the church may be similar to the “Island of Misfit Toys.” And yet, in God’s grace and wisdom, this unique collection of individuals is incorporated into the one body of Christ, which is empowered by the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12, in a lengthier conversation about spiritual gifts, Paul reminds the community that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Gifts of the Spirit are not intended for individual use. They have their place in the community, which is called to bring good news to the world.

                So, let’s use the gifts that God has given to the church: if “prophecy, in proportion to faith;  ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;  the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (Rom 12:6-8). If we include the references in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, we can expand the list. And in my estimation, and as I’ve tried to demonstrate in my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, even this expanded list doesn’t cover all the possibilities. All of this begins in God’s grace, but for it to fully express itself, we will need to offer ourselves up to God as a living sacrifice. To conclude, to gain a fuller understanding of these gifts and their role (our roles) in the body, I will recommend reading Unfettered Spirit.

               

 

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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One of the many stains on Christian history is the ongoing presence of anti-Judaism. I use this term instead of anti-Semitism because this term has racial connotations that are modern in origin. Over the years I’ve become increasingly sensitized to the legacy of anti-Jewish views in the church. We can argue whether this is rooted in the New Testament itself or its interpretation through the ages, the fact is, it continues to be present in our churches, even in scholarly efforts. The readings from Romans 9-11 allow us to reflect on this legacy. That is especially true of this reading from Romans 11, which, in my mind, makes clear that Christianity has not replaced Judaism and that God’s covenant with Judaism continues unabated. Therefore, we must repent of this legacy and seek to do everything we can to change the way we relate to the Jewish community.
In the reading from Romans 9, which we examined earlier, Paul expressed his anguish that his Jewish siblings had not embraced the message of Jesus. Even as he preached the Gospel to Gentiles, he hoped that Jews would join him. That reading can give us the impression that God had dissolved the covenant with Israel, but in today’s reading, we discover that this is a wrong impression. Paul might have wished that all Jews took up the cause of Jesus, as he had, but in the end, he must admit that God has not rejected God’s people Israel. This, Romans 11 is an important witness to God’s commitment to the covenant made first with Abraham and later with Moses.
The lectionary provides us with two excerpts from Romans 11. The first excerpt encompasses the opening verses of the chapter. Paul asks a rhetorical question: “has God rejected his people?” He answers that question in the negative by noting his own relationship to Judaism. God hasn’t rejected him, so God hasn’t rejected Israel. He lays claim to the covenant promise as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, and more specifically as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. In other words, he has done his genealogical work. He lays claim to this heritage. So, whatever happened on the road to Damascus, Paul didn’t convert from Judaism to Christianity (Christianity didn’t exist yet as a separate entity). He was a Jew both before and after that encounter with Jesus. If Paul was already intent on converting Gentiles to his vision of God, then what changed out there on the road to Damascus was his understanding of the path Gentiles would take in experiencing salvation. While Paul sees himself tasked with preaching to Gentiles, no doubt he was hoping that both Jews and Gentiles would be found in this newly emerging Jesus community. The issue isn’t whether the Torah has value. The question is whether adherence to aspects of Torah, such as circumcision was necessary for Gentile believers.
When we read Paul’s letters, we discover his dilemma. He wanted to reach Gentiles and draw them into the new community. He seems to have understood that circumcision may have impeded full conversion. So, he set it aside, though not everyone in the community agreed. Thus, in his attempts to defend himself he gave the impression that he had rejected Judaism. While there are mixed messages in his letters, Paul makes it clear in this passage that he was not rejecting his Jewish heritage. Perhaps the problem isn’t with Paul but in the way his later interpreters have read him?
As we drop down to the second part of the reading, verses 29-32, the message that Paul brings is that God’s covenant promises are irrevocable. It can’t be any clearer. That’s a message we need to hold tightly to. We should step back one verse, though to get a true sense of what Paul is doing here. In verse 28 he writes:   As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; . . . .” This word comes after Paul has already declared in verse 26 that all Israel will be saved. So, what does Paul mean here? Sarah Heaner Lancaster puts her finger on the issue at hand, pointing out that Israel can be God’s enemy and God’s beloved at the same time, because in “refusing to acknowledge the way God is working in Jesus Christ, Israel does not give honor to God, and so they are ‘enemies’ of God.”  But, because, as we read in verse 29, God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable, “God honors the covenant with the patriarchs. The chosen people have always been and always will be beloved. Although God used their refusal for the sake of the Gentiles, God will not forsake Israel” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 198]. It may seem rather complicated, but God will be faithful to the covenant, even if the rejection of Jesus by a majority of Jews spurred on Paul’s mission, God will stay true to the covenant.
The good news is that Gentiles get to share in the salvation of God. We also (speaking as a Gentile) have been included in the covenant people through Jesus. So, even if we stray or become disobedient, God is merciful and gracious. That might not always sit well with us, any more than it sat well with Paul’s opponents. But that is the way of God who has been revealed to us in and through Jesus.
The lectionary reading ends with verse 32, but as Sarah Heaner Lancaster points out, the verses that follow contain a hymn that celebrates the difference between our ways and God’s ways. Thus, “the grandness of God exceeds anything that we may know, and we are not in a position to understand the mind of God or the ways God achieves God’s purposes. The richness of God is the genuine mystery” [Lancaster, Romans, pp. 199-200]. So, I close with that hymn:

  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).