Romans 15:14-21 – Paul the Missionary

Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev
Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev

My brothers and sisters, I know without a doubt that you are full of goodness and have all the knowledge you need. So, you are certainly able to counsel each other. But I have written to you very openly about some things that I wanted you to remember. I did this because God gave me this special gift: to be a servant of Christ Jesus for those who are not Jews. I serve like a priest whose duty it is to tell God’s Good News. He gave me this work so that you non-Jewish people could be an offering that he will accept—an offering made holy by the Holy Spirit.

That is why I feel so good about what I have done for God in my service to Christ Jesus. I will not talk about anything I did myself. I will talk only about what Christ has done with me in leading the non-Jewish people to obey God. They have obeyed him because of what I have said and done. And they obeyed him because of the power of the miraculous signs and wonders that happened—all because of the power of God’s Spirit. I have told people the Good News about Christ in every place from Jerusalem to Illyricum. And so, I have finished that part of my work. I always want to tell the Good News in places where people have never heard of Christ. I do this because I don’t want to build on the work that someone else has already started. But as the Scriptures say,

“Those who were not told about him will see,
and those who have not heard about him will understand.” (ERV)

Paul was an Apostle – a person commissioned by God for a specific purpose. His task was to go to the Gentiles – non-Jewish people. Although a Jew himself, Paul was sent as the missionary to places where Gentiles were the dominate culture. Through the Apostle Peter, and then Paul, the good news of Jesus spread to persons that were beforehand considered unreachable. Paul viewed himself as having no limits as to who could hear and respond to the gospel of new life in Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul understood himself as standing between heaven and hell, interceding, and pleading on behalf of people in need.

It is quite likely there are persons in our sphere of influence for whom we think would never respond to the message of Christ’s redemption. In these dog days of summer’s ordinary time in which we may be just trying to beat the heat; and, we might see family that we typically don’t throughout the rest of the year; it could be easy to lose sight that attending a virtual meeting, family gathering, and/or interaction with a person outdoors, there are those who need the kind of life which Jesus invites us to – and we will never know if God is wooing them to himself unless we share life with them.

Perhaps we need to see ourselves as Paul did – standing in the gap and always trying to find ways to speak good news to people who need deliverance from empty ways of life. The cousin or uncle, co-worker or friend, neighbor, or new acquaintance, can be forgotten by us as to their very real need to discover faith and the spirituality which resides within.  We, my friends, are the conduit that God has ordained to bring the life-giving message to people all around us – people for whom we might have already written off as unreachable.

Sometimes the Apostle Paul gets a bad rap as moving beyond the bounds of his apostolic authority in dedicating his life to reaching the non-Jewish person, as if Gentiles were not really on the radar of Jesus. Yet, Paul took pains to demonstrate biblically that his mission was really God’s mission. Indeed, Paul did not fabricate including Jew and Gentile together as one people of God. Romans 15 is filled with Old Testament quotes pertaining to God’s agenda that all peoples of the earth would come and worship together.

It has always been God’s vision to restore humanity, Jewish and Gentile alike, to a life-giving place of beauty and joy in the Garden.

So, Paul had a healthy pride in his work as an Apostle sent from God to the task of reaching the vast numbers of non-Jewish people. I sit here today, two millennia later, the spiritual progeny of the Apostle’s great effort. Because Paul kept pioneering new churches, pushing ever farther into places which knew little to none about Jesus, and being concerned for people very different from himself, Christians today enjoy a rich legacy of faith and works to draw upon in our own lives.

Yes, as an historian I am quite aware of the complicated history between the Jewish people and their Gentile neighbors. I perhaps know more than the average bear about how the Church has far too often brought harm and not help to the world. Yet, this in no way mitigates the incredible new life which has occurred for so many people and cultures throughout the past two-thousand years of Christian history. In fact, in the light of today’s New Testament lesson, it behooves us Christians to establish gracious and loving connections with our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as all of humanity. Their pain of persecution and difficulty through the centuries is our pain, as well.

May the power of God’s Spirit come upon us all. May we all become a community of priests and prophets proclaiming peace, love, and joy – the life we are all meant to experience and share together.

We praise you, O God, for the ministry and success of your servant, the Apostle Paul, through whom we who are Gentiles owe our own faith and calling.  Grant us a vision like his, the conviction and commitment to pursue it, and the grace which confirms and prospers it.  Amen.

Romans 3:1-8 – The One People of God

A simple graphic entwined tree illustration

What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.

What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:

“So that you may be proved right when you speak
and prevail when you judge.”

But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just! (NIV)

Paul’s letter to the Roman church is a hefty sixteen chapters of some dense material and several extended arguments through intense reasoning. Likely, Paul felt compelled to dig in and provide so many words because of the church’s situation.

The Roman Church at the time of Paul’s writing was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Jews and Gentiles have a complicated history together. And the Roman Empire was still firmly in control of Palestine and did not always treat the Jewish people well. In addition, the religious backgrounds of each were as different as you can get. Whereas the Jewish Christians had a long rich history with God and the Old Testament, the Gentile Christians were fresh from centuries of paganism and esoteric rituals. Now, they were together in one place worshiping Jesus and it made for a potentially combustible situation.

Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul goes back and forth addressing the two groups of Jews and Gentiles. The overarching problem was this: The Jewish believers tended to look down on the Gentile Christians and thought they needed to become Jewish to really be the kind of Christians God was looking for. On the other hand, the Gentile believers tended to dismiss their Jewish brothers and sisters as backward and stuck in tradition. In short, each group thought the other must become like them.

So, Paul, bless his apostolic heart, had a huge mess in the making with these believers. Here, in our New Testament lesson for today, Paul is directing his comments more specifically toward the Gentile Christians. Paul really wanted the Gentile believers to gain some appreciation for the Jewish people. After all, they were chosen by God to become a nation of priests and prophets for the world. Discounting that history would be to neglect and even invalidate their shared salvation.

For Paul, to have two churches, one Jew and the other Gentile, would have been a complete travesty of Christ’s redemption for humanity. Jesus was all about bringing disparate peoples together and not keeping them divided. The cross freed us by eliminating the barriers which separate us. The Roman Church was just going to have to work together at being one people under the lordship of Christ. There was going to be no ethnic, religious, or political one-upmanship on Paul’s watch.

Truth be told, both Jew and Gentile did not always do so well with their respective histories. So, there is no ground for boasting or trying to argue for their own way. In fact, the unfaithfulness of people simply shows the incredible faithfulness of God in greater relief.  If there were no sin, grace would not be needed; no cross would have existed. Just because the foulness and degradation of sin brings out the gracious, faithful, and forgiving character of God in Christ, does not mean that sin is okay or that we can flippantly wave it off with uttering some mumbo-jumbo cheap grace which devalues the majesty of God.

For example, when antebellum southern slaveholders in nineteenth-century America argued for their peculiar institution by saying that snatching black Africans from their homes was a good thing so that they could get out of their religious animistic worldview and be exposed to Christianity, I am positively sure that the Apostle Paul rolled over in his grave and begged Jesus to resurrect him early and send him to tackle such an affront to the cross of Christ! Sin is never to be excused through twisted human mental gymnastics.

Paul worked laboriously to unite the churches he established and bring differing people groups together under Christ. What this does not mean is that all cultural and personal distinctions are ignored or erased. What it does mean is that we value one another’s differences and gather around the shared value of knowing Jesus Christ. The Church was neither going to become Jewish nor Gentile but something altogether new – one new people out of the two. Paul framed the matter this way to the Ephesian Church:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-18, NIV)

Solitary righteousness is an oxymoron. Righteousness can only be truly lived and expressed with other people. Yes, there is freedom in Christ. Yet, that freedom must be continually applied through making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to seriously lay aside all unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and harmony: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so may we be forever all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, and with one mind and one mouth glorify Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Romans 7:7-20 – Facing Our Bundle of Contradictions

contradiction
“Humanity is an embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions.”-Charles Caleb Colton, 1780-1832

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s vulnerable expression of his dilemma resonates deeply with many people. There are times when we say things to ourselves such as, “I told myself I wasn’t going to be like my mother, and here I am responding just like she would;” “I know better than to drive by the liquor store on my way home and pick up a pint of vodka, yet, I still did it;” or, “I don’t want to die, but my thoughts keep racing about a plan for suicide.” And, there are many more situations in which we are both frustrated and befuddled by our doing the things we do not want to do, and not doing the things we want to do.

Yes, indeed, Paul’s existential angst is a timeless description of our common human condition. We all can relate to the seeming inability to do what is right in so many situations. It can really drive us nuts, even to a constant and never-ending low-level discouragement that underlies almost everything we do.

Paul’s prescription for dealing with this does not rely on law. He understood that putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere because we will eventually fail. Neither our brains nor our spirits work that way. Our willpower was never designed to be the driver of what we do and do not do. If anything, willpower, and the lack thereof demonstrate just how much we are climbing the ladder on the wrong wall. People are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth with great frustration.

God’s law was not crafted to transform us from the inside-out. The law has three solid purposes, none of which are meant to bring deep personal transformation: attention to the law works to restrain sin in the world; use of the law provides us with a helpful guide for grateful living in response to divine grace; and, it’s use here by Paul is to show us how bad off we really are in this world and in need of forgiveness.

We need a change of habits, and this is different than adopting a list of laws. Habits are developed from our desires, our affections. In other words, we do what we love – more specifically, our ultimate love(s) drive us to do what we want. To put it in a straightforward way: We sin because we like it. And the path to overcoming any besetting sin is to have an ultimate love trump the lesser sin which we like.

St Augustine quote 2

For example, I have developed daily habits or rituals of faith which enable me to commune with God. I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and this ultimate love enables me to push out all competing gods who want my devotion. I also love my wife with all my heart. We work on developing habits of a marital relationship which reinforce our love for each other. Love is what drives me to do right and good by her.

So, what do we do when we mess up? For the Christian, no matter what the question is, the answer is always grace. God’s grace in the finished work of Jesus Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit is the operative power that changes lives. The law has no power to do that kind of work. Freedom from the tyranny of our misplaced desires and disordered loves comes from Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. Like a lover enamored with his beloved, our desires become oriented toward Jesus for his indescribable gift to us. That is the strength of grace.

Saving God, I thank you for delivering me from sin, death, and hell through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May your Holy Spirit apply the work of grace to my life every day so that I can realize spiritual healing and practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul.  Amen.

Romans 7:1-6 – Becoming Holy

AgnusDay new creation

Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (NIV)

Romans chapters 6-8 are the Apostle Paul’s pointed discussion of how we become holy in a real and practical way. The theological word we typically use for this is “sanctification,” which means “to become holy,” and “set apart” for God. To be delivered from sin, death, and hell through the person and work of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning of becoming a new creation.

Becoming holy and righteous in our everyday lives boils down to this: identity and belonging. One of the healthiest ways of looking at the entirety of the Bible’s message is that we belong to God. Our identities are thoroughly wrapped around Jesus. The process of realizing this and coming to grips with it is how we grow as people in holiness and righteousness.

Because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, we have been delivered from the realm of sin. Our change in status from condemned to accepted provides us the awareness to make daily affirmations of faith and live a new life. However, the sinful nature (flesh) or the old person is still there. Although it is now toothless, our past can and often does exert a powerful influence on us. Even though there is a medium-rare T-bone steak on the table for us to enjoy, there are times we go back to the old bologna sandwich with stale white bread.

Yet, we need no longer live falling short of our true humanity because we belong to God. We are adopted into God’s family, having been orphaned by sin’s cruel influence. Yet, just because we have been saved from the power of sin, sin itself has not become extinct. We still must deal with it. We are alive to God and need to take up this great spiritual reality and live into it, for the force of sin still exists in the world.

We deal with sin’s continued presence (the world, the flesh, and the devil) through embracing God’s grace versus trying to overcome it with the law. Paul used an illustration from marriage to expand our understanding of grafting grace into our daily lives. By law, a married woman is bound to her husband (keeping in mind this sense of belonging was the predominant view of marriage in Paul’s day). Yet, if the husband dies, the wife is released from the legal marriage. If she were to give herself to another man while her husband is still alive and they are married, then she becomes an adulteress. However, if she is a widow, then marries again, she is not an adulteress.

Paul applies this understanding to our relationship with the law. Death has separated us from the law. We died with Christ. Therefore, we have been set free from the law and have become alive to grace. As believers in Jesus, we “belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead” (Romans 7:4). “When Christ’s body hung upon the cross, when God spared not his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32); “when Christ took on himself for us all the curse of the law which inflicted all of us (Galatians 3:13); then, we died to the law. God’s grace has made the death of Jesus the death of all from the realm of sin (2 Corinthians 5:14).

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As a married man, let me use Paul’s illustration to get down to the gist of his teaching. Yes, I am legally married and belong to my wife. I made vows to my wife on our wedding day which bind me legally to do what I said I would do. Yet, if I fulfill those vows in a strictly legalistic manner, I can vouch for my wife that this would qualify as an acceptable situation for her. You see, my wife (and, me, too!) are freely bound to one another in love and grace. I care for my wife because I love her deeply, and not because it is my legal duty to do so.

The Christian life was neither designed nor meant to serve as a bare legal contract or covenant between us and God. God forbid such a thought! Jesus died to clear us from all the legality stuff so that we could freely love and serve God with joyful abundance and gratitude. You see, I am follower of Jesus because I love him deeply. What impels and motivates me is God’s grace. The law is there and has its place. However, it is not the law that causes me to be a Christian; it is the love of Christ which saved me from myself and compels me to live like Jesus.

We pray that God himself, the God of peace, will make you pure—belonging only to him. We pray that your whole self—spirit, soul, and body—will be kept safe and be blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. The one who chose you will do that for you. You can trust him. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, ERV)