Romans 2:1-11 – Connection, not Criticism

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.

You’re not getting by with anything. Every refusal and avoidance of God adds fuel to the fire. The day is coming when it’s going to blaze hot and high, God’s fiery and righteous judgment. Make no mistake: In the end you get what’s coming to you—Real Life for those who work on God’s side, but to those who insist on getting their own way and take the path of least resistance, Fire!

If you go against the grain, you get splinters, regardless of which neighborhood you’re from, what your parents taught you, what schools you attended. But if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs, again without regard to where you are from or how you were brought up. Being a Jew won’t give you an automatic stamp of approval. God pays no attention to what others say (or what you think) about you. He makes up his own mind. (The Message)

Claiming the moniker of self-appointed Judge will only get you, well, judged! There is only one true Judge. And Judge Jesus renders decisions which are always right, just, and fair, with no favoritism, cronyism, or malice.

A critical spirit is an evil spirit. It vaults oneself over and above others who are viewed as inferior, unworthy of love and belonging. It is the very antithesis of Christ’s way of being in the world with others.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in polarizing times such as ours. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness.

As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I wholeheartedly affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop their destructive behavior or thinking, get their lives together, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of criticizing judgment.

Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, treats them like a fellow person, offers helpful encouragement, and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we, period.

God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy – no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental, as if owning multiple Bibles or giving lots of money exempts one from a wagging tongue and an insensitive spirit.

Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way. 

No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace. Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

A critical spirit begins to melt away when the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance are used to forge connections and provide support.

It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Ask clarifying questions. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion.

The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

Romans 15:1-6 – The Responsibility of the Powerful

We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up. Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, The insults of those who insulted you fell on me. Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice. (Common English Bible)

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Stan Lee

Within the ancient church in Rome there existed people of Jewish descent as well as non-Jews (Gentiles) who had come to embrace Christ. These two groups had vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Now they found themselves within one church, with only their shared commitment to Jesus.

Getting along was downright hard. It took a great deal of work for them to understand one another. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he consistently went back and forth, addressing both groups.

Frankly, Paul was most difficult on his fellow Jews. He took them to task. In his view, the Jewish believers had a responsibility to set a tone of Christian equality and fairness. Since the Jewish people have such a rich spiritual history as God’s people, it was Paul’s admonition they use their power on behalf of the non-Jewish Gentiles.

There were some Jewish believers who believed it best that the non-Jewish believers become religiously Jewish. They thought that Gentiles, with no background whatsoever in Old Testament belief and practice, would need to be like them in order to become good Christians.

Paul passionately believed otherwise. The Jewish position of privilege was to be used to encourage and help, not criticize and make things more difficult for non-Jewish persons. Jesus, a Jew himself, did this during his life and ministry on earth.

It came down to a belief of whether Jews ought to hold positions of power within the church, or that power should be shared. As it still is today, it was then with the Jewish people: They have carried an inordinate burden of the world’s sin upon their shoulders. Paul wanted them to continue this special calling – not taking advantage of an opportunity to be on top – but embracing their call for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

Whether Jew or Gentile, all together were to make every effort to do what leads to peace and the encouragement of one another. Those with power were to make room at the table (and Table!) for those without power.

The ideal which Paul so adamantly struggled for was unity – to have both Jew and Gentile together as sisters and brothers in the faith. There was never to be two churches – one Jewish and one Gentile. Christ’s death had abolished all barriers to unity. Now, everyone must come together and re-orient their lives around the good news of new life in Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Since Jesus closely identified with others, now we, his followers, are to demonstrate a genuine spirit of care and welfare for all people. This is a new family relationship which did not exist before Christ. God, however, has adopted all kinds of non-Jewish people into the family. So, we have responsibilities to get along with each other.

It must always begin with those who possess the power and privilege. They have the first responsibility to initiate an egalitarian society. The onus is on the powerful to ensure that a fully inclusive Christian ethic is established and maintained. We are to welcome others just as Christ welcomed us.

The Christian ethic of welcoming, encouraging, and including is helped by being mindful of the following:

  • Listen more. Talk less. A particular temptation for those with power is to make decisions without consulting or collaborating. Basic human respect comes from listening – neither interrupting nor overtalking. The less powerful folks need to be heard. Give them a seat at the table and honor them with your ears.

People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger. (Proverbs 10:17, GNT)

  • Be curious. Respect another’s contribution. Be welcoming and open, whether or not you agree. Seek understanding rather than always trying to be understood. “Tell me more.” “Help me understand.” And “I’d like some clarification…” are all simple phrases of healthy curiosity which invites others to talk.

The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was really true. (Acts 17:11, ERV)

  • Don’t assume. Not everyone has had the same experiences. We don’t all know the same things. Take the posture of a learner. Be something of an anthropologist, seeking to discover rather than superimpose what you already believe on a different group of people.

Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. (1 Corinthians 3:18, CEV)

  • Be aware of your own biases. We all have them. It takes some work to uncover our prejudices as well as our privileges.

I solemnly command you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and the highest angels to obey these instructions without taking sides or showing favoritism to anyone. (1 Timothy 5:21, NLT)

  • Embrace empathy. We all know how it feels to be excluded, left out, and even shamed about something. Let’s use our own experiences to realize what others might be going through. Looking down on another, or dismissing them in some way, is not the way of our Lord.

Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. (Romans 12:15-16, MSG)

  • Focus on connection, not fear. In many groups and in many places, the “other,” the one who is different, is looked upon with suspicion as someone who might upset existing societal norms or steal something we have. Seeking to establish connection with others mitigates fear and anxious feelings.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV)

  • Be patient with others. People need our gentleness and our humble help, not our judgment and exasperation. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. (Ephesians 4:2, GW)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus (Matthew 7:12, NIV)

That about sums up exactly what Paul intended to say. Now go and do likewise.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, and completely, we accept you. Fill us then with love and let us be bound together with love as we live our lives, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. You are Love. Amen.

Romans 4:13-25 – Christianity 101

It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. Therefore “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why we are here on this earth and what we are really supposed to be doing.  There’s just so much stuff going on around us all the time that it seems like we have spiritual attention deficit disorder and cannot focus on what is most important. Certain people irritate us, we scramble to make a decent living, there never seems to be enough time to accomplish everything, and there is adversity and obstacles all along life’s way.

There’s a lot going on in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. At first glance, like our lives, it seems complicated. Paul had all kinds of words for the Christians such as hope, faith, righteousness, and justification, just to name a few. All those words and ideas funneled into and pointed toward a singular focus: The Lord Jesus. Everything in life comes down to Christ. 

The church was losing sight of why they existed. Within the church at Rome were both Jews and Gentiles, together as one people of God. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything. The Gentiles thought the Jews were stuck in tradition and needed to move on. The Jews had centuries of history behind them of God working through them. They thought the Gentiles needed some solid Old Testament law to bolster their primitive spirituality. Would the church take their cues on life from the Gentiles, or the Jews?

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

thomas aquinas

Paul essentially told the church they were headed in the wrong direction. The issues and problems of living the Christian life were to take a back seat to faith in God. To prove his point, Paul went back to Abraham as Exhibit A of what it means to live with and for God. 

It went down like this: God made a promise to Abraham of progeny in his old age; Abraham believed what God said, Abraham demonstrated his faith by having the confident expectation (hope) that God is good for his promise; and God declared (justified) Abraham to have a right relationship with himself (righteousness). 

In other words, the heart of Christian faith and practice is that God makes promises; people respond to God in faith, hope, and love. Law and the willpower to keep it doesn’t even come into the equation.

Christians are the spiritual children of Abraham. All God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ. We respond to God by believing in Jesus. The redemptive events of Jesus make us just and right.  So, what does this mean for you and me?

We are not to get sidetracked with trying to make others be like us. Instead, we are to proclaim the promises of God in Christ so that others might respond by believing and embracing those promises. Furthermore, we have no need to try and get God to like us, notice us, and/or listen to us. God has already made and kept promises to us, demonstrating his love, mercy, and grace through his Son, the Lord Jesus.

Our lives are not to center in our abilities, or lack thereof, to live a godly life. Rather, our lives are to revolve around the person and work of Jesus Christ through faith, with the hope that God will always hold to his promise to be with us, which frees us to love others. This is basic Christianity 101. This is the faith we embrace.

Righteous God, you have made and kept promises to us. Our ultimate deliverance from sin, death, and hell isn’t through our ability to keep the law, but in your Son’s life, death, and resurrection. Help us, your people, to live by faith in Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us, in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Romans 11:13-29 – Pruning and Grafting

olive tree

I [Apostle Paul] am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, if you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:

“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. (NIV)

The letter to the Romans reminds me of two siblings going at it, always at odds with each other. Gentile and Jew both together in one church and constantly arguing, bickering, and never stopping to listen to the other. The Apostle Paul, their spiritual parent, had enough of it. So, he wrote a lengthy tome, often alternating between speaking directly to Brother Gentile and then to Brother Jew.

Wisely, Paul never took sides and avoided favoritism even though he himself was Jewish. In today’s New Testament lesson, Paul speaks forthrightly to the Gentiles in the church. He gets to the issue of Brother Gentile’s attitude and view toward Brother Jew. Father Paul’s instruction to Brother Gentile is also instructive for us, as we navigate a pluralistic world and diverse church.

Brother Gentile tended to look down on Brother Jew as stuck in the past, too concerned for tradition, and unwilling to change. Brother Gentile thought it was high time Brother Jew understood that all that Jewish stuff is no longer needed and that the Gentiles were the future of the church. For Brother Gentile, God has accepted him, and Brother Jew has been rejected. But Father Paul would have none of that kind of talk; he was not going to allow Brother Gentile to eviscerate Brother Jew of his identity.

Notice Father Paul’s reasoning to his son, Brother Gentile, utilizing the lesser to the greater argument:

  • Brother Jew’s stumbling and bumbling has already caused Brother Gentile to come to faith in Christ.
  • Brother Gentile’s deliverance and acceptance will cause Brother Jew’s jealousy to kick in.
  • Brother Jew’s response will bring even greater spiritual blessing to the world.

Paul insisted that Brother Jew still has a prominent place in the family, and that a time is coming when the entire human family will have their socks blessed off because of him. Just as an olive tree can and does experience pruning and grafting of branches, so Brother Gentile needs to understand he was not originally part of the tree but was grafted in later. There is no place for arrogant pride. Grafted branches can and do get broken off and pruned; and, pruned branches can and do get grafted back on the tree, too.

brothers

So, Father Paul wanted his sons to understand and appreciate one another as the one tree in God’s family. There is room for neither Brother Gentile’s complacency nor Brother Jew’s despair. Both brothers share together in one equitable tree of life, enjoying the blessings of renewal and restoration.

It is imperative we take these lessons to heart in our interactions with folks who are different from ourselves. There is no room in God’s rule and reign for simpletons who fail to see beyond the end of their noses. Instead, we are to appreciate our brother who looks, thinks, and lives differently. It seems the only things God does not tolerate is intolerance and injustice toward those distinctly offbeat from our own path. Just because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, this does not give any follower of Christ a license to misinterpret, misrepresent, and mistreat another group of people who subscribe to various jots and tittles other than me.

Neither you nor I are the Gardener. We do not get to do the pruning and grafting. That is God’s job, not ours. Love is our business, while the Lord will show both his kindness and sternness when and to whom he will. Simply assuming we are always on the right side of things only produces a lack of listening, a lack of like-mindedness, and a lack of love. It creates a worldly system of demagoguery, inattention to suffering, and narrow policies, procedures, and laws which benefit only one brother, not all the siblings.

As Father Paul said earlier in his letter, “God doesn’t have any favorites!” (Romans 2:11, CEV)

As Father James said in his letter, “Don’t treat some people better than others.” (James 2:1, ERV)

As Father Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35, CEB)

As the witness of the Old Testament says, “Cut away the thick calluses from your heart and stop being so willfully hardheaded. God, your God, is the God of all gods, he is the Master of all masters, a God immense and powerful and awesome. He doesn’t play favorites, takes no bribes, makes sure orphans and widows are treated fairly, takes loving care of foreigners by seeing that they get food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, MSG)

For our failure to realize that the whole world is a family, that Christ is all and in all: O Lord, forgive.

For our prejudice and self-consciousness of race, color, or language: O Lord, forgive.

For our indifference and lack of concern for our neighbors living in poverty and unemployment and for children who are ill-clothed, illiterate, and ill: O Lord, forgive.

For our unwillingness to understand the needs and problems of other people, the bitterness of those without power, and the groans of the oppressed: O Lord, forgive.

For our readiness to acquiesce in the ways of the majority, to seek the path of least resistance, and to prefer popularity to fairness: O Lord, forgive. Christ have mercy on us all. Amen.