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.

Romans 9:6-13 – Who’s in Charge?

God is in control

Don’t suppose for a moment, though, that God’s Word has malfunctioned in some way or other. The problem goes back a long way. From the outset, not all Israelites of the flesh were Israelites of the spirit. It wasn’t Abraham’s sperm that gave identity here, but God’s promise. Remember how it was put: “Your family will be defined by Isaac”? That means that Israelite identity was never racially determined by sexual transmission, but it was God-determined by promise. Remember that promise, “When I come back next year at this time, Sarah will have a son”?

And that’s not the only time. To Rebecca, also, a promise was made that took priority over genetics. When she became pregnant by our one-of-a-kind ancestor, Isaac, and her babies were still innocent in the womb—incapable of good or bad—she received a special assurance from God. What God did in this case made it perfectly plain that his purpose is not a hit-or-miss thing dependent on what we do or don’t do, but a sure thing determined by his decision, flowing steadily from his initiative. God told Rebecca, “The firstborn of your twins will take second place.” Later that was turned into a stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.” (MSG)

I want to break this to you as gently as possible yet as straightforward as I can: My friend, neither you nor I are in control!  Any semblance of control we think we have is merely a delusion.  Now, before you push back its important to make the distinction between control and responsibility. We are to own our decisions and take responsibility for their outcome.  The Bible describes this as “self-control.”

God’s saving kindness has appeared for the benefit of all people. It trains us to avoid ungodly lives filled with worldly desires so that we can live self-controlled, moral, and godly lives in this present world. (Titus 2:11-12, GW)

Attempting to control others is not our job – never was, isn’t now, and never will be – that’s God’s business.  God makes his choices.  This was the Apostle Paul’s point to the church at Rome.  The congregation was a volatile mix of both Jew and Gentile.  There was some bad history between them that stretched back centuries. Yet, here they were together in one church worshiping Jesus.

Paul made a responsible choice to step into the mess between them and let each group know something important: It is neither their choice about who’s in and who’s out as God’s people, nor their choice about how someone gets in to start with.  Again, this is God’s choice.

The Jews needed to know that Gentiles are in the kingdom because God does his work of choosing, calling, and including Gentiles just as much as Jews.  The Gentiles needed to know that they were not replacing Jews as chosen people.  The point? God chooses whomever he darn well pleases to choose, and the choice is not up to you or me.

This speaks on so many levels about how to conduct ourselves with one another in the church.  The foundation of all good church dynamics is the recognition that God is the one who calls and gathers people together in the church.  This always needs to be the starting point in our relations with each other. The church is not a random collection of persons who happen to be in the same place at the same time. God puts us where we are.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV)

The Church is a covenant community. Believers in Jesus are receiving the blessings first promised by God’s covenant relationship with Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith.  God has graciously committed himself to acting on their behalf through election, adoption, and redemption.  The new covenant community, the Church, receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things.  The Church is not a voluntary society, like every other human institution. Rather, it is the divinely called community of the redeemed whom God has joined through his Spirit to Christ.  Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

Church in God's hands

The Nicene Creed describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from God’s covenant people being in fellowship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.  This unity is expressed through the bond of love and a common worship that includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments.  Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth.  As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do.  Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together.  The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is Apostolic means “to be sent.”  The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who are in darkness.  Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that the gospel is spread to all nations.

Sovereign God, you choose whomever you want to include in your kingdom.  Allow me to see Jesus in each person you call and save so that I can love and encourage them in the faith which is mutually and graciously given to us all; through Christ our Lord, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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.