The Roman Road Less Traveled: The Good News is God’s Grace

How do you see God? If you painted a picture of what your mind’s eye sees when you imagine God, what would it look like? Pastor John said in Sunday’s message, “How we see God creates what we think and believe about God.” I think it can also be said that the ways we think and believe about God creates our picture of God, because as John also said, our theology hasn’t always painted a good image for us to ponder.

I wrote in last week’s post,

“. . .God’s character doesn’t change. He is love. His disposition toward all of his sons and daughters is kindness and grace. All the time. He doesn’t relate to us through condemnation, shame, guilt, or vengeance. We sometimes project those things onto God and make assumptions about how he feels about us. . .”

Why do we sometimes project those things onto God? I think there are several reasons we are inclined to do that, but often our thinking can be traced back to our own misunderstanding of the good news of Jesus. We become familiar with verses like this one, probably the most familiar of the six we looked at on Sunday:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. (Romans 3:23, NLT)

We all fall short. We don’t measure up. We’re not good enough. We hear these things–sometimes exaggerated by our individual church backgrounds or upbringings–and we build our ideas about God using verses like this one. It’s true–it’s what we covered last week, the bad news. We do fall short of the standard of perfection we observe in the person of Jesus who “. . . is the dazzling radiance of God’s splendor, the exact expression of God’s true nature—his mirror image!” (Hebrews 1:3a, TPT)

If we stop there; if we live in constant glare of our inadequacy and ruminate on all the ways we fall short, we can distort the character of God because we imagine that our falling short changes how God sees us. The opposite is true: Focusing on our shortcomings changes how we see God. Paul, after telling us that we all fall short, writes this:

Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:24)

Yet God… in his grace…

If we stop at “we all fall short,” we don’t make it to the good news of Jesus. And Jesus changes everything. The first verse we looked at in this week’s passage, Romans 3:21 tells us,

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. (MSG)

Before Paul tells us how we’ve all fallen short, before he reminds us of God’s grace, he asserts that the law has been fulfilled and that through Jesus, we are now free from the bondage of trying to earn our way into good standing.

The good news is right there on the page. Before and after the verse that reminds us of the bad news. And yet we tend to focus on how we–and others–fall short of perfection, rather than on the extravagance of God’s grace. We gravitate toward a faith secured by works–which doesn’t exist in the kingdom of God–rather than accepting the truth that we are saved by grace alone. A justified-by-works theology may make logical sense to our bartering, human mindsets, but it is unachievable. One has walked in perfection. One. There’s no sliding scale of righteousness, no gold star for almost making the mark. There’s Jesus, and there’s the rest of us. And he came with a brand new yoke to break all other yokes, to join his life with ours, the embodiment of Grace.

And Jesus himself, John 5:39, told us, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”

The law won’t get us there. Paul knew that more than anyone–he had checked off every box on the to-do list of human righteousness. He knew the law and kept it down to the finest detail. He was a self-proclaimed zealot, certain of his uprightness. And then he encountered Jesus. This Paul, who once believed the law and the prophets held the keys to righteousness and eternal life suddenly saw a different way, the way of the kingdom. He wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” (1 Corinthians 13:3, MSG)

The self-giving love of Jesus showed us a different way of being in the world, showed us how to live a life rooted in love, not law. He also revealed what has always been true of God–He is love. He is kindness. He is grace. He is not disappointed in us. He is not ashamed of us. He doesn’t see us in the shadows of our failures–He sees us in the light of his love.

Do we see God when we look at the person of Jesus? Or do we separate the two, as though Jesus is the good guy and God is the bad guy? I want to offer a couple of verses for us to consider, verses that speak to God’s love toward us before the person of Jesus even appeared in history. These are two verses among so many that illuminate how our Father-and-Mother God feels about us as sons and daughters:

For the Lord your God is living among you.
    He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.
(Zephaniah 3:17)

Every single moment you are thinking of me!
How precious and wonderful to consider
that you cherish me constantly in your every thought!
(Psalm 139:17, TPT)

God delights in us, is glad and rejoices over us, sings over us; is thinking of us constantly, cherishes us… A delighted, joyful, singing God who cherishes us–can you picture it? A face that is ever-toward us, smiling? A love that considers each of us in every moment?

And then, as we’ll see in a few weeks when we get to the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul tells us,

But God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, AMP)

God, in the person of Jesus–the same God who smiles and sings with delight over us–stepped into history and, in an extravagant display of self-sacrificing love and grace, absorbed our murderous violence to conquer the death that held us all captive to bring the world back to life.

That is really, really good news.

I don’t know how you see God or what kind of picture has been painted of him in your mind. I don’t know what has informed your thoughts about how God feels about you. I hope you know he loves you, that he’s not mad at you, that he sings with delight over you. And, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

“I pray that. . .the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life. Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God!” (Ephesians 3:16a, 17-19, TPT)

May the truth of God’s love wash away all of our distortions, and may the light of Grace scatter the darkness that has hidden his smiling face from us, that we might see him more clearly and know him more deeply.

–Laura

I’m so glad Laura included Hebrews 1:3a in her portion which reminds us that Jesus . . . is the dazzling radiance of God’s splendor, the exact expression of God’s true nature—his mirror image!” Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (1:15) It’s so important that we know this truth. God is not “the distant man upstairs”. God is not like Zeus ready to throw lightning bolts of destruction on those he is displeased with. God is not angry. God is not mean. We are each God’s favorite–no one more favorite; no one less. God is love (1st John 4:8). And, so we could really know what God is love looks like, God wrapped himself in flesh and showed up in person.

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. And so the Living Expression became a man and lived among us! And we gazed upon the splendor of his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father overflowing with tender mercy and truth! (John 1: 1&14 TPT)

Paul knew this truth. He knew God had come to us in the flesh to show us who He is and what he’s like. We were created for relationship with him. Jesus came to restore us, to make us whole, and bring us back to the heart of God. It was part of the mystery of God that had been revealed, and Paul was now sharing this news with whomever would listen.

God loves us! God loves us! God loves us!

Jesus is the perfect representation of God’s character–God looks like Jesus, Jesus looks like God. We’ve written it over and over in the past few years–it’s imperative that we get to know Jesus–that we spend time in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Who was he with? To whom did he demonstrate incredible compassion? Who/what frustrated him? What did he teach? How did he treat the outcast? How did he treat the poor, the rich, the proud, the downtrodden, the religious, the “pagan”, the Roman, the women, the children, the sick, the “sinners”, etc.? How did he handle his arrest? His crucifixion? What did he do after his resurrection? How did he pray? What did he pray? What did he teach about the Holy Spirit (who Paul refers to as the Spirit of Christ)?

When we allow Jesus to be the foundation of this faith called Christ-ianity, we are grounded in God is love! The barriers come down. This agape love leads us to love God in return and love others as a result. Paul knew this. The overall message of Paul’s letters are about inclusion, grace, and God’s love.

With that long introduction I’m going to write out this week’s passage (Romans 3:21-26) from The Passion Translation to give us fresh eyes (read it slowly):

But now, independently of the law, the righteousness of God is tangible and brought to light through Jesus, the Anointed One. This is the righteousness that the Scriptures prophesied would come. It is God’s righteousness made visible through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And now all who believe in him receive that gift. For there is really no difference between us, for we all have sinned and are in need of the glory of God. Yet through his powerful declaration of acquittal, God freely gives away his righteousness. His gift of love and favor now cascades over us, all because Jesus, the Anointed One, has liberated us from the guilt, punishment, and power of sin!

 Jesus’ God-given destiny was to be the sacrifice to take away sins, and now he is our mercy seat because of his death on the cross. We come to him for mercy, for God has made a provision for us to be forgiven by faith in the sacred blood of Jesus. This is the perfect demonstration of God’s justice, because until now, he had been so patient—holding back his justice out of his tolerance for us. So he covered over the sins of those who lived prior to Jesus’ sacrifice. And when the season of tolerance came to an end, there was only one possible way for God to give away his righteousness and still be true to both his justice and his mercy—to offer up his own Son. So now, because we stand on the faithfulness of Jesus, God declares us righteous in his eyes!

As Laura highlighted above, the focus of this portion of Paul’s letter is not all have sinned. Yes, it’s true that all have sinned, but it’s not the focus. The focus is God’s incredible gift of our acquittal in Jesus.

Guess what the Greek word for righteousness is (mentioned 5 times in this passage)? If you guessed dikaiosynē, you are correct. If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time, you know that we love this word. It means: (the) state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God; integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting and comes from the root word dikaios which means: innocent, faultless, guiltless; him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God; equitable (in character or act) (Strong’s Concordance) There is no self-righteousness in dikaiosyne, because we haven’t earned it. It’s a gift from God.

Paul is telling us that we don’t “behave” our way into dikaiosyne by trying to be good enough. He tells us that the law will never get us there. He shares the beautiful good news that God declares us righteous, because God is God and can do that–God in Jesus came and while here provided our acquittal. The Passion Translation words it like this: there was only one possible way for God to give away his righteousness and still be true to both his justice and his mercy—to offer up his own Son.

Laura wrote it out like this: (Jesus) in an extravagant display of self-sacrificing love and grace, absorbed our murderous violence to conquer the death that held us all captive to bring the world back to life...

You all…Paul, as a demonstration of God’s incredible grace, also tells us in this portion that God was being fair (dikaiosyne) when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past. (3:25). We don’t talk about this much in our Western Orthodoxy, but in Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, they celebrate The Harrowing of Hades. Based on Ephesians 4:9–Christ descended to the “deep parts of the earth”; 1st Peter 3:19 and 4:6–Jesus went to “the spiritual realm and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison”; the gospel was preached to the dead; Mt. 27: 52-53 “…graves were opened. Then many… who had died were brought back to life and came out of their graves. And after Jesus’ resurrection, they were plainly seen by many people walking in Jerusalem.” And Jesus’ own words I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Rev. 1:18)

What does that rabbit trail have to do with this week’s passage? Everything! In a couple of chapters we are going to read: For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (6:23). If you do a quick Google search of “Jesus conquered death” you will discover a list of more than 100 Bible verses that support that. One of those verses is 2nd Timothy 1:10 in which Paul writes: This truth is now being unveiled by the revelation of the anointed Jesus, our life-giver, who has dismantled death, obliterating all its effects on our lives, and has manifested his immortal life in us by the gospel. (TPT)

This is getting long, and I must bring it to a close–but I’m fired up–my heart is on fire with love for God and a deep desire for everyone to experience it! The good news of Jesus is really good news!! Paul wants us to understand that Jesus has obliterated the “death” consequence of our sin. He has given us life. We don’t earn it, we don’t behave ourselves into it. God declares us absolutely accepted. Why? Because God is love and we are loved and he wants us to live free in Him, without fear because There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1st John 4:18) And God wants us to be made “perfect”–which means whole; complete. God wants to make us whole in love. How beautiful is that?

When we embrace this truth–the organic response is awe, gratitude, humility, and deep, deep, love for God. When we live in that space, we are in the perfect position to be made perfect (complete, whole) in love. We are free to draw near to God who is right here, and as we do, he transforms us more and more into the likeness of Jesus; the fruit of the Spirit becomes evident in our lives, people are loved and included, and this world begins to look more like the kingdom of heaven. We’ve been gifted Jesus. We’ve been gifted life. We are fully loved! We are being made whole in love! We are accepted–it’s a gift! That’s good news!!

-Luanne

God's Grace ‹ Waters Church Norwood

The Roman Road Less Traveled: The Bad News

Last week we began our series in the book of Romans. Before we get into this week’s text, I want to remind you that the “book” of Romans is actually a letter, written by Paul, to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses, and Paul never intended for a sentence or two to be pulled from the entirety of his letter and used to clobber people. This week, we travel through some verses that have been used to harm others. We must resist that temptation.

I want to begin with the final verses we studied last week: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

And this reminder:

Salvation = That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

Righteousness = Dikaiosýnēequity (of character or act)The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

And from our Sermon on the Mount series: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to youLove your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Continuing with the last becoming first theme, I’m going to begin with the final verse from this week’s passage…

Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (2:4 NLT)

Right before Paul talks about the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (changing the way we think), he lists a number of behaviors and attitudes that separate us from God. That list includes: sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. It includes backstabbers, haters of God, the insolent, proud, and boastful. Also, those who invent new ways of sinning, and disobey their parents, refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy... do whatever shameful things their hearts desired...they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptileswomen turned… to have sex with each other, the men… burned with lust for each other, also people wouldn’t worship God or even give him thanks; and some began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like … (From Romans 1: 21-31) That’s quite the list, don’t you think? Everything from gossip to promiscuity is listed. I find myself on this list and I’m going to make the assumption that you find yourselves on it as well.

And just in case we’re tempted to try to evaluate which shortcomings are most offensive and which are least, Paul writes: You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? 

If these verses frustrate you and you’re ready to give up–remember that this is the bad news part of the letter…but don’t lose hope, the next verse is:

 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you?… Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4)

Last week we looked at Romans 1:1-16 which includes Pauls motivation for his ministry:  Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (14 TPT) And, through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship (v.5)… Notice, again, that Paul lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

I’m so tempted to jump ahead in this letter and not leave us in the bad news. I want to head into the territory of Paul’s message that includes: God loves us all exactly as we are–no one is condemned in Christ Jesus, we are all saved by grace and not by our behavior… and we’ll get there.

But for today, remember that Paul is writing one letter. It’s not divided into chapters and verses. Paul is a trained lawyer and in the “bad news” section he is setting up his argument, that ALL of us truly are a mess–we’re all in this together–so that when we get to the lavishness of God’s grace, we’ll realize how beautiful God is and fall deeply in love with God.

So, the bad news of today’s message: We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. We worship ourselves, we worship created things (in our consumeristic society this is a real battleground). Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices, but God never stops loving us. God never stops expressing kindness toward us. God never gives up on us.

One more quick thought before I pass the baton to Laura–Romans 1:18 says, But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Ouch! In the NLT translation, there is a footnote after the word wickedness which says “Or who, by their wickedness, prevent the truth from being known. God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who prevent the truth from being known. That little footnote gives this verse a completely new context.

As I ponder that footnote, I ponder what truth we prevent from being known. Could it be the truth that God is love. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.?

Could it be people like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces...?(Mt. 23:13)

Do we do that? Do we try to determine who is in and who is out?

As we continue to work our way through this letter, let’s humbly admit our own shortcomings, face our own bad news and our need for grace. Let’s be committed to offering grace and demonstrating God’s kindness to those around us. Let’s not make it hard for people to know they are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven exactly as they are. Let’s not be the reason that people don’t know the truth of how extravagantly they are loved by God. Let’s make it easy for people to enter in…

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am so tempted to jump ahead in this letter, knowing that what is coming changes everything about what we think Paul is saying here. I actually planned to do just that–to take us into Romans chapters 3 and 5, and highlight all the good, beautiful news that Paul’s about to share–until I re-read Luanne’s portion. Sometimes we need to wrestle a thing through when what we really want to do is rush past the conflict it creates in our minds and hearts. This week’s focus is on the bad news, so I’ll choose to stay here, in the discomfort these verses create within me.

I want to highlight something Pastor John mentioned on Sunday. He told us about the Polish astronomer, Copernicus, whose assertion in the 1500s that the earth was not the center of the universe challenged everything he and his contemporaries believed about how the universe worked. There were discoveries that hadn’t yet been made, exploration yet to come that would turn things upside down.

Why does that story matter for us as we look at this week’s passage? Because sometimes we come to scripture assuming we know what it means, the one right way to interpret these words that were recorded thousands of years ago in a different culture and time; words that have passed through many different language translations and interpreters’ modifications. We don’t always know what we think we know–Can we agree together to stay humble enough to invite the Spirit to breathe fresh life into our minds and hearts as we consider these hard passages–and all passages–of scripture? Are we willing to see it from a different perspective? I hope so. There is so much to learn, so much to explore… It’s one of the things I love most about our God, the mystery and wonder and vastness of who he is. There’s always something new I haven’t seen before–and learning more about him and his love never gets old. My prayer is that each of us will desire to go deeper, to explore what’s below the surface as we read.

There are parts of this passage that are hard for me, verses that make me pause and ask some questions, because they don’t seem to line up with the character of God revealed in Jesus. It’s important to pause and ask the questions. Because God’s character doesn’t change. He is love. His disposition toward all of his sons and daughters is kindness and grace. All the time. He doesn’t relate to us through condemnation, shame, guilt, or vengeance. We sometimes project those things onto God and make assumptions about how he feels about us–and passages like the one we’re looking at this week can help us build a case for that if we’re not careful.

But as Luanne reminded us, the “book” and “chapters” of Romans is a letter to a people living in Rome at a specific time in history. She wrote last week that it is, “One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love.” It is essential that we hold tightly to the overall theme that Paul himself told us in the very beginning of this letter he was writing about as we pick up different verses throughout the letter. Sometimes we do the opposite–we grab onto a verse here and there with a white-knuckled grip and let go of the context in which the words are written.

With all of that said, let’s take a moment to explore the “wrath” that Paul brings up in this passage. Verse 18 begins with, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven. . .”

But… Paul is writing this letter post-cross, right? Hadn’t Jesus already absorbed all of our sin and violence on the cross and come back from Hades, after setting its captives free, holding the keys to death itself? Is Paul saying that God has wrath to pour out on humanity even though Jesus already conquered sin and death for the world? That doesn’t make sense… So let’s look a little deeper…

As Luanne wrote above, Paul is making a case, and this week we don’t get to see beyond the prosecution’s case against all of humanity. We’ll get there soon, but for now, there’s a long list of things that appear to separate us from God and cause his wrath to be revealed. But, what if wrath doesn’t mean what we’ve always thought it means? What if God’s nature really is love, and we’ve misunderstood this wrath thing? I’m not writing as someone who knows the right answers. This passage brings up so many questions within me as I read it. But what if we considered a different perspective and asked God to grow our understanding? Can we do that together?

In the book A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, Brad Jersak offers this regarding wrath:

“Literal human ‘wrath’ combines emotional anger with violent retribution. We describe ‘the wages of sin’ (self-destructive consequences) as ‘the wrath of God’ because we infer sin’s consequences as God’s reaction. In actuality, biblical wrath is a metaphor. It signifies the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God.”

Whether we agree fully with this assertion or not, I think it’s worth considering.

With this working definition of wrath, let’s look at the first passage in Ephesians 2:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. . . gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1, 3-5, my emphasis)

Our sin made us all ‘deserving of wrath’–of the intrinsic consequences of turning away from the mercy and love of God–and that wrath led us all the way to death. But… because of his love, God came to us again–all the way around to where we stood with our backs to him, arms crossed in defiance–and stood facing us in the person of Jesus, who conquered death by his life and now holds the keys to every grave. It’s so beautiful.

Later in this same book, the author says:

“Paul clarifies throughout Romans 1, what had been described in the narrative as active wrath is in fact a metaphor. He defines ‘wrath’ three times as the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of people to their own self-destructive trajectories–even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on others.”

This makes sense to me. God doesn’t actively lead us into–or hand us over to–evil, destructive ways. But as the Giver of free-will, he allows us to choose for ourselves who we will serve. When we choose to live in the inexhaustible mercies and grace of God, we don’t experience ‘the wages of sin’. When we choose to step away from the flow of mercy and choose to live for ourselves–make ‘me’ the center of the universe–there are consequences. Harm is done to ourselves and to others.

Luanne explained the same concept this way:

“We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. . . Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices. . .”

So, when Paul–called by some the “Apostle of Grace”–lists the things that God “gave them over” to, he is telling his readers that there are intrinsic consequences to choosing to live a self-centered life. Outside of the flow of God’s mercies (which he never shuts off, but we can choose to live in ignorance of) we find ourselves on a path that leads us to indulge in all kinds of excesses. He writes of the evils that result from selfishness, and includes sexual indulgences that are unnatural to how a person is designed. I do want to note that throughout his list, Paul is not identifying a specific community or group–he is writing an exhaustive list of the consequences of choosing a self-focused, self-indulgent life that doesn’t exhibit the kingdom principles of loving God and loving others.

Finally, as we’ve written about so many times before, we need to be aware of our own filters as we read scripture, and commit to reading everything through the lens of Jesus. Even the writings of Paul, as brilliant and wise and stirring as they are, must be read through a Jesus lens. Does our understanding of a particular passage line up with the nature of God revealed in Jesus? Do our filters line up with kingdom values and the way of self-giving love modeled by Jesus? Do we have an agenda as we read certain parts of our Bibles? Are we searching for something that will back up our positions and personal convictions? Or are we bringing everything back to the good news of Jesus? He is the foundation of our faith. He is the perfect Word who was with God and was God from the beginning, through whom all things were made. (John 1:1-3, paraphrased)

As I close, I’ll say again, I don’t have the answers. I’m wrestling through things I don’t understand, as we all are. What Luanne and I hope to do in this space is dig in and give all of us space to explore what’s buried in the depths. Ultimately, our hearts are totally captured by Jesus and his kingdom, and our desire is to learn and grow into kingdom people who carry his heart to the world around us. What we write here evidences our wrestle, our processes, as we journey with Jesus. We hope you will dig in and do your own exploring, trusting the Spirit as your guide. There is much to be found if we’re willing to learn and listen and grow.

This week’s message brought us what appeared to be some bad news. But this passage is one small portion of a complete letter, and the theme of this letter is grace. Hold on… there’s so much more to come.

–Laura

Paul and the Letter to the Romans, Part 3 | by Church of God, AIC | Medium

The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

Last week we wrapped up our series that covered the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ kingdom manifesto. Sunday, we started a new series that will take us through the book of Romans, believed to be the last of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. Before we dive into this letter, let’s consider the author–Paul (previously known as Saul)–as well as the historical and cultural context into which this letter was written and received.

The book of Acts introduces us to a man named Saul. We first hear about him at the trial and subsequent stoning of Stephen, a servant-leader in the early church. “…Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 7:58b, 59b, NIV) Who was this young man named Saul? Later, in a letter written to the Philippians, he writes of himself:

I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. (Philippians 3:5-6 TPT)

Saul’s credentials identify him as one of the most religious, zealous men of his day. Acts chapter 9 tells us that he breathed out “murderous threats” against followers of Jesus and arrested and imprisoned as many of them–men and women–as he could find.

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. (Philippians 3:7-8, TPT, emphasis mine)

What caused this about-face? How did the murderous, arrogantly righteous Saul become enraptured by the singular passion of knowing Jesus as his Lord? He had an encounter that changed everything. Acts 9 tells the story, which we won’t go into here, but encountering the risen Jesus altered this young man’s course for the rest of his life. Encounters with the real Jesus have a way of doing that…

It is believed that the letter to the Romans was written during Paul’s third missionary journey, around 56 AD. He addresses both Jewish and Gentile believers in his writings, and makes it clear that he is including all those in Rome who are loved by God (Romans 1:7). He expands this thought, as we’ll see throughout the coming weeks, to make clear the power of God to bring salvation to all who believe, without exception. It is important to note, as we begin, that the church grew out of a Jewish culture, in a land under Roman rule, where Greek intellectualism was becoming more and more prevalent. As Pastor John emphasized Sunday, knowing the context as we dig into scripture is extremely important.

Author Tim Stafford wrote in his introduction to Romans in Zondervan’s God’s Justice Bible:

“Paul brings good news about a new king for the ages, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. . . All people, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, are called to put their faith in him. . . to be filled with his Spirit, and as God’s new people to live a life pleasing to him–a life of justice. This new people become the living embodiment of God’s presence on earth. We live, Paul says, in the final act of God’s story. . . For Paul, justice is bigger than politics or sociology, as important as those are. Justice is cosmic, summed up in the reign of Jesus and a world set free.”

This is the set up for the book we’re about to explore. It is packed with theological ideas and stirs questions and considerations that still leave many theologians confounded today. That means the Spirit has new things to teach us, as the Spirit always does, if we’re willing to lean in and learn.

So (finally!), let’s begin…

In Sunday’s message, Pastor John outlined the attitude with which Paul carries himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and what we, as modern-day followers of Jesus, can learn from his example. He covered the first seventeen verses of Romans chapter 1. If you’re at all familiar with the way Paul writes, you know that seventeen verses is a lot of words. So I won’t include the whole passage here. Rather, before I wrap up my portion, I want to come back to something I touched on earlier…

The only reason we have the book of Romans and all of Paul’s other letters in our Bibles today is because Saul had a real, life-altering encounter with Jesus. Without that experience, the Apostle Paul would have remained the zealot Saul, and we might not even know who he is today. What a tragedy that would be. Fortunately, for him and for us, we follow a Jesus who doesn’t disqualify any one of us because of our stories, but rather pursues us in the midst of our mess to infuse and transform our stories into clarion calls for the kingdom of God.

It is precisely because of who Saul was before he met Jesus that he was able to reach the world as Paul, a (willing) slave to Jesus and his ways; called, set apart, and empowered by the Spirit (whom I’ll call Grace, taking my lead from author and theologian Bradley Jersak) to carry the gospel of salvation (we’ll look at this word in more detail in just a moment…) to the world. As Pastor John articulated in his message, we may not have the ‘credentials’ we think we need to do the work we are called by God to do, but our encounters with Jesus transform us. Our encounters, our stories–they speak. Our stories become our credentials.

Back to salvation… this is a word we’ll encounter frequently in our study of Romans. It’s a word that has been used in a variety of ways throughout the history of the Church, one that is important to our understanding of faith and the work of Jesus in our lives. So I want to revisit what the word means in scripture.

In a message Pastor John preached a couple of years ago, he told us that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. I wrote in my portion of the blog that week:

“The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute. The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal. So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

We were in the book of Philippians that week, not Romans, but the Greek word Paul uses in chapter 1 of Romans that is translated into the English word “salvation” is the same word defined above, soteria. On Sunday Pastor John emphasized the safety and security, the invitation into wide open spaces and freedom that is implied in a thorough understanding of the salvation Paul is writing about in this letter. Wholeness, a balm that leads to healing, safety, security, and freedom for all, for everyone–this is the definition of salvation we’ll be referring to during this series. Salvation, as John said in his message, is never about “behavior modification.” That was never God’s idea. Humanity superimposed that framework onto the healing work of Jesus.

However… when we encounter the living Jesus, when his life enters our stories and brings us to life, the healing and wholeness his love brings changes everything–including our behavior, especially identifiable in the way we treat others. Paul writes in Romans 1:14: Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (TPT)

What does he mean when he says that love obligates him? Furthermore, what does it mean for him to identify himself as a slave of Jesus? Don’t these words seem counterintuitive to the idea of salvation that we identified above? It certainly doesn’t sound like freedom, does it?

It is helpful to look at what the word translated “obligates” means in the original language. The Greek word, and its root forms, means to owe, be bound, offer the advantage, and can be used metaphorically to mean, “the goodwill due.” I like that last one best. Because when we encounter the love of Jesus and that love begins to grow in us, we want others to encounter him, too. If I am learning to love my neighbor (all others) in the same way I am loved by Jesus, then I will naturally want to offer in goodwill what I myself have received by grace.

Brad Jersak writes in his book, A More Christlike Way: A More Beautiful Faith,

“By the Grace (transforming energies) of the indwelling Spirit, love becomes a law of nature–our new nature. . . Triune Love is a divine verb Who entered space-time history through the Incarnation. Divine Love necessarily appears or it is not love at all. That act of love is Jesus Christ–the eternal Word enfleshed as perfect, cruciform Love. . . Jesus repeatedly insists that our identity in him be expressed in the Way of our being, humbly demonstrated when his Grace-energized life lifts us up just as he was lifted up–to give ourselves unselfishly, to forgive others supernaturally and to co-suffer with others according to Christ’s compassion and empathy. (Note: Grace is another name for the Holy Spirit, just as Word is another name for Jesus Christ. The transforming Grace who lives in us bears the fruit of love. In fact, all of Grace’s gifts and fruit are expressions of love.)”

“Love becomes a law of nature–our new nature” when we have a personal encounter with Jesus. It is his love and goodness in its power and fullness that so captivates our beings. Enraptured (the literal meaning of “fear of God”) by his love, we willingly choose the same surrendered, self-emptying, cruciform ways of living and loving that Jesus himself modeled. Our willing enslavement is perhaps better understood in terms of a covenant relationship. He has promised and demonstrated his perfect faithfulness, his unconditional love, his with-ness to us; he’s offered us the cup of his love in the manner of a marriage proposal, inviting us to commune with him forever, to allow his life to be born within us and produce kingdom fruit for the world. He himself is irresistible. Paul’s identifying himself as a slave to this Jesus is evidence both of the change in Saul-now-Paul, and also the captivating love and Grace he encountered on that road to Damascus.

My fingers are cramped from typing that last section, because the words flowed out faster than I could write them, like a fire within my bones that had to get out. That passion, that energy, is Grace, the Spirit of Jesus that I have encountered on the most unlikely days, during the ugliest seasons, in the midst of the most destructive choices I’ve made in my life. There are so many labels I could give myself, so many points along the way that I “should” have been disqualified from God’s call on my life to carry his kingdom within this messy, broken vessel. But those labels, those choices–they don’t define me, so I won’t even mention them here. Because I have encountered Jesus and his healing, freeing salvation over and over and over again. And his love has become my law of nature as he changes me and grows life where death once reigned.

There is so much more I could say, so many stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for another week. It’s about time I wrap up my portion and hand this over to Luanne. So I’ll conclude with this… Part of our call as Jesus-followers is to leverage who we are–our stories–and all that we have to carry Jesus to the world. Living as our real selves–with our scars, failures, and every part of our histories–is what makes us effective kingdom-bearers. Our stories are to be leveraged for the kingdom of God. Saul was not disqualified. I am not disqualified. You are not disqualified. We are set apart and empowered by Grace, as slaves only to Jesus, to carry the kindness and love and story of God to the world around us. I think that’s so beautiful.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of setting us up for this series, and I’m not going to add much to what she wrote; however, it is deeply important that we understand Paul’s greeting and the first portion of the letter he wrote to real people in order to set the stage for the rest of the series. A lot of these verses are familiar to us; let’s commit to willingness–willingness to see things through a new lens; to resist the temptation to settle into familiar interpretations, and to pick and choose verses. Paul’s overall message is inclusive and grace-filled…sometimes we miss that. Here we go…

I’m going to be super honest here–people I love have been hurt by verses from the book of Romans; there are scriptures in the book of Romans that have been pulled out of context and used to “other” and harm people, so I want to throw out a reminder–when Paul wrote this letter, it was not divided into chapters and verses. It was written as one long letter. Ten or eleven years ago, I decided to read it as a letter. I read it over, and over, and over again. I read it in multiple translations. I listened to it read to me. I don’t know how many times I read/heard it, but what I came away with is this: Every human being on the face of the planet is messed up. God, through Jesus, entered our mess, introduced us to his all encompassing grace and his incredible unconditional love—for all of us. No one is left out of God’s love. As we move through this book–we must resist the temptation to pull a verse here or a verse there out of context in order to fit a narrative or agenda. Romans is one whole letter with a beautiful overall message.

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

A couple of things to note: In Romans 1:5 Paul writes through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship… Notice that he lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

Continuing in verse 5–the grace that came before the ministry of apostleship empowered Paul …to call all the Gentiles… for his (Jesus) name’s sake. This is a huge statement. Before Jesus, Paul was a fanatical, war-mongering, violent, self-righteous, zealot. After getting to know Jesus, not only does Paul tell the Jewish people that Jesus is their Messiah, he tells them that they are accepted by God; that God’s way is the way of grace; therefore, they are accepted right now. He tells them they are set free from the weight and impossible expectations of the law. And he extends that message to the Gentiles as well.

If you close your eyes and picture “the Gentiles”, who do you see? I most often see people who look like me, which is an inaccurate picture. The Gentiles include every single person who is not Jewish. Revelation 7:9 gives us the description: I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Do we picture this great ethnic diversity when we picture Paul’s audience? The ministry of Paul was ground-breaking. It was radical. It was inclusive. And it was God-called and God-ordained.

Another thing to note: Paul didn’t set himself up over the Roman believers. In verses 11 and 12 he writes: I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

We are all in this together, and each one of us has gifts to bring to the table. We mutually encourage one another. I am deeply grateful to have friends who both challenge and encourage me by what God is showing them, and who allow me to to do the same. New lenses, new understanding, stretching our faith, growing as we share stories of our unique life experiences and what God is teaching us through those experiences–it’s all part of being God’s kingdom-people.

And one last thing to remember as we move through this letter–the most famous verse from this greeting: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

Laura wrote this beautiful definition of salvation based on the original language: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

The power, the energy of God brings healing and wholeness to everyone who believes, then three times Paul writes… righteousness….righteousness…righteous.

What does Paul mean by righteousness? You all, it’s the same word dikaiosýnē that we wrote about in The Sermon on the Mount series. Jesus used this word twice in that sermon: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosyne) for they will be satisfied. And seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (dikaiosyne)…

Dikaiosýnē; equity (of character or act). The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

In some Bibles, the word dikaiosýnē is translated as the word justice–that’s how it is in my Portuguese Bible–blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; seek first the kingdom of God and his justice. It’s hard to grasp the full meaning of this word, since it’s not native to our language, but it encompasses being rightly related to God, being rightly related to others, equity—-shalom…

Equity can be hard for us human beings to grasp. We like to earn/deserve things and compare ourselves to others. We want things to be fair. To the Jews of the day, the fact that God included the Gentiles in the kingdom; the fact that Jesus wasn’t just their promised messiah but the messiah for the whole world; the fact that the Law they had sought to obey in order to have a relationship with God wasn’t required of Gentiles; it all seemed unfair. The first shall be last and the last shall be first doesn’t seem fair. God’s way is the way of equity. Through Jesus, all have the same access to the kingdom of God; to God’s love; to God’s grace…it’s all about God opening the Way to all of us. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t choose who is worthy and who is not. We must pause here and think: is there anyone that you or I think is not included–at least not until they change?

God’s way is not our way. God’s way is not based on human behavior–ours or anyone else’s. God’s way is wide open to everyone everywhere. That’s why it’s such good news!

So Paul says…I’m not ashamed of this inclusive message of God’s healing and wholeness. It’s in this gospel, this good news, that we see the real God. We see God and experience God’s love and grace. We extend to others, for the sake of Jesus, this ministry of grace and love–and it happens as we live by faith.

The righteous will live by faith (NIV) . The just will live by faith. Those wholly conformed to the will of God (dikaiosyne), will live by faith.

One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love. Paul’s letter to Rome. Together, let’s explore the Roman Road Less Traveled.

–Luanne

Poetry of the day: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1874-1963) —  Steemit

Sermon on The Mount: Therefore…

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know we’ve been studying the Sermon on the Mount for months. Since last spring, Pastor John has been taking us through Jesus’ sermon slowly, digging into a few verses each week. Why? Why would we take so many months to study these three chapters of scripture?

It’s because the sermon on the mount is Jesus’ primary teaching on what his kingdom followers are to look like. It’s Jesus’ manifesto. What does that mean? The definition, according to Merriam-Webster states: Manifesto is related to manifest..which means “readily perceived by the senses” or “easily recognized”. . . Something that is manifest is easy to perceive or recognize, and a manifesto is a statement in which someone makes his or her intentions or views easy for people to ascertain. Jesus is making clear who his followers are to be, and how we will be recognized.

Before we get to this week’s verses, let’s briefly recap: Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down to teach. He begins with the beatitudes–blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the pure in heart… blessed are the peacemakers….blessed are the persecuted for Jesus’ sake… For theirs is the kingdom of heaven… they will be comforted… they will inherit the earth… they will be filled… they will be shown mercy… they will see God…, they will be called children of God… theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next comes You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, followed by Jesus’ statement that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, which is followed by his first therefore.

Therefore–anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven

Jesus then moves into the six You have heard it said…but I say to you...statements, where he reinterprets their understanding of the law, reminding them that it’s always about the heart rather than their behavior. He reminds his followers to be reconcilers, to be faithful, to be quick to offer grace, to be loving toward all–especially our enemies. His second therefore comes in the middle of this section…Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (5:23-24) Again, Jesus is highlighting the importance of relationship in God’s kingdom. When there is conflict, we lovingly address it. Blessed are the peacemakers—it matters.

Following this, he talks his hearers through three pillars of their faith: give, pray, fast. They would have been familiar with these actions, but again, Jesus is reinterpreting their understanding. Give to the needy, pray and fast in secret…do these things as part of an intimate relationship with God, not to be “seen” by others.

Next: Store up treasures in heaven, keep your eyes on God, seek God’s kingdom first and foremost and don’t worry; God will take care of you. Jesus third therefore comes in this section. Right after he says you can’t serve both God and money” he teaches Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. . .. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  (6: 25)

Jesus teaches his listeners– don’t judge others–ask, seek, knock, learn to discern, and the Golden rule: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.

Following this, Jesus teaches us to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life, teaches us to discern false prophets who can be recognized by their fruit and then his fourth therefore:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…(7:24)

You all, it is so important that we hear the words of Jesus, not the words someone else told us about Jesus. There is a stream of Christianity in the United States today that does not look like Jesus. It is known for being mean, judgmental, exclusive, divisive. It “others” people and determines who is in and who is out. There are others who teach that the evidence of God’s favor is worldly wealth–treasures on earth. There are some who teach that the kingdom of heaven is aligned with worldly power and if one is going to be “in” one must align oneself with that power’s philosophy.

Does Jesus teach any of that in his sermon?

Jesus is about the inward transformation of his followers. That transformation comes as we spend time with him–as we immerse ourselves in his words–as we seek first his kingdom.

Therefore–if anyone hears these words of mind and puts them into practice...

Are we hearing the words of Jesus? Are we practicing what we learn?

Pastor John reminded us that Jesus isn’t creating a separate, conduct based, Christian culture. He is forming a regenerated, redeemed culture, who return to the culture they came out of living lives so inviting that others are attracted to Jesus–others will discover who Jesus is by who we are.

Who we are…

Are we beatitude people? Are we sermon on the mount people? Are we salt and light?

Jesus finishes his sermon with this:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock… (7: 24-25)

These words of minethese words from this sermon–and lives them out, is building on The Rock–and living this kingdom-minded way is wise and keeps the chaos of this world from destroying us.

One last thought before I close. The sermon ends with Matthew letting us know that the the crowds were amazed at his teaching,  because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (7:28-29)

Then chapter 8 begins with:

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” (v.1-3)

Jesus taught on the mountainside, came down and demonstrated what it means to put his words into practice. In the midst of the large crowd following him, Jesus gave his full attention to one sick, oppressed, outcast man. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, if you listen well to my words, and pay attention to who I bring across your path, if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

Are we willing? Will we sit with Jesus, hear his words–and then put them into practice?

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us, even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence, experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

–Luanne

As I read through Luanne’s words, I prayed about where to go and how to wrap up my portion of our final sermon on the mount message. She covered what Pastor John brought before us on Sunday in a beautiful and comprehensive way, so I’m going to do something a little different.

We began this series in April, and we have now written tens of thousands of words about this sermon that has captivated our hearts. So I’m going to revisit the words we’ve written over these many weeks, and remind us all of the journey we’ve taken together. For the sake of readability, I won’t indicate who wrote what in each paragraph or which week it was pulled from–the snapshot below contains a combination of my words and Luanne’s in fairly equal measure.

Here we go, starting at the beginning:

May we learn well from our Teacher as we dig into his words over these next weeks and months. The kingdom of heaven is here, friends, and if we can embody the ways of this upside-down kingdom, it might begin to change the world…

God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping at what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.

This sermon pushes back against the kingdoms we build that revolve around ourselves and invites us to join him in his kingdom of self-emptying love, where everyone has a seat at the table and no one is elevated above another. It is a kingdom where no one has too little and no one has too much, where we recognize value and worth as inherent to each one as children created and formed in the image of God. It is a kingdom where barriers are broken and flourishing is the result; where conflict finds its end in connection and brokenness is the doorway to wholeness. This is the way of Jesus–The question is: Do we really want to live like this?

Our “being” is not what we do. It’s who we are–our very essence.  Remaining connected to Jesus is the key to the beatitude way of being, leading to the natural outflow of “flavoring” the world with his principles, his ways, his heart, his love, him.

When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love… Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of beingas God originally intended. Jesus was not in any way setting the Law aside or replacing it. He came to expand it, to show that their understanding of the commandments of God was skin deep. And nothing we put on our outsides has the power to transform what is inside. Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word…Jesus Christ himself.

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

 The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way. . . So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth. Do we want that?

Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected-to-the- vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

When we seek first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” God will take care of the rest. Our total dependence is upon him. The entirety of The Lord’s Prayer points us to Jesus. He taught his followers to ask God for the one thing that meets every last need–himself. . . We are asking God to daily–every day and forever–give us Jesus. We are declaring our understanding that God’s kingdom came–and comes, still–through Jesus, that the will of God is displayed in Jesus, as he perfectly shows us how to love God with all that we are and how to love all others as ourselves. We are asking for the broken bread and living water that satisfies our souls. We are expressing our need to be led by the one who modeled and continues to teach us what forgiveness looks like.

In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, to let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and to be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

. . .We have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount: What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded that the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation. We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

Love God, love people, treat others well–this is the fruit of being connected to Jesus–the fruit of the Spirit-filled life. It’s what faith lived out on planet earth looks like… This is how we become the answer to the prayer, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth…”

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. . . Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated. . . So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

We continue to come back to the same things during this series, because Jesus continued to say the same things. Throughout the whole sermon. Over and over, in different ways, so as to clearly invite all of his listeners into the kingdom he presented. It seems he really wanted us to hear his heart–which is always full of love toward all, a cruciform, self-emptying love that always moves toward others. His focus was not death and destruction, but on life and abundance. He came as the image of the invisible God, the God who IS love. So Jesus, then, is the embodiment of love. And he invites us once again to join him on this narrow way of abiding in him so that his life can grow in us and produce good fruit that can be shared with the world around us. God never gives up; however, in order for God to work in us, we must choose the narrow way, the abiding way. We must remain connected to God–abide in God’s love, abide in God’s presence, abide in The Vine, then the power, the energy of transformation that allows us to produce the Spirit’s fruit and carry out God’s loving will is made evident to those around us.

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us–even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence–experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

So, what will our response be to all that we’ve learned over the last five months? Are we willing? Do we really want to live like this? Is Jesus our first love? Do we really want to live according to the ways of the kingdom? Knowing all that we know now? Can we envision a new tomorrow full of life and hope and flourishing for all? Are we willing to remain connected to the Vine until his life in us produces kingdom fruit for the world around us?

Our answers to these questions matter more than we know. The trajectory of the Church in the U.S.A. and her witness to the rest of the world will be set by our collective response to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is the Word. The Light. The image of God and the embodiment of Love itself. His kingdom is here. It is now. And it changes everything. Let’s join him.

–Laura