Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 13

The last time we wrote, we discussed Romans 11, which ends with this beautiful doxology:

Who could ever wrap their minds around the riches of God, the depth of his wisdom, and the marvel of his perfect knowledge? Who could ever explain the wonder of his decisions or search out the mysterious way he carries out his plans? For who has discovered how the Lord thinks or is wise enough to be the one to advise him in his plans? Or: “Who has ever first given something to God that obligates God to owe him something in return?” And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen! (Romans 11:33-36 TPT)

We discussed the mystery of God, and explored the grace and love that reveal his heart toward us:

 “Just as God’s grace is born out of who he is–Love itself–so our grace is born out of us also embodying the love of God toward one another. We aren’t the manufacturers of grace, nor does love have its origin in humanity-thank God. We are vessels that carry and outshine God’s love and grace that we have encountered.

We landed on the truth that real love and real grace look like Jesus.

Then we took last week off, but because Romans is one continuous letter, I don’t want to move onto this week’s material without connecting what we studied last week.

What we call chapter 11 ended here: And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen!

The very next words Paul writes, the beginning of chapter 12, are:

Beloved friends, what should be our proper response to God’s marvelous mercies? I encourage you to surrender yourselves to God to be his sacred, living sacrifices. And live in holiness, experiencing all that delights his heart. For this becomes your genuine expression of worship. (Romans 12:1-2, TPT)

From here, Paul encourages the body of the Church–one whole made up of many parts–to embrace and honor their individual gifts and use them to keep the body functioning well. As Pastor Aaron preached about, there is a call for all members of the body to work together in harmony (vs. 3-8). Then Paul gives us a list of what our relationships with all people ought to look like when we’re functioning as a healthy body under the leadership of Christ. I am going to include the full list here, and I’m using the Message paraphrase, because it invites us to think differently about verses that might be fairly familiar to us:

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. (vs. 9-21, emphasis mine)

I included so much of chapter 12 because it is so, so, so important that we keep this letter in context as we move into another set of verses that have been widely misused and taken out of context. We have discussed the importance of remembering that Romans is one continuous letter in nearly every post we’ve written during this series. We don’t mean to be redundant. There is a reason we keep bringing it up. It is because a few verses, pulled away from their original context, can be used to do so much harm. We have seen this throughout history. Scripture has been used to justify slavery, patriarchy, sexism, racism, militarism, nationalism–even genocide. None of those represent the heart of God. None of those were facets of Jesus’ character as he walked the earth revealing God to humanity. So we have to be so careful that we don’t misuse the scriptures that are meant to lead us deeper into God to keep others away from experiencing his love–which is often the disastrous result of taking scripture out of context.

Pastor John opened his message on Sunday by telling us about his trust in and respect for scripture. He added that what he doesn’t so easily trust are many interpretations of scripture. He referred to others’ interpretations and also discussed the way we each interpret what we read through our own understanding. I agree with him on both fronts. As individuals, we must be discerning and committed to listening well to the voice of the Spirit over other voices that want to tell us how to think about a particular verse or passage. We also must remember that our own limited understanding is not a reliable source of interpretation–especially when we consider passages that have been widely misunderstood–and even used to cause harm–for centuries. I am reminded of the exhortation found in Proverbs:

Place your trust in the Eternal; rely on Him completely; never depend upon your own ideas and inventions.
Give Him the credit for everything you accomplish, and He will smooth out and straighten the road that lies ahead. And don’t think you can decide on your own what is right and what is wrong…
(Proverbs 3:5-7a, Voice)

A more familiar translation of these verses says, “Lean not on your own understanding.” When we look at Romans 13, it is important that we don’t lean on our own understanding. Our understanding is informed by our own context–where we live, our culture and upbringing, our political beliefs, family structures, and life experiences. I hope that as we continue to learn and explore difficult passages, we will each grow in our ability to recognize these things in ourselves, and how they inform our opinions and understanding of what we read.

The first seven verses in Romans 13 address how we as followers of Jesus are to relate to “governing authorities.” I looked into the original meaning of the words Paul used in these verses, and while I don’t have time to go into all that I found, I will say this: I don’t think these verses mean what we think they mean… I have already written a lot of words and don’t have the time to go into a full discussion about what I discovered, but I will say this–the word translated “authorities” in our scriptures is defined by Strong’s concordance in four main ways. The last definition Strong’s gives is the only one that has any inkling of government-like authority. The other definitions relate “governing authorities” to an idea much more like a “higher power.” Interestingly, submission to the guidance of a higher power is much more in line with what Paul outlined as the way for followers of Jesus to live in the previous two chapters than a hard turn into political discourse and government leaders would be.

We have to remember, again, that Paul was a skilled lawyer, and he was writing to people living under Roman rule–the most powerful government in the world at that time. Of course he would write in terms that made sense to them. But if we’ve learned anything at all about Paul, it is that there’s always more than meets the eye in his writing. We have to be willing to dig deeper to uncover what he’s really getting at, and doing so means stepping away from the way we’ve always understood some of these verses, and making sure that our conclusions do not stand in opposition to the character of God revealed in Jesus. We absolutely cannot use the voice of Paul to silence the voice of Christ, which we have discussed so many times here.

Pastor John asserted that this is not a political passage. I agree wholeheartedly, though it has been, and continues to be, widely used as such. After these first seven verses, Paul makes his way back to familiar territory that connects the whole thought to the rest of the letter. He writes things like:

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except your outstanding debt to continually love one another, for the one who learns to love has fulfilled every requirement of the law. (13:8, TPT)

And he finishes out this passage with the exhortation to, “. . . clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” (13:14)

Again, this letter was not originally broken up into chapters and verses, so I thought I’d peek ahead at the first verse of what we call chapter 14. It says: “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do.” Then Paul goes on to talk more about how we relate to one another–it’s all about living as imitators of Jesus in relationship to others. The same thing Paul has been writing about since the opening lines of this letter. Considering the themes that are clearly threaded throughout the entire manuscript, wouldn’t it be odd for Paul to depart from those ideas for seven short verses to address the actual (and often unjust and oppressive) government they were living under? I think that would be odd. And I will continue to dig in and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal truth to me about what these words really mean, because I know my own understanding is limited, and I don’t want to remain in that place. I hope you’ll do the same as we continue this journey of discovery together.

–Laura

I’m so glad that Laura revisited Chapter 12 and reminded us again that what we call “the book of Romans” is actually a letter that is not separated into chapters and verses. Chapters and verses help us with our “study” of scripture, but can also be a detriment because we have a tendency to come to chapters or subheadings and assume that the context of that section stands alone. It doesn’t.

Pastor John reminded us that we have a tendency to center ourselves or our culture when we read scripture, bending the interpretation to fit our reality and our desires. This type of understanding can lead to scriptural justification of abuse and oppression which, as Laura mentioned, is never the intent of God’s heart. Romans 13:1-5 is that type of passage and has been used by oppressors and those wanting to align with earthly power to excuse poor authoritarian behavior and abuses of power in order to further their own agendas .

So, what do these verses say?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

As a stand alone passage that seems really clear. But, following Laura’s example, let’s back up to the end of chapter 12…

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good...

And then chapter 13… Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,… or as the King James translates that verse: Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

The word “higher” can also be translated “better, excellent, supreme…”

And get this...”powers” in this verse is the Greek word “exousia” which can also be translated:“authority, right, liberty, jurisdiction, strength”, and refers to both physical and mental strength.

Start putting some of those words together and then think about what Paul has been writing about in his letter up to this point. In a nutshell, he keeps coming back over and over to God’s love, God’s grace, God’s gift of relationship through Jesus, our relationships with one another as a result of believing and receiving the gift of grace from God, and the reminder that we no longer live according to “the law”. To borrow from the definitions above, we live under the higher power, the supreme jurisdiction, the excellent liberty, to love our neighbor well, to choose peace over violence, to live the Jesus way.

In chapter 12, Paul who is in prison for preaching that Jesus is Lord (and not the Jewish Law or Caesar) reminded the Roman Christians not to take revenge, not to be overcome by evil, but to treat people, including enemies, with respect.

So, what should we make of Paul’s words about doing what is right, not rebelling against authority, etc.?

In every society, there is a civil law that helps communities function well, and there are authorities in place to enforce civil law. To obey civil law is wise. Not to obey civil law leads to trouble. Think about what it feels like to be speeding and all of a sudden pass an exit with a state trooper on the entrance ramp. Uh oh! Dread. Civil law has been broken, and the civil authority has the right to enforce that law. We pray those with civil authority will use it responsibly to serve and protect, not harm and abuse. God, all the way back in the establishment of the nation of Israel, set forth the 10 Commandments which could be seen as civil law; however, if we look carefully at the commandments, they are a very practical way of demonstrating what it looks like to love God–heart, soul, mind, and strength- and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. AND, in doing that, if the excellent liberty we have found in Christ comes into opposition with worldly authority, we go with the higher jurisdiction of the kingdom of heaven and accept the consequences that come.

Daniel, in the Old Testament, was not going to pray to Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel didn’t create a big scene, he just continued to pray to God. Daniel got arrested and thrown in the lion’s den. He made himself subject to the consequences imposed by the ruling civil authorities without bowing to their misguided attempts to control and/or obliterate his worship of God.

One of the most beautiful examples of choosing God’s way over the world’s way is the encounter of Jesus and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. Jesus, in his life and ministry reminded people to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what was God’s (Mt. 22)–he was respecting civil authority, yet he did not submit to the oppressive authoritarian religious structure of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, nor to the authoritarian structure of Roman law. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ obedience to God’s higher authority put him in conflict with the powers of the world. He loved the people who were inebriated by their power, and therefore spoke truth to them, which led to his arrest.

 In the garden commotion, Peter, in an effort to defend Jesus, pulled out his sword and injured a soldier. Jesus immediately instructed Peter to put away the sword and healed the soldier’s wound. Then, Jesus subjected himself to worldly authorities without violence, without using all the power he had at his disposal as almighty God in human flesh, he did no harm to others for the sake of his own agenda. When Jesus was being questioned by Pilate, he respectfully spoke truth. Pilate was moved by Jesus and wanted to let him go, but instead he followed the wishes of the violent mob and power structures of the day and sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. Then, as Jesus hung on the cross and asked God to forgive those who’ve done this to him–a Roman Centurion experienced the higher power of God’s love and exclaimed “This man truly was the son of God”. (Mt. 27:54) God’s higher way leads people to him.

So, let’s go back to imprisoned Paul who has told us not to seek revenge, to overcome evil with good, to obey civil law, and see what he says after these first five verses of Chapter 13…

In verses 6-7 he encourages the church to pay taxes, and not be in debt except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8) That’s the heart of the message of Christ that Paul preaches.

In verses 9 and 10, Paul reminds us that whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law…and the chapter finishes with a reminder to clothe [ourselves] with the Lord Jesus Christ.

So can we take Paul’s first five verses and use them to abuse people and power? Yes. But why would we when we know the ways of Christ?

Jesus told Pilate: “The royal power of my kingdom realm doesn’t come from this world. If it did, then my followers would be fighting to the end to defend me from the Jewish leaders. My kingdom realm authority is not from this realm.” (John 18:36 TPT) Jesus’ realm, his supreme jurisdiction, leads to a more excellent liberty, and a more beautiful world.

As Laura reminded us above, let’s not lean on our own understanding. Instead, let’s choose to be citizens of the kingdom realm of Jesus, clothing ourselves in him, laying down our arms and loving others as he has loved us–against such things there is no law.

–Luanne

Proverbs 3:5 – Breathing

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 11

Who could ever wrap their minds around the riches of God, the depth of his wisdom, and the marvel of his perfect knowledge? Who could ever explain the wonder of his decisions or search out the mysterious way he carries out his plans? For who has discovered how the Lord thinks or is wise enough to be the one to advise him in his plans? Or: “Who has ever first given something to God that obligates God to owe him something in return?” And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen! (Romans 11:33-36 TPT)

The above verses are the conclusion of Paul’s written wrestling match over his people rejecting Jesus– the subject of chapters 9-11. Paul, in this portion of his letter, is wrestling over the fact many Gentiles are responding to the message of God’s grace and believing in the work and person of Jesus while many Jews are not. It breaks Paul’s heart, so he is lamenting, he is processing, he is questioning, and he is seeking understanding. All of these things have a place in our faith walk, but pay attention to where Paul lands–read the above verses again. He acknowledges that in God there is mystery. We don’t understand all there is to know about God. We won’t understand all there is to know about God. If we could fully explain God, he wouldn’t be God.

Paul’s understanding of this, reminds me of the beautiful words of Isaiah 55–

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost…. Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.

Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you….Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel…

 Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts...”

(excerpts from Isaiah 55:1-9 NIV)

So, with the mystery that we cannot understand and the thoughts and ways of God in mind, what can we know about God? What has he revealed to us?

John 3:16; For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

1 John 4:9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

1 John 4:16b God is love

And from Paul’s pen in this very letter: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (5:8)

Also from this letter…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:38-39)

So back to Romans 11. Paul affirms that God has not rejected Israel, and uses himself as proof of that. Paul points out in verse 20 that the Jews are not currently grafted in because of their unbelief and in verse 23, God is more than ready to graft back in the natural branches when they turn from clinging to their unbelief to embracing faith. (TPT). Why? Because God loves them!

Paul addresses another issue in Romans 11, and it’s one that we need to pay attention to, especially in these days of incredible division where Jesus’ name being used among groups that bear no resemblance to the Jesus revealed in the gospels. It would appear that the Gentile believers were forgetting that they were saved by grace alone and thinking that they were better than those who were rejecting the message of Christ, so Paul says to them: So don’t be so arrogant as to believe that you are superior to the natural branches. There’s no reason to boast, for the new branches don’t support the root, but you owe your life to the root that supports you! (11:18 TPT). I love that translation. We owe our lives to the root that began when God made a covenant with Abraham which was fulfilled in Christ–that root supports us, not vice-versa.

So, we’re back to Paul’s overarching message of his letter to the Romans. God loves us, all of us. God extends his grace to all of us. We don’t work ourselves or behave ourselves into a relationship with God. We come into a relationship with God by receiving his grace. That’s the path. Paul reminds us of this in verse 6:…And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace...

God’s grace is not because of us and our behavior. God’s grace is because of the goodness, the kindness, and the unconditional love God lavishes upon all of us. When we truly grasp that we are deeply loved and so is everyone else, comparison and self-righteousness dissipate, and humility, gratitude and love for God and people grow within us.

I write about the fruit of the Spirit all the time. When we are connected to the vine (Jesus), the root who supports us, we begin to look like Jesus in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)

The Apostle John, in his first letter, makes clear what people who are in real relationship with God act like. He writes:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son…since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them… We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:7-8, 10, 16, 19-21)

I don’t put these verses in here to say “let’s just all get along”. To love means to wrestle. To love means to address issues that are harmful and divisive. To love means to be in the nitty gritty with one another. To love means to help each other grow in Christ. To love requires both humility and strength. Paul does this. He is direct in his approach and addresses conflict frankly (remember he’s an attorney), but he makes clear that his motivation is for all people to know the incredible love of God through Christ. On the other hand, even with all of his vast knowledge, he is willing to admit that he doesn’t know it all.

Paul admits that he can’t explain the mystery of God, he can’t explain why Jesus is so appealing to Gentiles but not yet to his own people. He wants to be able to explain it, but in the end he comes to the conclusion that God’s wisdom and riches are too vast for him to understand, and he leaves it there.

What Paul can explain is what he himself has experienced personally. God is love. All people mess up. God’s grace covers all. We are loved. God desires a relationship with all of us and proved that in Jesus, even while we were his enemies. Paul also explains that following religious rules is death, but a relationship with Jesus is life. Paul shows us that he loves people by embracing Gentiles, and by agonizing over his own people’s rejection of Jesus, and in that love he is committed to praying, to sharing, to reaching out to everyone he meets.

How about us? Are we able to share the things of God we’ve experienced personally? Are we able to understand that we won’t understand it all? Are we willing to live in that mystery? Do we know, that in the end, it’s all about love? Do we live as if that’s true?

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “…in God there is mystery. We don’t understand all there is to know about God. We won’t understand all there is to know about God. If we could fully explain God, he wouldn’t be God.”

One of the most mysterious things about our God is the manifestation of his grace in our lives. We can’t define it well or understand it fully, but when we experience it, we know. It is impossible to walk away from an encounter with Grace unchanged. Defining it is difficult, because comprehension isn’t what God is after. He longs for us not to understand, but to receive the grace he offers. Luanne said it this way, “We come into a relationship with God by receiving his grace. That’s the path. Paul reminds us of this in verse 6:…And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace…”

Fr. Richard Rohr writes of grace, As John says, “From this fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16), or grace responding to grace gracefully” might be an even more accurate translation. To end in grace you must somehow start with grace, and then it is grace all the way through.”

To end in grace, you must somehow start with grace…

Let that sink in for a moment. I can’t help but think of the beginning of the book of John…

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning. And through his creative inspiration this Living Expression made all things, for nothing has existence apart from him! (John 1:1-3, TPT)

To end in grace, you must somehow start with grace… Nothing has existence apart from him… The grace of God, then, existed from the beginning. Grace didn’t come onto the scene once we needed it. Grace was present, an integral part of the story from the very beginning. Later in John 1, this thought is expanded, as the gospel writer explains who Jesus is and what he brought to humanity:

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 taught the truth about him when he announced to the people, “He’s the One! Set your hearts on him!
I told you he would come after me, even though he ranks far above me, for he existed before I was even born.” And now out of his fullness we are fulfilled! And from him we receive grace heaped upon more grace! Moses gave us the Law, but Jesus, the Anointed One, unveils truth wrapped in tender mercy. No one has ever gazed upon the fullness of God’s splendor except the uniquely beloved Son, who is cherished by the Father and held close to his heart. Now he has unfolded to us the full explanation of who God truly is!
(John 1:14-18)

From him–Jesus–we receive grace heaped upon more grace, as part of the full explanation of who God truly is. Pondering these truths can leave my mind spinning–there’s so much I’ll never understand. But I don’t have to understand it; my job–like yours–is to simply receive it. Only, that’s difficult sometimes, isn’t it? It’s why we get trapped in try-hard living, why we live under a burden of shame, because grace just doesn’t make sense to our humanity. In one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, The Broken Way, Ann Voskamp writes these words:

“Is there a grace that can bury the fear that your faith isn’t big enough and your faults are too many? A grace that washes your dirty wounds and wounds the devil’s lies? A grace that embraces you before you prove anything–and after you’ve done everything wrong? A grace that holds you when everything is breaking down and falling apart–and whispers that everything is somehow breaking free and falling together. . .”

Ann goes on to say, “. . . Shame is a bully but grace is a shield. You are safe here. What if the busted and broken hearts could feel there’s a grace that holds us and calls us Beloved and says we belong and no brokenness ever has the power to break us away from being safe? What if we experienced the miracle grace that can touch all our wounds. . . No shame. No fear. No hiding. All is grace. It’s always safe for the suffering here. You can struggle and you can wrestle and you can hurt and we will be here. Grace will meet you here. . .

We all want to believe that, don’t we? That grace will meet us “here,” wherever that means for each of us?

Pastor John spoke to us on Sunday about parts of Paul’s story and also Elijah’s. He told us that they both experienced grace when that they were the furthest away from God, and even when they were full to the brim with their own pride. As he talked about their stories, I nodded in agreement, because, yeah, it’s true… God’s grace often explodes into our lives during the worst scenes, when we would least expect to have such an encounter. God steps into those moments and the shock of finding grace there–even there–leaves us all a little bit speechless sometimes, doesn’t it? God takes that opportunity, when we’re in awe of his presence, to show us who he really is, just as he did in the lives of Paul, Elijah, and so many others we meet on the pages of scripture. Has this been true for you?

It has for me. In the moments I have felt most ashamed of my story, as well as in the moments I have been most arrogant, most certain about my “good standing” before the God of the universe–these are the moments I’ve experienced collisions with Grace. It doesn’t always feel good–but there is no mistaking that it’s God. Grace is disorienting, and that is exactly what we need before we can reorient our lives around Christ as our center. Paul really understood this, because he experienced quite the collision. And he wanted everyone else to experience the grace and the love that he had come to know himself.

Grace is evidence of God’s lavish love for all, as Luanne wrote about above. And when we receive that grace and love, it begins to grow inside of us so that we can love one another in the same way. Luanne wrote, following the beautiful passage from 1 John, “I don’t put these verses in here to say “let’s just all get along”. To love means to wrestle. To love means to address issues that are harmful and divisive. To love means to be in the nitty gritty with one another. To love means to help each other grow in Christ.”

When we say it’s all about love, and we emphasize God’s grace, we’re not watering anything down. Real, committed, lasting love that means anything at all requires everything. Our whole selves have to be invested in loving or it’s not love (See 1 Corinthians 13 for more on this). And the ability to extend grace to one another is directly related to our ability to love. Grace can’t exist apart from love. Just as God’s grace is born out of who he is–Love itself–so our grace is born out of us also embodying the love of God toward one another. We aren’t the manufacturers of grace, nor does love have its origin in humanity-thank God. We are vessels that carry and outshine God’s love and grace that we have encountered. Ann Voskamp has this to say about what love lived out looks like:

“Love is the willingness to be interrupted. Interrupt comes from the Latin word ‘interrumpere’, meaning “break into.” Love is the willingness to be broken into. There are never interruptions in a day–only manifestations of Christ. Your theology is best expressed in your availability and your interruptability–the ability to be broken into. This is the broken way. This is all love. And I hadn’t known–I will only love as well as I let myself be broken into.”

Can we let love be made real in us in the way Ann describes, so that out of that love, and out of gratitude for the grace we have received, we can extend grace to others? It’s the way of Jesus, the way of his Kingdom, and the only way forward during tumultuous times. Love requires us to look at the brokenness with eyes wide open, to be willing to wrestle, to address the problems and work toward reconciling them equitably. It is not the easy way of apathy and living with blinders on to the pain of the world. It’s the broken way of seeing the truth and letting it break our own hearts enough to move toward all the other broken ones, arms extended wide in love and grace, inviting all to come in and wrestle things through together. Real love, real grace, looks like that–it looks like Jesus.

–Laura

Graceful measures... We each need a lot of grace, and we need to give a lot  too. The more you give the more… | Grace quotes, Ann voskamp quotes,  Inspirational words

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 10

As we move into chapter 10 of Romans, I want to remind us once again that this is a portion of a complete letter. I think we’ve said something about that every week of this series so far. Our repetition is on purpose. We want you to know, and we ourselves have to remember as we write, that we are breaking Paul’s writings down into parts of a whole. Each section must be considered alongside the others, set firmly within the context it was written. Why do we keep saying things like this? Because Romans can be challenging. The manner in which Paul writes can be confusing. And too many parts of this complete letter have been taken out of context and weaponized to cause harm as well as stir conflict among followers of Jesus. We don’t want to contribute to the confusion, nor do we ever want to cause harm. So it is important to both of us that we consider the whole letter even as we break it down into smaller portions.

With that in mind, I want to remind us of a few points Luanne asked us to remember last week:

Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.

Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.

God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.

. . . God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him.

Chapter 10 begins much like chapter 9 ends. Paul continues to lament that the Israelites’ hearts have not yet been awakened to the good news of Jesus:

My beloved brothers and sisters, the passionate desire of my heart and constant prayer to God is for my fellow Israelites to experience salvation. For I know that although they are deeply devoted to God, they are unenlightened. And since they’ve ignored the righteousness God gives, wanting instead to be acceptable to God because of their own works, they’ve refused to submit to God’s faith-righteousness. For the Christ is the end of the law… (Romans 10:1-4a, TPT)

I won’t spend too long here, but I do want to highlight that “salvation” in this passage is the word that has its roots in sōzō, a word you’re familiar with if you’ve read this blog for a while. If you’re new here, we love this word! It means to keep safe, to rescue from danger; to preserve; to heal; to make whole. The cry of Paul’s heart is for his people, whom he deeply loves, to be made whole and complete in Jesus. He longs to see their zeal lead them into the fullest, most complete understanding of God–that God was made visible in Jesus, and that their wholeness and their healing is found in him alone. He is passionate that these people who are deeply devoted to God, come to see–as he had–that their own righteousness and devotion can’t save them. They don’t have the power to make themselves whole and complete. Their adherence and commitment to the law had made the law their God. This idolatry clouded their vision and they couldn’t see that the One their scriptures had been pointing to all along was Jesus–the fulfillment of the law–whose righteousness flows through all who trust and abide in him.

(A brief note: “Righteousness” in this passage is the Greek word dikaiosynē, another word we’re kind of obsessed with because, at its root, it is defined as the setting-all-things-right, shalom justice of God. It is connected to the wholeness, healing, completeness, and restoration–the sōzō–of all things.)

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday that this picture Paul paints of the Israelites’ devotion to the law–their religiosity–is not unfamiliar to us. They wanted to be religious enough to find favor with God. Do we do that? Do you? I know a lot about living this way. Gratefully, I don’t live in this space anymore, but for most of my life, this is the water I swam in nearly drowned in. I fully believed that I had to earn God’s love–and everyone else’s. I was taught how to do and keep doing. I had no idea I was allowed to be, to stop striving and hustling for the worth that was already mine simply by existing as one who is dearly loved by my creator.

It took a lot of years for me to understand that God’s love is complete, all-encompassing, unconditional, perfect. God does not withhold love from us. It is the air we breathe and the water we’re already swimming in, whether we’re aware of it or not. I had gotten caught in a pocket of stagnant water that looked “right” at first glance, but was toxic to my soul. Fortunately, my little toxic pool was never separated from the gaze of God and never fully isolated from the ocean of grace. Tidal waves of Jesus’ love crashed into my stagnant pool, bringing life to the dead theology that told me my salvation depended on my own efforts (which was great news, because I had all but given up on trying and had made quite the mess of things).

Romans 10:8, quoting Deuteronomy 30:14, tells us how very close God’s love is to us at all times:

“God’s living message is very close to you, as close as your own heart beating in your chest and as near as the tongue in your mouth.” (TPT)

Even when we resist it…

Even when we’re blind to it…

Even when we actively choose something else…

Even when we’re pretty good at being “good’…

Even when our own goodness usurps the role of God in our lives…

Even when we think our own righteousness is enough…

…we are not rejected by our God.

God’s ‘living message’–Jesus–keeps coming for us. He is with us as Emmanuel. He pursues us, and meets us on our own religious roads to offer us a better way. As the verse above states, he’s as close as our own heartbeat, and he’s not going anywhere. He is patient, kind, and his goodness is greater than we will ever, in our humanity, be able to comprehend. There is nothing we can do to receive more love–we are already fully loved by God. The love God has for us is not based on anything we do or don’t do. It’s based on the very character of the One who chose to become enfleshed in our humanity and walk this earth to show us the true nature of his heart toward his creation. We don’t have to do more or be more to try to get more. We can’t possible get more than we’ve already been given.

Pastor John asked us, “What’s the story that has a hold on you?” It’s a question worth sitting with for a while. There is one story–the best story–that changes everything. One that has the power to set things right and heal what’s broken. It’s the story of Jesus–the good news that Paul so desperately longed for all people to accept and understand. What story are you believing?

–Laura

Laura asks us a good question. What story are you believing? What do you believe about God? What do you believe about God’s love, God’s approval, God’s acceptance of you? What do you believe about salvation? Do you believe, that in addition to Jesus’ victory over death, salvation (sōzō) means to keep safe, to rescue from danger; to preserve; to heal; to make whole? Do you believe that God deeply desires that for you and for the entire world–that he truly wants to make all things new?

As we each continue to walk with Christ, it’s always a good idea think through what we’re believing and why. Paul’s lament for his fellow Israelites comes from the fact that they were believing their theology over the living God who had revealed himself fully in the person of Jesus. They are grounded and rooted in their tradition and their understanding of how to become acceptable to God. And here’s the deal–their understanding is biblical, but their understanding isn’t Jesus. A scripture passage that I refer to often is John 5:39-40, which relays Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and teachers of the law as he tries to help them see that he, himself is the source of life. Beginning with verse 37, Jesus says to them:

And my Father himself, who gave me this mission, has also testified that I am his Son. But you have never heard his voice nor seen his face, nor does his Word truly live inside of you, for you refuse to believe in me or to embrace me as God’s messenger. You are busy analyzing the Scriptures, frantically poring over them in hopes of gaining eternal life. Everything you read points to me,  yet you still refuse to come to me so I can give you the life you’re looking for—eternal life! (TPT)

I’ll write it again this week–Christianity is founded on Jesus. Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is God. Jesus shows us what God is like. Jesus reconciles us to God. The scriptures we read point to Jesus; salvation is in Jesus. Many harmful things have been done throughout history (and are still being done) using Bible verses as justification to back up man-made theology. Unfortunately, that type of theology has a tendency to make us mean and judgmental instead of leading us to being saved, rescued, healed and made whole in Jesus. When our lives are founded on the living Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit is born in us. That fruit draws people to Christ. Theology in and of itself is not bad–it’s literally the study of God, but our lives and our faith mustn’t be based in our theology. They must be based in Jesus. Christianity should look like Jesus the Christ. Our lives are transformed as we lean into Jesus, and the world is transformed as we are transformed.

I am being transformed. I am not who I used to be. For years I bargained with God and had a deep fear that God was disappointed in me. I tried to work out a system with him to gain approval and get guarantees from him. This was Luanne-made theology. Guess what? It didn’t work. It was exhausting, and like Laura, I would get frustrated with myself, I couldn’t maintain my own “goodness”, and then I’d give up. Pastor John reminded us that this type of “theology” is idolatry. We are worshiping self and living as if salvation comes through us and our actions rather than through Jesus. We think that receiving God’s love comes through doing more in order to earn it. If we think we need to do or be more for God to love us, we are missing out. I was missing out. Finally, in a battle with God that kept me up night after night, he showed me my barter system of theology. As soon as I saw it, I knew God was showing me truth. But here’s the crazy thing–I still wrestled with God over my own theology. I wanted God to do it my way. He didn’t submit to my will, so I was stuck. God had shown me that he loved me, and I could choose to stay right where I was–stuck in my dead-end theology, or I could surrender completely to him. I didn’t want to stay stuck, (and I wanted to sleep), so I said (a little begrudgingly), okay, we’ll do this Your way. In a millisecond I was flooded with peace, with light, with joy–even typing it out fills me with deep love and gratitude for God. That was the moment my walk with Jesus transferred from being about me and my actions to being about him. I fell in love with Jesus and I’ve not been the same since. My life is transformed and is transforming. Can I explain it? No. But is it real? Absolutely. And just in case you wonder, is the Bible part of it? Of course. I love scripture, but my faith is not founded in scripture. It has to be founded in Jesus.

Last week I ran into a friend who brings my heart incredible joy. Just a very few years ago, she showed up at church (another friend brought her). She’d been afraid to come because she feared rejection. Her life was in absolute tatters. She tried to be invisible; cried the entire time, and laughs (now) about how mortified she was that people saw her, welcomed her, talked to her, and acted like they wanted her there. She kept coming, even while doing her best to avoid human relationships. She had been deeply wounded in her life, and was scared of people and of God’s judgment. Fast-forward a few years. She is a joy-filled bright light. When we chatted last week, she shared that she is still blown away by how much her life has changed. She knows she is loved, and her love for Jesus oozes out of every pore. She has been, and is being transformed because she fell in love with Jesus and leans into him. She chose to receive the gift of God’s love. She can’t explain her transformation, yet many of us have had the beautiful gift of walking with her and seeing her transformation take place with our own eyes.

Romans 10:9-10 are verses that are really well known: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Those verses from this week’s chapter can still make it sound as if salvation is dependent upon us and our actions, so much so that some people use the above verses as a formula. My belief regarding those verses is the heart is the emphasis…it is from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). The work of salvation is an inner work of receiving, taking in, and embracing the gift of God offered to us through Jesus, the gift of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s acceptance, God’s salvation. Our part is to receive. Once we believe and receive, the natural progression is speaking about Jesus. How can we help but do that–we’ve experienced his love and respond with love for him.

Using The Passion Translation I’ll wrap up my portion of this post up with some excerpts from the remainder of Chapter 10:

“God’s living message is very close to you, as close as your own heart beating in your chest and as near as the tongue in your mouth. (v. 8)

The heart that believes in him receives the gift of the righteousness of God—and then the mouth gives thanks…  (v.10)

Faith eliminates the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, for he is the same Lord Jehovah for all people. And he has enough treasures to lavish generously upon all who call on him. And it’s true: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Yahweh will be rescued and experience new life. (v. 12,13)

All through the book of Romans up to this point, Paul has been weaving the message that God is here, God loves us, God has made himself known through creation and now through Jesus, we can’t be good on our own, in Jesus we are not condemned, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, we can embrace life in Jesus or reject life in Jesus, but life is only found in him.

Faith, then, is birthed in a heart that responds to God’s anointed utterance of the Anointed One. (Romans 10:17)

We are so loved–receive it!

Luanne

The Mystery of God's Love —