Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 16

We’ve made it to the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s been quite a journey. At the beginning of this series, I shared with you all that a decade or so ago I wanted to discover the heart of this letter, so I read Romans over and over and over again. I didn’t pay attention to chapters and verses; I tried to read it as it was intended–as a letter. I came away from that experience with the realization that the heart of this letter is we are all messed up and prone to sin, yet despite that, God loves each and every one of us unconditionally. God proved his love for us in Christ and we are fully accepted by God.

After this current deep dive into Paul’s letter to Rome, I come away with the same conclusion, yet it is now more fully solidified in my heart and mind, and I am once again moved by the depth of God’s love and the beauty of God’s grace for all of humanity. I also come away with a broader understanding of how deeply our treatment of others matters and how often Paul refers to it in this letter. Love (God’s love for us, our love for God, God’s love for others, our love for others) really is the thread that winds itself through this entire letter.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome begins with these words:

 Paul, a loving and loyal servant of the Anointed One, Jesus. He called me to be his apostle and set me apart with a mission to reveal God’s wonderful gospel. My commission is to preach the good news. Yet it is not entirely new, but the fulfillment of the hope promised to us through the many prophecies found in the sacred Scriptures. For the gospel is all about God’s Son… And now Jesus is our Lord and our Messiah. Through him a joy-producing grace cascaded into us, empowering us with the gift of apostleship, so that we can win people from every nation into a faithful commitment to Jesus, to bring honor to his name. May his joyous grace and total well-being, flowing from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, rest upon you. (Romans 1:1-7 TPT)

Paul’s letter ends with these words:

May the grace and favor of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, continually rest upon you all. I give all my praises and glory to the one who has more than enough power to make you strong and keep you steadfast through the promises found in the wonderful news that I preach; that is, the proclamation of Jesus, the Anointed One. This wonderful news includes the unveiling of the mystery kept secret from the dawn of creation until now. This mystery is understood through the prophecies of the Scripture and by the decree of the eternal God. And it is now heard openly by all the nations, igniting within them a deep commitment of faith. Now to God, the only source of wisdom, be glorious praises for endless ages through Jesus, the Anointed One! Amen! (Romans 16: 25-27 TPT)

Paul’s letter, from beginning to end is about the good news of Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the love of God offered to all people everywhere through grace.

In addition to that beautiful message, most of Paul’s letters end with some final instructions to his readers; this letter is no exception. His final thoughts to the church in Rome are wise words for us to keep in mind today as well. He writes:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, I’d like to give one final word of caution: Watch out for those who cause divisions and offenses among you. When they antagonize you by speaking of things that are contrary to the teachings that you’ve received, don’t be caught in their snare!  For people like this are not truly serving the Lord, our Messiah, but are being driven by their own desires for a following. Utilizing their smooth words and well-rehearsed blessings, they seek to deceive the hearts of innocent ones.

This is a good reminder. There are many who have added much to the simple message of God’s love. Over and over Paul reminds us that God’s gift of unconditional love has been offered to all of humanity through Christ. Our part is to accept God’s love by believing that it’s true. There are no other requirements. We don’t have to look the same. We don’t have to practice our beliefs in the same way. We don’t have to conform to one another. Our part is to believe that we are radically loved by God. People who are well-loved respond by loving well. Paul had a radical encounter with God and God’s love. It changed the trajectory of his life. He went from being a behavior based, judgmental, violent, angry religious zealot, to a grace-filled, fully accepting, radical believer/follower of Jesus. He tolerated abuse; he tolerated hardship, prison, and isolation. He was radically misunderstood by the religious community as he let go of the Jewish law and grabbed hold of the all-inclusive law of love. Like Paul, when we embrace God’s love, it flows in us, flows through us, and draws others in. Paul encouraged the believers in Rome to hold on to that simplicity and not be led astray by smooth talkers who wanted to add other requirements, or who taught an exclusionary message that led to division. Paul understood that Jesus’ desire was for our unity, not our uniformity, and loving one another well despite our differences would show the people of the world who Jesus is. That’s our goal.

Paul, in his next phrase gives us a hint of how to do this:

I’m so happy when I think of you, because everyone knows the testimony of your deep commitment of faith. So I want you to become scholars of all that is good and beautiful, and stay pure and innocent when it comes to evil And the God of peace will swiftly pound Satan to a pulp under your feet! And the wonderful favor of our Lord Jesus will surround you. (16:17-20)

It’s interesting to note that the word “innocent” means “harmless, free from guilt”; “evil” can mean troublesome, injurious, destructive, not as it ought to be in thought, feeling, action, and Satan can mean “adversary (one who opposes another in purpose or act)” (Strong’s Concordance)

With those definitions in mind, Paul reminds us to keep our focus on all that is good and beautiful, to stay harmless and guiltless when it comes to things that can be troublesome, injurious, and destructive, and from that place of inner peace (shalom) God will crush the adversary who opposes peace and God’s message of love under our feet. It makes me think of Isaiah 52:7 which says:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation…

(Paul repeats these words in this letter: As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (10:15))

The beautiful feet that carry the message of God’s peace and God’s love crush the opposition; they are not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21). We don’t overcome opposition by divisive, harmful, violent, destructive means. Our feet carry the message of the Prince of Peace who has come to reconcile all people to God. This message is inclusive, it is good, it is beautiful, it is clear. God’s love is available to all. Our part is to believe it’s true, embrace it, and share it.

As we allow God to do work in us, we understand more and more what it means to be the beloved of God. God’s Spirit empowers us to love others as he has loved us, because we see them as God’s beloved too. That love, which is so contrary to the systems and structures of the world, causes people to take notice. Some people will oppose it, some people will embrace it, but no matter the response, we carry the message of grace, of peace, of love, of joy, of a better way that’s available to all.

The one other aspect of Paul’s final chapter in this letter is his greeting to those with whom he has worked in the past. Paul speaks life, he builds others up, he doesn’t forget those with whom he has shared life and ministry. I, too, want to take this moment to thank those of you who faithfully read our blog, who send notes of encouragement, who allow us the joy of being part of your faith journey. It has been my honor to be part of this ministry. I am moving out of state and will become part of another body of faith in another town. I am deeply grateful to City Park Church for their encouragement and trust in this blogging ministry. I’m grateful for the freedom I was given to write as I felt led. And mostly, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank my dear fellow blogger, Laura. We have grown in Jesus, grown as writers, and grown in friendship over these last years. She will continue to write, and to seek the Lord as to what this ministry will look like in the future. I will look forward to reading her insights and wise words. Please pray for her, and for City Park Church during this season of transition.

I love you, Laura, and have loved being your partner in this space!

Thank you for journeying with us–for entering in. May the God of peace be with you all. (15:33)

–Luanne

Dear brothers and sisters who are reading these words from wherever you are in the world, we are so grateful for you. Thank you for joining us in this space. Luanne and I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to numbers of followers or things of that nature–we didn’t start writing with any intention of making a name for ourselves, and we certainly had no expectation that Enter In would go out into the world far beyond our small community here in Casper, Wyoming. Like Paul, we both love the local church–each congregation that is one small part of the greater body that is the global “Church” of Jesus. We began this blog with prayers and hopes that it would be one way for the church that has been “home” to us to dig in a little deeper to the messages preached each week at City Park Church. Learning that we had hundreds of people from all over the world reading our offerings each week floored us both. We had no expectations that our words would reach places we’ve never been to when Enter In began over four years ago. It is humbling and encouraging to know that as we’ve leaned in and followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the gospel–the good news of Jesus and the abundant love he lavishes us with–has gone out to places our feet may never touch. I think that’s so beautiful.

As we’ve studied Romans and as I have read portions of Paul’s other letters alongside this one, it has been impossible to miss how Paul saw the “Church.” He wrote to individual churches, but always referenced other people in other places, and he wrote with the expectation that his readers would see themselves and each other as one small–yet vital–part of the greater family of God.

So I write to you this week with that in mind. I write as your sister, knowing we are connected to our one true Vine–Jesus himself–no matter where we are in the world. I write with mixed emotions, as I prepare to watch my dear friend move on to another community, another part of the family. It feels so fitting, though, that our journey of writing together in this particular space will find its culmination here, at the end of Romans, with the reminder of how connected we all are despite our geographic locations in the world.

I love the way Luanne summed up the verses of chapter 16. I love her overview and takeaways from this letter that has both challenged us and taken us even deeper into the heart of God. I have nothing more to add to the discussion of this week’s passage beyond what she already wrote. I love these words that she gave us above:

“Our feet carry the message of the Prince of Peace who has come to reconcile all people to God. This message is inclusive, it is good, it is beautiful, it is clear. God’s love is available to all. Our part is to believe it’s true, embrace it, share it. As we allow God to do work in us, we understand more and more what it means to be the beloved of God. God’s Spirit empowers us to love others as he has loved us, because we see them as God’s beloved too. That love, which is so contrary to the systems and structures of the world, causes people to take notice. Some people will oppose it, some people will embrace it, but no matter the response, we carry the message of grace, of peace, of love, of joy, of a better way that’s available to all.”

Luanne… your feet will carry this beautiful message that you embody so completely to the new place God is leading you. Your wisdom and grace, your deep love for Jesus and people, your insights and depth and your gorgeous way with words have been a gift to all of us. Our partnership in this ministry has been one of the many ways you have been a gift to me. Writing with you has been a joy from day one, back when we had no idea how this thing would develop or where it would go. Thank you for taking this journey with me–you are right, we have grown in so many ways. I look forward to seeing all the places God takes your feet and how he will use your gifts in the future. Our love, blessings, and prayers are with you as you go. I love you deeply, and have loved being your partner as well.

To our readers, I echo Luanne’s request for prayers for myself and our church as we move into this time of transition. I am not certain where Enter In is headed, and will take a few weeks off as I process the changes that are happening within our church body and also pray through what’s next. Please also pray for Luanne, as she and Pastor John move toward the new space God is calling them into.

Thank you for joining us in walking the Roman Road Less Traveled. This series has been both a wrestle and a delight as we have explored together what these words from long ago have to say to us today.

Blessings to each of you, dear friends. May we carry well what we have learned and never cease to grow in our understanding and awe of our great God of love and grace who holds us all as dearly loved children within his connecting, forever embrace.

–Laura

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Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 15

Now, those who are mature in their faith can easily be recognized, for they don’t live to please themselves but have learned to patiently embrace others in their immaturity. Our goal must be to empower others to do what is right and good for them, and to bring them into spiritual maturity. For not even the most powerful one of all, the Anointed One, lived to please himself… (Romans 15:1-3a, TPT)

As Pastor John began to teach on Sunday, he reminded us that throughout the book of Romans, Paul emphasizes that followers of Jesus, the Church across the globe, ought to be different in the way that we live and, especially, in the way that we love others. Different how? Not in an exceptional, holier-than-thou, separate way. Paul never advocates for that kind of behavior, even when he exhorts us to live holy, faithful lives. His exhortations in all of his letters–including this one–move us toward two main themes:

Make much of Jesus Christ, and be transformed by the lavish love and extravagant grace of God.

Let that love lead us out so that all others might know they are invited in.

Pastor John asked us to consider how the grace we have received into our lives goes out from us. If we have been transformed, how does that transformation move outward? Outside of gathering together to worship and learn and encourage one another, how are our individual churches being the Church to the world around us?

This past year has challenged many churches to think beyond our own walls. The pandemic changed everything for a season, and that season is ongoing. We all had to get creative, as meeting together in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to was not–and in many places, still is not–an option. For a lot of churches, cultivating an online community became a priority. Checking in on one another and communicating more regularly replaced canned Sunday morning greetings. In some places, including here at City Park Church, churches became food distribution centers, meeting the very real physical needs of their surrounding communities. The normal programming had to be rethought and reconfigured; we had to be flexible and lean into what it means to love our neighbors–all of our neighbors–well. In some places, love of neighbor has been walked out in beautiful ways and has led to flourishing in the midst of the hard. In other places, the challenge to move outside of traditional constructs and beyond old ways of thinking that center and separate “us” from “them” has proved too difficult a burden to bear, and sadly, division has been the result. This lingering season has certainly given us all, as followers of Jesus, an opportunity to examine what we believe we are to be about, and also to put our love into action in new ways.

As we read the first few verses from this week’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is abundantly clear–as it has been over and over again throughout our study–that it’s not about us. The love and grace we’ve been given, the transformation that has resulted, the maturity we’ve grown into as we continue to walk with Jesus, the unity and community we experience with one another–these are meant to outshine the image of Jesus to those who don’t yet know him. We share life together, bear with one another in love, build each other up, share the hope that we have, and live beyond ourselves so that everyone–without exception–will know that this Jesus way of living is wide open and available to them, too. We are not to be gatekeepers who wield power to proclaim who’s “in” and who’s “out”, or rule-enforcers who highlight the messy and prescribe clean-up measures that must be taken before coming in. We are included in the world that God so loves, the world that he gave everything to restore to its original design. We are included in this story of love and redemption and grace… and so is everyone else who God so loves. So we get to be the joyful includers who have, ourselves, been graciously included.

Pastor John brought up John 3:16, a verse that is familiar to so many of us, and reflected on how we–followers of Jesus–have often made that verse all about us. He explained that we’ve made it about what we get out of the deal, and forget that the emphasis of this verse is that God so loved… and God gave… What did God so love? The world, right? Yes… but it’s important that we read this as it was written, and not through the lens that paints “the world” as the ungodly, unsaved, unredeemed “others” that are outside of the church, outside of the “chosen.” The word that John actually used in his gospel is a word that shows up all over scripture that we have probably only ever read as “world” because that’s how it was translated for us in English. Unfortunately, when we read “world,” it limits our view and our understanding of what was originally written.

The Greek word that was originally used is kosmos. If you’re like me, that probably makes you think of our English word cosmos, which is a much more expansive word than world, right? It is. In English, and also in Greek. The word kosmos literally covers everything. The entire universe, the physical earth, the inhabitants of the earth–including all of the ungodly (the definition specifies this), world affairs, Jews and Gentiles, literally all things and everyone. God so loves all of it, everything he created, the people and the very ground we all walk on, that he gave everything to gather all of it–all of us–in his eternal, exravagant, loving embrace.

God accepts–no exceptions. Do we?

God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive. Is ours?

Pastor John asserted that Paul only preached inclusion–never exclusion–because he had experienced the radically inclusive love and grace of God in the person of Jesus Christ. He told us that,

“Whatever contributes to exclusion works against the redemptive intent of God, shown through Jesus.”

If that’s true–and I believe it is–then we have to acknowledge that there are churches (maybe even sometimes our own?) full of people (maybe sometimes even us?) who claim to love and follow Jesus, who are actively working against God’s intention for the kosmos he so loves. Why would we do that? How have we gotten so far from God’s redemptive intention toward all that he has made? Why have we moved in the opposite direction of the inclusive love that brought us in? Why do we resist accepting one another as we are? Why does exclusion hold such appeal for the people of God?

I’m going to let these questions linger… I hope we will all humbly and honestly assess our own hearts and motives, and ask the Spirit to show us what we can’t see on our own, within us and within our churches. Where have we moved toward hostile exclusivity and forgotten that the redemptive, restorative, rescue we have received is offered to everyone else, too?

Followers of Jesus, and churches that proclaim his name, should look like Jesus. It’s clear that Paul believed this. Do we? What would it look like if every church, everywhere, demonstrated the radically inclusive, restorative love of God? What if invitation, rather than exclusion, was practiced by every part of the body of Christ?

As I wrap up, I want to include the benedictions, literally the “good words,” that Paul wrote in this portion of his letter:

May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus! So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! (Romans 15:5-7, MSG)

Now may God, the inspiration and fountain of hope, fill you to overflowing with uncontainable joy and perfect peace as you trust in him. And may the power of the Holy Spirit continually surround your life with his super-abundance until you radiate with hope! . . . And now may the God who gives us his peace and wholeness, be with you all. Yes, Lord, so let it be! (Romans 15:13, 33, TPT)

Imagine how beautiful it will be when all of Jesus’ followers in all of the kosmos reflect the kind of maturity, harmony, unity, hope, joy, peace and wholeness that Paul prays for in these verses… I want to live in a world that looks more like that. Yes, Lord, so let it be!

–Laura

Laura’s words are gorgeous. She captured the essence of Paul’s heart in his letter to the Romans. It’s interesting (or tragic) to think of the verses that have been taken out of context and used to harm and exclude others. One cannot read the entire letter and come away with the conclusion that cruelty or exclusion is Paul’s message.

I won’t take the time to go all the way back through the letter, but let’s look at some of Paul’s thoughts from the last few chapters:

Chapter 12: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others…Love must be sincere…Be devoted to one another in loveHonor one another above yourselves…bless and do not curse…Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position…as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good…

Chapter 13: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. …Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law…clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ…

Chapter 14: Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters…God has accepted them…why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt…stop passing judgment on one another…make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification...

Chapter 15: Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up For even Christ did not please himself …May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had…Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you

It is difficult to come away from this entire letter with the mindset that Paul was teaching an exclusionary message or a “me” centered gospel. The entire message and ministry of Jesus Christ is love-centered and others focused. There is no “us” versus “them” in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Jesus is the gate into the kingdom and his arms are open wide. Revelation 22:17 tells us: The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life.

The Spirit and the bride. The bride is the “C” church, the global body of Christ in all its beauty and diversity. The church is people. The church is you. The church is me. Would those around us say that they hear the bride (both individually and collectively) saying “come…anyone…everyone…come…drink freely…come”?

Do we accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted (us), in order to bring praise to God (15:7) Pastor John pointed out that this verse says accept not except. I’m afraid too many people have heard the message that we (the church) will accept you with some exceptions. You are accepted as long as you look like us, do what we do, interpret scripture the way we interpret scripture, assimilate into our culture, prioritize what we prioritize, read who we read, sing the songs we sing, include who we include, exclude who we exclude, and then you’re good. Don’t question us, don’t be different from us, and we’ll accept you. That was never the message of Christ who was quite often in trouble (with the religious) for accepting “tax collectors and sinners”. I guess a good question would be are we clothed in religion or are we clothed in Christ?

I think we forget that when Jesus told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, it also means those of us who call Jesus “Lord” have become citizens of his not-of-this-world kingdom. We have transferred our citizenship from an earthly kingdom to the kingdom of God. The apostle Peter reminded us of this in chapter 2 of his first letter when he wrote: ... you are resident aliens and foreigners in this world… Live honorable lives as you mix with unbelievers… for they will see your beautiful works and have a reason to glorify God…

We are foreigners in this world. In the Old Testament we learn the people of Israel were conquered by the Babylonian empire and taken captive–they lived as exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah, a prophet during this time, wrote: This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare. (Jeremiah 29: 4-7 NLT)

Are we, the spiritual exiles of the world, working for the peace and prosperity of the community in which we live and praying for its welfare, or, are we looking with contempt upon the world, placing ourselves in a position of moral superiority toward those around us? Have we assimilated so deeply into the culture of the world that we no longer heed Paul’s words to live a cheerful life, without complaining or division among ourselves … [so that] we will appear as shining lights in the universe, offering the words of eternal life? (Ph 2: 14-16)

Maybe, if we honestly reflect on how the world experiences the church, we’ll admit we’re not doing so well. How do we fix it? How do we look like Jesus? As I head toward closing, I want to share an experience Laura and I had earlier in the pandemic which ties in beautifully to Romans 15: 5-7 that she included above:

May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus! So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it!

Shortly after the pandemic began, Laura shared with me about an opportunity to be part of a virtual choir. We both decided to participate, so we downloaded our music, and learned our parts. When we decided we were ready to record, each of us in our own homes, pulled up the video of the conductor (Eric Whitacre), followed his lead, recorded our parts, and submitted them. It would have been easy for us to assume we were alone in this project; however, we learned that we were part of a choir of 17,572 singers representing 129 countries, and the end result was gorgeous. The only way this immense project was able to be successful was that we all sang the same song and followed the lead of our conductor. All 17,572 singers, each one with a unique voice, representing various cultures, ethnic groups, ages, following one conductor, singing one song, sharing one message. (You can experience the song, Sing Gently, here.)

I think this is a perfect illustration of what the church is to be–the church meaning you and me– each singing our own part– following Jesus as he leads us in the one song of God’s love and acceptance.

Make much of Jesus Christ, be transformed by the lavish love and extravagant grace of God, and let that love lead us out so that all others might know they are invited in.

–Luanne

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This is an image created with the 17, 572 faces of those who lent their voices to the virtual choir Luanne wrote about.

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 14

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law…“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8, 9b-10)

Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (13:14)

As we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, I want to again remind us that Romans is one letter; it was not written with chapters and verses in mind; therefore, I wanted to revisit the end of chapter 13 before heading into chapter 14. Looking at what comes before and after helps us keep things in context, and reminds us that the entire theme of Paul’s letter to Rome is about God’s love, grace, and acceptance, no matter who we are or what we’ve done/do, and his encouragement for us to clothe ourselves in Christ as we learn to love others no matter who they are or what they’ve done/do.

With that in mind, chapter 14 leads us right out of chapter 13 into the territory of not judging other believers who have different convictions than we do. The first four verses of Chapter 14 read:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.  One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.  The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted themWho are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Whew. I imagine each one of us can be indicted by those verses. Do we judge Jesus’ followers who practice their faith differently than we do? Do we judge Jesus’ followers whose faith in Jesus leads them to make different life choices than we do? Do we judge Jesus’ followers in any way, shape, or form?

Pastor John made an excellent point when he talked about judging others. He said to judge is a form of idolatry. We place ourselves in the role of God and make our own determination about who is acceptable and who isn’t–who will stand and who will fall. It’s not our place. Up to this point in the book of Romans, we have learned that God accepts us based on his grace, not on our behavior, and we are asked to do the same for others. When we turn Christianity into a behavior based religion and then police the behavior of other people, we’ve lost our way.

Do you recall the moment after Jesus’ resurrection when Peter and Jesus were walking together and talking about Peter’s future? John was following at a distance, and Peter asked Jesus “What about him?” Jesus reply was: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me. (Jn. 21:21-22). In other words, you focus on your personal relationship with me, and let others do the same. My relationship with them is not yours to question or to judge. I think that’s what Paul is trying to communicate in Romans 14.

Pastor Beau, in his prayer at the end of Sunday’s service, prayed that God would remind us that we’re not asked to conform to one another; we’ve each been uniquely designed and created with beautiful diversity. Pastor John reminded us over and over, and Pastor Beau returned to it in his prayer, that we are invited into unity in Christ, not uniformity. This is such an important point to remember. Conformity into the likeness of one another is not the goal. Being transformed into the image of Christ through our personal relationship with him, and loving others as we’ve been loved is the goal.

As Paul continues through chapter 14, he brings up other areas of possible division such as different ways to observe the sabbath, holy days, or not observe them at all, and eating meat or not; he reminds the church that even in their differences, each of these people are giving thanks to God, living for the Lord, and will die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (v. 8). Can we accept that? Can we accept (with sincere love) those whom God accepts? And who does God accept? Everyone who embraces his gift of grace through Christ.

Paul brings his point home in verses 13-15 when he writes: Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.

What is Paul’s point? Don’t judge; instead, act in love and be sensitive toward those who have different convictions than you. Paul reminds us the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit...Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (vs. 17 & 19).

What will lead to peace in the body of Christ? How can we build one another up? How can we edify one another? This is what we need to focus on.

As chapter 14 draws to a close, Paul writes So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (v. 22). In other words, don’t sow division, don’t judge, don’t condemn, don’t exclude, don’t provoke…

Pastor John reminded us of a few things at the end of his sermon that can help us move toward unity:

  1. Recognize that we are all part of the same family.
  2. Recognize the beauty in the different ways we seek to honor God.
  3. Recognize we all have been offered grace when we all should have been judged
  4. Recognize we are not God.

Living in this space requires humility. It requires an openness to learn about others and from others. It requires letting go of black and white thinking. It requires considering a different perspective. It requires grace.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, gives us clues on how to do this:

 I plead with you to walk holy, in a way that is suitable to your high rank, given to you in your divine calling.  With tender humility and quiet patience, always demonstrate gentleness and generous love toward one another, especially toward those who may try your patience.  Be faithful to guard the sweet harmony of the Holy Spirit among you in the bonds of peace being one body and one spirit, as you were all called into the same glorious hope of divine destiny. For the Lord God is one, and so are we, for we share in one faith, one baptism, and one Father And He is the perfect Father who leads us all, works through us all, and lives in us all! And he has generously given each one of us supernatural grace, according to the size of the gift of Christ. (Eph. 4:1-7 TPT)

What if the message we began portraying to the world had less to do with conforming to the likeness of one another (i.e. worship this way, live this way, make these choices, sing these songs, exclude these people, accept these people, etc.) and instead portrayed the love of Jesus for one another, and every one else?

What if our social media feeds were filled with messages of God’s hope, love, encouragement and acceptance rather than all of the issues that divide us?

What if we began to celebrate the beautiful diversity portrayed by different cultures, ethnicities, denominations, faith practices etc. in the body of Christ rather than feel threatened by or superior to it?

What if we trusted God enough to lead us all, to work through us all, and to live in us all? (Eph. 4:6)

What if we trusted the Holy Spirit to work in all of us, giving us the desire and power to please God? (Ph 2:13)

What if we let go of our judgments and followed Jesus’ admonition to Peter: ...what is that to you? You must follow me? (Jn. 21:22)

What if we really followed Jesus who tells us by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (Jn. 13:35)

What if we made every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification? (Rm 14: 19)

What if?

–Luanne

As I ponder Luanne’s words about this week’s passage from the book of Romans, I am once again confused about how this book has been represented by so many different people. Truly. Paul is wordy, yes. And when we look at individual verses, I do understand how things have been misconstrued and misinterpreted over time. But I keep thinking to myself as we read and study, He’s saying the same thing… Over and over, in so many different ways, so that we don’t miss it: Jesus. Grace. Transformation. Unity. Love. Love. Love.

And yet…

Instead of landing there–where I truly believe Paul intended his readers to land–we end up skipping whole sections and pulling words out of context–and completely missing the point.

This week’s passage is one I haven’t often heard preached on in its entirety. Certain verses from this chapter are often pulled out, but I’ve rarely heard it preached in context. I am grateful Pastor John took on the whole chunk, knowing it may be difficult for us to digest. It is challenging because it puts us in our place as the created ones. Paul reminds us that we are not God. We are not in charge of who’s in and who’s out and what’s required to remain in good standing. We don’t love that, do we? We want grace for ourselves–but do we want the same grace for others? Paul simply cannot imagine not extending the grace we ourselves have received to the world around us. So he exhorts us all to live and love as we have been loved. His letters let us know that he can’t imagine living any other way than in the way of Christ, the one who totally transformed his life. It’s almost like he’s saying, “Friends!!! Do you see how loved we are by God? How accepted, embraced, and wanted we are?? It’s AMAZING! Wouldn’t all of life and all of our relationships be so much better if we just treated each other the way God treats us? Let’s do that!”

I’m aware that I took a lot of liberties with that short paraphrase of Paul’s thousands of words. But I really do think that’s his point–especially in this chapter of Romans. Let’s revisit a couple of the verses Luanne included, as a reminder of Paul’s actual words:

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently. . . Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.

(Romans 14:1, 4, MSG)

The way that Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 4, the highlighted portion above, makes it pretty clear, doesn’t it? God is the one who invites. God is the one who welcomes. God is the one who corrects and teaches. God doesn’t need our help to be God.

These words are a reminder that we don’t know it all. If we embrace that truth, it will keep us humble and seeking. There is an ignorance that is desirable to attain. I know that sounds odd–who wants to be called ignorant? Stay with me here, though…

In her latest book, Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, professor, author, and theologian, summarizes some words from 15th century saint, Nicholas of Cusa:

“There are at least three kinds of ignorance that show up in those who seek God, he says.

First, there are those who do not know that they do not know. They think they know everything they need to know about God.

Then there are those who know that they do not know but who think they ought to know. They know that they don’t know everything about God, but they’re still trying to remedy that.

Finally, there are those who know that they do not know and who receive this learned ignorance as God’s own gift. It relieves them from the terrible burden of thinking they have to know everything God knows. It frees them to live in a state of perpetual wonder. It saves them from ruling out new life for themselves and those they love on the grounds that they know how things work and life like that isn’t possible. This is very high-level ignorance, Nicholas says. Those who accept it do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but they can live with that because they trust that God does.”

Taylor goes on to write, “We are the people who don’t know how things work but who trust that God does, whose high-level ignorance frees us to live in unusual ways and say unusual things… What will that look like? How does it work? Who will be there and who will not? Hear the good news: we do not know–and we can live with that, because we trust God does.” (Always a Guest, pg. 182-183)

I love the idea that “learned ignorance” frees us “to live in a state of perpetual wonder.” I also want to live into a trust that accepts that there are just some things I don’t know. What a beautiful space to exist within… the Knowing of God…

Pastor John told us on Sunday that there are 88 different churches here in Casper, Wyoming. He reminded us that some congregations worship in charismatic ways, while others lean into liturgy, and he mentioned that there are things in every denomination that are unique to them, things that don’t always make sense to others. Each church does things a little differently, just as every family functions in their own way. He reminded us that this expansive tree with all kinds of diverse branches has one source–Jesus. Any time branches are mentioned, I automatically find myself in the gorgeous landscape of John 15. Sunday was no exception. Let’s remind ourselves what Jesus said about what matters most:

“I am a true sprouting vine, and the farmer who tends the vine is my Father. He cares for the branches connected to me by lifting and propping up the fruitless branches and pruning every fruitful branch to yield a greater harvest. The words I have spoken over you have already cleansed you. So you must remain in life-union with me, for I remain in life-union with you. For as a branch severed from the vine will not bear fruit, so your life will be fruitless unless you live your life intimately joined to mine. I am the sprouting vine and you’re my branches. As you live in union with me as your source, fruitfulness will stream from within you—but when you live separated from me you are powerless.” (John 15:1-5, TPT)

Jesus makes it abundantly clear here that fruitful living is not achieved by getting our theology just right, adhering to this rule or that, or by looking at all the other branches around us and judging how we measure up. He says nothing about tending to or criticizing other branches, either. Fruitful, abundant-life living is achieved one way: by living connected to our Source, the vine that is Jesus himself. We don’t grow ourselves. We don’t tend or prune ourselves, we don’t even clean ourselves up. Our streams of fruitfulness do not depend on our own efforts, or on our perfect understanding of theological principles. Getting it right is not part of the equation–because there is no equation. Jesus doesn’t give us a formula for understanding the kingdom, he invites us into a family, knowing that all of us together will more fully represent the God who made us all so beautifully diverse as unique expressions of the vastness and wonder of all that he is.

Isn’t that what Paul has been getting at in this letter?

Make every effort to… Love others… offer (and receive) grace… Model Christ…

Pastor John asked us on Sunday, “Can we extend grace to what we don’t understand?”

We can’t figure it all out, friends. There is no black and white list of how to worship God perfectly, how to live perfectly, how to explain the mysteries of God succinctly and rightly. Our God is much too big for the boxes we want to house him in, too expansive to fit into one worship style, too magnificently brilliant to be limited to one right way of thinking.

Isn’t that a relief?

If we had to have an explanation for every grand idea of God; if we had to be able to explain scientifically every miracle that Jesus performed on earth or be able to give bullet points on how exactly a dead body is resurrected in order to be counted faithful, we’d all be doomed, right? I would! I can’t begin to understand–much less explain–the mysteries of God. And I am so glad I can’t. It keeps me where I need to be… a branch dependent on the Vine, very aware that I am not God and I don’t have to know. As I experience Jesus in the ways he reveals himself to me, the way I worship, pray, and live changes. It will never look exactly like the way someone else chooses to worship, because we each get to have our own beautiful relationships with God and we express ourselves differently. I love that. We can absolutely learn from each other as we all grow–being willing to listen and learn something new is completely different from judging our differences.

Luanne asked us a series of questions at the end of her portion, including this one:

What if the message we began portraying to the world had less to do with conforming to the likeness of one another (i.e. worship this way, live this way, make these choices, sing these songs, exclude these people, accept these people, etc.) and instead portrayed the love of Jesus for one another, and everyone else in the world?

She also wrote, Conformity into the likeness of one another is not the goal. Being transformed into the image of Christ through our personal relationship with him, and loving others as we’ve been loved is the goal.”

The message is consistent, friends. Throughout scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and–we hope–here in this blog: It’s all about love.

–Laura