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 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 —

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 9

After taking a few weeks off for Advent, we are back in our Romans’ series. As a brief recap, Romans is a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses–it is one entire letter, so the context of the entire letter is important. In the first eight chapters, Paul, a trained attorney, has made the case that every human being is messed up, we are all in this mess together, yet God loves all of us deeply and provided the way into relationship with him through Jesus. Our role in this is to believe God.

I read a tweet recently that stated “Salvation is not based on believing the right *things*, but what happens as we trust the right *person*. We’re saved by Jesus Christ, not by theology.” (Brian Zahnd) This is exactly what Paul is teaching the Roman church, and what leads to Paul’s anguish in Chapter 9.

Before I dive into Chapter 9, if you’ve spent much time in the New Testament, you know that Paul sometimes writes things that are hard to understand. Two things to remember: 1. Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God. 2. Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)

Let’s remind ourselves that chapter 8 begins with …there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and ends with 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. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)

Chapter 9 begins with Paul expressing his anguish over the Israelite’s rejection of Jesus as their long awaited Messiah. Paul is Jewish and highly trained in Jewish law; however, Paul refers to his training as rubbish compared to knowing Christ. (Ph. 3:8).

Paul’s conversion to Christ was radical. He knows he met the real, living, loving, grace-filled God through Jesus Christ and his life is forever changed. He invites others to trust Jesus as well. Gentiles are believing in Jesus, yet Paul’s own people, those with whom he shares his ethnic identity and culture, are rejecting the grace of God through Jesus and choosing the heavy yoke of the law. It breaks Paul’s heart.

He writes: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel… from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! (Rom. 9:2 & 5)

Paul knows Israel’s history. Paul knows the promise given to Abraham that all nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham’s lineage. Paul knows Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. Paul knows how to use his knowledge of scripture to prove that Jesus is the Messiah–and yet his people are rejecting that message. He is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.

He finishes Chapter 9 with these words:

So then, what does all this mean? Here’s the irony: The non-Jewish people, who weren’t even pursuing righteousness, were the ones who seized it—a perfect righteousness that is transferred by faith. Yet Israel, even though pursuing a legal righteousness, did not attain to it. And why was that? Because they did not pursue the path of faith but insisted on pursuing righteousness by works, as if it could be seized another way. They were offended by the means of obtaining it and stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written:

“Be careful! I am setting in Zion a stone
    that will cause people to stumble,
    a rock of offense that will make them fall,
    but believers in him will not experience shame. (9:30-33 TPT)

It’s important to note that, despite his questions, Paul is not writing the Israelites off. He begins Chapter 10 by saying: …the passionate desire of my heart and constant prayer to God is for my fellow Israelites to experience salvation. (10: 2). 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.

Romans 9 is a passage that can be confusing, and has been used by some theologians to deem some people are “in” and some are “out”. You could certainly come to that conclusion if chapter 9 were a stand-alone chapter; however, taking the full context of Paul’s letter to Rome into account, we see that in this chapter, he is expressing his frustration over the fact that more Gentiles are coming to faith in Jesus than Jews, he’s frustrated that his own people are choosing tradition and law (their “works” theology) over Jesus. Why is he frustrated? Because he loves them.

Has God deemed them “out”? Let’s look to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is Jewish. He went to synagogues, taught in synagogues, respected the Jewish faith and traditions, and re-interpreted the Jewish law. In Mark 10, Jesus had an encounter with a rich man. They discuss eternal life and the commandments. The man says to Jesus:

“Teacher, I have carefully obeyed these laws since my youth.” Jesus fixed his gaze upon the man, with tender love (Jesus looked at him and loved him, NIV), and said to him, “Yet there is still one thing in you lacking. Go, sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. Then all of your treasure will be in heaven. After you’ve done this, come back and walk with me.” Completely shocked by Jesus’ answer, he turned and walked away very sad, for he was extremely rich. (Mk. 10:20-22 TPT) Jesus loved him, and Jesus let him choose.

In another account, Jesus, right before he is arrested and crucified agonizes over Jerusalem. In Matthew 23, he warns that their rejection will lead to their destruction and says in verse 37: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem—you are the city that murders your prophets! You are the city that stones the very messengers who were sent to deliver you! So many times I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me(TPT) Jesus loved them, and Jesus let them choose.

Where am I going with all of this? Do I believe God is supreme.? Yes. Do I believe that God is sovereign and above all? Yes. Do I believe that God is love? Yes. Do I believe that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish? Yes. Do I believe that God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us? Yes. Do I believe that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? Yes. Do I believe that our salvation (our healing, our wholeness) comes from believing in and trusting Jesus? Yes. Do I believe that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love. Yes. Do I believe that we human beings choose all kinds of idols to worship above God? Yes.

The Israelites, who Paul (and Jesus) agonized over, were choosing to worship their tradition, their law, their theology, their own effort. The rich man was choosing to worship his wealth. Did God love them all? Yes. Does God love you? Yes. God is love.

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.

Adam and Eve hid from God, he came to them.

Cain killed his brother. God came to him.

Hagar was desperate and destitute. God came to her and she (a non-Jew) was the first person to give God a name in scripture; El-roi. The God who sees.

The Israelite nation turned from God over and over and over–he sent prophets and priests, and when they turned back to him, he was right there.

Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus came to him.

Paul persecuted Christians. Jesus came to him.

This is not biblical theory to me—it’s my story. I was a self-destructive mess, God drew me back, and when I turned around, there he was.

God is love and is right here. God, in his sovereignty, gave us freedom of choice. God, in his sovereignty, allows us to bear the consequences of our choices. And God, in his sovereignty, never leaves us nor forsakes us. God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.

Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in love. (Joel 2:13)

Return to Me,” declares the Lord of hosts, “that I may return to you.” (Zech 1:3)

Return to your God, Observe kindness and justice, And wait for your God continually… (Hos. 12:6)

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (James 4:8)

I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me (Mt. 23:37)

I need to wrap this up, but I desperately want to communicate that God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him. Are we choosing our systems over God? Are we too stubborn to let Jesus be our Lord? Are we agonizing over those who don’t know Jesus’ love? Let’s wrestle it through before our sovereign, supreme, loving, living God whose arms are open wide, ready to receive us and those whom we love.

–Luanne

I don’t know how else to write other than honestly. So I will tell you plainly that, this week, I am hesitant to even begin. By begin, I mean actually start to put my own words on this page… I have spent no less than six hours digging into Aramaic and Greek words, scouring the entire Bible for the words sovereignty (which appears twice, both in Daniel, from an Aramaic word meaning “kingdom,” neither in reference to God himself) and supremacy (which occurs one time in the Greek in Colossians, in Paul’s description of Jesus), and rereading several chapters in books written by theologians much smarter than I’ll ever be about these things. I’ve looked up English definitions to these challenging words. I’ve read a few sermons from well known pastors about the ultimate power, control, and will of God, attempting to reconcile modern Christianity’s obsession over the picture of a mighty, willful, authoritarian God with the picture of God I see in Jesus, the One who bore his image perfectly–and the pictures simply don’t match.

Before I say anything else, I want to be clear– I am wrestling this week, not with any one point or any one person’s interpretation, but with the scriptures themselves, which I believe we are both invited and encouraged to do. Wrestling with words we don’t understand, asking God our hard questions–as Paul does in chapter 9 of Romans, and throughout his writings–honors both the text and God, because it means that it matters to us to get it right. None of us are smart enough to ever get it all right, however, so our lives ought to be spent wrestling, asking, growing, learning–it is an ongoing journey. If we think we’ve gotten it, we will become stoic, unteachable, unwilling to listen–even to the revelation of the Spirit. I don’t ever want to get there, and I’m assuming you don’t either.

Luanne articulated many things beautifully. I’d like for us to look at some of them again before moving on. She reminded us that:

Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God.

Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)

there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . . 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. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)

He [Paul] is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.

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.

Luanne reminded us of the scope of Paul’s letter and the rawness of his wrestling; his love for his people, and his belief that the God who will one day restore all that’s been broken really does desire that ALL people turn toward his love. I, too, believe that this is what Paul was getting at in this challenging portion of his letter. Unfortunately, as Luanne also mentioned, this portion of his letter to the Romans has been misrepresented and used by many in damaging ways. In fact, much of today’s exclusionary theology can be traced back to a few early theologians’ expositions on this particular text. I want to share with you what pastor and theologian Bradley Jersak, PhD wrote regarding this passage, because he articulates it in a way that makes sense to me:

“Some disciples. . . parade Paul’s reflections in Romans 9 as an example of God’s will-to-choose. They see Paul bombarding readers with a series of Old Testament passages to assert God’s freedom, and so he does. But these interpreters exploit the text to pose the utter willfulness of God to hate, exclude and condemn–the flip side of God’s grace. . . If read through the lens of absolute will, this passage seems to describe a God worse than retributive and vengeful, because those attributes are merely angry reactions to wicked people. But these paragraphs (Rom. 9:13-21) don’t say that. They go further. They actually suggest that God made some people wicked–created them to be damned goats–in the first place, because he willed it. And if he then punishes them for it, don’t cry foul! Who are you to judge God? This interpretation of Romans 9 hails God’s sovereign will in pre-choosing (electing) some to salvation and actually creating others for the sole purpose of damnation–why? To glorify himself as we cower in gratitude. . .

Do we really believe that is Paul’s intent in Romans 9? The reason he wrote the epistle? The point and flow of his argument? Ludicrous! That approach makes nonsense of Paul’s life mission and his purpose in writing Romans. Worse, it represents God as unjust, unholy and unloving. Because this text is so critical to one’s view of God’s love and will, and because it’s misread when isolated, let’s pause to see its piece in the bigger puzzle of Romans.

-Paul begins Romans with the content of his ministry: ‘the Gospel of God’ (1:1-4)

-He describes his call to bring the good news of God’s faithfulness to all nations (or Gentiles) (1:5)

-He proceeds to argue at length for the universality of the gospel’s availability and significance. He announces the inclusion of Greeks and barbarians, Gentiles and Jews (starting in 1:14-16), even those in Rome.

-Thus, the apostle’s theme is the universal availability of divine salvation to all: past, present, and future. Understanding the arc of Paul’s argument opens up what he’s doing in Romans 9-11 by addressing Israel.

-Throughout his letter, Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles.

-Then Paul answers another question: Does God’s faithfulness include Israel, even when they’ve rejected Christ? Yes, God is free-in-love to save them also!

-God’s redemptive plan–his freedom rooted in love–is irrevocable and his mercy will reach the Jews, just as it had also been reaching the Gentiles.

Given the context, we at least know this: Paul’s enemies never accused him of preaching a willful and exclusionary God. Their angst was always about his message being too gracious, too inclusive and too willing to save anyone. Their God–not Paul’s–was the ‘goat-hater’ of raw will.”

As Jersak asserts, it would be ludicrous for us to read Romans 9 and decide that Paul meant to paint us a picture of an unjust, unholy, and unloving God. We must remember that Paul was highly educated in the Hebrew scriptures, and he was a skilled lawyer–a master in the art of argument. He said of himself in his letter to the Philippians:

It’s true that I once relied on all that I had become. I had a reason to boast and impress people with my accomplishments—more than others—for my pedigree was impeccable. I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! (Philippians 3:4-7, TPT)

Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the premier teachers of the Law in his time. Before attaining the honor of learning at this rabbi’s feet, Paul would have had to complete his educational prerequisites at an impressive level. This education included memorizing–word for word–all 39 books of the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. His knowledge of the scriptures he referenced in his letters was thorough. So we can be confident that he was not flippantly tossing around verses. There was purpose in every word he wrote.

I want to focus on one specific word he wrote, and it relates to the last verse I included from the Philippians passage above: “Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord!”

All of Paul’s education and accomplishments–which were vast–he regards as nothing compared to knowing Jesus. Hold onto that…

Pastor John spoke to us about two words in particular: sovereignty and supremacy. I mentioned both briefly in my introduction. I won’t spend any further time on sovereignty–my study of this word has left me frustrated and confused by its frequent usage within Christianity, as it does not appear in scripture even one time in relation to God and Jesus. I don’t know enough to discuss it further, so I will continue to study it on my own and I encourage you to do the same.

Supremacy, however, I will briefly touch on. A word search reveals that it appears in some of our English translations exactly one time, in Colossians 1:18: And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. It is Paul who wrote it in its Greek form, prōteuō, meaning “to be first, to hold the first place.” It appears in a verse sandwiched between verses about how God was revealed–and pleased to be so–in Jesus. I want to show you this passage from the Message paraphrase because Eugene Peterson wrote it so beautifully:

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

The NIV translates verses 19-20a this way: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things

This is why Paul was happy to forsake all that had previously made him who he was, to count it all as nothing. He had met the fullness of God in the person of Jesus. He knew personally that God doesn’t willfully exclude any, but wills that all come to him–he was one of those ‘all’. He grieved that some had not yet turned toward the love that, as Luanne gorgeously stated, had already turned toward them, but he knew that there was nothing powerful enough to separate us from the love of God in Jesus. He had experienced that love firsthand, and was desperate for everyone else to experience it, too. He wrote of Christ’s supremacy in his letter to the Colossians to explain that Jesus was–and had always been–first. Before all. The one who bore the original purpose of God in creation, the first of all who would be reborn among the dead as the reconciling of all things to himself began with his resurrection.

This is the supremacy, the first-ness of Jesus, with whom Paul was so enamored. He knew that Jesus was, as the gospel writers testified to, the image of God himself. He emphasized that God was pleased to have his fullness–all of his God-ness–dwell in Jesus. We understand through the writings of Paul that the character of God, his divine attributes, are most clearly demonstrated through the person of Jesus. So when we get to hard passages like Romans 9, we must remember the broader context in which it is found. We must remember, to borrow Luanne’s words once again, that: Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith.

Or, as pastor and author Brian Zahnd loves to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.

–Laura

Image of the Invisible God | Apologeet.nl

Joy: Press On; Grow

Look at how much encouragement you’ve found in your relationship with the Anointed One! You are filled to overflowing with his comforting love. You have experienced a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit and have felt his tender affection and mercy. So I’m asking you, my friends, that you be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. Walk together with one harmonious purpose and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy. (Ph. 2:1-2 TPT)

Our passage this week is actually from Philippians 3, and we’ll get there, but I think it is important to sit with Philippians 2:1-2 for a moment. Reflect on your relationship with Jesus, the Anointed One. Has it encouraged you? Are you filled to overflowing with his comforting love? Are you experiencing a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit? Have you felt the Spirit’s tender affection and mercy? If not, take some time and ask God to meet you in this space.

It’s been a hard year on many fronts. I have found myself wanting to pull away, to self-protect, to “shrink” many times during this last twelve months; however, when I take the time to lean into God (who Richard Rohr refers to as The Trinity of Love), and spend time in that intentional space, I soften. The softening allows me to get more in touch with my actual feelings, and allows me to be more human being than doing. The softening allows us to move toward being joined together in perfect unity with one heart, one passion, and united in love. The softening allows us to move toward walking together with one harmonious purpose. Those are the things that filled the Apostle Paul’s heart with unbounded joy. Why? Because the people of Jesus look like Jesus and the world experiences the joy of Jesus.

Philippians 2 continues with Paul encouraging the Philippians to be imitators of Christ and what that looks like. It’s always worth it to read through that passage; however, in this blog post we will move on to Chapter 3.

As weird as it seems, Pastor John has chosen Paul’s letter to the Philippians for our Advent series. Why? Because a recurrent theme in this letter is joy. On the night of Jesus’ human birth, an angel spoke to the shepherds and said: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10). We are part of the all people who are offered the gift of great joy because Jesus lives in and among us. Paul had experienced that joy personally, and his desire was for everyone to experience the joy that comes with knowing Christ.

Chapter 3 begins with: My beloved ones, don’t ever limit your joy or fail to rejoice in the wonderful experience of knowing our Lord Jesus!

Do you ever limit your joy? I do. Why do we do that? Researcher and author Brené Brown says of joy: “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience, and if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” In other words, we limit our joy. Brown says people who have a “profound capacity for joy” are those who don’t shy away from joy but instead feel grateful in the joy. She writes: “Instead of using [joy] as a warning to start practicing disaster, they use it as a reminder to practice gratitude.” Hmmm. Sounds similar to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Without question, life is hard, bad things happen, and leaning into joy is hard. All true. Or is it? It’s true if we believe joy is dependent upon us and our circumstances. How did Paul hang on to joy? How did Paul hang onto joy while writing this letter from a Roman prison. How did Paul hang on to joy while he was isolated from people he loves. Paul was a “go-getter”, a guy on the move, yet had been stopped in his tracks and locked up. How can he have joy? What nuggets does he teach us in chapter 3? Let’s look.

Paul writes: I don’t mind repeating what I’ve already written you because it protects you—  beware of those religious hypocrites who teach that you should be circumcised to please God.  For we have already experienced “heart-circumcision,” and we worship God in the power and freedom of the Holy Spirit, not in laws and religious duties. We are those who boast in what Jesus Christ has done, and not in what we can accomplish in our own strength. (3:1b-3)

I imagine in every generation since Christ’s ascension there have been those who want to lay down a list of rules for Jesus’ followers. Things like: you have to pray these words, you have to study the Bible this way, you have to go to this type of church, you have to avoid these certain behaviors, you have to avoid these certain people, you have to do it like us or you’re doing it wrong. Paul says–don’t fall for that. We don’t worship God through a set of prescribed rules…we worship God in the power and freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Paul goes on to describe how very good he was at following all the religious rules–if anyone could boast in doing it right (according to man-made standards), it was him. I don’t know if we can fully grasp how privileged and powerful Paul was–and how much he used that privilege and power to elevate himself and oppress those who worshiped differently than he did, especially those who had met Jesus. And then, Paul met Jesus. His encounter with Jesus changed the entire trajectory of his life–so much so that he writes to his Philippian friends: Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord!  To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. My passion is to be consumed with him and not clinging to my own “righteousness” based in keeping the written Law. My “righteousness” will be his, based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ... I continually long to know the wonders of Jesus more fully…(3: 7-9, 10a TPT)

Wow! This is Paul’s secret. He is completely enamored with Jesus. He has experienced freedom from religious law, and has come alive in Christ. Oh, Lord Jesus–may this be our experience with you as well!

Paul admits: I haven’t yet acquired the absolute fullness that I’m pursuing, but I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose that Jesus Christ has called me to fulfill and wants me to discover. I don’t depend on my own strength to accomplish this; however I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead.  I run straight for the divine invitationlet us all advance together to reach this victory-prize, following one path with one passion. (3: 12-14a; 16 TPT)

Or in the more familiar language of the NIV:  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me

Joy comes from pressing on toward Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus. Joy comes from pursuing Jesus. Joy comes in Jesus. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit of Jesus. Joy can be experienced no matter the circumstances because joy is based in Jesus.

One more thing before I pass the reins to Laura–Paul’s letter makes it abundantly clear that a relationship with Jesus is dynamic; it is not static. When we are in a real relationship with Jesus, we have a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. Friendships that deepen are friendships that grow and change over time. To be a Christian, to be a Christ follower, means to be one who grows and changes over time. This growth happens as we stay close to Christ, rooted in Christ, grounded in Christ.

As we grow in Christ, our fruit will look like Christ, and the things Paul wrote about in Philippians 2:2 will happen. Our personal deepening friendships with the Holy Spirit will allow us to be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. [We will] walk together with one harmonious purpose (and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy)...And our hearts will be filled with unbounded joy and we will fill the world with unbounded joy by living out the good news that because Jesus came to earth, great joy is available to all of us.

And friends–it’s not about obeying man-made religious laws, or trying to make all of Jesus’ followers across the nation and across the globe, who represent every ethnic group and culture look the same, act the same, interpret scripture the same, sing the same songs, etc. It’s about rejoicing in the freedom that we and others have found as we experience an ever deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. It’s about learning with and from one another. It’s about growing to love Jesus who is reflected in all of this diversity and beauty across the earth. It’s about loving others and leaning in to the things that matter to God’s heart. We are free to do all of this. It is for freedom Christ has set us free–free to be uniquely who we’ve been designed to be–and free to reflect an aspect of his nature and character through our unique design. This kind of freedom, that comes from our deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit, is full of great joy and that is very good news.

–Luanne

What does it mean to know someone? We use the word “know” often in conversation to describe so many different situations. It is important as we consider this beautiful passage from Paul that we have a grasp on what “knowing” meant to him. Chapter three begins with this verse:

My beloved ones, don’t ever limit your joy or fail to rejoice in the wonderful experience of knowing our Lord Jesus! (TPT)

The word Paul uses in this verse has a root word in the Greek that means: to learn to know; come to know; get a knowledge of; perceive, feel; to become known; to become acquainted with. The same word was also used as a Jewish idiom to refer to sexual intercourse–an interesting point when we consider how many times the Bible records Jesus–who was raised Jewish–using this word. I mention this to emphasize the depth of connection implied with this kind of knowing. The intimacy and vulnerability the word carries are worth noticing here. Here are a few of the times Jesus used this same word:

“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (John 10:14-15a, MSG)

“If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” ( John 14:7, NIV)

And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Savior, the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be to you a friend just like me—and he will never leave you. The world won’t receive him because they can’t see him or know him. But you will know him intimately, because he will make his home in you and will live inside you.

(John 14:16-17, TPT)

Eternal life means to know and experience you as the only true God, and to know and experience Jesus Christ, as the Son whom you have sent. (John 17:3, TPT)

But continue to grow and increase in God’s grace and intimacy with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May he receive all the glory both now and until the day eternity begins. Amen! (2 Peter 3:18, TPT)

All of these verses speak of an intimate knowing, an ongoing relationship. Take a look at this footnote included in The Passion Translation of the 2 Peter verse:

“The Aramaic does not use the imperative but makes it more of a decree: “You continue to be nourished in grace and in the intimate knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, and of God the Father.” Spiritual growth is yielding to the grace of God and having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately. In time, we grow into his beautiful image.”

Spiritual growth is yielding to the grace of God and having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately... Read that again… Maybe one more time… How gorgeous is that? We grow spiritually as we yield–what does that mean here? In The Greek, yield simply means I give way. Webster’s unabridged dictionary expands the definition: to admit to be true; to allow, permit, grant passage to; to comply with; cease opposition; to be no longer a hindrance to…

You all, this is not where I was going–I did not expect to find this little footnote in a verse I wasn’t even looking for, but here it is, so we’re going to stay here a minute… Spiritual growth happens when we choose to no longer be a hindrance to, to cease opposition toward, to grant passage… to what, again? The grace of God. Spiritual growth happens when we grant passage to the grace of God. To grant passage to where? To ourselves. There was a second part, too… having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately.” Where does passion to know Jesus come from? A collision with Grace. Somewhere we collide with Grace, and we get to choose whether we oppose and hinder the work of Grace in our lives, or grant Grace passage into the depths of us. When we choose to admit that God’s grace is true and we comply with that truth, our passion to know Jesus intimately grows. And then? In time, we grow into his beautiful image.”

Pastor John described this intimacy as “connection that pulls you into relationship.” I love that. We all know what that’s like, right? When you make a connection, and something about that point of contact draws you deeper, pulls at you to come back, come closer, connect again. It is how relationships are born, and with every point of connection, relationships grow.

Luanne wrote it this way, “Paul’s letter makes it abundantly clear that a relationship with Jesus is dynamic; it is not static. When we are in a real relationship with Jesus, we have a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. Friendships that deepen are friendships that grow and change over time. To be a Christian, to be a Christ follower, means to be one who grows and changes over time…”

I will wrap this up soon, but I want to go back to one of the definitions of the root word Paul used that I mentioned earlier, to become known.” I think this one scares us a bit. I know it can make me uneasy. And when we’re thinking about human relationships, there’s good reason for that discomfort. Allowing oneself to become known–intimately known–by another involves risk. It is profoundly vulnerable, and leaves us woundable, which is really what vulnerable means: “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” (Oxford Dictionary) Who among us wants to sign up for that?? I suspect that some of you can feel a tightening in your chest as you read that definition. Maybe that’s just me…

Putting ourselves in a position that we are fully aware leaves us open to attack, harm, pain, betrayal…we resist it. I resist it. But if we refuse to be vulnerable, to pull away–like Luanne wrote about in the beginning of her portion–rather than lean in, we cannot experience the intimacy that only comes with being soft, open, exposed. Sometimes, with one another, we will regret our choice to be vulnerable. Sometimes we will be hurt. Sometimes we will wish we hadn’t opened so far, hadn’t let someone so close. But, sometimes… we’ll find connection. It’s what we crave. It’s what we are all built for–whether we want to admit it or not. Because it’s what we already have, what existed in the Trinity of Love before any of us ever came to be. It is the nature of God, the nature of Love itself. When we lean into the possibility of connection with one another, it can go either way. We will be hurt and disappointed at times. But when we lean into connection with Jesus, when we’re moved by Grace toward deeper intimacy with the Living Expression (John 1, TPT) alive within us, we will not be left wanting.

There is a Love who knows us fully, because that Love formed us, lives within us, and wants us–always. Love pursues us and keeps coming back for us–Love never rejects us. There is nothing hidden from Love’s sight, nothing so ugly within us to make Love turn away, because we were seen and known before we came to be–we have never once been out of Love’s gaze. We don’t have to be afraid, we are already known–that side of the relationship is not a mystery. Jesus has chosen to know us, fully, in every intricacy that makes us each who we are. But we don’t yet know him fully. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV) There is mystery to explore, there are treasures to discover as we grow in knowing Jesus. If we embrace the mystery, continue to yield to Grace, and if we are passionate about knowing Jesus intimately, we will grow in our knowledge of him, in our relationship with him, and into his beautiful image. What a powerful, lavish love. I am kind of undone by it all. Within a love like this, there is fullness of joy–despite what is going on around us. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he spoke these words:

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. (John 15:9-11, MSG, emphasis mine)

That is my prayer for us as we continue on in this season of Advent, that we will make ourselves at home in Jesus’ love, that his joy will be our joy, and that our joy will be whole and complete as we remain intimately at home in him.

May you be blessed with fullness of joy as you journey, friends.

–Laura

Fullness of Joy 16 – "God > Our Hearts" - Cross Connection Church

Roman Road Less Traveled: Spirit Life

Sometimes a footnote will stop me in my tracks, which happened to me this week as I was reading through our passage in Romans 8. As is my custom, I read multiple translations in order to get a more full understanding of the context, especially passages that are already familiar to me so that I won’t settle into thinking I already know what they say. There are always new things to mine in scripture; always deeper layers to uncover. Right in the middle of this week’s passage,The Passion Translation’s verse 9 footnotes allowed me to see something I hadn’t seen before:

But when the Spirit of Christ empowers your life, (FN “makes his home in you.”) you are not dominated by the flesh but by the Spirit. And if you are not joined to the Spirit of the Anointed One, you are not of him. (FN This is an unusual Greek clause that can be translated “If anyone is not joined to the Spirit of Christ, he cannot be himself.” A similar construction is used in Luke 15:17: “The prodigal son came to himself.”)

Here’s how it reads with the footnotes substituted in: But when the Spirit of Christ makes his home in you, you are not dominated by the flesh but by the Spirit. And if you are not joined to the Spirit of the Anointed One, you cannot be yourself. (Romans 8:9 TPT)

Sit with that for a moment. Without the Spirit of Christ, we can not be our true, God-designed, selves. Without the Spirit of Christ, we live a false identity. Embracing God’s gift of love makes us real.

The Romans recap leading us to this point includes Paul reminding us that we’re all a mess, all separated from God as a result of our choices, but God loves us, has always loved us, will always love us, and demonstrated his love when Jesus died for us. The way for us to no longer be separated from God is to believe God. Coming into relationship with God in Christ “baptizes” us into Christ’s death (to the law) and resurrection (to life in the Spirit), and the process of transformation begins. We are no longer married to the law, we are now married to Jesus.

But wait–that’s too simple–what about my past? What about all those poor choices I made? Don’t I owe God something?

This week’s chapter, Romans 8, begins with the answer to those questions:

So now the case is closed. There remains no accusing voice of condemnation against those who are joined in life-union with Jesus, the Anointed One. (8:1 TPT)

Or in more familiar language: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,

Such beautiful, profound truth. God has given us the gift of God’s very being. Life is no longer about us trying to be good enough by obeying all the dos and don’ts. When we are joined in life-union with Jesus, when Jesus makes his home in us, the breath of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us and begins the work of returning us to ourselves–the selves we were originally intended to be at the beginning–the Genesis beginning.

The Holy Spirit is an incredible gift. Jesus told his disciples: “Loving me empowers you to obey my commands. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Savior, the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be to you a friend just like me—and who will never leave you. The world won’t receive him because they can’t see him or know him. But you will know him intimately, because he will make his home in you and will live inside you. (John 14: 15-17 TPT).

The footnote after the word “Savior” in the above translation explains: The Greek word used here is paráklētos, a technical word that could be translated “defense attorney.” It means “one called to stand next to you as a helper.” Various translations have rendered this “Counselor,” “Comforter,” “Advocate,” “Encourager,” “Intercessor,” or “Helper.” However none of these words alone are adequate and fall short in explaining the full meaning. The translator has chosen the word Savior, for it depicts the role of the Holy Spirit to protect, defend, and save us from our self and our enemies and keep us whole and healed. He is the One who guides and defends, comforts and consoles. Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, our Savior. The Aramaic word is paraqleta, which is taken from two root words: (1) praq, “to end, finish, or to save,” and (2) lyta, which means “the curse.” What a beautiful word picture, the Holy Spirit comes to end the work of the curse (of sin) in our lives and to save us from its every effect! Paraqleta means “a redeemer who ends the curse.”

Gorgeous! But how does this happen?

When Nicodemus went to Jesus for a night time Q&A session, their conversation went like this:

 …unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.  So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” (John 3: 3-5 NLT)

A little later in this conversation, Jesus reveals to Nicodemus that this new life, our real life begins when we believe: For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17 NLT)

Mystery–it can’t be explained, which bothers many human beings. We want to be able to explain God and how it all works, how to do A, B, C, and wrap it up in a nice neat package. Jesus says–believe the truth–God loves you more than you’ll ever have the capacity to understand; you don’t do a thing to earn that love. Embrace the mystery, and live your life in the flow of Jesus’ resurrected breath.

I’ve written it over and over and over again — when we lean in to the mystery of the Trinity, intentionally ask, seek, knock, converse, commune, make time for God–we are changed. I don’t know how it works, but I know in my own life it didn’t come by human effort–yet I am not who I used to be, and I’m not who I am going to be. I am being re-created more and more into the being God designed me to be. The process won’t be complete on this side of time, but it’s begun, it’s happening, and it’s beautiful.

Are there days when I don’t feel like I’m God’s masterpiece being formed? Absolutely. Are there days when I want to resist the work of the Spirit; the nudges, the conviction, the drawing me out of my comfort zone? Absolutely. Are there days when I blow it? Yep. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Thessalonians that we can quench the Holy Spirit and he encourages us not to do that. (1 Th. 5:19) Are there days that I quench the Holy Spirit? Sure do.

But the Holy Spirit draws me back home over and over. God’s love is home; it’s where we live, where we abide, where we remain. Jesus says to us If you remain (live) in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal 5:22); apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

And we are free to live, not according to our flesh, but by the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit, and the mind controlled by the Spirit finds life and peace. (Romans 8: 4, 6)

Spirit-filled people look like Jesus, they love others with the love of God, and invite others home to become all they were designed to be.

We live in Christ–the Spirit of Christ lives in us. We are like fish who live in water, are filled with water, breathe in water, exhale water, are surrounded by water, have no life apart from water.

In us, the very Spirit of God–the breath of God– gives us life. We live in God, are filled with God, breathe in God, exhale God, are surrounded by God–we have no life apart from God. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) In him we become real.

And what’s our part? Draw near, believe, and embrace the mystery.

–Luanne

My friend wrote gorgeous, stirring words. Let’s take a moment and breathe some of them in again…

Embracing God’s gift of love makes us real. God’s love is home; it’s where we live, where we abide, where we remain. When we are joined in life-union with Jesus, when Jesus makes his home in us, the breath of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us and begins the work of returning us to ourselves–the selves we were originally intended to be at the beginning–the Genesis beginning. I am being re-created more and more into the being God designed me to be. The process won’t be complete on this side of time, but it’s begun, it’s happening, and it’s beautiful. Spirit-filled people look like Jesus, they love others with the love of God, and invite others home to become all they were designed to be. Draw near, believe, and embrace the mystery...

I love the thought that embracing God’s love makes us real. I can’t help but think of abiding here, how remaining connected to our Vine (Jesus) and embodying his life (the vibrant, energetic Spirit flowing through us) is what guides us into who we were created to be. Luanne wrote that the work of the Spirit is returning us to ourselves, to the selves we were before we embraced selflessness and selfishness (neither side of that spectrum is healthy), to the selves we were when we were marvelously, intricately fashioned into being (Psalm 139). Before anyone else told us we were anything but wholly loved and held and treasured.

Life on this earth changes us; the structures and systems of this world tell us stories about who we are and who we should be. The pain, fear, and powerlessness that invade our lives cause us to reach for some sense of stability and control, and we often find that in the structures of the law that eventually imprison us.

But Jesus

Jesus, the “Living Expression,” as The Passion Translation so disarmingly and stunningly defines him, comes into our stories to set us free, to set things right, to make us whole again…

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! Life came into being because of him, for his life is light for all humanity. And this Living Expression is the Light that bursts through gloom—the Light that darkness could not diminish! (John1:1-5)

The Living Expression who made all things is in the business of restoring all things back to their original design. He bursts through the gloom of living married to dead laws, draws us to himself, joins us to his life of love, invites us to abide, to remain in that love, and to grow into our true selves. To shed the false selves we have put on over time (Could this be part of the pruning process…?) and become who we already are.

As I read Luanne’s words earlier and pondered where I might go in my portion, running through my head was the bridge of Jason Upton’s beautiful song, Home to Me (Maybe click the link if you need a moment to exhale?) :

You are where we all have come from
You are where we long to go
We have journeyed far from Eden and we are coming home
So let our eyes be filled with wonder
Let our lives be filled with song
Let the way of Jesus lead us back where we belong
You are home to me

We have journeyed far from Eden, from our beautiful beginnings, and we are on a journey back home. The Spirit life, the way of Jesus, leads us there.

These words from Luanne went deep into my heart:

I am being re-created more and more into the being God designed me to be. The process won’t be complete on this side of time, but it’s begun, it’s happening, and it’s beautiful.

She is identifying that she is in process and acknowledging that it’s ongoing regardless of what stage of the process she is in. Did you catch the last part? I am going to pair it with the beginning and cut out the middle so you can see what I see when I read these words:

I am being re-created. . . and it’s beautiful.

It is beautiful. She is beautiful. I am beautiful. You are beautiful. We are all somewhere on the continuum of returning to the original goodness and wholeness that we have lost along the way. But beautiful doesn’t begin with completion. What is beautiful is the process of becoming. And God thinks so, too, or he wouldn’t spend so much time invested in our growth:

“…God’s delight is not just in the fruit; He’s not interested in results alone. He elates in the entire process of fruit bearing. He relishes the mirthful participation of His image bearers, the Imago Dei, in a divine work. A sublime work… God likes watching things grow.” (Chasing Vines, Beth Moore)

We are the divine, sublime handiwork of God. How often do we pause to think about that? Maybe take a moment now…

Is it hard? To look at your self, in process, and call what you see beautiful? It is for me, some days more than others. I think that’s why I love what my very beautiful friend wrote so much. She didn’t leave room for debate or qualifications or shame or self-doubt. She said, I am being re-created. . . and it’s beautiful. Period. Why? Because it is the truth. We were formed in Love, by Love, and for Love, that we might outshine that Love to others so that they can hear Home beckoning them to return to their true selves, too.

We bear the image of the Living Expression, and we are also individuals, uniquely and magnificently formed, one self among many. Only we can be our selves. It is life in the Spirit that reminds us of and returns us to who we really are so that we can do what only we can do on this planet. And when we begin to see that as beautiful, to name our process with kindness and truth the way Luanne did, it changes things. We are more aware of the beauty in each one, more invested in their flourishing and concerned for their well-being, more committed to making sure they know that they can come home, too. The invitation is for all–for each and every beautiful one. These verses out of Psalm 36 express that invitation to all:

O God, how extravagant is your cherishing love!
All [human]kind can find a hiding place
under the shadow of your wings.
All may drink of the anointing from the abundance of your house.
All may drink their fill from the delightful springs of Eden.
To know you is to experience a flowing fountain,
drinking in your life, springing up to satisfy.
In your light we receive the light of revelation.

(Psalm 36:7-9, TPT, emphasis mine)

Drinking in the life we are offered, embracing and embodying the love that constantly pursues our hearts, is how we become real. Luanne invited us to draw near, believe, and embrace the mystery. May we all do just that as we journey on…

–Laura

Led By The Spirit – God Like Fire Ministries

Roman Road Less Traveled: Outrageous Love

“Live as one who is outrageously loved.”

This line comes out of the prayer that Pastor Beau read at the end of Sunday’s message. It is where he finished, but it feels like the right place to start this week. What does it mean to live as one who is outrageously loved? What would that look like? I think it might look a lot like the life Paul is exhorting followers to live in his letter to the Romans. In fact, it might be his whole point…

Paul emphasizes throughout this letter we are studying the extravagant grace lavished upon us through Jesus. Why? Could it be that lavish, unrestricted, unhindered grace given in response to broken and sin-filled humanity is the best example of the love that propels it? Could it be that grace, freely given, best shows us the nature of our God? Could it be that outrageous love really is that nature, really is what God is like? I think it would be totally on-brand for Paul to emphasize exactly these points. Earlier in his ministry, in his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:

Then, by constantly using your faith, the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life. Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God! Never doubt God’s mighty power to work in you and accomplish all this. He will achieve infinitely more than your greatest request, your most unbelievable dream, and exceed your wildest imagination! He will outdo them all, for his miraculous power constantly energizes you. (Ephesians 3:17-20, TPT, emphasis mine)

I think Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that they were outrageously loved. I won’t go into every letter he wrote, but as I write I have other passages from Galatians, Colossians, both letters to the Corinthians, and Philippians floating through my head. Paul wrote about the extravagant love of God a whole lot. And as Luanne and I have written during this Romans series, we have, too. In fact, there hasn’t been a week yet that we haven’t written something about the love of God. Here are some snippets from the last six weeks…

One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love. Paul’s letter to Rome

God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices, but God never stops loving us. God never stops expressing kindness toward us. God never gives up on us. What if God’s nature really is love, and we’ve misunderstood this wrath thing? Our sin made us all ‘deserving of wrath’–of the intrinsic consequences of turning away from the mercy and love of God–and that wrath led us all the way to death. Butbecause of his love, God came to us again–all the way around to where we stood with our backs to him, arms crossed in defiance–and stood facing us in the person of Jesus, who conquered death by his life and now holds the keys to every grave...

The self-giving love of Jesus showed us a different way of being in the world, showed us how to live a life rooted in love, not law. He also revealed what has always been true of God–He is love. He is kindness. He is grace. He is not disappointed in us. He is not ashamed of us. He doesn’t see us in the shadows of our failures–He sees us in the light of his love. God loves us! God loves us! God loves us! When we allow Jesus to be the foundation of this faith called Christ-ianity, we are grounded in God is love! The barriers come down. This agape love leads us to love God in return and love others as a result. Paul knew this. The overall message of Paul’s letters are about inclusion, grace, and God’s love...

Seeing‘ God is the reality of our faith. Jesus shows us God. He shows us what God is like. Perfectly. This is the faith that begins in us upon encountering Jesus. It is the faith that grows in us and leads us on. When we see him, we believe him. When our faith shows us the person and the character of God–his goodness, his love, his grace–we trust him. Our faith is in who God is, not what he does for us...

God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) lavishly loves us. God the Son opened the door to relationship with God the Father; we were given the gift of God the Spirit–the very breath of God–so we can live with the life of Jesus–his energy, his vitality–coursing through our spirits. We have been and are being saved–made whole, healed, safe. We can flourish in wholeness through God’s shalom. We live in the place of God’s full and complete acceptance. We are fully embraced–completely loved and nothing will ever change that. When we truly believe this, how can we help but to outshine God’s love to everyone around us...

This is the love of God. A Love that sees us as both complete and in process simultaneously. A Love that would rather keep us intact and transforming than replace our identities entirely, because God values each story and every stroke of the pen that writes it. A Love that even allows us to resist the transformation process because it is patient and kind. This Love that is the guarantor of seeing us through to completion, because Love is the one doing the good work, not us…

I think the message has been pretty consistent, don’t you? Six weeks of Romans. Six weeks of writing about the love of God. It is not the only thing Paul writes about in Romans, but it is the root of everything else, and I think Paul really wanted people to grab ahold of that truth. Everything about God is rooted in love, because love is what God is like. And everything about us, as followers of Jesus, is to be rooted in love also–we are to reflect, or “outshine” as Luanne so beautifully explained it a couple weeks ago, God’s love to those around us. This is what is means to, “Live as one who is outrageously loved.”

With the outrageous love of God as our foundation, let’s look at what Pastor Beau brought to us this week, in week seven of our series. Beau led us into Romans chapter 7. It’s a tough section of Paul’s letter–one of many, it turns out–and it can be hard to understand. But in the context of a complete letter that points us to lavish grace and the extravagant love of God at every turn, it makes a little more sense. My word count is already high, so I won’t go into all that Pastor Beau shared with us–hopefully Luanne will cover what I can’t–but there are a few things I’d like to highlight.

Because we are studying a letter that was not broken up into chapters and verses, let’s look briefly at the end of last week’s portion:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:22-23, NIV)

With those words in mind, let’s look at the beginning of this week’s passage:

You shouldn’t have any trouble understanding this, friends, for you know all the ins and outs of the law—how it works and how its power touches only the living. For instance, a wife is legally tied to her husband while he lives, but if he dies, she’s free. If she lives with another man while her husband is living, she’s obviously an adulteress. But if he dies, she is quite free to marry another man in good conscience, with no one’s disapproval. So, my friends, this is something like what has taken place with you. When Christ died he took that entire rule-dominated way of life down with him and left it in the tomb, leaving you free to “marry” a resurrection life and bear “offspring” of faith for God. (Romans 7:1-4, MSG)

Paul told us in last week’s passage that we are no longer slaves to sin and death, that we have the gift of life through Jesus our Lord. He goes on to explain to his readers, in ways they would understand, what it means to be dead to sin and alive in Christ. He uses the example of a marriage, and how a widow is free to marry another because her husband has died. As Pastor Beau said, those he originally wrote the letter to understood. It made sense to them. And in the Message paraphrase that I used above, the same version Beau read on Sunday, it sort of makes sense to us, too. But Beau clarified it further when he said,

“Our marriage is to Jesus, looking at the law; not a marriage to the law looking at Jesus.”

The people Paul wrote to–and I would assert this is also true for us today–struggled to reconcile the demands and requirements of the law with the freedom and life being offered to them through Christ. Paul struggled with it himself–he writes about it a little further into this week’s chapter–as he wrestled with what he did and did not want to do not matching up with what he actually did. I won’t include the whole passage here, as it is lengthy, but it’s important to note that Paul was identifying a common struggle. We have been baptized into new life in Christ, as we discussed last week… AND, we are imperfect humans who are in process. New life has begun to grow in us, but we wrestle with living how we want to live. We struggle with living free, living in the Spirit, because sometimes we choose to live bound up in our own flesh. Sometimes we hold tightly to a leader, a belief, an ideology, and we let that one thing be our moral compass. We look to ourselves and to what we know for the wisdom that can only come from the Spirit. We are no longer slaves, but we don’t always know how to live free…

And so we struggle. Within ourselves. Against one another. Even against God. The world breaks, and breaks again. Hopelessness threatens…

But there is another way. Pastor Beau shared that part of Paul’s goal in his letter to the Romans was to unify groups of people that held different beliefs and did not understand one another. That feels applicable to the days we’re living in, does it not? These days are hard, as Beau identified. He encouraged us to lean into lament, to grieve the losses and the pain, to not avoid the highs or the lows of life because doing so keeps us trapped. He also encouraged us to move through lament, guided by the Spirit, into hope.

He concluded his message by encouraging us to see that we’re all struggling together. He reminded us that living in the freedom of the Spirit is what brings everyone to the same table; we can have differing opinions, but with Jesus as our filter, we can love each other despite those differences. And he also reminded us that loving our neighbors as ourselves is something we keep learning how to do as we go. As we journey with Jesus, we become more like him, and his outrageous love grows within us. We learn this new way of living, of loving, as our metamorphosis continues. The law and the rules–they’ll never get us there. They’ll leave us disappointed in ourselves and others, trying hard to measure up and full of shame that we never can. If we vow our “I do” to the law, we will not live as one who is outrageously loved, because the law can’t love us. But if we make our vow to Jesus, we join ourselves to Love. And…

Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God! (Ephesians 3:18-19)

–Laura

Our marriage is now to Jesus and we look at the law through him; we are no longer married to the law…

Marriage to the risen Christ changes everything!

I love The Message paraphrase that Laura used above. I also love Romans 7:4 in The Passion Translation: So, my dear brothers and sisters, the same principle applies to your relationship with God. For you died to your first husband, the law, by being co-crucified with the body of the Messiah. So you are now free to “marry” another—the one who was raised from the dead so that you may now bear spiritual fruit for God.

Verses 5 and 6 say: When we were merely living natural lives, the lawthrough defining sin, actually awakened sinful desires within us, which resulted in bearing the fruit of death. But now that we have been fully released from the power of the law, we are dead to what once controlled us. And our lives are no longer motivated by the obsolete way of following the written code, so that now we may serve God by living in the freshness of a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean that the law awakened sinful desires within us? As an illustration from my own life, every time I decide to rein in my diet, my mind only thinks about the foods that I’m trying to cut out. As I think about those foods I am tempted to abandon my good intentions. The “law” of my eating plan actually awakens the desire to eat everything that isn’t included in the plan. Anyone else?

Paul tells us in this passage that the law is not the problem, our sinful nature is the problem, and there is a better way. The better way is what we wrote about last week–baptism into death with Jesus and resurrection to new life in the Spirit.

Life in the Spirit is completely different from life in the flesh. Life in the Spirit comes from being connected to Jesus (I am the vine you are the branches, if you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5) That’s the “pickle” illustration that I wrote about last week. The cucumber, once immersed, remains in the pickling solution, and is transformed over time. By remaining, it becomes something completely new. When we “remain” in Jesus, we are transformed, over time, into something completely new. We bear much fruit, or as Paul points out in our passage, being married to the resurrected Jesus, means we bear the offspring of spiritual fruit.

What is spiritual fruit? Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatian church: The Spirit… produces in human life fruits such as these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control—and no law exists against any of them. Those who belong to Christ have crucified their old nature with all that it loved and lusted for. If our lives are centered in the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit. (Gal 5:22-25, J.B. Phillips)

You can see Paul’s Roman’s message in the Galatians passage as well-our “law” based lives has been crucified with Jesus, and our new, resurrected lives are centered in and guided by the Spirit. There is no law that exists against the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Beau put it this way–once we are married to Jesus, Jesus becomes our filter and everything gets covered with love. This is what life in the Spirit looks like.

Life in the Spirit is greater than life in the law. Does the law have purpose? Of course, but it’s not the foundation of our lives any more. I recently finished a beautiful book by seminary professor, author, and Anglican priest Esau McCauley titled Reading While Black (African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope). In the section called Bible Reading, Slavery, and God’s Purposes he writes about the Pharisees questioning Jesus on the practice of divorce (Mt. 16:21; Lk 24:25-27) The Pharisees want to know if it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (that was the practice of the day and the law of Moses allowed it as long as the woman was given a certificate of dismissal). Jesus completely bypasses the law in his response, and goes all the way back to Genesis the era before the law.

“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’, and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh…therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate’.” So the Pharisees then asked, if that’s the case, why does Moses allow it? Jesus answered: “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt. 19:3-8)

McCauley goes on to write:The question, for Jesus, is not what the Torah allows, but what God intended...Moses instituted these laws because of their hardness of heart…Jesus shows that not every passage of the Torah presents the ideal for human interactions. Instead some passages accept the world as broken and attempt to limit the damage that we do to one another….[we must ask, do these passages] present a picture of what God wanted us to be or do they seek to limit the damage arising from a broken world?”

Let me try to tie this all together.

In the beginning, when God created humankind, he created male and female and gave them both the same role:

God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it…(Gen 1:27-28)

He provided for their every need and they lived in complete dependence on, and beautiful fellowship with God. They made the choice to abandon the plan, and instead of choosing to eat from the tree of life, they chose fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That choice changed the state of humankind on earth forever. Guilt, shame, hierarchy, oppression, relational and spiritual separation, violence, etc. all became part of the human condition. The “law” came into play in order to curtail the damage we do to one another. Even The Ten Commandments have to do with how we are to treat God and others. When Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest, he says all the commandments hang on this: Love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37-38)

We cannot “law” ourselves into love. Love is a fruit of the Spirit. We bear fruit by staying connected to the vine. As we wrote last week:

God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) lavishly loves us. God the Son opened the door to relationship with God the Father; we were given the gift of God the Spirit–the very breath of God–so we can live with the life of Jesus–his energy, his vitality–coursing through our spirits. We have been and are being saved–made whole, healed, safe. We can flourish in wholeness through God’s shalom. We live in the place of God’s full and complete acceptance. We are fully embraced–completely loved and nothing will ever change that. When we truly believe this, how can we help but to outshine God’s love to everyone around us…

Pastor Beau said it like this: Jesus loves us. When we grow in our understanding of that truth, our love for others will flow…

Pastor Beau reminded us that Paul’s letter to the Romans was a plea for unity–not uniformity. The law separated people into circumcised and uncircumcised; kosher, not kosher; Jew, Gentile; etc. Paul was abolishing all the categories that separate us and reminding us that we are all in the same boat–all have sinned–AND, the glorious truth –all are outrageously loved by God. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)

Our part:

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. For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,”and every other commandment can be summed up in these words:

Love and value others the same way you love and value yourself.”

 Love makes it impossible to harm another, so love fulfills all that the law requires. (Romans 13:8-10 TPT)

The law and its dead fruit have no power over us anymore.

Our marriage to Jesus produces the offspring of spiritual fruit.

The fruit of the Spirit is love... Against such things there is no law.

–Luanne

The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

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

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

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

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

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So (finally!), let’s begin…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

Sermon on The Mount: Therefore…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Jesus teach any of that in his sermon?

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

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

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

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

Who we are…

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

Jesus finishes his sermon with this:

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

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

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

Then chapter 8 begins with:

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

Here we go, starting at the beginning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Sermon on the Mount: Golden Rule

One of the things I love about scripture is there is always more than what we see at face value–there are layers and layers to discover, and new lenses through which to see. It never gets old.

Our passage this week is Matthew 7:1-12. The last verse is one that, even people who don’t follow Jesus know well: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (NIV)

We’ll come back to the little word “so”, which is sometimes translated “therefore”–but I want to spend a moment on the last clause–this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Remember that Jesus is teaching on a hillside. His audience is Jewish–the Law and the Prophets are what their belief system is founded upon. In this entire sermon, Jesus has been teaching them that rather than the “dos” and “don’ts” they’ve subjected themselves to in their faith, there is a different way. It began with the beatitudes, and moved through being salt and light, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” statements and more–each one addressing the transformation of the heart and the valuing of others. There are 12 verses in this week’s portion of chapter 7. “The Golden Rule” is in verse 12 and we’re beginning there, because while Pastor John was preaching, the Law and Prophets phrase leapt out to me. Why? Because this isn’t the only time Jesus said these words.

In this very sermon, right after the salt and light portion, and right before the “you’ve heard it said” statements, Jesus told his audience: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (5:17).

And in Matthew 22, we learn …an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (36-40)

Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He teaches us that all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the greatest commandments and the Golden Rule: “Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you. (TPT), Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you...or as J.B. Phillips wrote in his translation, treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them.

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

With that as our foundation, and backing up to a verse from last week’s sermon, Matthew 6:33–seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and God will take care of the rest…, let’s look at Matthew 7:1-11.

I don’t think I’m going to write a lot of commentary…I’m just going to put the commandment to love and the Golden Rule next to the verses.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Okay, This one might need a little commentary because this dog and swine thing seems so bizarre in the middle of this beautiful sermon. Jesus has just taught us not to judge and nitpick another’s shortcomings–is he now telling us to decide who is a dog, who is a pig, and withhold sacred things from them? Would that make any sense in light of the rest of what he’s teaching? No. So…what could this mean that’s not that?

I read a number of thoughts around this, and some don’t take the context into account, but others say that Jesus is not teaching us to judge, but to be discerning. One said “Do not persist in offering what is sacred or of value to those who have no appreciation for it,…” (Expository Files, April 2000) Pastor John said be careful about how you convey the precious to others. He went on to remind us that if we see others as “dogs” and “pigs” we’ll treat them like “dogs” and “pigs”, they’ll reciprocate and the precious will get trampled. When I think of it that way, and think of it in light of not judging others, and in treating others the way I want to be treated, this makes sense to me.

I work in a secular environment with at risk teenagers. The best way for me to share my relationship with Jesus at work is to love people and treat them well. Then, because of the relationship we’ve established over time, some of them will trust me enough to share “the hard”. I can tell them that I believe in Jesus and I pray for them. Sometimes that leads to deeper conversations–sometimes not, but I’ve not yet had anyone ask me not to pray for them. Sometimes it even leads to tears. Those moments are sacred, but they’re not forced. People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. I’m a Jesus-follower and I cringe at pushy gospel presentations. Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated.

So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred.

The discernment insight leads right into the next verses: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

And then: Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

The IVP Bible Commentary explains that “Jesus adapts a standard Jewish argument here called qal vahomer: arguing from the lesser to the greater (if the lesser is true, how much more the greater). Fish and bread were basic staples, integral to the diet of most of Jesus’ hearers; they do not stand for the fineries of the wealthy.” Good parents give good, life sustaining things to their children, not things that will harm them; how much more is that true of God–who always loves us, and always treats us as he wants to be treated… SO (therefore), in EVERYTHING, do to others what you would have them do to you.

All the Law and Prophets hang on this.

We love God by loving others. 18th century theologian John Wesley summed this passage up by saying, “The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

I think that’s Jesus’ point.

–Luanne

I thought I had an idea of what I would be adding to the blog this week… Until I read Luanne’s masterfully woven words. She captured so beautifully the main points of this passage and connected them to everything we’ve been learning over the last five months. What I find so interesting is how, as we dig into these words from Jesus week after week, we find that everything he taught circles back to what it means to be one who lives out the love of God according to the kingdom Jesus brought to earth.

We could dig into any one of the verses from this week’s passage and take it apart word by word; we could talk about what it means to judge and to be judged by God in the manner we judge… Or, we could do exactly what Pastor John and Luanne did: filter every bit of it through the main point, holding onto what Jesus really desired his listeners to understand. Luanne identified above what that main point is: Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Love God with our whole heart. Love our neighbors (which, we remember, includes all others) as we love ourselves. Seek first the kingdom–find over and over again that when we seek, we find Jesus–and live according to the ways of that kingdom that Jesus modeled. As we seek the upside-down kingdom and are molded into the image of Jesus, our King, that kingdom comes alive in us and we carry it to the world around us.

These are the concepts we continue to land on as we study the sermon from Jesus. It matters that we understand the main points, and beyond simply understanding, that we allow ourselves to be changed by them as we embody the words and ways of the One we follow. It matters so much. Why? Luanne explained exactly why with these words:

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness.

As I read through her portion, that line caused me to pause. The words came off the page and everything in my heart responded, Yes and amenThis is the whole point, friends. We can know the scriptures, be able to define the Greek roots of words, hold our own in theological debates, stun people with our head knowledge of Jewish culture and the customs of that time. But nobody is going to come to Jesus because of our well-designed arguments. It is his kindness that leads to repentance–to the willingness to see things a different way, change our minds, and begin a journey with Jesus–not pushy, clumsy appeals to say yes to the gospel, not defending our faith against the ways of the world, not mean, ugly judgments of how hell-bent “they” are if they don’t listen to “us.” It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his life growing roots in us that produces good fruit for us to offer the world around us. That’s how people meet Jesus and fall in love with him–the same way we did.

Love your neighbor as yourself, and do… The only other thing I want to highlight is the way Jesus presented the “Golden Rule.” As Pastor John emphasized in his sermon, Jesus did not focus on the negative, on what not to do. He didn’t say “Whatever you hate, whatever makes you angry, whatever you don’t like–don’t do that to others.” No. He said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This directive does not allow us to be apathetic rule-followers. We don’t get to say, “I didn’t treat them badly,” and think we’re living in obedience, because Jesus didn’t tell us what not to do. He told us to do. To go do good. That’s what love does.

And… as we do good to others, as we love, we find that we move forward, we grow. Moving toward others according to Jesus’ ways of love grows our capacity to love more, which makes us more like him. It’s how the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Simply choosing to not do bad, to not be unloving, will not birth the kingdom within us or around us. What speaks a better word to the world around us is our embodiment of the heart of Jesus. “For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers.” (John 13:35) And what does love look like? Let’s refresh our memories…

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, TPT, emphasis mine)

Love never stops loving… Love keeps moving, keeps doing good to others.

As I paused a moment ago, the prayer of St. Francis came to mind…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is dispair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
 

As I ponder this prayer in light of what we are discussing this week, I can’t help but consider the word instrument. Its roots go back to a Latin verb that means “equip.” I love that, because this prayer then reads in my mind: Lord, equip me to do your peace; equip me to sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy. And when I think of an instrument–whether in the musical sense, or as a specialized tool used for an intricate, delicate process–it strikes me how useless an instrument is if it’s not set into motion. It may be beautiful sitting stagnant in place, and certainly does no harm by simply staying put. But it only puts good into the world when it is played, when it is utilized. The kingdom cannot come by us simply choosing not to do bad to one another. We must actively do good and choose love, which is always active and moving.

Luanne closed her portion with these words from John Wesley:

“The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

She thinks that’s Jesus’ point in this passage. I agree with her. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

–Laura

A life of love shine and submit