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 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if?

–Luanne

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

(Romans 14:1, 4, MSG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that a relief?

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

So, what do these verses say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Proverbs 3:5 – Breathing

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(excerpts from Isaiah 55:1-9 NIV)

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

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

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

1 John 4:16b God is love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 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: 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

Roman Road Less Traveled: Life

Jesus was radical. Jesus was a revolutionary. Jesus was unlike any other teacher that had been, or ever will be. Those who encountered Jesus face to face, who walked with him, lived with him, learned from him, mourned his death, first doubted–then celebrated his resurrection, watched him ascend and received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit after his ascension, knew this.

Paul knew of Jesus, but saw Jesus’ ministry and mission as a threat to all he had built his life on–namely the Jewish law. Jesus, in Paul’s view, was a threat to his scripture-based life. If you know Paul’s story, you know that he was present, and gave his approval to the stoning of Stephen. Acts 9:1 tells us Saul (Paul) “was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers, so he went to the high priest…” and gained permission to head out on a mission of arresting and persecuting followers of Jesus. If you are familiar with the story, you know that while he was on his way to fulfill his self-appointed mission of violence, Jesus knocked him off his high-horse, blinded him, and introduced himself to Saul (Paul) as the one whom Saul was persecuting. That encounter with Jesus forever changed the trajectory of Paul’s life. Paul had been an agent of death–now he would be teaching what God’s radical love and grace look like, and what abundant life truly is.

Last week we looked at Romans 5:1-11 where Paul highlights the good news about hope and life and reconciliation. This week we move to Chapter 6. Paul, a trained attorney, is continuing to make his case for life. As a quick reminder, the “book” of Romans is actually a letter to a group of believers in Rome. It wasn’t divided into chapters and verses when Paul wrote it, so even though we are highlighting verses each week, we are taking into account the whole of the letter. With that said, I am going to back up to the part of chapter 5 that we didn’t cover last week. In 5:12-21 we learn that sin and death entered the world through one man’s poor choice. Paul writes: death followed this sin, casting its shadow over all humanity, because all have sinned…(however) there is no comparison between Adam’s transgression and the gracious gift that we experience. For the magnitude of the gift far outweighs the crimehow much greater will God’s grace and his gracious gift of acceptance overflowthis free-flowing gift imparts to us much more than what was given to us through the one who sinnedthis gracious gift leaves us free from our many failures and brings us into the perfect righteousness of God—acquitted with the words “Not guilty!...condemnation came upon all people through one transgression, so through one righteous act of Jesus’ sacrifice, the perfect righteousness that makes us right with God and leads us to a victorious life is now available to all! (5: 15-16; 18 TPT).

Note that the emphasis of the passage is not Adam’s or our sin–it’s mentioned, but Paul’s emphasis is God’s gift of grace, of acceptance, of exoneration and he continues this theme in chapter 6 which begins with a question: Now what is our response to be? Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God? 

Paul’s answer to his own question: What a ghastly thought! We, who have died to sin—how could we live in sin a moment longer?  (J. B. Phillips)

How would you answer Paul’s question? What does it mean that we have died to sin? What does it look like to not live in sin?

Paul continues to drive home the point that we must resist the temptation to revert to our own strength and live as moralists, legalists or “cheap grace” proponents. Moralists divide the world into good and bad behavior and try to be “good for goodness sake”. Legalists believe following all the rules and measuring their success by comparison to others makes them good–(and when they can’t meet their own standard they feel guilt and shame). Those who choose “cheap grace” believe Jesus’ full forgiveness means they can live any way they want to. All of these methods leave out a relationship with Jesus. Each one is focused on self and human effort (or lack thereof)–I can be good enough to be accepted, I can be better than everyone else and be accepted, or I am accepted and therefore can live however I want.

What does Paul, based on his own radical experience with Jesus, teach? Verses 6:3-4 say…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were…buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life....

…or as the NLT translates it: …we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

What does that mean? What does “baptism” mean? The actual definition of the word is:

  1. to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)
  2. to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one’s self, bathe
  3. to overwhelm

That may not be new information to anyone, but what I love is the history of the word that can be seen in the pickle recipe written in 200 B.C. by a Greek poet and physician named Nicander. The recipe contains two Greek words, the first being “bapto” which means to dip, and “baptizo” which in a moment will become more clear. To make pickles, first you “bapto” the vegetable in boiling water. Then it is removed and is “baptizo” into a vinegar solution where it stays and becomes something new–it is transformed–permanently changed. (blueletterbible.org)

The word Paul is using in Chapter 6 is “baptizo”–the type of immersion where one resides and that leads to permanent change. I’m reminded of Naaman in the Old Testament. He was a Syrian commander who contracted leprosy. His Jewish servant told him there was a prophet (Elisha) that could heal him. When Naaman sought Elisha, Elisha sent someone to tell Naaman to go immerse himself 7 times (the number signifying wholeness) in the Jordan river. Naaman was mad, he wanted Elisha to wave his hand and heal him instantly, so he decided he wasn’t going to do it–he was choosing sickness over immersion. His servants asked him, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” (2 Kings 5:13). So Naaman swallowed his pride and did as Elisha suggested, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Total transformation.

Paul is telling us, in Romans 6, that the death of Christ is our gateway to total transformation. We are baptized into his death and then raised to live new lives as transformed people. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians tells us in 5:17 that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! (NLT)

Christianity is about life–it’s not about our sin or how wretched we are; it’s about our forgiveness, our healing, our transformation into Christlikeness…

Jesus tells us in John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent

…and in John 10:10  I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John wrote of Jesus: In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

Paul goes on to tell us: our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin…When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God.  So…consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. (6:6; 10-11)

And lest you be concerned that the work of transformation comes from human effort, remember that Abraham believed God, and God credited it to Abraham as righteousness.

Our part, in the journey of transformation is to believe God–not in God, but God. Part of believing is to renew our minds. Jumping ahead in this letter, Paul reminds us: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. (Romans 12:2)

And Jesus’ brother James tells us in James 4:8 to draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

I don’t know how it works–but I know in my own life, when I began to embrace the truth that God wasn’t disappointed in me, wasn’t mad at me, but loved me, accepted me, forgave me, saw me as right because of what God in Christ has done–not because of my own effort to be good enough– I began to really fall in love with God and to immerse myself in God. As that happened, I spent more and more time with God–and I am absolutely not who I used to be. I have been changed. I am still changing. God, who began a good work in (me) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)

This God, who already sees us fully acceptable, breathes Jesus’ life into us through the Holy Spirit and gifts us with a beautiful, holy, inviting life-light, as he makes us whole, healing us along the way, and using us to invite others in.

God’s free gift of overflowing abundant Spirit-filled life begins as we get to know God the Father and Jesus whom he has sent. Immersion in God’s gift of life through death leads to transformation.

–Luanne

I had never heard about the pickle recipe until Luanne shared it above. I love it so much. She shared with us that when the vegetable (for the purposes of my next point, I’m going to call it a cucumber) “is “baptizo” into a vinegar solution…” it, “…becomes something new–it is permanently changed.” Permanent change. The pickle cannot be un-pickled. It cannot go back to its cucumber form. That’s the nature of transformation. Luanne used versions of this word at least seven times in her writing, according to my unofficial count. It is also the word I couldn’t stop thinking about as I listened to the message on Sunday morning.

When Pastor John talked about baptism signifying that we have a new life to live, transformation was all I could think about. That led to me thinking about metamorphosis–and, more specifically, about how metamorphosis turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that Luanne and I like to write about butterflies. And you might also know that we have written about metamorphosis before–but not in the context of baptism. To refresh our memories, here is what I wrote two summers ago regarding this miraculous process:

“A caterpillar is hidden within the cloak of its cocoon. And while it’s in there, it literally dies. Its organs disintegrate, and from that soup of cells, a butterfly is born. When the time is right, the cloak of the cocoon falls away, and the beautiful butterfly is free to fly. Death and resurrection.” 

Death and resurrection…

Luanne wrote, “We are baptized into his death and then raised to live new lives as transformed people.”

The origin of our English word metamorphosis is in the Greek word metamorphoō. It means transfigure, transform, change. It is found four times in scripture. The second half of the compound word, morphoō, is found only once. Luanne already included one of the verses our word is found in, Romans 12:2. Here it is again in the Amplified Bible translation:

And do not be conformed to this world [any longer with its superficial values and customs], but be transformed (metamorphoō) and progressively changed [as you mature spiritually] by the renewing of your mind…  

Here another occurrence of the word in a verse that has been on my mind since Sunday:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (metamorphoō) into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)

These two verses use the word metamorphoō in relation to Jesus’ followers. The other two times it is used, it describes Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2:

And His appearance changed dramatically (metamorphoō) in their presence; and His face shone [with heavenly glory, clear and bright] like the sun, and His clothing became as white as light. (Matthew 17:2, AMP)

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured (metamorphoō) before them. (Mark 9:2)

The one time the word morphoō shows up is in Galatians 4:19. Paul writes,

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed (morphoō) in your lives. (NLT)

Before we put all of this together, I want to show you two other translations of 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we all, with unveiled face, continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being transformed (metamorphoō) into His image from [one degree of] glory to [even more] glory, which comes from the Lord, [who is] the Spirit. (AMP)

Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured (metamorphoō) much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (MSG)

Metamorphosis is not instantaneous. It is a process. This is true for the caterpillar as well as for us. For the caterpillar, it is literally transfigured, which means “change the shape of” in its original Latin form (Oxford Languages). The caterpillar, hidden inside the cocoon, falls apart–all the way down to the cellular level. There, in that place of death where it is not what it was nor is it what it will become, its cells are restructured and its components are reconfigured. When the process is complete, the cocoon falls away and the brand new creation–the butterfly–is revealed.

What about us?

I want to go back to one of the definitions Luanne gave us for baptism earlier. She told us it can mean overwhelmed. Anyone other than me feel overwhelmed lately? Do we know what the word overwhelm actually means? “Whelm” by itself means: engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something). That sounds pretty bad, right? Who decided we needed to add “over”? The definition for “overwhelm” is: to bury or drown beneath a huge mass, to inundate, to defeat completely. (Definitions from Oxford Languages) Yikes. Bury… drown… defeat completely. Sounds like death to me. Which is unlovely in every way I can think of except one. The way it explains what happens in baptism…

Our submersion in baptism–when we are engulfed, inundated with water all around us–it symbolizes the in-between, the “caterpillar soup” stage of metamorphosis. It symbolizes how, when we submit to the transformation process, who and what we used to be completely falls apart–down to the soupy, cellular level. It would appear that all is lost in that moment of defeat. But it is not. Instead, it is liminal space–the initial stage of what will be an ongoing process, where we occupy a position on both sides of a threshold, however impossible that seems. In that place, the energy of the life of Jesus infuses every cell, every broken piece, all the components of us–the good and the bad. When we are raised out of the water, it symbolizes the bursting free from the cocoon, as brand new creations. Death to resurrection.

Notice I said that Jesus’ energy, his life, infuses ALL of the components of who we are. We emerge with our stories intact–we are still who we are–and we are also brand new creations. The cells of the old us are the cells of the new us–same as the caterpillar/butterfly. But they have been altered, infused, transformed. We emerge the same person, but we are not the same.

This is what baptism symbolizes. Does all of that really happen in the short moment we are submerged in water? Yes… and no. I can’t explain it because it is beyond what we can know or understand. The act of baptism is an outward expression of inner change. I won’t pretend to know the order of things, nor do I believe one has to be immersed in water to experience the baptism of the Spirit that ignites the changes I described above. What I know is that baptism as we understand it is symbolic of the lifelong metamorphosis we experience as followers of Jesus. The caterpillar to butterfly change is not instantaneous. It is a process.

The verses I listed above tell us what our metamorphosis will look like over time:

We are transformed and progressively changed [as we mature spiritually] by the renewing of our minds. We are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. Our appearance is changed dramatically, and our lives are gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. This process will continue until Christ is fully developed in our lives.

This is the transformation process that baptism symbolizes. The Spirit is the cocoon that holds all the parts of us as the life-energy of Jesus continually transfigures us into the image of his love. Once we say yes to being immersed in him, once the process of transformation begins to infuse every cell with his life, we cannot go back to the before. We are in the pickling process, and there is no going back. Once our components are altered, they cannot be unaltered.

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…

Luanne wrote this:

Christianity is about life–it’s not about our sin or how wretched we are, it’s about our forgiveness, our healing, our transformation into Christlikeness…

Our journey with Jesus is one of continual metamorphosis. We don’t get to fly out as a fully-formed butterfly in the middle of the story, yet we do experience the beauty of soaring under other wings from time to time. There is a both/and to our experience of death-to-life. But the moment we say yes to Jesus, the moment we are brave enough to fall apart, trusting that transformation is on its way, is the moment we begin to know–intimately, at the core of who we are–that, “Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country.” (Romans 6:5b, MSG)

–Laura

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

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

I wrote in last week’s post,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet God… in his grace…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is really, really good news.

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Luanne

God's Grace ‹ Waters Church Norwood

The Roman Road Less Traveled: 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