Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even when we resist it…

Even when we’re blind to it…

Even when we actively choose something else…

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

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

Even when we think our own righteousness is enough…

…we are not rejected by our God.

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are so loved–receive it!

Luanne

The Mystery of God's Love —

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

His Kindness for the Hurting

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus.  They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.              (Mark 6: 53-56)

Picking up where we left off last week– Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat by themselves while he stayed behind and prayed. A mighty wind arose and the disciples fought it for hours. Finally, Jesus came to them.  It’s interesting to note that Jesus had sent them to Bethsaida, but they landed in Gennesaret.  If you look at a map of the region, Gennesaret is nowhere near their original destination; the storm had taken them way off course. It’s also interesting to note that when Jesus walked out to them on the water, he went to where they were, not to where he had sent them. In his kindness, he will always meet us where we are, no matter how far off course we may find ourselves.

Once Jesus climbed into the boat with them and calmed the storm, they didn’t head for Bethsaida; they anchored in Gennesaret. Gennesaret is the region where Jesus freed the man who was possessed by a legion of demons. That man, after he was freed, wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus had him stay in Gennesaret  and said to him: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 5:19-20) The man was faithful to what Jesus had asked him to do, so when Jesus and the disciples anchored in that region, they were recognized, and people came to Jesus; they knew he could do miraculous things–one of their own had experienced it and shared his story. 

I wish we could have a timeline–it would appear that Jesus stayed in this region for awhile–he went to villages, to towns, and the countryside and people brought their sick to the marketplaces, the “hub” of town so they could get near Jesus.

Pastor John highlighted three words as he shared this story: all; touched; healed.

All:  It’s important to note that Gennesaret was primarily a Gentile region, so once again, Jesus is breaking proper protocol and ministering to people who aren’t Jewish. Jesus is making himself available to “all”–to those who were “other”.  There is no one who is excluded from the love of God–no one. No person on planet earth who has ever lived, who lives now, or who will ever live is “other” in God’s eyes. We have got to understand this. Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?  Romans 2:4 reminds us that God’s kindness leads people to change their minds (repent) and come into a relationship with him, so it would make sense that the kindness of his followers would draw people to God’s unconditional love. ALL. All includes me. All includes you. All includes all.

Touched: It’s interesting in this passage that those in need of healing reached out to touch Jesus. I don’t know how many people were in these marketplaces, but the way Mark relays the story makes it sound like there were a lot. There are a couple of really interesting details to note: One, people who weren’t sick brought people who were sick to Jesus. Those who were well weren’t off doing their own thing. They were concerned about getting those who weren’t well close to Jesus. Two, those who were sick, once they were close to Jesus, had the opportunity to reach out and touch him. The well couldn’t take that step for the sick, but they could get the sick close to Jesus. Three, this is all happening in the center of town. Our relationship with Jesus is not a private matter or a church matter. Are we living in such a way that those around us can sense the nearness of Jesus? Do they know that he is close enough to touch?

Healed: Sometimes our English translations of scripture don’t do us any favors, and this is one of those times. In the book of Luke, chapter 17, there is a story of ten lepers who drew near to Jesus and asked him to heal them. Jesus “cleansed” them all. One of the 10–a Samaritan “other” — saw that he was “healed” and came back to thank Jesus. Jesus said to him, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well”.  Why the difference between cleansed, healed, and well? What do you think of when you think of the word “well”? You were sick, diseased, and now you are “well”? All the lepers were healed from leprosy–were they not all “well”? In this passage, the word “well” is the Greek word “sozo”.

In the passage in Mark we are looking at today,  healed is the word “sozo”–a verb; it means “to make whole, to keep safe and sound, to rescue from destruction, to save, to heal, to deliver or protect…”

We have a tendency to think of “healing” as only about the physical body. Jesus is concerned with our entire beings, and his “sozo” is about restoring us to wholeness, restoring us to flourishing…

It’s used 118 times in the New Testament:

In Matthew 1:21 we learn that Jesus shall “sozo” people from their sins.

When Peter was walking on the water and began to sink, he cried out for Jesus to “sozo” him.

The Son of Man came to “sozo” that which was lost.

And in John 3:17 we learn that Jesus did not come to the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be “sozo”.

October is the anniversary month of my mother’s death. I was only a child when I lost her, so when I became an adult I asked a close friend of hers to share what my mom was like as a friend. Marie shared many things with me but one story, in particular, stood out. Many people were praying for my mom to be healed from cancer. Marie went to visit my mom in the hospital right as an awkward fellow from our church was wrapping up his visit. Marie asked my mom if it had been hard for her to be trapped and not able to get away from what could have been an uncomfortable visit. My mom shared with Marie–I don’t believe that God is going to cure me, but he is healing me…healing me to see people the way he sees them and love them the way he loves them; today he gave me love for G.

That’s “sozo”. My mother was not cured of her cancer, but she was healed to love well even while she was sick, even while the awkward difficult to be around person was in her room. She experienced, in the “marketplace” of her hospital room, a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.  As her daughter, I will always lament that she wasn’t physically healed. As her sister in Christ, I can rejoice that she experienced Jesus in such a beautiful way even when she was sick. In “sozo” our earthly focus shifts from the things that matter to us, to the things that matter to the heart of God.

In some Christian traditions, the primary focus of faith is getting “saved”. Getting “saved” is often defined as a one-time transaction that gives people a ticket to heaven. Once they have their “ticket”, they can live any way they want to, because their after-life is secure. Sozo does not mean that. It is not static. It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.

I read an account a few months ago that challenged the static definition of salvation. The account used the illustration of the sinking Titanic–lifeboats were available for some, and the people who got into the lifeboats were “saved”.  What would the story have been like if the rescued stayed in the lifeboats and bobbed around in the ocean until they died? They weren’t “saved” to bob around in the ocean. Their salvation led them to new life. They were “saved” from something for something.  So are we.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of his global family. You can be made whole;  you can carry others into his presence so they can be made whole. This is what it means to advance God’s kingdom on earth. We are The Church–the gates of hell will not prevail against us–if we understand our mission. 

We are to experience God’s love and respond by loving God–heart, soul, mind, and strength (entire being). We are to love others. We are to share our stories with those around us–like the man who was set free from demons did. We are to be inclusive, (Samaritans, Romans, lepers, demon-possessed, women, sinners, tax collectors, Jews, Pharisees, poor, rich…everyone). We are to be Spirit-filled vessels who are bringing God’s kingdom to earth (the way Jesus modeled it), so that God’s will, will be done on earth as in heaven. And what is that will?

God wants everyone to know:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, would be “sozo”, made whole, healed.

God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit whose fruit is evident in our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. He has asked us to go everywhere and share that God is love and God is near. The ripple effect of God’s sozo can transform the world.

Our challenge: Experience God’s kindness. Reach out, touch him, let him mess in our business and make us whole, then, even while we’re still in process, carry others into his presence so that they too can reach out, touch him and be made whole…this is how it works. Are you in?

–Luanne

In her book, Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around, no matter the outcome.”

I wonder if Rachel and Luanne’s mom are now friends on the other side… It seems the two of them held very similar beliefs about healing—what it is, and what it’s not. Luanne wrote that her mom experienced “…a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.” I witnessed this kind of phenomenon as my own mom bravely fought a battle that ultimately led her, too, out of our physical world and into the arms of Jesus. I watched as she made peace inwardly with her failing flesh and bones; I stood baffled by her overriding concern for the rest of us, even as she struggled for her own breath. She wanted nothing more than to live for God’s glory—whether here on earth, or with him. She repeated that like a mantra, and she meant it. She knew she’d be healed—one way or the other. But her heart was never more whole than when the rest of her was falling into a million broken pieces. She understood “sozo”, though I doubt she was familiar with the word.

Maybe it’s not until we face our own mortality that we can fully embrace and adapt Jesus’ vision for healing. But I have to believe—because Jesus said over and over again that the Kingdom is here, now—that we can move toward a deeper understanding of this healing, this wholeness now. I love what Luanne wrote about “sozo.” She said, “It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.” We can grow in our ability to experience and extend healing and wholeness right now.

Sarah Bessey, in her gorgeous book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, writes:

“I believe with all of my being that Jesus’ resurrection means that God’s heart is for our wholeness and our healing, for our belovedness and for our salvation, for goodness and mercy to chase after us and shape us. So I pray in that direction and trust that it is enough, that we will be shaped into Christ’s own, that our feet will find the path of peace, that our hearts will be tuned to cocreation and abundance and joy and love.”

But sometimes we get a picture in our minds of what our healing will look like. We tell ourselves, “When God fixes this, then ____________” We fill in that blank with our ideas of what the outcome will look like and why it will happen just that way—all to the glory of God, of course. To that, our friend Sarah adds,

“When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine.”

There’s something else that happens when we try to script our own resurrections… We become so focused on our own brokenness, our own pain, that we shut ourselves off from being those who extend wholeness and healing to others.

And sometimes we prefer it that way…

I heard someone say recently that we avoid the grief of others so that we’re not infected with it. It’s hard to enter into the pain of others in a real, present way. Compassion hurts. When we hear throughout the New Testament that Jesus was “moved with compassion”, it literally means that he felt it in his bowels. His insides lurched at the sight of those in need of healing. He suffered with them, so much that he felt it deep within his body. Is this how we respond when we see people in need of healing? Broken people desperate for wholeness? Maybe we need to back up and ask ourselves, Is this how we respond to our own desperate need for healing and wholeness? Do we regard ourselves with compassion? Shauna Niequist said recently, on The Eternal Current podcast, “I wanted to be part of building his kingdom on earth. But at a certain point I started realizing, I’m a part of that kingdom, too. So, if one little corner of the kingdom is suffering… take care of the whole kingdom, right? In a garden, you would never expect one plant to starve for all the rest. It’s not the right way to think about who we are and what we’ve been created for.”

Maybe we’ve never opened up our whole hearts to the “sozo” we need from Jesus. At a conference I attended recently, one speaker said that we have a God who makes “…redemption out of remnants; wholeness out of scraps.” But we have to choose to open up our broken hearts, to hold with our trembling hand our remnants and scraps, our fears and our scripts of how it’s supposed to be, and trust Jesus to bring the “sozo” we’re most in need of.

Then, as we are in the process of becoming whole, we bring others in. All others. Everyone.

I looked up the definition to “everyone”, just to make extra sure we understand. It does, in fact, mean, “every person.” Period. As Pastor John and Luanne both said, Jesus came for ALL. He made himself available to everyone. No one is excluded from encountering the love of God. No one is denied the experience of being made whole. Jesus’ healing is truly for all. Luanne asked us some probing questions, regarding this, that might make us squirm a little. And they should. She asked,

“Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?”

Can we answer these questions honestly? Whose presence in our sanctuaries would make us feel uncomfortable? Until we can truly answer, “No one would make us uncomfortable—there is no one who is seen as ‘other’ among us,” there is healing to be done within us. As we allow Jesus to save us his way, to cultivate his heart and his eyes within each of us and in all of us collectively, we will find that there is no need for our barriers, our rules, our exclusionary practices. Because seeing with his eyes destroys the dividing walls between “us” and “them”. And we are saved from ourselves and healed into wholeness, for the sake of the kingdom coming in all of its fullness. Here. Now. How beautiful is that picture?

Jesus’ kindness, his compassion for the hurting, the broken—all of us—is extravagant. It’s life-changing. He longs that we all experience it, and then extend it to everyone. Kindness… it’s so much bigger than a nice word we talk about with our toddlers. His kindness changes the world.

–Laura

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This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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JOY II (Like Never Before)

Joy. We found it last week–unnamed as such, yet present in a story that connected fasting with a wedding celebration, fabric, and wineskins. We began looking at what joy is–and what it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from last week’s post to remind you where we ended up:

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. JOY (Like Never Before)

Joy cannot be experienced apart from Jesus. Last week Pastor John laid the foundation for our understanding of joy, and this week Pastor Beau built upon it. Our exploration of joy took us away from the book of Mark for a week and into a story found only in the book of Luke. More than likely, you are familiar with this story in Luke 19:1-10. It is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. If you don’t remember the actual story, maybe these lyrics will jog your memory:

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he… He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you remember the song? Likely, many of us sang it as children. Pastor Beau pointed out that while the song serves its purpose to help us remember the story, we have sadly reduced this complex, beautiful story into a sing-along song. And we’ve probably missed some key points.

Take a moment to read the story the way Luke recorded it in his gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”  Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

There are so many directions to go in discussion of this story, but our focus this week is joy, so we’ll start there. The word joy shows up about midway through the story. In some translations, the word joy is replaced with words like gladness or excitement, but the original Greek word in this passage is “chairo”, which does mean “joy” or “rejoice”.  When does joy show up in the story? When Jesus shows up, sees Zacchaeus–the one who was desperate to see Him, calls him by name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Pastor Beau highlighted for us that “The joy didn’t come until Jesus showed up.” Zacchaeus had been living a joyless existence–we’ll look at why in a moment–but as soon as Jesus showed up, joy was present, too. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11)–Wherever you find Jesus, you find joy also.

But what about the others who were with Jesus? Those in the crowd? Their response to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus was not joyful. The text tells us that they were “displeased”, and that they “grumbled”. How is this possible if there is fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence? In another gospel, the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a similar situation:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But                    blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:15-16 NIV)

The crowd was with Jesus physically, but they couldn’t see him or hear him the way Zacchaeus was able to. Because Zacchaeus was looking for him. He was desperate to see this One he had heard so much about. I imagine he had ideas about him, ponderings… But the crowd had expectations. We know this because the parable Jesus tells immediately after the story of Zacchaeus is told to address the crowd’s expectation that He would, in his power and glory, soon set up an earthly kingdom that would defeat their political and military enemies. Their expectations got in the way of them seeing and hearing him rightly. So when he spoke and acted in ways that were contrary to their expectations, their response was one of anger and confusion–not joy.

In this particular story, I think the peoples’ anger hinged not so much on Jesus choosing to stop to talk with Zacchaeus, but on one of the words Jesus chose to use. We have learned as we’ve studied the ministry of Jesus that nothing he says or does is by accident. His words are carefully chosen–always. In this story, Jesus uses a word that shows up as “must” in our English translations. This one tiny word packed a punch in the original language. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today”, he is saying, “it is necessary, right and proper, a necessity of duty and equity for me to come to your house today. 

Right? Proper? Did Jesus know who he was talking to? Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. A filthy sinner guilty of grievous crimes. A thief among thieves. Certainly it’s not right or proper for Jesus to dine with his kind… I imagine they bristled. Maybe their mouths fell open and they took a step back. While these words may have agitated and confused them, I belief it was the sense of equity that the word carried that stirred the crowd’s anger most of all.

We haven’t written about equity in a while, but it is crucial that we understand what it is if we want to see the bigger picture of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Equity is the quality of being impartial, doing whatever it takes to set things right for each one individually. It is not equality. Equality treats every person the same regardless of circumstance. Equality can create further injustice, whereas equity is synonymous with biblical justice–the justice that is about wholeness and making things right, the restorative justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

So when the crowd heard Jesus speak a word that implied the necessity of setting things right for Zacchaeus–the one who acted unjustly (and with impunity) toward their community, they were mad. They had in mind the kind of justice that we broken humans have a proclivity toward–the retributive kind. This desire for retributive justice is what fueled the people’s expectation of Jesus setting up a powerful, enemy-crushing kingdom rather than the one he actually brought with him.

Back to Zacchaeus… his joy was uncontainable. He hurried to the ground and hosted Jesus in his home. We even see Jesus’ equitable treatment of him extend through Zacchaeus as he changed his mind about how he’d been living and vowed to set things right with those he’d treated unjustly.

This is the power of the presence of Jesus.

An encounter with him changes everything. Zacchaeus had been living a life of marked by stealing from others. And it was stealing any sense of joy he may have had prior. Pastor Beau told us there are five “Joy Stealers” present in this story. Maybe some of these are familiar to us, too…

Secrets: What we think/say/do that no one else sees; what you decide isn’t necessary to share. Zacchaeus made up charges as he taxed his community. How he came up with each charge was hidden from them.

Separation: Being pushed out or isolated from your family, friends, community; a sense of being disconnected from what you were once connected to. It feels like rejection or abandonment, and once it happens, it can get historical when it happens again. Zacchaeus lived a life of isolation from everyone in his community. He lived among them, but was not included as one of them. He was more than disconnected–he was hated.

Shadows: Different than separation. You live in the shadows when you refuse to step in. This is a place of invisibility, a life of being unseen. It is hiding who you are, backing out of the picture and refusing to let others in. (Side note that Beau highlighted: Jesus is always willing to step into the shadows to find you. Always.)

Shame: This one is connected to all the others, and can cause you to move into the shadows. Shame is when you form a negative identity (who you are) based on your mistakes (what you’ve done). It’s complex, and it is brutal. It is trying to separate yourself from what God sees in you. Interestingly, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure”. Not a word that anyone would have chosen to describe the life he was living before he saw Jesus. But what he’d been doing didn’t define him–it wasn’t his identity. After meeting Jesus, he lived into the meaning of his name.

Status Quo: The antithesis of growth. Sameness. No change. Living in the status quo, holding tightly to “normal” can feel safer than changing. Change is hard. It’s scary. It means stepping out of our own neat and tidy boxes into a space where Jesus can reframe the picture we see. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there is joy in our static, unmoving, safe existence. But there can’t be. Because life with Jesus is ever-changing, always growing, and completely uncontainable. We simply cannot box him in. If we try, we end up following (and worshiping) our idea of him and the safety that we’ve slapped his name on as “blessing” or “favor” rather than following Jesus himself.

Zacchaeus sees Jesus. Hears him speak his name. And in a moment, he trades in all these joy-stealers for the fullness of joy found in Jesus alone.

It’s important to note that we don’t have evidence in these verses of Zacchaeus acknowledging his many sins and asking for forgiveness prior to his salvation. We do see that he changes his mind (repents) and decides to make amends, but that’s all we are given. Yet… Jesus says, “salvation has come to your house today”. This is one of many stories that Luke includes in his gospel that stands in opposition to a formulaic plan for forgiveness and salvation. And it’s interesting to ponder. We don’t have time to dive into theological debate here, but I think passages like this one challenge us to look outside of the theological structure we were handed and explore for ourselves what the often familiar words mean.

Jesus gives us one more thing to chew on in this story before he moves on. He says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” This is fascinating, because again, if we take a closer look, it challenges some of what we think we “know”. Pastor Beau asked us to remember the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son… In all of these stories, the word “lost” implies prior possession. These things belonged to the one who was looking for them. Before they were lost. While they were lost. After they were found. Being lost didn’t remove their belonging. I’m not going to walk that out further this week–I’ve already written a lot of words. But I hope all of us will think about it, pray about it, and read Jesus’ words with fresh eyes–eyes that are seeking him rather than focused on our expectations of him. 

Where have you lost your way? What is stealing your joy? Look up at Jesus. He’s already looking for you.

–Laura

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Dear Church #5: Philippians 2:12-30

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Philippians 2:12 NIV, 13 NLT)

Salvation.

What came to your mind when you read that word? Sit there for a minute. Turn it over in your mind.

When I type “salvation definition” into Google, these are the first results that pop up:

a source or means of being saved from harm, ruin, or loss.

deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ.

synonyms: redemption, deliverancereclamation
antonyms: damnation

How do these Google results line up with what first came to your mind? If your thoughts about salvation are similar to these words, I have some beautiful news for you: It is so much bigger-and better-than that!

Pastor John told us on Sunday that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. 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.  

Is salvation deliverance from sin? Yes. I believe that Scripture teaches us that it is. But what Paul is identifying here is not that definition. The church he was writing to was made up of people who had experienced the salvation moment. That moment that happens when we see the sacrifice of Jesus, believe that His sacrifice offers forgiveness for our sins, and declare that He is the Lord of our lives. The Philippians had experienced this. They knew Jesus and were living out of the relationship they already had with Him. We do ourselves-and everyone else-a disservice when we read this verse with only the salvation moment in mind.

The reason I’m camping out here is that we (the Church) have adapted a smaller, incomplete understanding of what salvation is. In many cases, it’s boiled down to exactly what Google said it is: deliverance from sin. The opposite of damnation. Our “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Friends, if that’s our understanding, we are missing out. And if that’s what we’re offering the world-in those terms-it’s no wonder people see that offer as resistable.

The word salvation is not the only part of this verse that gets misinterpreted… Let’s look at the words that precede “salvation” in this verse:

…work out your salvation…

Sometimes this verse is used to support works-based theology and to say that salvation (the way many have understood it, as our pass to Heaven) must be earned. This interpretation keeps us striving, fearful, and living lives that lack joy, as well as the other fruits that life in the Spirit brings. If you’re living under the oppression of works-based theology, I’m so sorry… I lived that way for years–a victim of spiritual abuse who grew into a striving perfectionist before the real Jesus set me free. If you’re feeling the weight of trying to earn your way into God’s good graces, I invite you to take a deep breath and move toward the One who says to all of us:

 Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.          (Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30 Message)

Back to Philippians 2:12… This verse wasn’t written to keep its readers in bondage to fear and works. The words translated “work out” actually mean to accomplish, to fashion into existence what wasn’t there before. Pastor John summed it up as “the ongoing process of growing up in our faith.”

Salvation is a process. 

Our terminology has messed with us, so much so that even typing those words felt hard. Because that can sound exactly like what I’m trying to dispel here. Salvation, the way that Paul writes about it in our passage this week, is a process. And that, dear Church, is freeing! We don’t have to be fully matured believers on day one. Our sweet Savior, who takes up residence in our hearts, gives us time to grow into the fullness of His life in us. We get to grow up in our faith.

So how do we do that? How do we grow up in our faith? Philippians 2:13 is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible:

“For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”

This fashioning into existence what wasn’t there before, this growing up into the life of our Savior, this journey to wholeness–we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves. Not only does our good Father show us the way through His example lived out in the person of Jesus, He (through His Spirit) gives us the desire and the power to grow…

This is where the “fear and trembling” piece comes in for me. This particular kind of fear is not the anxious kind. It’s the mouth-wide-open, Holy ground, awed speechless kind. And that’s how I feel when I read verse 13. How beautiful and beyond comprehension is our God? He knows our weakness, our smallness, our inability to move toward health and wholeness on our own. And rather than ridicule our frailty, He gives us a salve that promotes healing, His very life to bring us to completion in Him, and even the desire and ability to keep going.

But… as beautiful as this is, it’s not the end. This process, this growing up in our faith, is not simply a means to get closer to Jesus. That is a natural result, but it’s not the end.

Pastor John identified that there are ingredients that come together to create growth in us. God gives us the desire and the power to recognize and do them. They are obedience, abandonment, and rejoicing.

The root word of “obedience” in the Greek is “listen”. We are invited to take the posture of an active listener, and to keep listening. To hear well. Before we do anything, we have to stop talking, stop trying to take (or maintain) control, and listen for the voice of the One who leads us.

Abandonment, the way that John spoke about it, is best defined as the act of pouring oneself out. (Phil. 2:17) This is a picture of releasing control, a picture first modeled by our suffering Savior, as He poured out His life for us. We are invited, as we grow up in Him, to do for others what Jesus did for us. We are invited to die to ourselves, to be poured out like a drink offering for somebody other than ourselves.

Sometimes, this feels like drowning. But as Jonathan Martin writes in his book, How to Survive a Shipwreck, “The waters that drown are the waters that save… The bad news is that this shipwreck feels like death, because you really may be dying. The bad news is that old and familiar things you loved and that made you what you were are slowly passing away. The good news is that you’re being born, and this drowning makes possible the moment when all things become new–most of all, you.”

It seems to me we’ve written about this every week for a while now… Our relationship with Jesus is not just for us. The result of His life in us, His love for us is that our lives become about sharing that love with others. It’s not about us. The invitation is not to “health and wealth”. The invitation is to die to ourselves so that we can come up out of the water living for others…

Rejoicing is the last ingredient we heard about on Sunday. This rejoicing is a shared joy, a mature joy that is for others. As we grow up in our faith, this joy in being with one another, is a fruit that is produced. Do you share in the ecstatic joy Paul writes about (vs. 17-18), even while he’s in prison? This joy cannot be produced in a life lived for only itself. It’s the product of a life shared, poured out. It’s sharing in the joy that was set before Jesus when He willingly gave His life for us. (Hebrews 12:2)

True salvation, freedom, and healing are found as we let the Spirit work in us to give us the desire and the power to listen and obey, to abandon our rights to ourselves, and to rejoice in the midst of any and every circumstance. Working out our salvation is the process of growing up into this kind of faith. We are invited into this process. What is our response, dear Church?

–Laura

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