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

Roman Road Less Traveled: Rejoice!

Rejoice.

What does it mean to rejoice? What do you think of when you hear that word?

As I prepared to write, I assumed I would find the “rejoice” I was familiar with when I looked up our verses in the original language–the chairō form of rejoicing from which the word chara was derived, the joy that is one of the fruits of the Spirit. That is not what I found.

In chapter 5 of Romans, every time we see the word “rejoice” or something like it–translations vary on which word is used–the original word is not chairō. It is kauchaomai, a word that is translated “to glory” or “to boast” 33 times in the New Testament, compared with the 4 times it is represented with the English word “rejoice.”

Okay. Well…that changes the direction I thought I was going with this post. When I hear the word rejoice, I do not naturally associate it with boasting, or glorying in something. When I think of rejoicing, I think of joy, of celebration, of re-joying–celebrating again, or remembering the joy of days gone by. But that’s not the kind of rejoicing Paul calls us to in this week’s passage. As I study his words and what they convey, I am finding some relief in being wrong in my original understanding. We’ll discover why together, as we dig in. First, let’s look at our passage, Romans 5:1-11. It’s long, but important to our discussion that we read all of the verses together. For the sake of freshness and our overall understanding, I am combining the verses from different translations:

Since, then, it is by faith that we are justified, let us grasp the fact that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have confidently entered into this new relationship of grace, and here we take our stand, in happy certainty of the glorious things he has for us in the future. But that’s not all! Even in times of trouble we have a joyful confidence, knowing that our pressures will develop in us patient endurance. And patient endurance will refine our character, and proven character leads us back to hope. And this hope is not a disappointing fantasy, because we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who lives in us! Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we’re at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Verses 1-2, J.B. Phillips; 3-5, TPT; 6-8, MSG; 9, NKJV; 10, MSG; 11, NIV)

Pastor John showed us five reasons for rejoicing–for boasting, glorying–found in this passage. I think you’ll see as we move through them why Paul chose the word he did. From here on, I’ll use the meaning of the word Paul used in place of the word rejoicing.

I am starting with the fifth point first, because it connects us to last week’s message and seems the most appropriate jumping-off point…

We glory and boast in who God is. Last week we discussed Abraham’s faith–his faith was in the person of God, not what God could do, and not in Abraham’s own ability to keep the law perfectly. His faith was rooted in the person of God. Our boast, likewise, is never in ourselves as though we have somehow secured our own salvation. No, we glory in and we boast only of Christ, and him crucified; Christ, and his victory over death and the grave; Christ, and his resurrection life, alive now in us.

Paul writes further on this subject in his letter to the Galatians:

But far be it from me to boast [in anything or anyone], except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14, AMP)

And all the way back in Psalms, David, experiencing the rescue of God, sang:

My soul will make its boast in the Lord; The humble will hear it and rejoice. (Psalm 34:2, NASB)

I love that. Our souls boast in our Lord. Those who have ears to hear will rejoice. Beautiful.

So, we glory and boast in who God is. First. His character is unchanging. His posture toward us is love, grace, acceptance. Now we’ll go back to Pastor John’s first and second points, which connect so beautifully to what we’ve just discussed:

We glory and boast in our present position and in the hope of the glory of God. In the translation I used above, J.B. Phillips, verses 1-2 tell us,

Since then it is by faith that we are justified, let us grasp the fact that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have confidently entered into this new relationship of grace, and here we take our stand, in happy certainty of the glorious things he has for us in the future. (emphasis mine)

Again, our glory is his glory. We boast in what Jesus has done. He has invited us into peace, into a relationship of grace–and here, we can take our stand in hopecertain of what we hope for, assured of what we don’t yet see. (Hebrews 11:1)

Pastor John’s third point is the one that is most difficult for me, and I assume it will be for you as well. It is why my new understanding of the definition for “rejoicing” in this passage is so important to my own heart. Here it is:

We glory and boast in our sufferings. Umm… ew. No, I don’t think I glory and boast in my suffering. Do you? Maybe rejoice does fit better here after all? I don’t think so. Here’s why…

Paul is not advising us to elevate our suffering, or to glorify the difficulties, pains, and pressures of life. Not at all. He is reminding us of Jesus’ words in John 16:33, “. . .In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And what does it mean that Jesus has overcome the world? Let’s take another look at verses 3-5 in our passage:

Even in times of trouble we have a joyful confidence, knowing that our pressures will develop in us patient endurance. And patient endurance will refine our character, and proven character leads us back to hope. And this hope is not a disappointing fantasy, because we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who lives in us! (emphasis mine)

We can glory and boast in our Lord even in the midst of our sufferings, because Jesus has overcome the world–all of it: sin, pain, death, even the grave itself. And as we patiently endure the pressures of this life, we’ll be led back to the hope we have in the One who has overcome. Tangible hope that lives and breathes in us as a result of “the endless love of God cascading into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Yeah. I can boast and glory in that all day long!

Finally, we can glory and boast in what we have. What do we have? We have identified that we have God on our side because of who he is. We have peace, and a relationship of grace. We have hope. We have the love of God, and we have the Holy Spirit. What else do we have? We have what holds it all together, what delivered God’s love to us: the person of Jesus, and his willingness to die so that we could experience his life. The beginning of verse 6 from The Message paraphrase tells us, Christ arrives right on time…” Pastor John said on Sunday, “At just the right time…Jesus.”

How do those words sit with you? Do they resonate deeply, as you remember when you first encountered the love of Jesus in your own life? Do you feel like you’ve been waiting for him and he still hasn’t come? Have you prayed during a time when you really needed him show up on time… but he didn’t?

At different points in my life, I’ve answered yes to all of these questions–sometimes all in the same day. I know that Jesus is always coming for me, he’s never late or absent. But sometimes, the pressures and sufferings of this life block him from my view. Sometimes, I’ve dammed up the flow of living water and I’m swimming instead in stagnant waters, full of death and disappointment. Maybe that’s you, too. If so, don’t fret. There’s tangible hope, even on the hardest days. His offer to each of us stands, even when we’ve convinced ourselves he’s not there. Sometimes, we only need to be reminded of all we have in him…

On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink! Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (John 7:37, MSG)

The scripture Jesus referenced is Isaiah 55:1:

“Listen! Are you thirsty for more? Come to the refreshing waters and drink. Even if you have no money, come, buy, and eat. Yes, come and buy all the wine and milk you desire— it won’t cost a thing.” (TPT)

Jesus is the river of life. When we drink of the water he offers, rivers of living water fill and flow from us who believe in what we have–Jesus himself. He is the river of living water, the one that flows from the sanctuary in Ezekiel’s vision: “Wherever the river flows, life will flourish. . . because the river is turning the salt sea into fresh water. Where the river flows, life abounds.” (Ezekiel 47:9, MSG)

We can glory and boast in who our God is–revealed in Jesus. We can glory and boast in his endless love that positions us in a place of peace and in a new relationship of grace that allows us to stand in hope. That same hope is why we can glory and boast in the midst of our sufferings, as we remember that our hope is secured in the truth that Jesus has overcome the world. And we can glory and boast in the person of Jesus, that we have him as our own, that he lives and breathes within us, and that the river of his life fills us, heals us, and brings our souls to life. So we can say, like David did, My soul will make its boast in the Lord; and as we boast and glory in him, our hope is, The humble will hear it and rejoice.

–Laura

we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts…

we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts…

... we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts…

Ponder the fact that it is God’s desire for us to experience his endless, all encompassing, unconditional, cascading, pouring, shed abroad, filling us to overflowing love flooding into us through the Holy Spirit. (5:5)

It’s God’s desire…to anoint my head with oil (symbol for the the Holy Spirit), (so that) my cup overflows

You all, God is for us! God is for us! God is for us! The good news of God’s love (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is too boundless for us to ever fully comprehend, yet it’s true. Let it cascade over you, and in you, and through you. Be awestruck again.

I love the definition that Laura discovered regarding the word “rejoice” in this passage. She informed us that this “rejoice” is more often translated as “to glory” or “to boast” than “to rejoice”. Knowing that definition gave me the direction I feel led to write this week–and I’m grabbing onto rejoicing as “to glory”.

Some years ago, I was reading a book by Jennifer Kennedy Dean (I can’t remember the title) in which she defined “glory” in a new way for me. She said that “glory” can be translated as “outshining”, and explained it something like this: When we are sitting in a dark room, we can’t see what’s around us, but as soon as someone turns on a light–it all becomes visible. It becomes visible because light rays are bouncing off the surfaces–the objects are “outshining” — reflecting the light. As a result, what was unseen is now seen.

The glory of God is the “outshining” of God. Paul eludes to this in the first portion of his letter to the Romans when he writes, For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities— (Romans 1:20). All of creation brings “glory” to God–it outshines God’s greatness and majesty.

Our lives bring glory to God when they bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit– or “outshine” the fruit of God’s character and heart through us.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). There has never been anyone else in human flesh who outshined the exact representation of God. Jesus IS the glory of God; the full display of the outshining of God. Jesus is the light who shows us who God is, what God’s nature is, what friendship with God looks like, what God’s attitude toward us is. Jesus is the display of God’s full-on, fierce, active, cascading LOVE.

Take a second. Inhale that truth. Feel the cascade. Don’t try to understand it. God’s love is not logical–it just is. Our part? Believe it.

I love Laura’s mashup of different translations above and may write it out in my journal later, but right now, I’m going to go back to the NIV for a minute. It’s the memorized version in my head–and it took me a long time to comprehend what it was saying, so I’m going to try to break it down. The italicized portions belong to either me or Strong’s Concordance…

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith (we believed God and that was enough for us to be rightly and perfectly related to God), we have peace (shalom, flourishing, healing) with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith (Jesus is the open gate–everyone is welcome) into this grace (kindness, acceptance, fully embraced, completely loved, holy place) in which we now stand (our position, the place from which we live). And we boast (outshine) in the hope (anticipation) of the glory (outshining) of God (who is transforming us from glory to glory, outshining to outshining).  Not only so, but we also glory (outshine) in our sufferings (pressure, trouble, anguish), because we know that suffering produces perseverance (patient unswerving continuance) perseverance, character (the process/effect of proving–becoming proof); and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love (agape; a feast of charity) has been poured out (cascaded) into our hearts (the center of all physical and spiritual life) through (by, for the sake of) the Holy Spirit (the Breath of God), who has been given (a gift) to us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless (strengthless, weak), Christ died for the ungodly (all of us-Paul’s bad news). Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, (true) though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die (maybe) But God demonstrates (exhibits, proves, stands with) his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners (separated from relationship with God and deserving death-the bad news), Christ died for (the sake of) us. ( making it possible for us to experience the love and acceptance of God–the good, good news!!).

Since we have now been justified (rightly related) by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s (important note–in the original language the word “God” is not in this verse) wrath (punishment–self inflicted by sin) through him (Jesus-hallelujah!)  For if, while we were God’s enemies (opponent; on the other side), we were reconciled (brought into favored relationship) to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved (I love this word: sozo–made whole, made safe, healed) through his life (Zoeabsolute fulness of life; real, genuine life; vitality) Not only is this so (as if that’s not enough!), but we also boast (outshine) in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now (and forever) received reconciliation.

Let me summarize: 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.

You are the light of the world–let your light so shine before all humankind that they see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. Rejoice! Outshine! Let’s light this place up with the cascading love of God!!!

–Luanne

Sunlight Beam Bursting In Erliao by Sunrise@dawn Photography

Roman Road Less Traveled: Abraham’s Faith

This week we continue building on the case Paul is making in his letter to the Roman church — “the righteous will live by faith…” (Romans 1:17). Paul introduced that concept in the first chapter, then dipped briefly into the “bad news”–none of us are righteous; and now, for the rest of Paul’s letter, we’ll focus on the “good news” of God’s unconditional love, manifested in Jesus, which makes us fully acceptable, and rightly related to God. This truth includes everyone, everywhere. The only thing required of us is to believe it to be true.

Each week of this series, we’ve written about the word righteousness (dikaiosynē) and what it means. I’m not going to write the definition out again, but it is imperative that we understand it, because in Paul’s letter to the Romans it appears in noun, adjective, or verb form 45 times! It’s a key theme.

Righteousness (dikaiosynē) is not self-righteousness. God’s righteousness leaves no room for comparison.

Luke chapter 18:9-14, highlights this very thing by teaching:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified (dikaioō) before God.”

This week, in Romans 4, we learn how Abraham became rightly related to God. Our key verses are 16-22, but I’m going to briefly summarize verses 1-15. Paul makes the case that Abraham, the father of of our faith through the genealogy of Jesus, was not righteous because of his actions, but because of his faith: Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). It wasn’t obedience to “the law” that connected Abraham to God. It had nothing to do with his behavior. It had everything to do with his faith. He believed the Lord. Period. That’s the key to being made right in God’s sight. It’s that simple.

Paul wrote in verses 14-16:

If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless.  For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!) So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift…(TPT)

Since Paul is using Abraham as an example to follow, what can we learn from Abraham’s example? Pastor John gave us some things to consider:

Abraham’s faith was in the person of God. We can each choose to relate to God as far off, unapproachable, ethereal–or we can draw near to the person of God. Abraham did not have the revelation of God in Christ that we have; however, he walked with God, heard from God, spoke to God, believed God–there was a real relationship there. Through this relationship, God made a promise to Abraham–sonless Abraham would be the father of many nations and all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. Abraham believed God.

Paul doesn’t go into the entire story of Abraham in this passage, but if you are familiar with it, you know that Abraham wasn’t perfect. He became impatient and made some poor decisions as he sought to “help” God fulfill the promise. He bore the consequences of those actions, but God didn’t hold it against him, because God doesn’t hold our sins against us–and instead of highlighting that portion of Abraham’s story, God reminds us, through Paul, that Abraham believed God, and was therefore in right relationship with God.

Abraham had faith, yet was aware of the problem. The NIV translates it like this: …he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead…(4:19). Believing God doesn’t mean we deny the facts of a situation. It means we fully address the facts, but instead of focusing on the facts, we focus on God.

Years ago I did Henry Blackaby’s Bible study “Experiencing God” In that study, Blackaby taught what Jesus as Truth looks like. In the gospels, Blackaby asked us to identify what was “true”–what the facts were, and then what became True when Jesus stepped into the scene. For example: a widow’s son was dead–that was true; however, when Truth in the person of Jesus intervened, the widow’s son was raised to life. God’s Truth is ultimate, and, no matter what the facts are, he always has the final say.

A word of caution here–let’s not give in to the temptation to use “God has the final word” as a way of dismissing real suffering and pain. Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, yet he wept with the mourners. Acknowledging the facts means acknowledging the emotions that go with the facts, even while believing God always has the final say. It’s not helpful to say to a person whose marriage has just exploded “I can’t wait to see how God uses this.” Or to someone who’s just lost a loved one, “It must have been their time” or anything else that is dismissive. We face the facts and feel the emotions that go with those facts, even while acknowledging that God always has the final word.

Abraham’s faith was consistent. Abraham knew the facts, yet even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping (v. 18); Abraham’s faith did not weaken (v. 19); Abraham did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God (v. 20).

It can be immensely difficult for us to hold on to hope when we know “the facts”. It can be difficult to hope when there is no reason for hope. Wavering makes sense in these seasons–however, wavering is more than questioning. The King James Version says of Abraham: “he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief”. I like that translation. To stagger means walk or move unsteadily, as if about to fall (Oxford Dictionary). Abraham staggered not. He stayed steady.

Remaining steady reminds me of Jesus. In Luke 9:51 we read: As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Jesus was steady in his walk with the Father even as he faced an incredibly difficult journey. As we know, Jesus agonized and asked God to remove the cup of suffering that was coming his way, yet he sought God’s will above his own and declared not my will, but yours be done. (Mark 14:36) Steady.

Paul knew this kind of journey as well. In Acts Chapter 20, Paul tells his friends in Ephesus that, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.  However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace…and they all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. (22-24; 37) Paul stayed steady despite hardship–his faith was in God, not the facts of his circumstances.

Faith faces the facts, holds on to hope and stays steady. The object of our belief is God; therefore, no matter what is going on in our lives, we can remain steady.

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. The Passion Translation clarifies that phrase a bit:… Abraham’s… faith transferred God’s righteousness into his account Love that!

Notice that Abraham believed God. Beth Moore wrote a Bible study called Believing God in which she highlights the difference between believing in God, and believing God. We get a hint of what that difference looks like by going back Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus closed that sermon by saying; Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice (acts on what they believe) is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock (it stayed steady). (Mt. 7:24-25, parenthesis mine)

We put into practice what we believe–all the time. We sit in chairs because we believe they will hold us. We press buttons (or turn keys) to start our cars because we believe they will start. We don’t fret that the sun will rise and set–we believe it will; therefore we plan our days. But when it comes to the things of God, do our actions reflect we actively believe him? Is God the object of our hope? Is God the object of our desires? Do we believe God is here, near, loves and accepts us (and those around us) right now? Do we complicate this beautiful simplicity by adding a list of requirements? Do we believe in God and live static lives, or do we actively believe God in every situation and live dynamic, hope-filled, fruit-bearing, God-loving and others-loving lives in the power of the Holy Spirit, despite the facts?

Do we believe God is who he says he is, and that he is 100% on humanity’s side? Do we believe God has gifted us with a beautiful relationship, and has deposited his righteousness (dikaiosynē) into our “account”? Do we believe we can draw on this account for life? Do we believe?

I believed God, and it was credited to me as righteousness. It’s really that simple…

–Luanne

In the presence of the God who creates out of nothing and holds the power to bring to life what is dead, Abraham believed… (Romans 4:17b, VOICE)

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed… (Romans 4:18a, NIV)

Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. (Romans 4:19, NIV)

And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:12, NIV)

Paul, in sharing about the God in whom Abraham believed, wrote in verse 17 that he has the power to bring dead things to life. Paul, who knew the stories of Dorcas, of Jairus’ daughter, of Lazarus, and ultimately, of Jesus, wrote about God’s ability to bring the dead to life. He wrote about Abraham in hindsight.

But Abraham had never seen the dead come back to life when he believed…

Verse 18 tells us, “Against all hope,” he believed. Verse 19 says, “. . .he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead. . . and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.Hebrews 11:12 reiterates that Abraham was. “. . .as good as dead.” Yet, he believed. Why?

Abraham had never seen God speak life into something that was dead… but Abraham had seen God. His faith was in the person of God. Luanne wrote, “Abraham did not have the revelation of God in Christ that we have; however, he walked with God, heard from God, spoke to God, believed God…” He did not focus on the hope of a child. Nor did he ruminate on the impossibility of God’s promise to him being fulfilled in the natural–the scriptures make it clear that he saw the reality of death in himself and in the womb of his wife. His faith was not in an outcome.

He couldn’t conceive of how God would fulfill the promise. So he didn’t focus on the promise. He focused on God. He had “seen” him throughout their journey together, experienced him in undeniable ways. So he trusted that the God who had revealed himself to him so many times before would be that same God, even when all hope seemed lost and death loomed large.

What about us?

The path we walk is charted by faith, not by what we see with our eyes. (2 Corinthians 5:7, VOICE)

We look away from the natural realm and we fasten our gaze onto Jesus who birthed faith within us and who leads us forward into faith’s perfection… (Hebrews 12:2a, TPT)

Faith does not come from ourselves, but is birthed by the life of Jesus within us. As we “fasten our gaze” on Jesus, we are led by him into “faith’s perfection.” What is faith’s perfection?

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1, NLT)

Faith shows us that what we hope for is real; faith provides the evidence within us of what we cannot see with our eyes. So, then, what is it that we hope for? What does the life of Jesus within us–our “faith”–provide evidence of?

The outcomes and expectations we’re naming-and-claiming? The fulfillment of our declarations of healing? The answer to our financial predicament? The spouse we’ve longed for? The prosperity we’ve dreamed of? The results we have worked for? These are all things we have hoped for, but not yet “seen,” right?

If these things, things not yet realities in our lives, are what we hope for–what we long to see become a reality as a result of our faith–we are living from a faith not rooted in the person of Jesus. The faith that is birthed in us by Jesus shows us the reality of God. Jesus, living in us, is the evidence of the God we cannot see. If God is what we hope for, what we long to see, our faith–made alive by the life of Christ within us–will grant us what we long for! We will see God!

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen… (Colossians 1:15a, MSG)

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. We can trust in his character and believe in his goodness, even when things look hopeless. Even when things don’t turn out the way we had hoped. Even when, as Abraham’s story illustrates, something is “as good as dead.”

Have you found yourself there? In the middle of a story that feels impossible? Facing hopelessness? Feeling that something you long for is as good as dead? Maybe you’re there now. It’s a hard place to be. It can suck the air out of a room. It can drive us to despair. It can also reveal what is unseen…

My mom died six and a half years ago. There were two things I heard her say over and over again in the weeks leading up to her passing. The first was, “I love you.” She was extra generous with those words. But the other thing she repeated–I can still hear her voice as I type the words–was:

“Glory to God for the life that I’ve lived. I choose to live for him–whether it’s here or in heaven.”

She really, really believed God was going to heal her. She believed she had more life to live–here, with us. She also knew that the facts said otherwise. She faced the truth of her situation, acknowledged that her body was, “as good as dead,” and with a smile and sometimes tears, she’d say again,

“Glory to God for the life that I’ve lived. I choose to live for him–whether it’s here or in heaven.”

Mom’s faith was in the person of God. She had seen him because the faith Jesus had birthed and grown in her heart had revealed God to her time and time again. Her faith was in the person of God–not in her healing. Not even in his ability to heal her, although she believed in that, too. Her faith was rooted, grounded, steadied in who he is. Period.

I struggled during my mom’s last months and weeks to pray for healing. I knew that he could heal her. I wanted that. More than anything, I wanted her healthy and whole and with me for many more years. But as the disease progressed, I found I couldn’t pray the words. The reality of her failing body stared me in the face as her illness gained ground at a merciless pace. As her caretaker, I saw the realities. And praying for healing felt impossible. So I didn’t.

Instead, with shaky insides, I prayed for mercy. Over and over again, as I listened to her jagged, gasping breaths, I said only two words:

“Mercy, Jesus…”

And I trusted God to answer that fragile prayer according to who he is.

For a long while after we buried her, I felt the icy grip of shame and guilt squeeze my heart. I wondered if I should have prayed harder, believed more, found more faith somehow…

But here’s what’s true–real faith is not quantifiable. More faith doesn’t equal better results. Because the idea that faith can be measured is a lie. Faith is, or it isn’t. We have it, or we don’t. We don’t earn it, work for it, or “find” it somewhere. Faith is birthed in us by Jesus. Full stop.

My mom prayed that God would be glorified in the life she lived, and she believed in her healing–whether here or in heaven–because her faith was in the person and character of God, revealed to her by Jesus living within her, not in a particular outcome.

I prayed for mercy. Because my faith was in the person and character of God, revealed to me by Jesus living within me, not in a particular outcome.

Her faith wasn’t “big.” My faith wasn’t “small.” We were both steadied in the face of death by a faith that was in the person and character of God. HE is what we both hoped for. HE is who we longed to see. Our faith wasn’t contingent on seeing her healed. It was in the person of God, revealed perfectly in Jesus.

As we face an unknown future, friends, may the path we walk be charted by faith, not by what we see with our eyes. May we look away from the natural realm and fasten our gaze onto Jesus who birthed faith within us and who leads us forward into faith’s perfection. May we look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. May our hope be in our God alone, and may we, by faith, realize what we hope for; may we see him who we cannot see. And as we live in the presence of the God who creates out of nothing and holds the power to bring to life what is dead, may we believe, as Abraham did, that against all hope–there is still hope. Because God is still God. And our faith is in him. (Portions of: 2 Corinthians 5:7, Romans 4:17-18, Hebrews 11:1, Hebrews 12:2, Colossians 1:15)

As you face the days ahead, whatever they might hold,

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord show you his kindness.
May he have mercy on you.
May the Lord watch over you and give you peace.
(Numbers 6:24-26, ICB)

–Laura

These flowers are growing after wildfires ravaged the landscape. Life out of what was dead…

New Growth after forest fire, Sand Dunes National Monument | Photo.net

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: The Bad News

Last week we began our series in the book of Romans. Before we get into this week’s text, I want to remind you that the “book” of Romans is actually a letter, written by Paul, to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses, and Paul never intended for a sentence or two to be pulled from the entirety of his letter and used to clobber people. This week, we travel through some verses that have been used to harm others. We must resist that temptation.

I want to begin with the final verses we studied last week: 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)

And this reminder:

Salvation = 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.

Righteousness = Dikaiosýnēequity (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)

And from our Sermon on the Mount series: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to youLove your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Continuing with the last becoming first theme, I’m going to begin with the final verse from this week’s passage…

Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (2:4 NLT)

Right before Paul talks about the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (changing the way we think), he lists a number of behaviors and attitudes that separate us from God. That list includes: sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. It includes backstabbers, haters of God, the insolent, proud, and boastful. Also, those who invent new ways of sinning, and disobey their parents, refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy... do whatever shameful things their hearts desired...they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptileswomen turned… to have sex with each other, the men… burned with lust for each other, also people wouldn’t worship God or even give him thanks; and some began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like … (From Romans 1: 21-31) That’s quite the list, don’t you think? Everything from gossip to promiscuity is listed. I find myself on this list and I’m going to make the assumption that you find yourselves on it as well.

And just in case we’re tempted to try to evaluate which shortcomings are most offensive and which are least, Paul writes: You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? 

If these verses frustrate you and you’re ready to give up–remember that this is the bad news part of the letter…but don’t lose hope, the next verse is:

 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you?… Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4)

Last week we looked at Romans 1:1-16 which includes Pauls motivation for his ministry:  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. (14 TPT) And, through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship (v.5)… Notice, again, that Paul 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.

I’m so tempted to jump ahead in this letter and not leave us in the bad news. I want to head into the territory of Paul’s message that includes: God loves us all exactly as we are–no one is condemned in Christ Jesus, we are all saved by grace and not by our behavior… and we’ll get there.

But for today, remember that Paul is writing one letter. It’s not divided into chapters and verses. Paul is a trained lawyer and in the “bad news” section he is setting up his argument, that ALL of us truly are a mess–we’re all in this together–so that when we get to the lavishness of God’s grace, we’ll realize how beautiful God is and fall deeply in love with God.

So, the bad news of today’s message: We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. We worship ourselves, we worship created things (in our consumeristic society this is a real battleground). Our thinking is skewed. 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.

One more quick thought before I pass the baton to Laura–Romans 1:18 says, But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Ouch! In the NLT translation, there is a footnote after the word wickedness which says “Or who, by their wickedness, prevent the truth from being known. God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who prevent the truth from being known. That little footnote gives this verse a completely new context.

As I ponder that footnote, I ponder what truth we prevent from being known. Could it be the truth that God is love. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.?

Could it be people like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces...?(Mt. 23:13)

Do we do that? Do we try to determine who is in and who is out?

As we continue to work our way through this letter, let’s humbly admit our own shortcomings, face our own bad news and our need for grace. Let’s be committed to offering grace and demonstrating God’s kindness to those around us. Let’s not make it hard for people to know they are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven exactly as they are. Let’s not be the reason that people don’t know the truth of how extravagantly they are loved by God. Let’s make it easy for people to enter in…

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am so tempted to jump ahead in this letter, knowing that what is coming changes everything about what we think Paul is saying here. I actually planned to do just that–to take us into Romans chapters 3 and 5, and highlight all the good, beautiful news that Paul’s about to share–until I re-read Luanne’s portion. Sometimes we need to wrestle a thing through when what we really want to do is rush past the conflict it creates in our minds and hearts. This week’s focus is on the bad news, so I’ll choose to stay here, in the discomfort these verses create within me.

I want to highlight something Pastor John mentioned on Sunday. He told us about the Polish astronomer, Copernicus, whose assertion in the 1500s that the earth was not the center of the universe challenged everything he and his contemporaries believed about how the universe worked. There were discoveries that hadn’t yet been made, exploration yet to come that would turn things upside down.

Why does that story matter for us as we look at this week’s passage? Because sometimes we come to scripture assuming we know what it means, the one right way to interpret these words that were recorded thousands of years ago in a different culture and time; words that have passed through many different language translations and interpreters’ modifications. We don’t always know what we think we know–Can we agree together to stay humble enough to invite the Spirit to breathe fresh life into our minds and hearts as we consider these hard passages–and all passages–of scripture? Are we willing to see it from a different perspective? I hope so. There is so much to learn, so much to explore… It’s one of the things I love most about our God, the mystery and wonder and vastness of who he is. There’s always something new I haven’t seen before–and learning more about him and his love never gets old. My prayer is that each of us will desire to go deeper, to explore what’s below the surface as we read.

There are parts of this passage that are hard for me, verses that make me pause and ask some questions, because they don’t seem to line up with the character of God revealed in Jesus. It’s important to pause and ask the questions. Because 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–and passages like the one we’re looking at this week can help us build a case for that if we’re not careful.

But as Luanne reminded us, the “book” and “chapters” of Romans is a letter to a people living in Rome at a specific time in history. She wrote last week that it is, “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.” It is essential that we hold tightly to the overall theme that Paul himself told us in the very beginning of this letter he was writing about as we pick up different verses throughout the letter. Sometimes we do the opposite–we grab onto a verse here and there with a white-knuckled grip and let go of the context in which the words are written.

With all of that said, let’s take a moment to explore the “wrath” that Paul brings up in this passage. Verse 18 begins with, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven. . .”

But… Paul is writing this letter post-cross, right? Hadn’t Jesus already absorbed all of our sin and violence on the cross and come back from Hades, after setting its captives free, holding the keys to death itself? Is Paul saying that God has wrath to pour out on humanity even though Jesus already conquered sin and death for the world? That doesn’t make sense… So let’s look a little deeper…

As Luanne wrote above, Paul is making a case, and this week we don’t get to see beyond the prosecution’s case against all of humanity. We’ll get there soon, but for now, there’s a long list of things that appear to separate us from God and cause his wrath to be revealed. But, what if wrath doesn’t mean what we’ve always thought it means? What if God’s nature really is love, and we’ve misunderstood this wrath thing? I’m not writing as someone who knows the right answers. This passage brings up so many questions within me as I read it. But what if we considered a different perspective and asked God to grow our understanding? Can we do that together?

In the book A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, Brad Jersak offers this regarding wrath:

“Literal human ‘wrath’ combines emotional anger with violent retribution. We describe ‘the wages of sin’ (self-destructive consequences) as ‘the wrath of God’ because we infer sin’s consequences as God’s reaction. In actuality, biblical wrath is a metaphor. It signifies the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God.”

Whether we agree fully with this assertion or not, I think it’s worth considering.

With this working definition of wrath, let’s look at the first passage in Ephesians 2:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. . . gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1, 3-5, my emphasis)

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. But… because 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. It’s so beautiful.

Later in this same book, the author says:

“Paul clarifies throughout Romans 1, what had been described in the narrative as active wrath is in fact a metaphor. He defines ‘wrath’ three times as the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of people to their own self-destructive trajectories–even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on others.”

This makes sense to me. God doesn’t actively lead us into–or hand us over to–evil, destructive ways. But as the Giver of free-will, he allows us to choose for ourselves who we will serve. When we choose to live in the inexhaustible mercies and grace of God, we don’t experience ‘the wages of sin’. When we choose to step away from the flow of mercy and choose to live for ourselves–make ‘me’ the center of the universe–there are consequences. Harm is done to ourselves and to others.

Luanne explained the same concept this way:

“We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. . . Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices. . .”

So, when Paul–called by some the “Apostle of Grace”–lists the things that God “gave them over” to, he is telling his readers that there are intrinsic consequences to choosing to live a self-centered life. Outside of the flow of God’s mercies (which he never shuts off, but we can choose to live in ignorance of) we find ourselves on a path that leads us to indulge in all kinds of excesses. He writes of the evils that result from selfishness, and includes sexual indulgences that are unnatural to how a person is designed. I do want to note that throughout his list, Paul is not identifying a specific community or group–he is writing an exhaustive list of the consequences of choosing a self-focused, self-indulgent life that doesn’t exhibit the kingdom principles of loving God and loving others.

Finally, as we’ve written about so many times before, we need to be aware of our own filters as we read scripture, and commit to reading everything through the lens of Jesus. Even the writings of Paul, as brilliant and wise and stirring as they are, must be read through a Jesus lens. Does our understanding of a particular passage line up with the nature of God revealed in Jesus? Do our filters line up with kingdom values and the way of self-giving love modeled by Jesus? Do we have an agenda as we read certain parts of our Bibles? Are we searching for something that will back up our positions and personal convictions? Or are we bringing everything back to the good news of Jesus? He is the foundation of our faith. He is the perfect Word who was with God and was God from the beginning, through whom all things were made. (John 1:1-3, paraphrased)

As I close, I’ll say again, I don’t have the answers. I’m wrestling through things I don’t understand, as we all are. What Luanne and I hope to do in this space is dig in and give all of us space to explore what’s buried in the depths. Ultimately, our hearts are totally captured by Jesus and his kingdom, and our desire is to learn and grow into kingdom people who carry his heart to the world around us. What we write here evidences our wrestle, our processes, as we journey with Jesus. We hope you will dig in and do your own exploring, trusting the Spirit as your guide. There is much to be found if we’re willing to learn and listen and grow.

This week’s message brought us what appeared to be some bad news. But this passage is one small portion of a complete letter, and the theme of this letter is grace. Hold on… there’s so much more to come.

–Laura

Paul and the Letter to the Romans, Part 3 | by Church of God, AIC | Medium

The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

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

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

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

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

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So (finally!), let’s begin…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

Sermon on The Mount: Therefore…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Jesus teach any of that in his sermon?

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

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

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

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

Who we are…

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

Jesus finishes his sermon with this:

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

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

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

Then chapter 8 begins with:

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

Here we go, starting at the beginning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Sermon on the Mount: Being Over Behavior

Last week, we looked at the “Golden Rule.” Luanne connected it to Jesus’ emphasis on the commandment to love and phrased it this way: Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you. It is important that we keep that in mind as we continue into this week’s passage. For the sake of continuity, I decided to back up one verse and begin this week’s passage with Matthew 7:12, our concluding verse from last week.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:12-23, NIV)

This is not an easy passage. Pastor John laid out several points for our consideration, but the point that stood out to me was that the choices we make impact our Christlikeness. We have the freedom to make our choices, but there are consequences to each choice we make, and our lives produce evidence of these choices. I would like us to look at the Message paraphrase of our passage, too, because it causes me to think a little differently about some verses that I am fairly familiar with.

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get. Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention. Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned. Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’” (MSG, emphasis mine)

I happened to be reading a book that mentioned these verses during my quiet time on Sunday morning. Regarding the narrow gate and the broad gate, the author wrote:

“I regularly hear this passage interpreted as though Jesus were saying the in the end, very few will “be saved and go to heaven.” That’s not what Christ is referring to at all. Read it again. “So whatever you want people to do to you, do just that to them. Yes, that is what the law and the prophets are all about. Go in by the narrow gate. The gate that leads to destruction, you see, is nice and wide, and the road going there has plenty of room. Lots of people go that way.” (Matthew 7:12-13) Regardless of our faith profession or final destiny, our Lord is summarizing his takeaway from the Law and the Prophets–he’s describing the Jesus Way in this life in terms of the famous “Golden Rule.” He laments that most people–even most Christians–opt out of the Way that leads to life and instead, face the tragic self-destructive results of following the violent mob on the broad path. . . So, practically speaking, the Jesus Way truly leads to life, which includes human flourishing now and eternal life beyond.” (A More Christlike Way, A More Beautiful Faith, by Bradley Jersak)

Jersak suggests that Jesus is summarizing the Law & the Prophets–this Jesus Way he has been laying out in the sermon on the mount–in terms of the “Golden Rule.” He, if my understanding is correct, is asserting that Jesus is once again inviting his listeners to join him on the path he has been laying out–the way of the kingdom. Jesus’ goal is always to bring life, not death. His heart is always for all those who hear his invitation to follow him on the path of life, to “bring us a continual revelation of resurrection life, the path to the bliss that brings us face-to-face with him.” (Psalm 16:11, TPT, adapted)

Interestingly, Jesus may have intended a different understanding with his usage of the word we see translated “narrow” in our passage than what we most often think of. The word in the Greek means “strait,” as in a narrow passage of water, but its root word means to make to stand, make firm, establish, and also… to abide.

I got a little giddy when I read that definition, because abiding was already on my mind when I heard Pastor John talking about producing good fruit. To view this passage with that definition in mind is more than a little fascinating to me. I looked up many of the words in this passage, and it would be easy for me to get lost in the weeds trying to present them all to you. So I will summarize what I learned from Strong’s Greek Lexicon and offer the perspective I gleaned, fully aware of my own limitations–I am no theologian, nor will I pretend to be. Instead, I want to offer what made my heart burn with love for Jesus all over again, because it felt true to his character, to his way of being in the world, as I learned…

Jesus invites us to love our neighbors as ourselves and do to others what we would have them do to us, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. He follows this statement with, “Enter through the narrow gate,” or, the firm, established way, where we can abide and stand. The wide gate, the broad way, is like an open square, a spacious, wide, empty expanse–a gaping opening or chasm. It’s hard to imagine abiding in a gaping chasm. The second time in the passage that Jesus speaks about a small gate and narrow road, the word translated narrow is different in the Greek. It has roots that mean troubled, afflicted, a worn way, and at the deepest root–a Greek word spelled trauma (blew my mind a bit…)– wounding.

When I read “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life” in light of this second definition, I can’t help but think about the self-sacrificing, cruciform way of love that Jesus modeled and has been inviting us into throughout the entire sermon on the mount to this point. He invites us to abide, knowing we’ll need to remain connected to him as we live his way–a way that includes afflicting and wounding as we pour out our life and love for others in his strength. Traveling on this path, abiding with Jesus, is the only way to live a life that produces good fruit. John 15:5 tells us:

“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.” (TPT)

In her beautiful book, Chasing Vines, Beth Moore writes, “The job of the branch is to abide. Fruit is assured to every branch that fulfills its singular task: abide in the Vine. . . You need not worry that all this abiding will get boring. There’s no getting used to Jesus. One of the best parts of abiding in Christ is staying close enough to catch a glimpse of what he decides to reveal. Abide in Me. If you’re willing, you’ll never quit learning. We forget that He came to be Immanuel, God with us. Abide in Me. Work with Me. . .

Of course when I read that last line, Matthew 11 came to mind again. Because it’s in me and it bubbles up so often:

Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. (Matthew 11:29, TPT)

Beth goes on to write, quoting Dr. Gary M. Burgeons:

“What are the outcomes of this sort of life? The fruit Jesus expects from the branches is first and foremost love. . . This spiritual awakening, this transforming encounter does not always lead to fantastic signs and powers. . . It leads principally to a life that has features of Jesus’ life running through its veins.”

Our transforming is not about fantastic signs and powers–I’m remembering the Message paraphrase of our passage, specifically, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit.” No, the fruit of abiding, according to Dr. Burgeons, is “a life that has features of Jesus’ life running through its veins.”

Moore goes on to write,

Did you catch that? Abiding inevitably leads to love. A life that is lived in intimacy with Jesus is a life that lived in love. Abounding in love is possible only when we abide in Him. . . Love God. Love people. That’s what we’re here to do. “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (Galatians 5:22). Without love, all fruit is plastic. The fruit of our lives, in all its forms and manifold graces, is truest to the Vine when it’s generously extended and accessible to stagers and aliens of any kind. Our fruit is sweetest to the Vine when it extends a direct advantage to the disadvantaged and to the orphan, to the widow and to the poor. Our fruit best reflects the Vine when it deliberately leaves room at the edges–for the marginalized, the cornered, the oppressed, the mistreated, the harassed, and the abused. That’s where Jesus went, and that’s who Jesus sought. “As he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).

Brad Jersak wrote about the Jesus Way. Beth wrote about where Jesus went and who he sought. We are filtering all of this through the “Golden Rule” and way that Jesus presented, Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you. And if we follow the narrow way that is cruciform, others-focused Love, by remaining connected to the Vine and being willing to have his life reproduced in us, we will bear good fruit, fruit that will grow in abundance and can be offered to others.

“Without love, all fruit is plastic.”

That line speaks truth. I won’t include 1 Corinthians 13 again this week, but it applies, as it often does. We are utterly bankrupt without love. Love keeps on loving… How? By abiding. It’s all about being, not behavior.

I didn’t go into detail about our influences and filters, false prophets, or doing vs. not doing the will of God. I also didn’t get into the discussion on judgement that this passage stirs. My word count is already a little ridiculous, and I need to wrap up my portion. But even if I had leaned into all of the points in the passage, I’m not sure I would have landed anywhere different…

We continue to come back to the same things during this series, because Jesus continued to say the same things. Throughout the whole sermon. Over and over, in different ways, so as to clearly invite all of his listeners into the kingdom he presented. It seems he really wanted us to hear his heart–which is always full of love toward all, a cruciform, self-emptying love that always moves toward others. His focus was not death and destruction, but on life and abundance. He came as the image of the invisible God, the God who IS love. So Jesus, then, is the embodiment of love. And he invites us once again to join him on this narrow way of abiding in him so that his life can grow in us and produce good fruit that can be shared with the world around us.

If we choose to abide, to walk with him and learn from him, growing in his ways, the product will be good fruit. If we choose to walk in our own way, in a broad, spacious chasm where we can’t be rooted and established because we’re trying to do it all on our own for our own glory, all we’ll ever produce is plastic fruit. We can’t eat that. Or share it. That way will leave us starving, lonely, weak, and unable to stand. Too much time disconnected from the Vine leaves branches dry and dying, unable to sustain or produce life. These are the natural consequences of choosing not to abide. The choice is ours, and we will be known by our fruit…

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of reminding us that Jesus’ entire message and ministry were founded in love. Always love. If we stay connected to the vine, if we abide in the vine, if we remain, our lives produce love. Jesus tells us in John 15:5: I am the vine, you are the branches; if you remain in me you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.

As Laura wrote above, The Passion Translation words it like this: 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.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote after the word branches that reads: The branch of the Lord is now Christ living in his people, branching out through them. The church is now his lampstand. . .

With abiding in Love as our foundation, and the reminder that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves and do to others as we would have them do to us, and with the acknowledgment that we are not to judge, but are to be discerning, let’s look at the next verses:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (7:15-19)

I think we can get deceived into thinking that we are smart enough to determine who is a false prophet and who isn’t, but Jesus warns us in Matthew 24, that many will stop following me and fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many lying prophets will arise, deceiving multitudes and leading them away from the path of truth. (v. 10-11)

…and the verse from that passage in Matthew 24 that haunts me …the love of many will grow cold. (v. 12)

So Jesus tells us how to avoid being deceived– how to discern false prophets; it’s by their fruit. What does the New Testament teach us about fruit?

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Or to get a fresh perspective, the TPT interprets it like this:

But the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit within you is divine love in all its varied expressions:

joy that overflows,

peace that subdues,

patience that endures,

kindness in action,

a life full of virtue,

faith that prevails,

gentleness of heart, and

strength of spirit.

Never set the law above these qualities, for they are meant to be limitless.

(Galatians 5:22-23)

We cannot behave our way into the fruit of the Spirit–abiding in the vine leads to inner transformation, inner transformation leads to Holy Spirit fruit.

Backing up again to last week—God doesn’t place us in the role of judge; God does; however, give us discernment. False prophets, and false teachers don’t bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. (And I’m just going to say, we are all teachers…our lives teach.)

Jesus goes on to say:

 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Jesus was not one to mince words–but remember–he was never being cruel. Jesus, the image of Love, was all about the Father’s will, and is teaching us God’s heart, God’s desire, God’s way, God’s love- not just for us, but for the world.

So what is it about these false teachers that causes Jesus to say “I don’t know you?” We have to back up a bit–what has Jesus been teaching that his followers look like all throughout the Sermon on the Mount? They are poor in spirit, compassionate (mourn), meek, they hunger and thirst for “diakosyne” (righteousness, justice, equity), they are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and sometimes persecuted for looking like Jesus…

So why will Jesus say I don’t know you to some who say to him–but I did all of this in your name? Pastor John said it beautifully– “Kingdom people look like me (Jesus)–you didn’t look like me, so I didn’t recognize you.”

Do we look like Jesus? What is the fruit of 21st-century American Christianity? Does it look like Spirit fruit or has our love grown cold? Does the world experience the love of God through us? Do the tax collectors and sinners, the outsiders of our day know that Jesus loves them just like they are–and not only that–do they know he wants to hang out with them, to be with them? Do we model that? Jesus’ people look like him?

If the answer is no–don’t despair–all is not hopeless. Philippians 2:13 in the NLT says: For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

God never gives up; however, in order for God to work in us, we must choose the narrow way, the abiding way. We must remain connected to God–abide in God’s love, abide in God’s presence, abide in The Vine, then the power, the energy of transformation that allows us to produce the Spirit’s fruit and carry out God’s loving will is made evident to those around us.

Pastor John summed it up like this: God is inviting us to live a better way. Jesus is showing us how–he offers to transform us as we abide in him. Our inner character (that comes from abiding) changes how we live life. It’s not about professing— it’s about living. It’s not about “do”–it’s about “be”.

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. . .

–Luanne

Preventing Problems In Grapes - How To Treat Common Grapevine Pests And  Diseases

Sermon on the Mount: Golden Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the Law and Prophets hang on this.

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

I think that’s Jesus’ point.

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luanne closed her portion with these words from John Wesley:

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

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

–Laura

A life of love shine and submit