Monday, June 30, 2008

God's Good Law and the Power of Sin

In this week's sermon text (Romans 7:15-25), Paul is once again dealing with thoroughly Jewish questions: Is the Law sin? (7:7) Did God's good gift become a cause of death for humanity? (7:13). Paul is asking these questions because over the last several chapters he has said that the Law was powerless against sin, that it led to more sin, and that believers are no longer under the Law. Therefore, one might conclude that Paul believes the Law to be a bad thing. However, this could not be further from the truth.

As a Jew, Paul believed that the Law was a means of grace to Israel. It was God's good gift to lead Israel in righteous obedience to God. Paul did not give up this belief upon becoming a follower of Christ. He continued to believe that the Law was good but he also began to see a new side of it. As a Pharisee, Paul believed that the Law identified sin so effectively that it could be avoided completely. However, upon becoming a disciple of Jesus, Paul begin to realize that he had been enslaved to sin even while he was following the Law. This was not because of some inability on Paul's part to keep the whole Law. After all, Paul says in Phillipians that he was blameless before the Law. Instead, Paul realized that he had sinned precisely in his keeping of the Law because sin's power was so great that it had used even God's good gift of the Law to produce more sin.

An example of this from Paul's own life is his persecution of Christians prior to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus as recorded in the book of Acts. Paul was imprisoning and killing Christians not because he was just a mean, sinful guy who didn't care about God but because precisely because he did care about God and believed that God willed the death of these Christians since the Law spoke against false prophets. After his encounter with Christ, Paul began to realize that sin had used the Law to cause Paul to actually do the opposite of God's will.

So what of Paul's question about whether or not the Law is sin and a cause of death? Paul affirms in this passage that the Law is entirely good because it is not the law itself which leads to sin. It is sin's great power to twist and corrupt God's good gift which is at fault. Similarly Paul says it is not he who is guilty of the sin of his previous way of life but the sin which dwelt in him and caused him to do evil despite his best efforts and intentions. More importantly, Paul speaks here not only for himself but for all of humanity. We have all been enslaved to sin often without even knowing it precisely at those times that we thought we were being the most righteous. It is for that reason that our righteousness can not depend upon our own efforts and good intentions. The only way to genuine righteousness is in God revealing to us where we have been enslaved and then breaking the chains of that slavery for us. As Paul says "Who wil set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

CAMA Pulpit Exchange

I won't be preaching from Romans this week since it is the week of the Clinton Area Minister's Association (CAMA) Pulpit Exchange. All of the ministers in the area that participate in CAMA will be preaching at a church other than their own this Sunday. I will be preaching at the Christian Church. Rev. Hunte, the pastor at the Presbyterian Church will be preaching here at our church.

I decided to use a sermon I have preached before since I am preaching somewhere else this Sunday. This not only frees up some time for me to work on some other important projects that needs to get done. It also gives me a chance to preach one of my favorite sermons again. I'll be preaching from Jeremiah 23:1-6 while also referencing Luke 23:33-43. In the Old Testament passage, Jeremiah speaks of a king who will restore justice and righteousness in the land. I use the imagery of an old western and a new sheriff coming to town to straighten things out to communicate this idea of a righteous king who restores justice in Judah.

Of course, as Christians we believe that this Messianic prophecy should be applied to Jesus but the crucifixion scene in Luke 23 shows just how oddly Jesus fits this description. The words of the scoffers at Jesus' crucifixion highlight this reality. They all point out that if Jesus was really the Messiah he claimed to be then he would be able to save himself from the cross he is on. But, of course, Jesus does not. He does not restore justice and righteousness by force. He does it through his own willing death and his trust in God to resurrect him. This resurrection is God's proclamation to the world that Jesus is indeed the new sheriff in town just as he claimed to be even though he does not look quite like the sheriff anyone expected.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Identity and Mission

Tonight, we are beginning a series of outreach and evangelism training sessions at our church. As I've worked on creating the lessons for these training sessions, one of the things that I have thought about a lot is how often a church's sense of mission can be disconnected and disjointed from its sense of identity. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that many churches have a vague sense of mission (what they should be doing as a church) while having basically no sense of identity (who they are as a church). As a result, many churches undergo a kind of indentity crisis as they go from program to program trying to figure out what "works" instead of doing the hard work of trying to understand who they are in Christ Jesus and then allowing their sense of mission to flow from that.

For example, it seems to me that nearly every church knows that its mission has something to do with reaching people for Jesus. This idea then quickly becomes equated with how many people attend your church service and is translated into the latest church growth program. Unfortunately, when getting as many people as we can into our church (especially people who look like us and have at least as much money as we do) becomes our goal, our whole reason for existence, then we start to look very unlike Jesus. If this is our goal, then service to the poor, helping the helpless, touching the outcast, caring for the sick, eating with those who are looked down on, and basically all of those things that Jesus did, are thrown aside because they certainly will not help our church grow in number.

What is more, when we do attract a certain group of people to our church by means of entertainment, nice buildings, and all the comforts and services a successful business would offer then we make it very difficult for those very people to know what the difference is between the Church and the services offered by the business world. If we attract people to our churches with the big, beautiful, and bountiful how then can they become Christ-like servants who will minister to the small, the ugly, and the destitute? Why would they ever even think they needed to? The way we carry out our mission says a lot about who we believe we are.

In contrast to such an approach, I believe a healthy church must begin by considering it's identity. Who are we? This question will also mean asking "Who is God?" since our own identity is rooted in the identity of the God who calls us to be the Church. Of course, these are not easy questions. They are not questions that are ever completely answered. They are questions that a church must continue to wrestle with Sunday after Sunday. But it is essential that the Church wrestle with it. And as the Church wrestles with these questions, it will have found that it has been wrestling with God himself and found its own identity in the process. It is then out of that identity that we proceed to act, fulfilling the mission that God has given us.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dead to Sin but Alive to God

In order to understand why Paul is making the argument that he is in Romans 6, we must first remember the point he made in Romans 5. Paul has just finished talking about the tremendous love of God which was exhibited in the sacrificial obedience of Jesus Christ. Paul then contrasts and compares the results of Christ's faithfulness with the sinfulness of Adam. It is as if Paul envisions two spheres of existence. The old sphere, the way of life represented by Adam includes sin, unrighteousness, death, and the Law. On the other hand, the sphere of Christ includes righteouesness, life, freedom, and grace. Paul says that one can be transferred from one sphere of existence to the other by the free gift of God because of Christ's faithfulness. Paul even says that God's grace is so abundant that even when sin increased, grace abounded all the more.

With such a dichotomy in place, it is easy to see why Paul anticipates the question that he does in Romans 6:1. "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?" This is the logical conclusion of opposing the Law to grace. If breaking the Law leads to God providing more grace, then shouldn't we keep sinning so that God can be even more gracious? Paul wishes to make very clear that this is not at all what he intends to say and so he responds "May it never be!". Paul says that even though we have been given grace in spite of our sin we should not continue in sin because the very purpose of that grace was to deliver us from the sphere of sin's power. God has delivered us from slavery to sin through Jesus Christ. It would be foolish to willfully enslave ourselves once again.

Paul uses the imagery of baptism to make this point. He says that when we have been baptized into Christ Jesus we have been baptized into his death. As a result, we are dead to sin. It no longer holds us in its grasp. We are actually free to choose to do good. Why, then, would we ever choose to do evil? Or to put it another way, Paul does not expect Gentile Christians to follow the Law (meaning the Jewish Law regarding things like circumcision, food laws, or Sabbath observance) but neither does he expect them to be lawless. There is now another law which these believers must follow; the law of Christ (which Paul will elaborate on in Romans 8). Christians have been set free from slavery to sin but this is not a freedom to do whatever we want. It is a freedom to submit ourselves in service to another master, the one true Lord. It is freedom to follow the law that brings life rather than the Law that leads to death.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hannah's Baptism

This Sunday, Jess and I “dedicated” our daughter to God through the sacrament of baptism. Of course, many of you who have been Nazarenes for a very long time probably know that the Nazarene Manual allows parents to choose between dedicating or baptizing their children. Parents can choose to dedicate their child as an infant and then allow them to make a decision for baptism when they are old enough to claim faith in Christ for themselves. Parents can also choose to baptize their infant and then the child can confirm or claim the baptism they have already received when they are older. Although our manual allows for both, infant dedication has been a more common practice in the Church of the Nazarene than has infant baptism. It is for that reason that I want to say a few words here about why Jess and I have chosen to baptize Hannah rather than dedicate her.

First, infant baptism symbolizes the reality that God chooses us before we ever choose God. Often, adult baptisms emphasize that the person being baptized is making a public proclamation of their faith in God. This is certainly an important part of the Christian journey and at some point when she is older, Hannah will have to make this decision for herself as well. However, as an infant or young child is baptized we are all reminded of the way in which each and every one of us came to God: weak, helpless, unknowledgeable, unskilled, and entirely dependent. Hannah’s baptism is a symbol of the ways that God is already working in her life no matter how unaware of it she might be.

Second, infant baptism reminds us that baptism is an initiation and entrance into a family and community that has a peculiar way of life. When parents choose baptism for their children, it is a reminder of the vital and essential role that other people play in our faith. If most of us were to recount the story of how we came to be Christian, that story would include a long list of people who were influential in bringing us to Christ and helping us to mature in the faith: parents, grandparents, friends, and church family. Most often, God does not just “zap” people with grace in order to transform them. God chooses to work through people, through families, through the community of faith. Hannah’s baptism is her entrance into Christ’s Church and our local church family. It is a reminder that, at some level, her salvation is dependent upon all of us; upon Jess and I as her parents, upon those who have influenced us, and upon her church family. Infant baptism is a reminder that our salvation is not individual but communal. We are all bound up together in this journey toward Jesus and his kingdom. Jess and I could not be happier that Hannah has began this journey as a part of this particular church family.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hope in God's Love

"Therefore, having been justified (or made righteous) by faith (or faithfulness) we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" With this sentence, Paul sums up the point he was making in the first unit of his letter (chapters 1-4) and begins the second unit of this epistle (chapters 5-8). In the first unit of the letter, Paul argued that Jew and Gentile alike were in need of being made righteous and that God had done this apart from the Law in Jesus Christ. Paul also began to argue that God was righteous for having done this; a theme which he will pick up again in Romans 9-11. In the letter's second unit, Paul will go into more detail about how exactly God has made us righteous through Jesus Christ and he begins by speaking of the remarkable love of God.

In the opening verses of this section, Paul says that "we exult in the hope of the glory of God". This is a somewhat ambiguous phrase. What exactly does it mean to exult in the hope of the glory of God? The idea of hope points toward a future event since we don't hope for things that are already present. Therefore, it is likely that Paul is referring to the final day of judgment when God will reveal God's glory to all of creation. Why would Paul's audience exult in this? Precisely because of what Paul has just said, they have peace with God. Christians can actually look forward to the final revealing of God's glory since it will be the day when their salvation will be made complete. God's judgment will not mean punishment and wrath for those whom God has already made righteous. It will mean that God's righteous judgment will bring righteousness to the rest of creation as well.

However, Paul recognizes that until that final revelation of God's glory, there will be suffering and tribulation which, ironically, Christians can exult or rejoice in as well. Paul says this is because suffering procudes character and character produces hope so that when God is involved in the process of suffering it becomes a kind of upward spiral where hope just produces more hope. But Paul wishes to make clear that this hope is not a fool's gold or a mirage which only vanishes when we really need it. This hope does not dissapoint us because it is grounded in the audience's experience of God's love.

The recipients of this letter have experienced the love of God primiarily in two ways. The first one, which Paul mentions in v.5, is God's love being poured into their hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the more subjective experience of God's love which the saints in Rome would have experienced when they first became Christ-followers. The book of Acts attests repeatedly that there was a palpable reception of God's Spirit by believers when they were first baptized. Paul also uses the presence of the Spirit as a mark of truly receiving the gospel in his letter to the Galatians (3:2-3). The Roman church can persevere in trials because there hope is founded in the very real experience that they had when the Holy Spirit was given to them and they began to feel the love of God transform them.

God's love has also been revealed to Paul's audience through a less personal, more objective means; the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Pauls says that while we were still helpless, godless, sinners and enemies of God Christ died for us and God's love is demonstrated in that fact. After all, who chooses to die for their enemies? No one! People usually will not even give up their life for a righteous person or someone that they respect or to whom they are indebted. The incredible length and depth of God's love is demonstrated by the fact that God himself, through the person of Jesus Christ, has taken on death for those who were at war with God. Paul goes on to say that is why our hope in God is so sure. If God has accomplished the incredible task of making peace with his enemies, then clearly God will accomplish the much easier task of saving those with whom he made this peace.

The theological implications of this passage are vast. Paul continues to show how God's righteousness is revealed in the gospel, now in terms of love. In doing so, he is also laying down an implicit ethic of love for his congregation; an ethic of love that is so strong that it calls us to sacrifice for the sake of our enemies because that is what God did for us. Furthermore, Christians can make that kind of sacrifice because of the hope they have found in God's love.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Righteousness Apart from the Law

In my sermon two Sundays ago, I talked about the theme verses of Romans in which Paul indicates that the gospel is the power of God for salvation because in it God's righteousness is revealed. I also mentioned that Paul would take the entire rest of the letter to the Romans to develop this theme of God's righteousness being revealed through Jesus Christ.

Paul begins to unfold the depths of these themes in the second half of chapter one where he describes the unrighteousness that exists among Gentiles. He then does the same thing for Jews, accusing those who simply bear the title "Jew" but do not live righteously. Paul wishes to make clear in the first half of chapter three that this does not mean there is no advantage to being a Jew; Israel is still God's chosen people. However, he does wish to say that Jews and Gentiles alike are both considered unrighteous before God. As he will make even more clear in chapter 7, this is because the Law is powerless to combat sin. The Law only points to sin, making its existence known. Therefore, a Jew might uphold every part of the Law, as Paul himself did, and still be considered unrighteous before God since sin is powerful enough to twist even God's good Law.

That is why Paul will go on in Romans 3:21-29 (which Rev. Pavey preached from last week while I was on vacation) to say that now God's righteousness is revealed apart from the Law. Jews in Paul's day believed that God's righteousness (God's faithfulness to the promises to Israel, God's ability to set things right in the world) was revealed through the Law. However, because of his experience of Jesus Christ, Paul has become convinced that this is not the case. The Law is a good thing but it can not always be trusted to reveal God's righteousness because even it can lead to sin. (For example, the Law led Paul to kill Christians because he believed they were false prophets. The power of sin twisted God's good law to cause Paul to do something entirely ungodly.) Therefore, Paul says that God has revealed God's righteousness apart from the Law "through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all those who believe". (Most translations read "faith in Jesus Christ" at v. 22 but "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" is a better translation in my view for too many reasons to outline here.) In other words, Paul's point in Romans 3 is an elaboration of the point he began in 1:17; God's righteousness is revealed in Jesus Christ rather than the Law.

Our sermon text this week is Romans 4:13-25 which is basically an illustration (a very powerful illustration for any Jew who would consider himself or herself a child of Abraham) of this point that Paul has made in Romans 3:21-26. This illustration goes back to Genesis and the roots of Israel's faith and identity where God promises to Abraham that he will be the father of many nations and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Paul argues that God made this promise to Abraham before the Law existed. God choose Abraham, called Abraham, and made promises to Abraham before Abraham was ever circumcised (the sign of a Law-abiding Jew) and long before the Law was ever given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Therefore, Paul argues, the promises that God made to Abraham (and therefore to Israel) were never dependent on the Law or on Israel's obeying the Law because the promise came first. This is concurrent with the larger point that Paul is making; that God has revealed his righteousness (his promise keeping ability, faithfulness) apart from the Law. The story of Abraham is a perfect example of how God revealed his righteousness apart from the Law and Abraham is a model of what it means to trust in God's promises apart from the Law. Paul is saying that God has done the same thing in Jesus Christ. God has kept his promises to Israel through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ rather than through the Law and this reality does not make God any less righteous (however surprising that may seem to Paul's fellow Jews). In such a situation, Abraham models the appropriate response; trust in God's work apart from the Law.

This has a number of important implications for us as the Church today. The first is that it is only because God has chosen to reveal his righteousness apart from the Law that we get to be a part of the people of God at all. If God had chosen to reveal his righteousness through the Law that would mean the appropriate response to God would be to follow the Jewish Law, we would, in effect, have to become Jewish in order to be apart of the people of God. In contrast to this, Paul is saying that it is precisely because God has revealed himself apart from the Law that Gentiles (like us) can place our trust in God without following the Jewish Law just as Abraham placed his trust in God before the Law was given. The appropriate Gentile response to the God of Israel is the response of faith.

However, human response to God's action is actually the lesser half of the equation in Romans. Although human faith is clearly an important theme in Romans, Paul's real concern is the action of God himself, the faithfulness of Israel's God. Above all else, Paul wishes to show that God is righteous, faithful to his promises to Israel even though it is Gentiles who are being saved. In Romans 4, Paul is showing that God's work to include Gentiles apart from the Law is not a breaking of the covenant promises to Israel because those promises were made to Abraham and Israel apart from the Law from the start. Inclusion in God's people was always about trusting in God and living faithfully in God's promises. Therefore, it was not a lack of righteousness or faithfulness to Israel on God's part when God chose to save Gentiles apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The resounding theme of Romans 4 (and all of Romans for that matter) is that God is faithful to his promises even when he keeps them in unexpected ways.