Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mohawk Baby

Hannah's hair was already a little bit thicker down the middle of her head so ... we just couldn't resist applying a little gel to "enhance" her God given hairstyle. She seems pretty happy about it... or maybe she just likes the camera.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Community of Genuine Love

In Romans 12:9-21, Paul continues to outline his ethic for the life of the believing community at Rome. This ethic began at the beginning of this chapter with the idea of offering one's body as a living sacrifice and having one's way of life and way of thinking transformed and renewed in accoradance with the new age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. Paul then connected this act of mutual sacrifice to the functioning of the community as a body in which all the members work together and support one another. The importance of the community life is once again at the forefront of the discussion in v. 9-21.

At first glance, the exhortations of v.9-21 appear to be almost a completely random conglomeration of commands. The commands here are various and come in rapid succession. Abhor what is evil! Cling to what is good! Be of the same mind....don't take revenge! Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good! If each of these were taken invidividually, this could quickly become an overwhelming spiritual checklist. Fortunately, Paul probably did not intend this as a checklist but rather as a sampling of his vision for the community at Rome.

This vision can likely be summed up in the very first statement of the passage; love without hypocrisy. The many other commands can be seen as explications of this single command. (In Greek, the verbs of verses 9 - 13 do not actually appear as separate commands. They are participles. This means they can be translated as commands or they can be translated as explaining the original command. So it might read like this: "Let love be without hypocrisy by abhoring what is evil and clinging to what it good, by being devoted to one another in brotherly love....") In other words, being devoted to one another and being fervent and serving and rejoicing are not additional commands to loving without hypocrisy. They are examples of what it means for a community to live a life of love without hypocrisy.

In v. 14-21, we find that this rule applies not only to interactions of those with whom these Christians are already at peace. Rather we are to extend this peace and sacrificial love even to those who curse and persecute; to those who pay out only evil. Paul urges his audience not to take justice into their own hands but to trust in God. He tells them not be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good. With this final exhortation, as is so often the case, it seems that Paul must have the cross of Christ in mind. Jesus did not attempt to overcome the evil that crucified him with equally vicious and destructive acts (which is usually our reaction when confronted with evil). Instead, he trusted in the Father and ultimately the evil of the crucfixion was overcome with the good of the resurrection. Paul is calling upon the Christians at Rome and the Church today to have the same kind of trust in the Father as we lay down our bodies as living sacrificing believing that God is powerful enough to conquer evil with good.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Kid's Carnival

We hosted a kid's carnival on the lawn here at our church yesterday after morning worship as a part of our continuing effort to reach out in love and service to our community. It included several large inflatables, games, music, and concessions. The giant inflatable slide seemed to be a favorite of both the young and the old alike. We had picturesque weather for the event after rain had been forecast for Sunday all week long. All in all, it was a pretty awesome day.

Thanks to all of our sponsors who helped to fund a large portion of this event:
Wapella Automotive
Clinton Auto Auction
Hammer Enterprises
AAK Mechanical
Baum Chevrolet
K-B Welding
Douglas Pontiac
Farmers Insurance
Anderson Ford
Nelson Excavating

Thanks to the many members of our congregation who volunteered their time to make this event possible.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

100 Years

A momentous day of celebration is quickly approaching in the life of our church. On October 5, the Church of the Nazarene will be celebrating its centennial as a denomination. This centennial celebration will be a remembrance of the uniting of several holiness groups that began in 1907 and culminated at Pilot Point, Texas in October of 1908. Since that time, the Church of the Nazarene, which began as an American denomination, has become a global church preaching the gospel of Christ around the world.

As we look back over the last 100 years of our existence, it is a time to give thanks for God’s faithfulness to us and the faithfulness of the saints who have gone before us. God has been faithful to our ancestors in the faith, leading and guiding the Church by the Holy Spirit. This celebration is a reminder that we are not the first ones to walk this journey of faith. There are so many faithful disciples who have walked this path before us, serving as living examples for us of what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus.

Of course, we are not likely to be the last to walk this journey of faith either. Therefore, remembering our heritage and identity is also a chance for us to consider how our past should guide us into the future. As we look back to that point of unification at Pilot Point we must remember that our unity as a denomination did not come easily. As is the case any time you attempt to bring together diverse groups, the various holiness groups that united to become the Church of the Nazarene had some substantial differences of opinion which could have served as insurmountable obstacles to unification. In response to these disagreements, Phineas F. Bresee, probably the most important leader in the unification process, was known for following the maxim “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”

I believe that this simple principle will continue to be important for us in the next 100 years of our existence. The culture in which we live seems to become increasingly diverse with every passing day. As new technologies make it easier for us to communicate with people across the globe, we continue to become more aware that there are various way of seeing the world and understanding our life in it. There are a remarkable number of perspectives on God and his kingdom as announced by Jesus, outside the Church and even within it. As a result, it will be as crucial as ever that we take the time to understand who we are as God’s people in Jesus Christ. Only then can we begin to discern together by the guidance of the Holy Spirit what is essential to our faith and what isn’t.
This means that we will unashamedly proclaim the gospel in its fullness and we will be careful to hold our brothers and sisters accountable in the essentials of the faith. However, it will also mean that we will honestly confess where we have allowed our culture or our own personal preferences to impose heavy burdens on the gospel which only drive people away from the kingdom of God. Above all, it means that in all things we will be a people characterized by love because more than anything else, that is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Living Sacrifices in a New Age

Romans 12 begins "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, on account of the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices..." Paul has just concluded a lengthy and in depth argument concerning God's righteousness toward both Jews and Gentiles as displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has argued that Jew and Gentile alike are on equal footing in the salvation that comes through Christ because God has remained faithful to his promises to Israel while also opening the covenant to Gentiles as well. Now, in view of all that Paul has said up to this point, Paul urges the Christians at Rome to offer their bodies as living sacrifices that are holy and pleasing to God. The languages Paul uses here seems to invoke an intentional parallel and contrast to Israel's practice of sacrifice. Israel, of course, offered sacrifices out of thankfulness for God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egpyt. Similarly, Paul is here urging the Christians in Rome to offer sacrifices out thankfulness for God's deliverance of them in Jesus Christ. However, the sacrifice called for here is not that of animals but for the Christians themselves to become living sacrifices; an intensely paradoxical image. These Christians' whole way of life is to be one continual sacrifice, constantly laying down their lives as Christ did. (This is especially significant in contrast to the idea that Christ's sacrifice ends all sacrifice. More precisely, Christ's sacrifice does not end the practice of sacrifice, it means that we become the sacrifice as the Spirit shapes us to be more Christ-like.)

Paul continues this line of thought by instructing the Roman Christians to "not be conformed to the pattern of this age but be transformed by the renewing of your mind". Many translations say "the pattern of this world" but the word here is actually "age" rather than "world" and this fact helps us to better understand the larger scheme of Paul's thought which is being expressed in these verses. The contrast Paul is making is not between heaven and earth as the term "world" might suggest. Instead, Paul is contrasting the present age in which the world is corrupted by sin, death, and everything evil to the new age inaugurated by Jesus Christ and symbolized by his resurrection in which this world will be transformed and all things will be made new so that life and righteousness reign rather than sin and death. Another way of saying it is that the issue here is not "Where?" but "When?". Paul is not so much saying that the Romans' behavior should be shaped by another world (heaven, for example) as he is saying that their behavior and even their very way of thinking should be shaped by another time; the time when God's kingdom will be fully established on earth. Paul is calling upon these Christians to live according to the hope of the new creation that he spoke about in chapter 8. Their behavior now is to be shaped by what they expect to be true in the future, the future where God's reign becomes complete in our world.

However, as the next few verses make clear, this offering of one's body as a living sacrifice and being tranformed by the renewing of one's mind is not just something all the Christians in Rome are to do individually or separately. In v.3-8, Paul says that these living sacrifices and renewed minds are to be working together in community like the different parts of a body. Each person has their own gifts and abilities which are not to be used to build themselves up but to build up the community of believers. Life lived in the new age inaugurated by God's messiah means living together in community. An enormous part of being a living sacrifice is continually putting the good of the community and others in it before one's own. When the community of faith lives in this way, it becomes an image of the new age for which it hopes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Grafted Into the Tree of Life

In Romans 11, Paul finally brings to a close the argument that he has been making throughout the entire letter concerning God's faithfulness in the form of salvation for Jews and Gentiles through Jesus. (Romans 12 -16 is not so much a part of this arument specifically as it is the ethical outworkings of this salvation in the life of the community at Rome.) Paul begins to wrap up his argument by comparing Israel in his own day to Israel in the days of Elijah. The prophet Elijah called upon God concerning Israel's extensive corruption and idolatry. It seemed that God had forsaken Israel and even Elijah himself. However, God assured Elijah that there was a remnant of 7,000 people who had not bowed the knee to the false God Baal. Paul concludes that the same must be true in Israel in his day. Although he, like Elijah, can not see the number of his fellow countrymen being saved that he might have expected, Paul holds out hope that there is a remnant of Israel that will come to be a part of the true Israel under Messiah Jesus. As a result, Paul does not believe that Israel's state of faithlessness and disobedience will persist. Instead, he concludes that eventually the salvation of the Gentiles will arouse jealousy in the Jewish people. That is, as the Gentiles enjoy the benefits of the gospel, the Jewish people will see that they are missing out on the very treasure that was supposed to be theirs as God's covenant people and as a result, will accept Jesus as the Messiah.

Until that time (it is not clear to me exactly when Paul expected this jealousy to begin to be aroused in the Jewish people) Paul wanted the Gentiles in his audience to know that they had no reason to boast in their acceptance into the kingdom. It may have very well been tempting for the Gentiles to consider themselves as better than the Jewish people since God was now working in them so abundantly. But Paul has been combating that notion for several chapters now and he is not about to let up at this late stage in the game. He reminds the Gentiles that the old branches (unfaithful Israelites) of the olive tree (true Israel) have only been broken off because of their unbelief/unfaithfulness. Gentiles, the wild and uncultivated shoots that they are, have only been grafted into the olive tree because of their faith/faithfulness. Therefore, Paul warns that if these Gentiles are unfaithful, they will just as quickly be broken off so Israelites who have become faithful might be grafted in again.

In speaking this way about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, Paul is not only outlining the kind of humility that should accompany all Christian faith or even just wrestling with the problem of Israel that has controlled this argument for much of the letter. It is very likely that he is also addressing the specific historical setting of the church at Rome as well. In 49 A.D Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jewish leadership from the the imperial city. It is historically plausible that Paul is writing this letter at about the same time that this same Jewish leadership is making its way back into the city of Rome and beginning to estblish itself there once again. As a result, there is a good chance that there was some degree of conflict between those Jews who had been important leaders in the Roman church before they were expelled and the Gentiles who had become leaders in their absence. Therefore, when Paul reminds the Gentile Christians in Rome that they have been grafted into this tree of salvation, it is likely that Paul is ushering a call of humility, acceptance, and peace to the Gentile leadership toward the Jewish Christians who are returning to the city. Neither Jew or Gentile has earned their place on this life giving family tree and neither of them are immune to being broken off of it simply because they have made it in. Therefore, it is imperative that both groups accept each other with the same grace that has been extended to them by their common Lord, Jesus Christ. (The gospel reading (Matthew 15:21-28) which the lectionary editors have paired with this reading in Romans is a vivid illustration of the kind of attitude that Paul is calling for from the Gentile Christians in Rome as they recognize the enormity of the grace that allows them to take part in the salvation that has come through the Jewish people.)

This same call to humility continues to be important for us in the Church today as well. On the one hand, it continues to be important in how the Church thinks of its relationship to Israel. It is a reminder that we should be outsiders in this throughly Jewish story of salvation and yet God has chosen to include us a part of the family. On the other hand, I think this same principle can be expanded to address the attitude of regular church-goers toward those who do not often attend church today. Sometimes we can feel as though church attendance or involvement means that we are automatically "in" but Paul reminds us in this same passage the only reason we are in is because of God's grace and our continued trust, obedience, and faithfulness. If we become unfaithful, we too, will be broken off so that another can be grafted in. We must not allow our church attendance or involvement to lead to some kind of spiritual pride or arrogance. Instead, we must continually embody the humilty and compassion of Christ toward those who have not yet been grafted in if we are to truly remain a part of the tree ourselves.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Whoever Will Call on the Name of the Lord

In Romans 10, Paul continues to wrestle with the relationship between Israel and the new covenant that God has established in Jesus Christ. Why has Israel failed to attain the righteousness that Gentiles are finding in Christ? Paul answered this question at the end of chapter 9, saying it was because Israel pursued a law of righteousness as if it were by works. He says that Israel stumbled over the stumbling block, quoting Isaiah 28 as a metaphor for Christ. In Romans 10, Paul further explores exactly what the difference is between the gospel he is preaching and the righteousness that Israel is seeking to attain.

At this point, it would be natural for many Christians in the Protestant tradition to see this as an argument about faith versus works. However, I think that only captures a small portion of what Paul is really getting at in this passage. Usually, when faith is contrasted with works it means that one must put their trust in God's grace (faith) in order to be saved rather than trying to earn your own salvation through good behavior (works). Of course, this is a true statement and Paul uses the terms faith and works in this passage and throughout his writings but if we imagine that this is the argument that he is making then we will have missed the point.

This is true, first and foremost, because this kind of argument of faith verses works would not be a fair contrast with what Jews in the 1st century actually believed. No one in Israel thought that they could save themselves by works apart from God's grace. Instead, the Law was seen as the means of God's grace to Israel. Therefore, the real issue here is not faith or works. Paul recognizes that both the old covenant and the new covenant involve both faith and works. It is a matter of what you are placing your faith in; God's gift of grace through the Law or God's gift of grace through Jesus Christ. Either faith will require a certain kind of works, that is, a faithfulness that will demostrate exactly where one has placed their trust, whether in the Law or in Christ. If you believed that the Law was the way to salvation then you would place your trust in that Law by keeping every part of it, especially the laws regarding circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws. However, if you believed that the Law's time had come and gone, as Paul did, then you would no longer place your trust in those things. Instead, you would place your trust in what God had done in Jesus Christ. But this too would require certain works that demonstrated that trust such as confessing Christ as Lord and living the Christ-like life of sacrifice and compassion.

With that in mind, I think Paul's point in Romans 10:1-13 is not to contrast faith with works but to further outline what he has been arguing throughout the letter, that Christ is the revelation of God's righteousness. This shift in emphasis, slight though it may seem at first, has a significant impact on the way we read nearly every one of these verses. For example, when Paul says of Israel in v.3 "for not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God", this does not mean that Israel sought to establish their own righteousness without faith by their own moral efforts. It means they didn't realize that God's righteousness was revealed through Jesus so they continued pursuing righteousness through the Law as they had always done instead of submitting themselves to the new way in which God's righteousness was being revelaed.

Similarly, when in the very next verse Paul says "for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes", to say that Christ means the termination of seeking righteousness through the law is only partially correct. It also means that Christ is the culmination or the fulfillment of the law (the Greek word translated as "end" can also carry this idea of a fulfillment of purpose much like the English word "end" can). Jesus is now the way to righteousness but Jesus embodies the true purpose of the Law in his life which means that his disciples will do so as well.

This is further demonstrated in Paul's quotation in 10:6-8 of Deuteronomy 30:12-14. In their original context, these verses are a reminder to the people of Israel that the Law is not an impossible burden to bear. It is not something for which they have to go searching. Rather, it is right in front of them. It is so near to them that it is already in their mouth and heart. Paul applies these words to Christ and says "that is the word of faith which we are preaching." I think Paul is saying here that life in Christ is simple, not because it is a matter of just believing without having to do anything else, but because faith in Christ places the law of Christ in one's heart so as to lead to righteous living. Faith in Christ leads to the kind of righteousness which Deuteronomy had promised but Paul saw that the Law ultimately could not provide (in this way, these verses are a kind of microcosm of Paul's argument in Romans 7:7-8:11).

In 10:11-13, Paul finally brings all this back to bear on the larger topic he has been dealing with in chapters 9-11, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant. In these verses, Paul is saying that because righteousness is no longer through the Law but through Christ, this also means that righteousness is now available to Gentiles as well as Jews. With reference to salvation, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile because they both must call on the same Lord in order to be saved. This means that Gentiles no longer have to follow the Jewish Law to find salvation. They only have to follow the Law of Christ. It also means that Jews must stop placing their trust in the Law and place their trust in Christ. The one criteria for the new covenant is recognizing Jesus as Lord (which obviously means not only believing that he is Lord but pledging one's faithfulness to him as Lord) and "whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved".

Once again, Paul's probing of a question (what about Israel?) that seems distant and unrelated to us in the 21st century actually leads us to the very heart of what we believe about salvation. I believe that this passage reminds us that salvation is a relatively simple thing. It is essentially a matter of confessing Christ as Lord. No doubt, much of the time understanding how that confession works out in our lives can be complex and at times mysterious. We must not make the mistake of thinking that confessing Christ as Lord is a purely cognitive action. We must continually wrestle with what it really means for Christ to be Lord and no one and nothing else to be lord and that will indeed be a kind of wrestling. It will involve continual challenges, questions, and opportunities; some of whch will unsettle our most basic assumptions about life and the way the world works. However, the way to salvation remains simple and accessible to anyone. It is only a matter of making Christ the center of our life and seeking his kingdom before anything else.