Thursday, December 26, 2013

Suffering New Creation Into Existence

The final verses of Romans 8 decidedly bring to a close a large section of Paul’s argument in Romans. Throughout these 8 chapters, Paul has been laying out rather systematically his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He identified the problem of the human condition; that no one is righteous because we are all, Jew and Gentile alike, powerless before the overwhelming force of sin. But God has acted decisively in the person of Jesus Christ, revealing a righteousness apart from the Law. This righteousness is possible because the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new age, an entirely new epoch in history. We are able to participate in this new reality by means of baptism and our own willingness to walk according to the Spirit. Due to the presence of the Spirit in this completely new age, we are able to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law in a way that was not a possibility prior to Christ. Furthermore, this possibility of holiness is a sign of what God intends to do for all of creation; remaking it and setting things right so that all of creation is transformed and God’s righteousness and peace reign in the world.

Of course, Paul knows that remaking has not been completed yet. It has only just begun in the communities of Christ followers springing up around the Roman Empire; little colonies of new creation taking root in the midst of the old. But that old creation with all of its ways of destruction and sin, injustice and unrighteousness is still quite prevalent. It is so prevalent, in fact, that more often than not, one might find it difficult to see the presence of the new creation at all. It might be easy to begin to wonder if such a hope for things to be made new is only a fool’s dream. In the midst of so much tragedy, so much hunger, pain, grief, and injustice, can we really say that God is doing a work of new creation among us? Paul’s answer is not only a resounding yes but also an assurance that the very things we might imagine are signs of our separation from Christ are actually opportunities to be conformed to his image. This, I think, is the heart of what Paul intends to communicate in the final verses of Romans 8.

Most telling in this regard is the quotation in v. 36. It follows the central question of this passage in v. 35.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘for your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”

Surely, this list of dangers combined with the image of helpless sheep is not a comforting thought. Paul first cites all the marks of the old creation in our world, all the things that might cause us to wonder if the Spirit of Christ is really doing this work of new creation among us or not. Paul follows this question with a quotation from Psalm 44 which lists some of the very same concerns before God. The Psalmist says that God has forgotten and rejected his people, leaving them to the affliction of their enemies and selling them for a low price. In fact, in the verses immediately after what Paul has quoted, the Psalmist calls upon God to wake up! In times of suffering, it is easy for the faithful to wonder if God has gone off and taken a nap. Otherwise, why wouldn’t God be here doing something about our plight?

But Paul understands suffering differently. Rather than seeing suffering as something that represents our separation from Christ, he claims it is actually something that brings us closer to and makes us more like the Christ who suffered himself. Contrary to Psalm 44, Paul says “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” Paul ironically claims that it is by our suffering that we actually conquer because it is in those losses that we become more like the Christ who conquered sin and death by his suffering.

Once again, context is exceedingly important at this point. Without it, we may very well misunderstand and dismiss Paul in a number of ways: as a naive optimist who utters platitudes about a suffering he has never himself experienced, as a determinist who thinks everything comes pre-planned with no choice left for us, or as a masochist who sees suffering as inherently good. But what we know of Paul won’t bear out any of those caricatures. Paul was a man who knew suffering in all its ugliness but came to see it differently in light of Christ.

We must also remember that Paul was speaking into a culture in which all these things... tribulation, persecution, famine, etc... are sure signs of abandonment by one’s god(s). Almost certainly, Jesus’ own suffering was one of the reasons why Paul initially rejected Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus had really been the Messiah, he would not have succumbed to such a humiliating death. But when Paul accepted the one who suffered as the Christ, he recognized that meant also accepting that the way of the Christ was the way of suffering. Contrary to the popular belief of Paul’s day, Paul had come to see in Christ that suffering was not an obstacle somehow contrary to God’s nature but that it was essential to truly knowing the heart of God. In repeated and various ways, Paul reminds us throughout his writings that if we are to know Christ we must share in the fellowship of his sufferings.

So when Paul says that “for those who love God all things work together for good,” he isn’t saying everything will be always be peachy or your suffering isn’t really that bad or that you should look a little harder for the silver lining that explains how this seemingly bad thing is really a good thing. He is saying that your suffering isn’t for nothing. He’s saying that your suffering isn’t a sign that you are doing life wrong. He’s saying that if the one faithful Jew, the one who got it right it, the one who was the very presence of God in the world suffered too then maybe when you suffer you are closer to the heart of God than you realize.

And when Paul says that “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” I don’t think he is saying that God chose a few individuals from before the foundation of the world that would be saved while the rest of us are damned. I think he is saying that the God who has known you from before you were born is the same God that has called you to this fellowship with Christ and that same God will see that fellowship through to its completion.

It is fitting that Paul ends the first half of this magnificent epistle in this way; re-imagining suffering in light of God’s love. In 1:16 Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel...”; a bold claim for a message with something as shameful as a crucified Messiah as its protagonist. But for the last 8 chapters Paul has been explaining to us why it is not a shameful message; namely, because in it the righteousness and love of God are revealed. The love of God revealed in the cross of Christ has turned the meaning of shame and suffering upside down. Shame and suffering have been filled with new meaning as they have been filled with God’s own self, becoming God’s own instruments of righteousness and restoration in our world. The cross, once a symbol of torture and God abandonment, has become the very sign of God’s presence for those who call Jesus “Lord.”

And in that same act of re-purposing shame and suffering, God in Christ has also reworked what it means to be holy and righteous. To put it another way, these verses about suffering are not a mere addendum tacked on to the preceding verses about holiness and new creation. Christ’s suffering gives shape to what Paul means by holiness and new creation. To be holy is to lower one’s own status for the sake of another as Christ did for us. To lean into the new creation is to subvert the power structures of the old creation by seeking the well being of those “below” us rather than the favor of those “above” us. Reaching back earlier in Paul's letter, this is what it means for the righteous to live out if faith(fullness). This is the righteousness apart from the law for which Paul has been arguing.

To live life in such a way, will surely be costly to us but, Paul argues, if all these things.... the cross, death, sin.... have not kept us from the love of Christ then indeed “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” If this is the length to which God goes to be with us then indeed “Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?” In our suffering, our weakness, our vulnerabilities, even in death, we are not defeated, abandoned, or put to shame. We are more than conquerors because the Messiah, the Son of God has suffered these things for us and suffers them with us still. When we suffer for and with others, we are ushering God's new creation into existence. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Spirit of Holiness

In Romans 7, Paul outlined for us by means of his own autobiography just how grave our situation is without Christ. Our circumstance is so pitiable not because we are terrible creatures bent on doing evil. We might say the situation is actually much worse than that. Paul claims that even when we are well intended and seek to do God’s will sin is so powerful that it perverts our attempts to follow God’s law. The result is that rather than adherence to the law producing righteousness and life, it actually produces injustice, sin, and death. In the language of the prophet Habakkuk, “the law is paralyzed and justice goes forth perverted.”

But that is without Christ. That is the realm of Adam’s existence. And Paul has made it clear in chapters 5 and 6 that what God has done in Jesus Christ has transferred us to a new reality in which there are new possibilities for life and righteousness. Paul reiterates this point at the very beginning of chapter 8 when he says “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set you free from the law of sin and death.” That is, we are no longer enslaved by the law of Adam’s disobedience with the production of sin as our only option. We have now been set free for a new option; that of life, holiness, and righteousness. We have this option because God did in Jesus Christ what the law was never able to do. The law was never able to defeat sin since it did nothing to empower weak human flesh against it. God, on the other hand, sent his son in this same flesh so as to condemn sin.

Paul says that the purpose of God’s actions in all this was “in order that we might fulfill the righteous requirements of the law.” This is the very thing that Paul has been saying was so impossible without Christ! Even in following the law to the last letter, we couldn’t actually produce righteousness. But now, because of God’s actions in Jesus, we can actually fulfill the righteous requirements of the law. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that this is a poignant and concise summary of Paul’s gospel. The reason Jesus is such good news is because he provides the first real possibility of genuine righteousness in this world.

Again, much as in chapter 6, Paul reiterates that this is not all automatic. We must walk according to the Spirit if we are to truly fulfill the law. We can still decide to walk according to the flesh and, by doing so, fail to produce righteousness. But once again the emphasis in on what God has already done. Paul says in v. 9 “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

This is the real crux of the matter for Paul. If the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you (which he says it does), then that Spirit which overcame death can also overcome the power of sin. Everything hinges on this dwelling of God’s own Spirit among us. The pouring out of this resurrecting Spirit is what makes the difference between the realm of Adam and the realm of Christ.

It may be helpful here to think back to Romans 1:18-32 and remember all the nasty things that Paul said about Gentiles. Like most of his fellow Jews, Paul viewed Gentiles as hopelessly blind, entirely ignorant of the ways of God and God’s law, clueless in their  perverting the ways of God that should have been evident to them in creation. If Paul’s fellow Jews were enlightened and well-intentioned despite their inability to produce righteousness, the Gentiles couldn’t even claim that. They walked entirely in darkness without the slightest understanding of God’s law or any aim to fulfill it. It is these same clueless, hopeless, lawless Gentiles (along with his own fellows Jews) that Paul now claims can fulfill the righteous requirements of the law merely because of the Spirit’s presence in their lives! This is testament to just what a transforming power Paul understood the Holy Spirit to be in the life of 1st century Christian congregations. Anyone, even Gentiles, could fulfill the righteous requirements of the law if they walked according to the Spirit.

Holiness and righteousness are real possibilities in this life, for Jews and  Gentiles, because God’s own Spirit has made its dwelling among us. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Monday, December 2, 2013


You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...

...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

That's not for you!

                                                                        - Oh, the Places You’ll Go
                                                                        Dr. Suess

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is probably my favorite of all the books I read with my children. I love it because it is exciting to think about all the places my children will go in their lives; the decisions they’ll make, the things they’ll do, the ways that their lives will become uniquely their own apart from me. I also like that the book points out that things don’t always go so smoothly. While it celebrates all the great things we can do with our lives, it also acknowledges that there are always set backs and difficulties along the way. “Bangups and hangups can happen to you” it says.

But there is a particular part of the book that has been prominent in my mind over this last year of our lives: the lines that I’ve quoted above. Our family has found itself in this “waiting place” for much of this past year. It started last October as we waited for Esther to be born 11 days past her due date. In November, I submitted my applications to doctoral programs and began waiting for an answer. Hints of an answer would come in February as I was accepted to one school and on the waiting list at another but the final answer would not come until April. I wish I could say that I was calm and collected during this nearly half a year, trusting that God would provide no matter the circumstance but that simply wasn’t the case. I was wracked with anxiety like few other times in my life, not only wondering whether I would get in anywhere but wondering where we might be moving our family if we moved at all.

But that waiting already seems a distant memory because of what has happened since. It is difficult to even remember just how stressful that time was because the months that followed were a whole new level of stress and anxiety. On May 26, my dad suffered a stroke. The next three weeks were filled with waiting and wondering; waiting to see how long it would take my dad to recover, how much he might recover, or if he would recover at all. One day would bring reports of improvement, the next day reports of concern. Every day there was nothing to do but wait; wait to see if the swelling in his brain would go down, wait to see if his cognition improved, wait to see if he could swallow food. On June 14, the waiting ended as my dad entered his eternal rest.

The day after my dad’s funeral, my mom called to tell me that my grandmother, my only living grandparent and the only one I had known into my adult life, had been taken to the hospital. So now we would wait for the results of her tests. A week later we found out that she had stage 4 cancer in several organs and that she had a couple weeks to a couple of months to live. So we waited. We let her know that we loved her in all the ways we could and we waited for the inevitable. On August 4, my grandmother’s waiting ended.

In the time between my dad’s and grandmother’s deaths, we relocated our family from Illinois to Massachusetts so that I could begin my ThD program at BU. This brought its own forms of waiting; waiting to settle into a routine after uprooting our children from the only home they have ever known, waiting to get over the continuous string of illnesses that has come from being in a new place, waiting for the grief from too many losses too close together to become anything other than numbness and exhaustion.

And the waiting continues even now over a year since it all began. We are still waiting on our house in Illinois to sell. We are still waiting to get into our own home here. We are waiting to see if Jess will eventually have a full time teaching job. We are waiting for some order to emerge from the chaos.

All of this waiting has made me keenly aware of just how little waiting I’ve done in my life. We live in a culture that does its best to eliminate waiting from our lives.  The fast food drive thru, every searchable fact available at lightning speed in the palm of our hand, and stores open on Thanksgiving Day already decorated for Christmas have conditioned us to expect that anything worth having ought to be available simultaneous with the moment our desire arises. Generally speaking, we are not a people accustomed to waiting. Given the opportunity, we will eliminate all the waiting we possibly can from our lives because, as Dr. Seuss says, the waiting place is “a most useless place.” Time spent waiting, we often think, is time wasted. Time we could have spent doing something more enjoyable or more important.

I think we often carry this same view over into our thoughts about God and God’s work in our lives. God has a plan for each one of us, we proclaim, and our task is to get in line with that plan as quickly and smoothly as possible. We have an “Oh, the Places You’ll Go with God” theology. God wants to do great and exciting things in your life. And sure, there will be set backs along the way. That happens to all of us. But don’t get stuck too long because time spent waiting is time wasted; time you could have spent getting on with God’s plan for your life.

It is no wonder then that we have great difficulty with Advent; a season defined by waiting. For four weeks leading up to Christmas, the Church says “Wait”. Right at the time when our culture is working itself into its annual holiday frenzy of shopping, scheduling, and socializing, the Church asks us to remember what it means to wait. We remember Israel’s centuries long waiting for its Messiah. We remember that we are waiting for the world to be set right. For one month every year, our task is not to do or accomplish or follow a plan but only to wait.

In fact, the Church’s year begins here. Advent is the first season of the Christian calendar. Waiting is not one stance among others for us. It is our first stance. It is where our worship begins. Before Christ is born at Christmas, before his kingdom is proclaimed in Epiphany, before the journey to the cross in Lent, before the new life of Easter and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, before all of it, the very first movement of the Church’s life every year is to take up a posture of waiting. It may well be that centuries of Christian wisdom found that this posture was the one in which we could most readily come to know the savior celebrated in all the other seasons. The Church calendar, patterned as it is after the life of Christ, easily could have started with Jesus’ birth at Christmas. Instead, we confess that in order for the story of Christ to be properly told and lived it must begin with a season of waiting. Rather than counting time spent waiting as time wasted, the Church confesses that time spent waiting is essential to truly seeing and knowing Jesus.

This is what I wish to confess as well. This year of waiting for various things has caused me to see Jesus more clearly. And that clearer vision is of a Jesus who waits with us; whose priority isn’t as much plans and proper decisions, as it is presence.

I’ve been reminded in all these times of waiting that we wait for those we love. The times when we have a choice in the matter, we choose to wait for those about whom we care. We wait in a hospital room with those who are dying because simply being with them is more important than anything else we could be doing. We wait to start a meal until everyone is present because eating with those we love is as important as eating. We wait for marriage because the health of our relationship with this one person is more important than gratifying our sexual desires. When we wait for someone, we are saying that their presence is more important than whatever else we might be doing at that moment or whatever else we might get from them. In relationships of love, presence takes precedence over plans.

I imagine that it is not so different in our relationship with God. Karl Barth wrote that “The will of God is Jesus Christ.” I’m not certain about everything that Barth meant by that sentence but it at least might suggest that God’s will for our lives isn’t so much a plan as a person. What God wills more than anything else is not that we accomplish certain things or go certain places in life or make exactly the right decisions. God’s will for us is Jesus; that in Jesus we will know the presence of God in our very own flesh.

I think of all the people I know who are waiting or have waited for something for so long. Friends who have waited to have children. Who are waiting for a job. Waiting for an opportunity. Who are waiting for healing. Who are waiting for an inevitable death. Who are waiting for that special someone. Some who are waiting for purpose or direction. Some who are waiting for justice. Some who are waiting for some wholeness and peace. Just waiting for some order to emerge from the chaos. It seems like everyone close to me is waiting for something.

I’d be the last person to say that all our waiting will work out just fine in the end. It doesn’t always. I won’t say that the waiting isn’t painful, sometimes agonizing. We may very well plead with God to bring our waiting to an end. Jess and I have done just that many times over. Given the chance, we would have happily traded in all of our waiting many months ago before the worst of it had even began. But I will say that all our waiting and pleading is not in vain. It is not time wasted, whatever the outcome, if in our waiting we aim to encounter Jesus. For, as Pope Francis recently said, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms." 

May your season of waiting, whether it be these four weeks of Advent or a much longer time than that, be one in which you encounter a savior who is with us in all our waiting and who waits for you with open arms. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sin: The Overwhelming Force

In Romans 7, Paul once again returns to the subject of the law, a topic that has already figured prominently in his argument since he has been trying to show that righteousness apart from the law is possible. In Romans 6, Paul has continued to argue that we are not under law but under grace. This is because we have participated in Christ's death and resurrection through baptism and as a result have been transferred from the realm of Adam, with its reign of sin and death, to the realm of Christ where life and righteousness are a new possibility.

Paul continues that same argument by way of illustration in the opening verses of chapter 7. He likens our situation to that of a woman who is married. If a married woman marries another man, she commits adultery because she is bound by law to her husband. But, Paul says, if the husband dies, she is free to marry another without committing adultery. Paul says we are in a similar position if we have died to the law with Christ. We are free from the obligations of the law because of our death in Christ, just as the married woman is freed from the obligation of her husband because of his death.

But now Paul must take a step back and answer another possible objection. Throughout his letter, Paul has been arguing that the law didn't really make anyone righteous and that it is now possible to be made righteous apart from the law. In fact, Paul really hasn't said much positive about the law at all. That may not seem like a big deal to a predominantly Gentile 21st century Church but we must remember that Paul and his fellow Jews regarded the law as God's good and gracious gift to Israel (and notice Paul says at the beginning of this chapter that he is speaking to those who know the law, his fellow Jews). So in all the ways that Paul has pointed out the shortcomings of the law, one might begin to wonder if Paul actually regards the law, not as a good and gracious gift from God, but as evil. As he asks in v. 7 "What then shall we say? That the law is sin?"

Paul once again answers with his very strong "May it never be!". Instead, the law was what allowed Paul (and all Jews) to know what was sinful and what wasn't. This was supposed to be an advantage of the law, separating the sacred from the profane. At least Jews had the law to let them know what God expected as opposed to Gentiles who simply walked in darkness. But Paul says that knowing what sin was actually produced an opportunity for sin to go to work (notice that Paul is once again personifying sin, talking about it as a kind of force). Much like commanding a child not to do something will almost guarantee that they will obsess about doing the one thing they've been told not to do, Paul says that the law, rather than preventing sinful desires, was actually used by sin to produce them.*

But just because sin used the law to produce sin doesn't mean that the law itself was sinful. In fact, Paul's conclusion is that "the law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good." The root problem isn't the law. The root problem is the power of sin. Just because the parent's command that the child not eat cookies before dinner incites the child's desire for cookies doesn't make the parent's command a bad one. It just means that the child's desire needs to be disciplined. Likewise, Paul concludes that the law is not sinful because sin used it to produce sinful desires. It is the sinful desires themselves which need to be addressed.

The problem with the law is that it can't address those sinful desires. The law can point out sin for what it is but it is powerless to prevent it. This is what the tongue twister of v. 13-20 is all about.
 It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
In other words, Paul knows what is good because the law has shown him as much. And Paul desperately wants to do that good but he finds that he can not because the power of sin at work within him is too overwhelming. Finally, in these verses we have the full picture of the problematic human condition which Paul has been painting since the beginning of his epistle. The law is not evil. Human beings are not evil. But both are weak. Sin is the real problem and it is a powerful force that overwhelms both God's good law and God's good creation. 

I'm convinced that these are not mere abstractions for Paul. He is not trying to solve a theological riddle of no practical consequence here. Nor do I think that Paul is making a case for how all Christians will continue to struggle with sin throughout their earthly life. Instead, I am convinced that these verses are autobiographical for Paul. These seemingly obtruse verses take on life when we consider them in light of Paul's own story.

These verses, I believe, are Paul's attempt to make sense of his own experience prior to meeting Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul was on that road, Acts 9 tells us, because he was on his way to Damascus to arrest "any belonging to the Way." Paul wanted to arrest them because he saw them as blasphemers and false prophets; that is, they were spreading lies about the God of Israel by claiming that God had been embodied in a human named Jesus. The law made it clear that Israel could not tolerate such people. So when Paul traveled to Damascus to arrest Christians, we must understand that he wasn't just a mean or vindictive guy. He wasn't doing this because he hadn't read his Bible closely enough. Quite to the contrary, he was persecuting Christians precisely because that was what the scriptures told him to do. As a Pharisee, Paul's number one goal was to follow the will of God. Paul persecuted Christians because he thought that was what God willed. But once Paul encounters Christ, he realizes that he was actually doing the very opposite of what God wanted. In his attempts to work for God, Paul was actually working against God. In other words, Paul didn't do what he wanted to do but did the very thing he hated. He had the desire to do what was right but not the ability to carry it out. He didn't do the good he wanted but the evil he didn't want is what he kept on doing. Sound familiar?

This is why Paul believes that we are so terribly lost without Christ and the gift of the Spirit. It is not because we human beings are just really awful creatures filled with all kinds of evil intentions or because God can't forgive us of all our evil acts without Christ's blood. We are so terribly lost because as long as we live in Adam's realm of existence the overwhelming power of sin will turn even our best efforts to serve God into the worst kinds of evil. Sin is just that powerful a force. That is why Paul cries out "Who will deliver me from this body of death?"

But we can say with Paul "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." For we are not left in Adam's realm of existence. Paul has already argued in Romans 5 that what Christ did has overwhelmed what Adam did. In Romans 6, he argued that we have been transferred from Adam's realm to a new existence in Jesus Christ by baptism and that, although baptism does not make it happen automatically, we can be dead to sin if we submit ourselves as slaves to righteousness. And in Romans 8, Paul will claim that the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit. Although Paul sketches a grave outline of sin's terrible force in Romans 7, the surrounding chapters make clear that because of what Christ has done, the struggle with sin does not have to be the identifying mark of Christian existence. The once overwhelming force of sin has lost its power to enslave because of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

*It may also be helpful to know that many scholars believe that Paul has Adam in mind once again here. That is, that when Paul says "I" did this or that, he isn't just talking about himself. He is thinking of Adam's disobedience as a type for all humanity (just as he did in ch. 5) and including himself in that. A number of things point to this possibility. First, Paul chooses the particular sin of coveting as his example, a term that describes well Adam and Eve's attitude toward the tree of knowledge. Secondly, it would certainly have been more true of Adam and Eve than most to say "I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said "Do not covet"." Adam and Eve had all they needed. There would have not been anything for them to desire if the tree of knowledge had not been restricted from them. Third, we can see how sin, personified in the serpent, used God's good command to produce Adam's disobedience. Fourth, thinking of Adam in this way is still fresh in our minds from just two chapters ago. If Paul doesn't have Adam in mind here, it at least serves as an excellent illustration of what Paul is saying. Just as God's command to Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge did not prevent them from doing so but actually incited their lust for it, so also the law could not prevent sin but was actually used by sin (the power) to produce sinful desires. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Working with Grace

In the previous section of his letter, Paul argued that Christ, like Adam, did something that impacted all of humanity. More specifically, what Christ did reversed what Adam had done. Whereas Adam's disobedience had allowed the corrupting forces of sin and death into the world, Christ's faithfulness brought righteousness and life into the world. In fact, one way of understanding Romans 5:12-21 is to organize it into two very neat but opposing columns.

          Adam                                                Christ
          Disobedience                                     Faithfulness
          Sin                                                    Righteousness
          Death                                                Life
          Law                                                  Grace

In this chapter, Paul is emphasizing the objective reality of what Christ has done and stressing that it has overcome what Adam did, even going so far as to say in v. 20 that "where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more." If Paul had left off here, it would be easy to think that this was all very formulaic and automatic; Adam messed up the world, Christ fixed it. End of story. We might as well go on living our merry lives and, in fact, go on sinning while we are at it since our sin is what led to God's grace anyway. This is why Paul begins as he does in Romans 6.
"What shall we say then? Shall we remain in sin so that grace may increase? 
Paul answers emphatically "May it never be! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?" The change that Christ has brought about in the world is not something external to us that doesn't involve us. The movement from that left column to the right one is not merely something Christ is doing in the world around us. It is something Christ wishes to accomplish in us. Paul believes that this is what happens in baptism. Just as Christ's faithful death and resurrection made the movement toward that right column a reality in our world, so also in baptism we die and are raised with Christ allowing us to move from the left column of sin and death to the right column of righteousness and life. For Paul, baptism is nothing less than a transfer of our being from one reality to another, an induction into a completely new way of being human. Paul's whole argument in this chapter rests on that premise. It is essentially "Given that we've been caught up in this entirely new reality in Christ, how can we possibly go back to the old one?"

Of course, the fact that Paul has to make this argument at all is the first indication that life, even in life in Christ, can never be as neat and tidy as two columns. Even though Paul believes that baptism is nothing less than the portal into this new way of being, he also knows that baptism does not guarantee a sinless life. It is not automatic. If it were, there would be no need anywhere in Paul's letters to correct his congregations or to say as he says here:
"Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies...Do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness." 
Paul is emphatic that the victory has been won in Jesus Christ and that the way to participate in that victory is through baptism but he is just as emphatic that for all Christ has done he has not left us with nothing to do. The Church is called to "present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and your members to God as instruments of righteousness." Like soldiers presenting arms before a commanding officer, we are to present ourselves before God as those who are ready to carry out his mission of righteousness in the world.

I think any person with military experience would attest to the reality that simply signing papers to join the military isn't the same thing as being a trained soldier. To be sure, when you sign those papers your status has changed in a very real way. In that single act you have been transferred from the life of a civilian to that of a soldier and you are no longer your own master. But despite the very real change that has taken place, you do not suddenly become a combat ready warrior by signing your name. There has been a change of status that has tremendous consequences but it will take enormous amounts of discipline and training for that change in status to be fully realized.

I think that is something like what Paul is saying here. When we are baptized, our status really has changed but it would be foolish to think that all the consequences of that change will immediately and automatically take effect. Instead, we must continually choose to engage in discipline and training that will shape us into people who can be agents of God's redemptive movements in our world. We need worship, prayer, scripture, communion, fasting, service to others, Christian fellowship and all the other things we call "means of grace" and "spiritual disciplines" because these are our training, our boot camp. Baptism alone will not turn us into a people who imitate the faithfulness of Christ. We need the work of the Holy Spirit through these disciplines to be the people of holiness, mercy, compassion, and justice that we are called to be. Salvation is by grace but there is work to be done if that salvation is to be fully realized in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Power of One

"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin and so death spread to all humanity because all sinned..."*
So Paul begins his thought in Romans 5:12 but it is a thought he doesn't seem to finish. That "just as" of Paul's sentence causes us to expect another half to this statement; a "so also".  We might expect something like "just as sin came into the world through one man so also righteousness came into the world through one man." But we don't see that right away. Instead, it seems that right in the middle of his thought Paul realized that he needed to make some clarifications before even completing his analogy as if the analogy might have been too badly misunderstood and could not be recovered if he does not first clear up some things.

We'll get to those clarifications in a moment but it maybe helpful to first see the main comparison Paul is making. That is, Christ is like Adam in that both have done something that impacts all of humanity. Adam was the one who allowed sin to enter the world through his own disobedience to God. Notice the kind of picture that Paul's language portrays here, as if sin were this personified force that had been locked out of the creation but by Adam's disobedience the door was left open for sin to enter and bring death with it. Once sin and death entered the creation, they ran rampant and unrestrained. As Paul says, they reigned like kings over God's creation. We've already seen in previous sections of Romans that God gave the law to help combat this hellish reign on earth but the law proved ineffective in that all humanity continued to sin anyway. Now that sin has made its way into the world, its power was too great to be resisted.

We have to skip down to v. 18-21 to get the other half of the equation, the "so also." If sin can be allowed to enter the world through one man's disobedience, then it stands to reason that the reign of sin might also be defeated by one man's faithfulness. This is what Paul believes Jesus has done. The unique faithfulness of Jesus Christ has allowed a new power of righteousness to enter the world in order that humanity might be made righteous and that new righteousness has brought new life along with it. Just as one man brought sin and death to all so also can one man bring righteousness and life to all.

But it is not as if these were two equal powers, sin and righteousness, now warring within the creation. Paul says that what Christ did is already overtaking what Adam did. That is the clarification Paul makes in v. 15-17. If many died by Adam's sin, much more will many live because of Christ. If Adam's one sin brought condemnation, Christ's one life of faithfulness overcomes many sins. If death reigned through one man, much more will those who receive grace and righteousness reign in life. Adam is a type of Christ but what Christ has done is far greater. Jesus has not merely leveled the playing field between sin and righteousness. He has won the decisive battle against sin and death and they are now retreating before the powers of righteousness and life advancing in our world.

Of course, that retreat of sin and death before the powers of life and righteousness doesn't always seem so obvious in our world. Often it may appear things are moving in the other direction, even in our own lives. Although the decisive blow has been struck, these wannabe kings of sin and death do not easily give up the territory they have held for so long. This, Paul will say in the next chapter, is why we must continually submit ourselves as instruments to the cause of righteousness. But it is because of what Paul has proclaimed in this chapter that we know we are submitting ourselves to a winning cause; the faithfulness of Jesus has overcome the transgression of Adam.

*You may notice that in some translations of Romans 5:12, the final phrase reads “in whom all sinned.” That final phrase in Romans 5:12 reads "eph ho all sinned", that "eph ho" being the Greek phrase that is in question. These are fairly simple words in Greek; "eph" being a shortened version of a common Greek preposition typically meaning "in" or "on"  and "ho" being a relative pronoun meaning "whom". So a very literal translation of this phrase would read "in whom all sinned." If this is the proper translation, then Paul would be saying that when Adam sinned everyone sinned. That is, the entire human race is implicated in Adam's sin and found guilty because of what he did. St. Augustine, a Bishop in the North African city of Hippo in the late 300's and probably the single most influential theologian in the history of the Church, understood the phrase this way and it was in his understanding of this verse that he saw the doctrine of original sin; the idea that because Adam sinned all of humanity is guilty. Indeed, if "in whom" is the proper translation of this verse then it would be difficult to understand it any other way. Prominent as Augustine was, his teaching of original sin has impacted generation after generation of the Church, even those who have never heard the name of Augustine.  

However, there is debate about the meaning of this verse because "eph ho" can also be a conjunction meaning "because". This would change substantially how we would understand what Paul is saying here. If Paul meant to say "death came to all humanity because all sinned" then Paul is not saying everyone is guilty because of Adam's sin, as Augustine thought, but that all human beings are guilty because all human beings have, in fact, sinned. Either way, we are all guilty. The question is this: Are we guilty because of what Adam did or because what we have done? As I have hinted at in this post, I think the idea that is most consistent with the rest of Paul’s thought is to understand Paul as saying that Adam opened the door for the power of sin to enter the world and that humanity has been powerless to stand before this force with the result that we have all sinned. So all have sinned as a result of Adam’s sin because it allowed the power of sin to enter the world, not because everyone is guilty due to Adam’s single transgression. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Abraham: Father of Righteousness Apart from the Law

Paul has been arguing that a new righteousness is possible apart from the law. This is a bold claim on Paul's part. In an earlier post, I noted the objection that Paul's fellow first century Jews likely would have offered to what Paul says in Romans 2:26:
"So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law...."
We don't even need to finish the sentence. Paul's contemporaries surely would have found the premise itself to be contradictory. They likely would have asked "How can one be uncircumcised and keep the law when circumcision itself is a key component of the law?" In order to answer that question, Paul returns to the very origins of circumcision.

In Romans 4, Paul supports and illustrates his claim that righteousness apart from the law is possible by recounting the story of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Israel. God promised Abraham that if he followed God then he would be made the father of many nations and that all the people of the earth would be blessed by his offspring. As such an important figure, Abraham serves as a sort of paradigm for all of Israel. There is a sense in which what is true for Abraham is true for God's people. He is not merely one example among many Paul could have utilized. Abraham, more so than any other individual figure, is really the example when it comes to the identity of Israel. And it was with Abraham that circumcision became an identifying mark of Israel. God commanded Abraham to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham. God commanded that all of Abraham's descendants be circumcised as well as a sign of their participation in this same covenant.

Here we begin to get a sense of why circumcision, which probably seems an arbitrary and inconsequential thing to us, was of such great importance to the Jewish people. It was commanded by God and it was a sign of God's call to Abraham, the very beginnings of Israel. It was a sign of God's promises to Abraham and his descendants. It was a sign of Israel's continued participation in that very same covenant. It was nothing less than a symbol of God's faithfulness to Israel and Israel's faithful response. It is probably not an overstatement to say that circumcision was synonymous with what it mean to be Israel, to be God's people. Abraham is precisely the figure that Paul's opponents would have cited (and did, if Galatians is any indication) as the reason why one must be circumcised in order to keep the law and participate in God's covenant. It is because of Abraham, they would have argued, that one can not keep the law and remain uncircumcised.

It is a demonstration of Paul's keen mind at work re-reading the scriptures in light of Christ that he managed to use the very figure who formed the crux of his opponents argument to make his own point which was precisely the opposite of theirs. The critical turn in Paul's argument is found in 4:9-11:
"Is this blessing then only for the circumcised or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith(fulness) was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after but before he was circumcised."
God counted Abraham as righteous in Genesis 15. God did not require Abraham to be circumcised until Genesis 17.  God counted Abraham as righteous before he was circumcised. That is, Abraham actually serves as the perfect example for Paul's argument because Abraham was considered righteous apart from circumcision, apart from the law. The scriptures themselves claim that God considered Abraham righteous because of his faith(fulness). 

It is faith(fulness), Paul radically claims, not circumcision or adherence to the law which has always been the true mark of God's people. Abraham demonstrated this same faith(fulness) by trusting God even when he was old and had no heir, even when God demanded the sacrifice of his heir. Abraham was righteous not because of circumcision but because he lived faithfully before God and what is true for Abraham is true for all God's people. When there is not yet a God-given law, when that God-given law fails to produce righteousness, when God is doing crazy things like promising a fatherhood of nations to an old and childless couple or raising God's messiah from the dead, "the righteous out of faithfulness will live." 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New Righteousness, New Law

Paul finished the previous section of his letter having articulated the problematic predicament of humanity. We are a people too weak to stand up to the power of sin. Likewise, God's good and gracious provision of the law was too weak to help us make that stand. All it could do was point to the reality of sin. It couldn't help to defend against it. How do we know this? Because Israel's own story, its own scriptures attest to the fact. Despite hundreds of years of following the law still "there is no one righteous, not even one."

"But now..." v. 21 begins. But now something new has happened. But now there is a new possibility for righteousness. But now an entirely new epoch in history has dawned because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. But now a new strength has come to rescue our weak flesh. "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed to by the law and the prophets - the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe."* This new righteousness, Paul claims, is for Jew and Gentile alike since there is no real difference between them since both have sinned. It is a gift freely given out of the redemption and atonement accomplished in Christ Jesus. As a result, there can be no boasting of Jewish Christians over Gentile Christians (or the other way around) since both are made righteous by the same God on account of the same faithfulness.

But just because God's righteousness has now been revealed apart from the law doesn't mean that God has now done away with law entirely. Rather this new righteousness revealed in Jesus requires a new kind of law. Paul says it is a law of faithfulness instead of the law of works. That is, rather than righteousness being determined by works of the Jewish law (things like circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws) the source of righteousness is now the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and living faithfully out of and in imitation of that faithfulness is the law which followers of Jesus are called to obey. Jesus is both the new righteousness revealed apart from the law and the new law of faithfulness. 

But even to call this righteousness and this law "new" is a fairly serious misnomer if by that we mean that it has no connection to what is "old". To be sure, Paul's claim that Jesus is God's righteousness and God's law is radically new in some very substantial ways. It is no small thing that Paul claimed that circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance were not necessary for Gentiles to be considered righteous. These were central pieces of Jewish identity and themselves crucial parts of the law that God had given Israel. But, in other ways, Paul wants us to see that this new law and new righteousness in Jesus really aren't so new - at least not so new as to be entirely alien to God's history with Israel. After all, Paul says that this righteousness is witnessed to by the law and the prophets.

One of those prophets was Habakkuk whom Paul has already quoted in 1:17. Paul's language in these latter verses of chapter 3 echoes and expands on much of the language Paul use in 1:17  and by that connections helps us to see yet again why that quotation from Habakkuk is so critical to Paul's understanding of what God has done in Jesus Christ. In Habakkuk's opening verses we hear that the law is paralyzed and that justice goes forth perverted. This is precisely the same thing that Paul has been arguing in the opening chapters of Romans; that the law is paralyzed, weak, and powerless to produce true righteousness. In Habakkuk chapter 2, the prophet declares that "the righteous will live out of faithfulness." In other words, in a time when when the law is failing to serve its purpose and God is doing strange and unexpected things like using the Babylonians as his instrument to make Israel righteous, those who wish to be counted as righteous will still live faithfully before God trusting in God's faithfulness even its strange, new forms. Paul sees a parallel here as well; since the law has failed to produce righteousness a new righteousness must come through a life of faithfulness, even if it is the strange and unexpected faithfulness of a crucified messiah. Paul sees Habakkuk as a precedent for arguing that this is not the first time that God has called the righteous to live by a law of faithfulness as an alternative to a law of works. What is new is that this faithfulness has been embodied in the person of Jesus, the crucified messiah.  He is the new law and Paul believes that the law of Christ can produce true righteousness in a way the law of works never could.

*You may have noticed that I translated this phrase in v.22 as "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" rather than "faith in Jesus Christ." There are two issues that allow this phrase to be translated in these two ways. The first is that the word "pistis" in Greek can be translated either as "faith" or "faithfulness". It really means both intertwined together but one aspect of the word can be emphasized more than the other in certain contexts. 

The second is an issue of Greek grammar. The words "of" or "in" are not actually in the Greek text of Romans 3:22. Instead, this phrase is in what is known as the genitive case. (In English, word order is an important part of determining the meaning of a sentence. So, for example, in the sentence "Dave teaches his class lots of crazy Greek stuff." we know that "Dave" is the subject of the sentence because it comes before the verb. Greek, on the other hand, uses a case system to indicate how a word functions in the sentence. A change in case is indicated by a slight change in the spelling of a word. So, for example, "Jesus Christ" which is "Iesous Christos" in the nominative case becomes "Iesou Christou" in the genitive case.) The most typical use of the genitive case is to indicate possession but it can have a whole range of meanings throughout the New Testament. 

Two of those possibilities are known as the subjective genitive and objective genitive. You can see something similar to this in English in a phrase like the "the love of God." Does that phrase refer to God's love for us or our love for God? Is God doing the loving (so God is the subject, a subjective genitive) or is God receiving the love (so God is the object of the love, an objective genitive)? It can mean either or maybe even both at the same time but the only way you would be able to decide would be context. What makes the most sense with what is around it? If Paul said "Christ's death demonstrates the love of God" it would be clear that he was referring to God's love for us. If he said "Our love for others demonstrates the love of God" it might be more difficult to decide whose love Paul was talking about. 

Something similar is at stake in our phrase in Romans 3:22. Is Jesus Christ the object of the faith(fulness)? That is, is Paul talking about Jesus receiving our faith? Or is Jesus the subject of the faith(fulness)? That is, is Jesus the one who has himself been faithful? Of course, both are true in the big picture! The issue here is not choosing one to the exclusion of the other. The question is a matter of emphasis. Is Paul's emphasis in Romans on our belief or on God's faithfulness through Jesus Christ?  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Insufficiency of the Law

"Then what advantage has the Jew?"
It's a logical question given the kind of claims that Paul has made in Romans 2. In the verses leading up to this question in 3:1, Paul has talked about the possibility of Gentiles being a law to themselves and keeping the law without being circumcised. He has even said that such Gentiles are better off than Jews who have the law but fail to follow it. So its worth asking "Is there any advantage to being a Jew?" One could have easily misunderstood Paul as saying that Jews and Gentiles were just alike with absolutely no difference between them. Paul makes clear here at the beginning of chapter 3 that this is not the idea he intended to communicate. The Jews are still God's chosen people to whom were entrusted "the oracles of God".

But there is some sense in which Paul wants to communicate that Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing. Even though Israel is God's chosen people and hold certain advantages by virtue of their election, they are still basically in the same boat as Gentiles when it comes to being counted as righteous before God. That is what Paul has been saying for most of these three opening chapters and it is the point he is driving home in these verses. As he says in V.9:
"What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks are under sin."
Greeks, that is, Gentiles being "under sin" would have been a given in the mind of any first century Jew (as we saw in Romans 1:18-32). Paul spent all of chapter 2 arguing that the same is true for Jews as well, despite having the law. Just in case there is any doubt left on the matter, Paul adds a litany of quotations to his argument; quotations from Israel's very own Scriptures pointing out Israel's very own sinfulness. Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that however good and perfect a gift God's law might have been to Israel, Israel's own Scriptures testify to the reality that the law alone was not capable of assuring the righteousness of Israel. Page after page of Israel's own story speaks to the reality of Israel's idolatry, sinfulness, and injustice despite the presence of God's law to guide them. That is why Paul can say that even though there is an advantage to being a Jew, "both Jews and Greeks are under sin."

It is also why Paul closes this section by saying
"For by works of the law no human being will be made righteous in his sight for through the law comes the knowledge of sin." 
I suspect that this statement and much of this chapter are often read as a kind of eternal decree from God as if Paul were saying "No one will be saved by works because God said so (and God said so because God also said we are sinful thus our works are sinful)." In other words, we could read this chapter as a very blunt statement of the doctrine of original sin; that every human being is corrupted from birth and as a result even our best works will not justify us in God's sight. Without debating the merits of such a doctrine, I would argue that isn't exactly what Paul is saying here. Rather than repeating an eternal maxim from God, I think Paul is making an inference from human experience. He is essentially saying "Look, we know no one is going to be made righteous by works of the law because for hundreds of years of Israelite history the law has failed to make us truly righteous. In fact, the law's only real accomplishment has been to point out sin in all its sinfulness (something on which Paul will elaborate in chapter 7).  

In short, we are in need of something more than law. Even the law given by the creator of the universe was not enough to make us righteous. It couldn't prevent sin or produce justice. It couldn't make us whole. So if we are to be righteous before God, if we are to be made new and whole, we will need God to do something new, something in contrast to what has gone before, something more powerful than law. We need this:
"But now..."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Circumcision of the Heart

In the last half of Romans 1, we saw what was probably a typical first century Jewish view of Gentiles. That is, they are a people to whom God has not been revealed in the same way that God was revealed to Israel. Paul says that the Gentiles still should have been able to observe the attributes of the creator by way of his creation. However, they have not received God's good and perfect law. As a result of their ignorance of God and God's law, their lives have become ones that pervert justice and produce unrighteousness. In contrast to the Gentiles, Jews understood themselves as the chosen people of God who had been given God's law. As a result, Israel's life together was to be one where righteousness prevailed. Jews presumed that they were to be a light to the Gentiles.

Paul, a Jew himself, agreed with these presumptions. He understood (even after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus) God's law to be a good and perfect gift and he continued to believe that Israel was a people chosen by God to be a light to the rest of the world. Paul's point in Romans 2 is not to denigrate either of those realities. His point is to argue that neither of those intertwined realities - the gift of the law to Israel and Israel's election - automatically make Israel righteous. Righteousness is not a matter of being ethnically Jewish or even knowing the law but of faithfulness to God.

Paul begins by arguing that God does not show partiality. Even though God has chosen Israel that election is not a matter of favoritism. It is an election to live faithfully before God. As such, Paul says that God will judge Jew and Gentile alike according to their works. V.12-13 sum up Paul's point well when he says that those who don't have the law (Gentiles) will perish because they don't have it to lead them to righteousness but that those who have the law (Jews) and still commit sin aren't any better off because they will be judged by the law they have broken. It is not merely hearing the law that makes one righteous but doing it.

This is a place where the narrative of Habakkuk, which Paul quoted in 1:17, proves illustrative once again. In the days of the prophets, many in Israel thought that destruction could never come their way simply because they were God's chosen people. Habakkuk is shocked when he hears that God will use the Babylonians to clean up Israel. Likewise, we hear in Jeremiah the refrain "the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord" reflecting the belief that no harm would come to Israel so long as God's temple stood among them. But God warns through Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and the other prophets that this is not the case; that God's people must turn back to God or destruction will be brought upon them even though they are God's people and even though they have the law and the temple. As Habakkuk says, it is out of faithfulness that the righteous will live. Paul is arguing a similar point in Romans 2; that merely being Jewish or having the law will not save or make righteous. One must put God's law into practice through faithful living.

So far, so good. I don't think Paul has said much there that is terribly different from what any first century Jew would have said. Faithful Jews would have been very happy for Jews and Gentiles alike to live faithfully by putting God's law into practice. But Paul also goes on to say something that Habakkuk and Jeremiah do not say. In v.14-15 Paul states:
"For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts..".
And in v.25-29
"For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God."
This is surprising because circumcision is itself a part of the law that Paul is talking about. When Paul says "if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law," I imagine that most of his fellows Jews would immediately object saying "How can one be uncircumcised and keep the law when circumcision is itself a central part of the law?" This is a question we will hear Paul begin to answer in more detail in Romans 4 where he writes about the faith/fulness of Abraham. For now, it is enough to notice the consequences of what Paul is arguing here: Gentiles can live just as faithfully in God's righteousness as Jews even without fulfilling certain parts of the law such as circumcision. Indeed, Paul go so far as to say that an uncircumcised Gentile who lives faithfully to God is more righteous than a circumcised Jew who breaks other parts of the law. We Gentile Christians may take this for granted but it was an enormous and controversial claim on Paul's part; one that puts him at odds with his fellow Jews, even at times with his fellow apostles (see Peter in Galatians), and one that will take him the rest of Romans to fully unravel.

As Gentile Christians it would be foolish of us if we did not see that Paul's admonition, which is here directed to his Jewish brothers and sisters, also applies to us. We might hear the Spirit speaking through Paul's words to us saying "You who call yourselves Christians and rely on the Spirit and boast in God and know his will and approve of what is excellent because you are instructed by the Scriptures, you who consider yourself a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in Jesus the embodiment of knowledge and truth, - you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?" Merely bearing the title "Christian" or knowing the Bible or being baptized is not enough. The righteous will live out of faithfulness to God.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Mercy of Unwashed Hands

How do you envision the wrath of God?

In Romans 1:18, Paul says that the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against the idolatry and injustice of humanity. For several verses, Paul rails against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of human beings who skew and obstruct knowledge of God even though Paul says that they themselves should have been able to come to this knowledge by observing what has been made. In all likelihood, Paul's words here are probably representative of Jewish caricatures of Gentiles in the first century. At the root of all of this caricature is the failure of Gentiles to worship the one true God of Israel. Everything else Paul describes here is mere symptom. Idolatry is the disease.

Given that Paul sees us Gentiles as so terribly godless and idolatrous, when Paul starts to talk about wrath being revealed from heaven one might expect the lightning bolts to start flying any minute. Quite to the contrary, we hear Paul say three times in the next several verses "God gave them over...". In v. 24, God gave them over to the lusts of their hearts...". In v. 26, "God gave them over to dishonorable passions...". In v. 28, "God gave them over to a debased mind...". The wrath of God being revealed from heaven is simply a matter of the Creator letting the created pursue their own idolatrous tendencies without interference. It seems the worst wrath that Paul can imagine from God is not lightning bolts and plague but apathy. The worst possible scenario for us is a God who washes his hands of us.

This is perhaps not that surprising when we consider that the wrath of God is depicted in much the same way in the fundamental story of idolatry in the Old Testament. In Exodus 33, after Aaron and the people of Israel construct a golden calf to worship, God says to Moses:
"Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Despite the people's sin, Yahweh still intends to keep his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by giving the promised land to their descendants. But God will send an angel to do this work rather than God's own presence dwelling with the people of Israel. On the surface, this might seem like a pretty good deal - Israel still get God's blessing if not God's presence - but Moses will have none of it. He says:
"If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
Moses knows that the worst conceivable fate for the people of Israel is that the presence of the God who delivered them from slavery would be withdrawn from among them. In similar fashion, Paul characterizes the wrath of God being revealed against Gentile idolatry as God handing them over to their own devices. This action on God's part is in stark contrast to the actions of God that Paul has just described in the previous verses using some of the very same vocabulary. Whereas in v 18-32 Paul says that God's wrath is revealed against unrighteousness that is manifested in shameful acts, in v. 16-17 Paul has just said that he is not ashamed of the gospel in part because the righteousness of God is revealed in it.

It is especially important here to keep in mind what Paul means by some of those words. The gospel is the story of Jesus Christ who "was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead." That is, this good news is centered around the Son of God who stepped into human flesh and died our human death. This is the story of a God who got involved, who intervened. This is a God who, far from washing his hands of us, got his hands dirty in the most profound of all possible ways, plunging those hands into the mess of our own flesh, taking on the very kinds of hands that had themselves committed unrighteousness and idolatry so many times over and having nails put through them. Furthermore, the righteousness of God that is being revealed in this gospel is not only what God has already done in Jesus Christ but also the transforming work that God continues to do to bring about righteousness in our own lives, even the lives of unrighteous and idolatrous Gentiles like us.

I imagine that this is contrary to the way we usually think about things. It is easy to think that God's mercy surrounds us so long as things are going well. We tend to ask questions about God's wrath when tragedy strikes. But Paul makes me wonder if the worst possible thing that God could do for us would be to simply let everything go according to our plans and our desires all the time. Perhaps the wrath of God in American culture isn't manifested in disasters and economic downturns but just the opposite; in God's allowing us to run unfettered into our never ending pursuit of happiness, security, and prosperity; when God hands us over from being his beloved possession to being possessed by the very things we so desperately seek to obtain.

Its not that happiness or even our own passions and desires are inherently evil. Its that they are malleable and if left unattended they effortlessly take on the shape and pattern of the broken world that surrounds them. Fortunately, a critical piece of the gospel that Paul proclaims is that leaving our desires and passions unattended is the very last thing that God wants to do. God so badly wants to shape us into the marvelous creatures we were created to be that God plunged the two hands of Son and Spirit into our humanity for that very purpose. The mercy of God isn't when God washes his hands of us and lets us be. The mercy and righteousness of God are revealed in the divine hands that are covered in dirt and clay from the work of shaping the dust of the earth into creatures that begin to resemble the very divinity that has shaped and formed them.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Source of Faithfulness

For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God leading to salvation for all who believe, to the Jew first and to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith to faith, just as it is written "The righteous out of faithfulness will live."  Romans 1:16-17*

These are widely recognized as the theme verses of Paul's letter to the church at Rome. They are the thesis of what turns out to be one very long, sustained argument. As a result, there is a lot to unpack here. (After all, Paul will spend the rest of the letter doing just that.) But it is those final words, the quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 which I find most interesting and most enlightening for understanding these verses and the whole of Romans.

Habakkuk is a little prophetic book that begins with a familiar question:
"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?"
 The first four verses of Habakkuk paint a bleak picture of Israel as a violent and unjust place. Habakkuk says that the law is "paralyzed" and "justice goes forth perverted." This is an especially poignant depiction of corruption given that the law to which Habakkuk refers is the good and perfect law given by God. The corruption and injustice in Israel are so severe that even God's perfect law is powerless to correct it. The overwhelming sin of Israel perverts the instrument of God's own justice so badly that it only serves to produce more injustice. It is this dismal circumstance which causes the prophet to cry out to God asking "How long?".

To say that God's response to Habakkuk in 1:5-11 would have been "surprising" or "unexpected" would be an understatement overwhelming in its imprecision. "Jaw-dropping, difficult to wrap your brain around, alternative reality" would come closer to an apt description. God proclaims that his answer to the problem of violence in Israel will be Babylon: the pagan, know-nothing about Yahweh, worshipping other gods, soul-crushingingly-powerful nation of Babylon. This is the evil empire of the Bible; a nation so infamously etched in the memory of God's people that the writer of Revelation would still use them as a code name centuries later for the pagan, know-nothing about Yahweh, soul crushingly-powerful empire of his own day (Rome). In spite of this, God intends to use Babylon to clean up Israel.

This is a hard pill for Habakkuk to swallow to say the least. Habakkuk questions it, wondering how a holy God can use such an unholy instrument to correct the people God called to be holy. It is in the midst of this exceedingly strange circumstance, this frighteningly new and uncertain action by God that we hear the words "The righteous will live by his faithfulness." The call of God through Habakkuk is for the righteous to live out of faithfulness (whether their own or God's is, perhaps purposely, ambiguous)** even in these violent and terribly uncertain times.

In the context of Romans 1:17, the quote from Habakkuk is often seen as a call to a righteousness by faith rather than by works. Correspondingly, the whole of Romans is thought to be Paul's detailed exposition of the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus rather than good deeds. There may be a shade of truth to such a reading of Romans but I think that truth has more to do with Martin Luther's guilt-laden conscience and his reading of Paul than it has to do with Paul's own writing.*** Instead, if we allow the narrative of Habakkuk to set the tone for Romans as Paul himself seems to do, we will find that there are remarkable similarities between the two.

Similar to what we have seen in Habakkuk, much of Paul's writings are about the strange, completely unexpected, frighteningly new thing that God has done in Jesus Christ. No one, no one, expected a crucified messiah. "Crucified" and "messiah" are themselves mutually exclusive terms. If you were one, you couldn't be the other. As if that weren't odd enough, Paul's experience was that Gentiles, not Jews, were the ones responding most readily to God's, that is, Yahweh's, the Jewish God's crucified messiah. These were strange, new actions on God's part, indeed. So strange that Paul referred to them as a new era, a totally new epoch in the history of the world, the beginning of a new creation. 

With this in mind, we can see why Paul would feel the need to say that he was "not ashamed of the gospel" (a religion with a crucified leader would have been a very shameful thing) but we can also see why he would call it the "power of God" (powerful enough to cause non-Jews to proclaim Israel's failed messiah as "Lord"). We can see just how it is that "the righteousness of God is revealed in it" as it makes sinful people (Romans 1-3) into righteous, just, and faithful people (Romans 6 and 8); something God's own perfect law had been powerless to accomplish (Romans 7). Likewise, we can see that just as the prophet Habakkuk has some questions about God's righteousness, Paul wonders aloud how it is that God will remain faithful to the promises God made to the people of Israel (Romans 9-11) even as this new righteousness/faithfulness is revealed in Christ (Romans 3-5). But in the midst of all this newness and uncertainty, the call upon those who proclaim Jesus as Lord is to live out of the faithfulness of Christ into a faithful imitation of Christ (1:17; chapters 12-15).

After 2000 years of Christian history and tradition, we too easily forget what an odd thing it is that we, who are nearly all Gentile, worship a crucified Jew. By doing so, we also forget what a strange, new thing God did in Jesus. If we read it carefully, Romans will help to remind us just how unbelievably good this good news really is for us. It will remind us that God keeps his promises even when it looks like they are most certainly being abandoned, whether it be as Abraham raises the knife over Isaac or as Jesus lays in the tomb or as Paul's kin reject their own savior. It is especially in these most uncertain of times that God calls the righteous to find in God's own faithfulness the source of their endurance to live faithfully.

*This is my own translation. Readers familiar with most English translations may be surprised by my use of the word "faithfulness" rather than "faith." The Greek word Paul uses here can be translated either way and really means both. Separating faith as a kind of mere cognitive belief from faithful action would have likely been a foreign idea to Paul. The single word faith/fulness encompassed both and bound them together. Furthermore, the Hebrew word Habakkuk uses has a much stronger leaning toward the idea of faithfulness than mere belief. 

**It is ambiguous for a couple reasons. First, the "his" in Hebrew probably refers to "the righteous one" but it is possible that it refers to God. Second, the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the the Septuagint, reads "my faithfulness" and portrays the verse as being spoken by God thus making it God's faithfulness. To make things even more interesting, Paul leaves out the pronoun entirely in his quotation of the verse so rather than "his faithfulness" or "my faithfulness" we have simply "The righteous will live out of faithfulness." This serves Paul's purposes well because he wishes to talk about both God's faithfulness in Christ and and faithful human response. 

*** There are a plethora of books that make this argument. A few are: 
Krister Stendahl's Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.
E.P. Sanders Paul: A Very Short Introduction.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My Dad

Tomorrow I'll be headed to South Carolina to wrap up things with my dad's possessions there. As a result, I've been thinking about my dad a lot once again. Its actually been difficult to do that with everything else that has happened since his death - leaving our home, leaving our church, my grandmother's death. These are all things that need to be grieved in their own right. As a result, they have made it difficult to grieve the loss of my father the way I need to. As difficult as I know this trip will be, there is part of me that welcomes it as an entry point back into the grieving process that has been stunted but remains just as necessary. The words below are what I shared at my dad's funeral back in June. 

I’ve thought a lot about what I wanted to say about my dad here today. I’ve pondered how to put into words who he was. What was his defining quality? What am I most thankful for about him? What will I remember most? I’m sure that many of you would think of his warmth and friendliness, his ability to strike up a conversation with absolutely anyone about anything, his free and joyous laughter. These are things I will remember as well.

But as I thought about what it was I would remember the most about him, I realized it was one very simple but profound thing: his love for me. My dad loved me with a tremendous and unconditional love. Whatever I did, he was proud of it and he made sure he told me he was proud of it. And not just as a kid either. Even as an adult, my dad was always telling me how much he loved me and how proud he was of me as a husband, a father, and a pastor. He was always there for me, always rooting for me, always hoping for the best for me even if it wasn’t what was best for him.

In some ways, that may seem a small thing and I confess that at times I may have even taken it for granted. After all, these are the kinds of things that good fathers are supposed to do. But then I remember that we live in a world where good fathers are in short supply. In this world where fathers are often absent or distant, mine was always present. In this world where children often strive for their father’s love and approval, mine lavished his willingly and graciously. In this world where a man might choose to do all kinds of other things, where he might choose to pour his energies and passions into a million other “more important” tasks, my father willfully and joyfully chose the humble task of loving his one and only son, of pouring everything he had into me.

By doing that, he gave me what may be the greatest gift of all. He gave me an earthly image of our heavenly Father: a Father who is always present with us and one who is always lavishing his love upon us. In his love for me, my dad embodied the love of a God who could have quite literally poured his energy and his passion into a million other things but who willfully and joyfully chooses the humble task of loving his sons and daughters.

If that is who God is, if we are right to call God “Father” as we Christians do, then I am tempted to believe that perhaps the way my dad spent his life was no small thing at all. Perhaps it was a far greater accomplishment than our world usually acknowledges. Mother Theresa is often quoted as saying something along the lines of “Don’t aspire to do great things. Only aspire to do small things with great love.” My dad isn’t one who will be remembered for any great accomplishments. He’s just another guy who loved his son and brought joy to the people around him but I believe it is in those very things that he has given us a glimpse into the very heart of God. I, for one, will be forever grateful that my dad did small things with great love.

Friday, August 9, 2013

My Grandmother

I imagine that most people who knew my grandmother knew of the immense time and care she put into her garden. I eventually came to learn that if I was arriving for a visit and the weather was nice, there was little point in ringing the doorbell or knocking on the front door. I knew I might as well head toward the backyard where I would almost certainly find my grandmother bent over her garden, removing what didn’t belong and caring for what did. The love she poured into these plants even extended to our own home in Illinois where we planted what she had shared with us from her own garden.

It seems to me that my grandmother’s gardening was more than a mere hobby. In many ways, it was representative of who she was. It is remarkable to think that even the most beautiful plants have the simplest of beginnings as small and unremarkable, plain and ordinary seeds. But when those seeds are sown and properly cared for, they can blossom into extraordinary expressions of life. Gathered together and ordered into a garden, they can become a place of peace and tranquility; a small reminder of the creative power that God has sown into the fabric of our world.

Such was my grandmother’s life. By the standards of many, my grandmother’s life could be seen as quite plain and unremarkable. She spent much of her days doing small and ordinary things like gardening, cooking, and talking with friends and family; hardly anything that would cause the world to take notice. But in these small and unremarkable acts, my grandmother sowed seeds of grace and peace and hospitality, the very kinds of seeds that blossomed into extraordinary expressions of life in so many of us who knew her.

I think especially of the few times in my adult life when my grandmother and I had the opportunity to sit down and talk together, just her and I, and how those conversations were grace filled occasions. I think of how she was always welcoming people into her home, including me and my friends from seminary, or even the youth group from our church. Teenagers from the church where I pastored still speak to this day of what a kind and gracious person my grandmother was and how glad they were to have had the opportunity to meet her.

I also think of the seeds of faith my grandmother sowed in my own life. She handed down a legacy of faith that came through my mom to me and now continues on in my own three children. As the only grandparent I had the opportunity to know beyond my childhood years, she also continued to be a formative example of faith and holiness for me even into my own adulthood.

My grandmother’s life was like a well ordered and cared for garden. Her presence became a place of peace of and tranquility for so many who came to know her. Her grace and hospitality were small reminders of the creative power that God has sown into the fabric of our world and our humanity. Her life was not unlike the garden described in Genesis as the original act of God’s creation; a place where one might walk with God in the cool of the day. We mourn because the body of that first creation has failed her but we look forward to the day when God’s new creation will fully take root in our world. I imagine that when it does we will once again find her sowing seeds of grace and peace and hospitality for the kingdom of God