Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blogging through Romans: Romans 7: 1-6

Romans 7: 1-6

How would you identify yourself? Who makes you who you are? For me, I can say that I am a member of the Powell/Eckert family, husband to R, dad to S and N; pastor at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Canadian, etc.

It’s tempting to want to self-identify with those parts of our lives that we have some control over. Where we work, who our family is, who our friends are, where we live.

But Paul is saying that we no longer bound to the relationships of this world, that we are bound to Christ because we have died and risen with him in baptism.

Does this mean that our relationships don’t matter? Does this diminish the quality of our connections? No, but that they are only temporary. Our relationship with God changes the way we see the world and ourselves. Because we have died and risen with Jesus, we see the world with Jesus eyes: dead to sin and free to serve.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

CIBC Update

Update on this post.

I just got off the phone with a CIBC rep. They're accepting my pay stubs and a new card will be coming in the mail in the next week or so. They said they'll be talking with the other rep I dealt with, and will review their policy on private information.

But the best part was that they contacted ME. Apparently, they found my screed on this humble blog and wanted to rectify the situation.

I knew this blog would pay off some day.

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 6: 15-23

Romans 6: 15-23

“Grace is not a license to sin,” I often hear. But the implication afterwards is “so don’t sin.”

As if it were that easy. We like to condemn sin. We like to make sure that this whole grace thing doesn’t get out of control. We like to put boundaries around peoples’ behaviour.

Because boundaries mean power. Whoever puts the lines around peoples’ lives gets to control what people do.

I think that’s why we hear more law than gospel from most preachers. It’s easier and more empowering to condemn others than to set them free. It puts us in the position of God. If we trust God’s grace then that means that we have no part to play in governing peoples’ lives - which we LOVE to do.

But we will ALWAYS sin. We will ALWAYS be slaves to something that’s not God. That could be power, money, sex, control, work, whatever. And, as Paul notes, Only God’s redeeming grace can set us free from our slavery.

Monday, September 28, 2009

CIBC Sucks

(for an update on how this was resolved, click here)

I've been banking with CIBC for over a decade. My wife and I have our family credit card with them. As well as our retirement plan.

Last month I applied for a new CIBC VISA card. As proof of employment, they wanted copies of my last two pay stubs. Which I faxed to them.

I waited. Waited. And waited.

After about three weeks I called to check on the status of my application. Here's how it went:

Me: I'd like to check on the status of my VISA application, please.

(went through the usual reference number, name, address, phone number etc.)

CIBC: Sorry, Mr. Powell, but we need some more information to finish your application.

Me: What information? I sent you everything you asked for.

CIBC: Your pay stubs have been rejected.

Me: Rejected! Why!?

CIBC: Your pay stub was dated for August 31 and you faxed it on August 28. You can't send post dated pay stubs because you may be unemployed for the three days between you sending the pay stub and the date that is marked on it.

Me: You're kidding, right?

CIBC: So now we need to see your T-4 slip. I'm assuming you're not self-employed.

Me: No, I'm not. But why can't I just send you two more pay stubs? Why do you need my T-4?

CIBC: Because your previous pay stubs were rejected.

Me: But what does one have to do with the other?

CIBC: We can't now trust your pay stubs. We need a T-4.

Me: I faxed this information to you almost a month ago. Why wasn't I told the pay stubs were rejected?

CIBC: The departments don't communicate with each other.

Me: I was mailed a notice ASKING for the INITIAL information. Why couldn't you do the same with asking for MORE information?

CIBC: We don't mail material with private information. Someone could steal the letter and the information.

Me: But you send me my other VISA bill every month. And that has personal information. Even my credit card number.

CIBC: Yes, but we don't send letters with personal information when someone is applying for a VISA card.

Me: Why not?

CIBC: In case a husband is applying for a card and doesn't want his wife to find out.

[I kid you not]

Me: I beg your pardon?

CIBC: We don't send letters containing personal information through the mail in case one spouse is trying to hide the card from another.

Me: You're kidding.

CIBC: No, sir. That's our policy.

Wow. Just Wow.

I'm reconsidering my relationship with CIBC.

Sermon: Romans Series (Romans 6:1-11)

Pentecost 17B Romans Series from Good Shepherd on Vimeo.


“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”

Seems like an odd question, don't you think? Should we continue to sin so that we'll get more of God's love and mercy? Should we continue to hurt one another so that we'll receive more of God's forgiveness? Should we continue to inflict pain on ourselves so that we'll receive more of God's healing?

The answer seems as clear as the shine on my head.

But apparently, this wasn't just a rhetorical flourish on Paul's part. It was a real problem in some churches in Rome. People were “sinning” in order to get an extra dose of God's loving kindness. They were breaking God's Laws, intentionally seeking condemnation, simply so they would feel God's warm, forgiving embrace.

(Well, that was their story and they were sticking to it. The cynic in me wonders if that's just what they told their fellow churchies. “Ummm...yeah, I stole my neighbour's pig, but that was just so I could have another experience of God's amazing love, not because I needed to fill my freezer with tasty, tasty, bacon.”)

I had a little trouble following Paul's logic at first - “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” - I had troubling figuring out...(whole thing here)

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 6: 12-14

Romans 6: 12-14

The first sentence of this passage ( “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions”) needs to be read in light of the last sentence of last passage (“The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”).

It’s almost as if Paul is saying that we have complete control of our sins now that we have been made a new creation in Jesus. But what I think he’s saying is that we don’t have to see ourselves as sinful beings anymore, but as forgiven people, cleansed, made whole.

Because, for me, I KNOW I still sin. I still do things that hurt other people, myself, and God. I still break the promises I made in baptism and confirmation.

But God didn’t break those promises. It’s because God kept those promises that we can now see ourselves as brand new people, and also seen by God as pure and untarnished, whose sins will not be held against us.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 5: 15-21

Romans 5: 15-21

For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.

Paul is saying that God’s grace is ALWAYS stronger than sin. No matter how much we sin, God’s grace is always greater. Even though we sin, God will always forgive us. Not because we deserve forgiveness, but because God won’t allow sin to win out in our lives in the world.

To me, this section reads almost like a battle story, where sin tries to have dominion over our lives and world, but God is always defeating the powers of sin and death.

In the apostles’ creed, we confess that Jesus “descended into Hell.” What did he do there? Luther said that it was in hell that Jesus defeated the power of “sin, death, and the devil.” In fact, it was this part of Jesus’ story, I’m told, that helped folks in Norway come to faith in Jesus. Jesus’ death on the cross was OFFENSIVE to viking culture because it portrayed Jesus, not as saviour, but as weakling.

BUT, they COULD worship a God who would go into enemy territory and emerge victorious. The fancy term for this is the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement. It says that Jesus’ victory wasn’t just on the cross, but also in Hell, when he defeated God’s enemies so that God’s people could could be free from Hell’s tyranny.

That’s what I see happening in this passage: a battle between sin/death and grace. And because grace is ALWAYS stronger, sin and death are defeated. God has claimed a victory on our behalf.

This means that we have no control over our destiny. But that Jesus has defeated all the powers that keep us from God. And now we are free to live as beloved children of the one who created us, called us by name, and gave us new and everlasting life.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 5: 12-15

Romans 5: 12-14

Here Paul distinguishes between sin as disobedience to the Law, and sin as being disobedient to God. It seems like a small distinction, but he has to deal with the existence of sin as brought into the world by Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, BEFORE the Law was even established.

But also, Paul is trying to bookend the history of sin. Sin and death were brought into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, and was defeated - ended - by Jesus’ death and resurrection. A new world, a new humanity was born when Jesus’ eyes opened and his tomb stone was rolled away.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 5: 1-11

Romans 5: 1-11

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (vv. 3-4)

“I don't wanna die without any scars...” Tyler Durden, Fight Club.

I think Paul could have used the word “wisdom” instead of “hope” and it would have worked just as well. Suffering CAN produce wisdom. It can also create compassion.

It seems to me that suffering is something that find us, instead of us going out looking for it. Often, especially during Lent, it feels as if Christians extol suffering as something to be achieved, rather than something that happens to us because we live in a fallen world. I think that it’s our scars that make us who we are. Our scars help us to connect with others in their pain. It’s our failures that bring wisdom, our diseases that help us connect with our bodies, and our grief that tells us that we have loved.

Paul seems to be encouraging a persecuted Roman church, saying that their suffering is not happening in vain, that their suffering has meaning, because their hope is in the one who suffered and died for them, so they too may receive resurrection on the last day.

When you suffer, can you find meaning in it? Do you find Paul’s words encouraging? Or do you think Paul is trying to find meaning in what is a meaningless experience?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Name of the Anti-Christ Revealed!

Love this little bit of exegesis. Love the disclaimer at the end even more.


Blogging Through Romans: 4: 13-25

Romans 4: 13-25

“If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.”

Paul is saying that we are heirs of Abraham and Sarah because we have the same faith in the same God, not because we follow the same Law that Abraham and Sarah did. God blessed Abraham and Sarah by making them the “parents of many nations” because of their faith, not because of their obedience to the law. God blessed them because that’s what God wanted to do. Not because they worked hard to achieve their status as the parents of the Jewish people

While all this sounds good, some days I’d rather have the hard work. At least I know what’s expected of me. I have some control over the direction of my destiny. There are time when I would prefer that to have my life and destiny in the hands of an unseen God, guiding me through life and beyond life.

But that’s what happened to Abraham and Sarah. They started their new life with just a promise that God would be faithful. They didn’t see the fruit of that blessing, they simply trusted that God was guiding them.

That’s hard. But that’s the challenge of faith.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 4: 9-12

Romans 4: 9-12

Paul continues with the Abraham story. He’s citing precedent with his Jewish readers. By telling Abraham’s story he’s saying “Hey Folks, I’m not making this up. What I’m telling you was true from before our people began. Check the bible.”

Paul points out that “It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised”(vv. 10b-11).

So, why does this matter? I think this part of important because we often put requirements in front of participation. We say that a person needs to be baptized and/or confirmed before receiving the Lord’s Supper, despite the fact that the bible has no such stipulation. Our constitution says that someone needs to become a member of Good Shepherd before entering into a position of leadership, as if membership itself confers special authority, or that God’s work and will is limited to those whose names written in our membership book.

Paul was worried that the circumcision requirement would needlessly turn people away from Jesus. What other things do we do as Christians or as a church that might be stumbling blocks for people coming to faith in Jesus?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 4: 1-8

Romans 4: 1-8

Paul pulls out the big guns. He invokes the story of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. He does this because he wants to show God chose Abraham, not because Abraham deserved to be father to many nations, but because God wanted Abraham for this job. Not because Abraham did anything to deserve or earn such an honour. Why God chose Abraham is a mystery. But then again, who is righteous enough to earn God’s favour?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 3: 1-8

Romans 3: 1-8

I once had an argument with a clergy colleague over a social justice issue and how Christians are to faithfully respond to injustice.

I saw God’s justice through the lens of Luke, Isaiah, and Micah, where justice means liberating oppressed peoples, protecting the most vulnerable among, lifting the poor from poverty and challenging social and economic structures that privilege some people over others.

He saw God’s justice as God’s wrath against sin. “If we invoke God’s justice,” he said, “we invoke God’s wrath.”

So who’s right? Was *I* right to say that God’s justice was about proclaiming good news to the poor and setting the captives free?

Or was HE right by saying that God’s justice is punishment against sin?

I think we’re both right. Because God’s justice is about bringing about a new person, forgiven of sin, and brought into a right relationship with God, through Jesus.

AND God’s justice is about transforming the world, where our sinful choices hurt other people.

Paul was reacting to those who don’t think that God cares about sin. As if sin was something relegated to the past or a vehicle for God’s grace to shine. Paul was saying that sin still hurts us and the world. Sin is still a living reality in our lives.

Blogging Through Romans 2: 25-29

Romans 2: 25-29

In this section Paul is confronting outward appearance verses inward conviction and personal commitment. This may seem like a silly argument, left in the dusty pages of a 2000 year old document. But male circumcision was a BIG deal in the early church. Whether male gentile converts to Christians needed to be circumcised was THE most controversial issue of the time. Even more controversial than the debates over homosexuality is in our ELCIC.

Paul is hinging the argument of his whole letter on this little passage. For Paul, the debate all comes down to HOW or IF gentile converts to Christianity needed to observe Jewish Law. And Jewish Law specifically and clearly said that men needed to be circumcised as a sign of their covenant to God (ouch!).

For Paul, it didn’t make sense for people to go through the motions of religion yet lack faith and commitment. And that’s how he saw some of the Jewish Christians. As those who put meaningless demands on those who came to faith in Jesus as saviour.

What demands do WE put on people? What do WE make people conform to in order for them to be part of our community? What things do WE love more than the people God loves?

It’s a hard question if you think about it. Just as Jewish Law and practice defined what Judaism is and was, we Lutheran Christians have our doctrine to define us. We have our non-negotiables in our tradition - those things that make us who we are.

But what happens when those things become stumbling blocks to people? At what point do our traditions need to die in order that people may live?

I think that’s the question Paul was asking in this passage.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 2: 17-24

Romans 2: 17-24

Here, Paul’s primary audience is identified: Jewish Christians who aren’t obeying Jewish Law (or are really lazy in their observances) but who insist in teaching it to others. And more than that, these Jewish Christians derive tremendous national pride in as being observant of Jewish Law.

But Paul seems to be saying that pride in being observant is misplaced. It’s their value as God’s chosen people that’s to be the centrepiece of their lives, not on how well they observe Jewish Law.

Christians are not exempt from misplaced pride. We’ve heard of some Christians who seem to be proud of being “bible believing Christians” rather than God’s people of grace. They seem more interested in believing the right things according to the bible rather than living in God’s mercy and forgiveness.

I think that’s because it’s easier to control peoples’ behaviour than to let God be God. But Paul says “NO!” to anything that smacks of bible worship, directing us instead to the one whom the bible proclaims, and from whom we find our identity as God's people: Christ crucified and risen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 2: 12-16

Romans 2: 12-16

This section is an aside, a parenthetical comment between the previous section (chapter 2: 1-11) and the next one (chapter 2: 7-29).

When Paul says later in the letter, “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3: 22-33) he's repeating this section. There is no distinction between the Gentiles who broke the “law written on their hearts” and the Jews who live “under the law” knowing full well what God requires of them. Paul is saying whether you are a Jew or Gentile, you have broken the covenant God made with you.

Paul could be responding to a church fight between Jews and Gentiles. Each of them believing the other has sinned more robustly than they have. Jews were bragging about how well they kept God's Law, the Law of Moses, and the Gentiles were boasting about how free they were, and living how they wanted.

We see this playing out in our churches, especially within the ELCIC. Some folks see themselves as defenders of doctrine, protecting the historic faith (as they define it) that they believe has arrived at our doorstep untarnished by centuries of preaching.

Others see themselves as liberationists, emancipating the bible texts from 2000 years of cultural interpretation, allowing the bible to breath after being constrained so long under the tyranny of authoritarian Christian leaders.

But Paul is saying “You're BOTH wrong. You BOTH sinned. In fact, your fight is sinful. No one is better than the other.”

I hate it when Paul makes this argument. I'd rather be better than the other guy. I'd rather look down my nose at those hurting God's church.

But Paul tells me to take a breath, suck it up, and remember that we are ALL under the same sentence of condemnation.

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 2: 1-11

Romans 2: 1-11

Paul is piling it on thick. It's like he's reveling in his telling the Roman Christians how awful and sinful they are. Not only were they guilty of every sin mentioned in chapter one, but they were also guilty of being judgmental hypocrites!

Paul's condemnation reminds me of the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector found in Luke 18: 9-14:

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

For Paul, the Roman Christians' greatest sin was believing they were less sinful than others. Jesus could have easily summed up chapter 2 when he said, “Judge not, so that you may not be judged” (Matt 7:1).

But this is easier said than done. We like to think we're farther ahead on the righteous path than others. Whether we believe our doctrine is purer than others, or our behaviour more moral, our personal choices more in line with God. We like to think that maybe church-going brings us greater favour from God, that our bible knowledge makes us more spiritual. When we do this Jesus asks why we see the “speck in our neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in our own eye” (Matt 7: 3).

Today I encourage you to ask God where you feel superior to others, and ask the Holy Spirit to bring you greater humility to relate to a fallen world of fellow sinners in need of forgiveness.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Blogging Through Romans: Romans 1: 18-32

Romans 1: 18-32

This is hard text for many people. Myself included. Paul starts in verse 18 talking about God's wrath against certain people. But what people? Who is Paul referring to? All he says is that these people “knew God, they did not honour God as God or gives thanks to him, but became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (vv. 21-23)

Clearly, Paul is talking about idolatry and pagan worship by those who should know better. The consequences of such worship:

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (vv. 24-27).'

There is no consensus as to what this means. Some say that this passage is a clear condemnation of homosexuality. Others say that it's not a simple as we might think. They point out that the presenting issue is idolatry, and that the homosexual behaviour that Paul was talking about was in the context of pagan worship.

Or they might say that Paul equated homosexuality with lust, and that this condemnation doesn't apply to those gays and lesbians who want to get married, since marriage is built on commitment, rather than sexual desire.

Others point to the word “unnatural” in verses 26-27 and point out the other things that Paul calls “unnatural.” In 1 Corinthians 11: 14 – 15 Paul says, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

I don't know many people who would say that long hair on men is “unnatural” or that long hair on women is “to her glory.” Especially when I see so many women in our churches with short hair, and not a few men with long hair.

This leads people to suggest that Paul's notions of sexuality was based on his cultural understanding, not upon scripture. Or else he would have quoted the appropriate Old Testament passage.

And as we proceed down to verses 29-32, we find that we're ALL indicted and deserve punishment. Paul says

“They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”

Who among us CANNOT find ourselves condemned in at least ONE sin on that list? So, Paul concludes this section in tomorrow's reading: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (v. 2: 1).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Background: Who is Paul?

Background* Who is Paul?

Every book on Paul or commentary on his writings begin with this question. And rightly so. While it may seem that we have all we need to understand who Paul was since he wasn't shy about giving out personal information, bible scholars are constantly unearthing new information on Paul and the churches he founded.

So let's begin with who Paul was.

Paul was a Jew. He was always a Jew. He never stopped self-identifying with Judaism. Even after his conversion he stayed a Jew. He believed that Christianity was a branch of Judaism. Paul identifies himself as “an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1) and “...circumcised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred” (Phil 3:5).

Dunn says that we need to read Romans in the full knowledge that Paul still considered himself a Jew. In fact, he suggests that we need to read this book as a debate between the pre-conversation Jewish Paul, and the post-Conversation Jewish Paul. Through Romans, it's as if Paul was arguing with himself as these two Pauls. Paul is fighting with his past.

And Paul fought with other Jews. Even other Jewish Christians. Dunn says, “...for Paul the principle of faith had to be taken more radically relativizing and sidelining such distinctly Jewish practices...not just circumcision, but other 'works of the law' were at odds with faith in Christ, since they effectively added a further requirement as part of the 'package' in gentile acceptance of the gospel.”

In other words, Paul was accused of watering down the faith for numerical success. He was charged with betraying the faith of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel, to win over non-Jews. Without these central Jewish practices, Paul's Judaism ceased being Jewish. It had lost its distinctive flavour. This was no small disagreement.

Paul was a Pharisee: Which, according to Dunn, “must have meant a period of study under a Pharisaic – almost certainly in Jerusalem, since Pharisees were not widely dispersed beyond Judea (so Acts 22:3). The Pharisees were not an undifferentiated group at that time, but a common characteristic seems to have been their 'concern or precision or strictness' in interpretation of the Law...Pharisaic concern and dedication to maintain the law is “zeal” which Paul claimed both for himself, before his conversion (Phil 3:6; also Acts 22:3), and for his fellow Jews...Among his fellow (younger) Pharisees, Paul seems to have been particularly “zealous for the ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:14).”

Paul was a Roman Citizen
: Paul held a “dual citizenship” as a Diaspora Jew (a Jew not living in Jerusalem, Diaspora means “scattering”). This gets Paul out of a jam (Acts 22:25) Since Paul wrote in Greek is it clear that he was highly educated beyond his pharisaical training. Diaspora Jews were immensely proud of their ethnic identity, which they were allowed to maintain even if they were citizens of the Roman empire. His “dual citizenship” is important to bear in mind as we ponder his sense of mission “to Jew first and also to Greek” (Rom 1:14, 16).

Paul was a Missionary
: Following his conversion (Acts 9), his encounter with the risen Christ was as if he had been summoned, appointed, and commissioned by God to take the message of the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Dunn notes that Paul never talks about his encounter with the Risen Christ as his conversion, but of his calling and commissioning.

This is different from how we normally think of Paul's (or anyone's) experience of faith. For Paul, commissioning and conversion were intertwined. We are not converted and THEN sent out in mission. When God calls us its because God has a job for us to do. Jesus didn't say, “Believe this.” Jesus simply said, “Follow me.”

When Did Paul Write this Letter?
No one can really agree on the date this was written. Dunn places it some time in the 50's AD. Other scholars like to try to EXACTLY pinpoint a date, but then again, who really cares whether it was 51 AD or 54 AD?

Folks place the letter in the 50's because of the timeline mentioned in the book. Paul hadn't yet been to Rome and was on his way to Jerusalem (Rom 15:25) from Corinth.

Who Were These Roman Christians?

Many of the Christians who made up the Roman churches were Jews who were captured and taken to Rome, where they were eventually freed. These Jews then built synagogues where they worshipped and received quite a few gentile converts who adhered to Judaism in varying degrees. It was from the synagogues that the first evangelism efforts bore fruit.

There was no single church in Rome. By the time Paul wrote this letter, Christians were too numerous to worship in one place. Also, their organizational structure was one of a loose-knit smattering of gatherings all around the city, functioning independently. Larger gatherings were unwise because they didn't want to attract attention from the Roman authorities. House churches were the norm.

Most of the Christians came from the lower class (free slaves) but a minority came from the well-to-do. Paul assumes a strong bible knowledge in his letter which (Ch. 4 & 7) which suggests that Jewish folks were dominant.

Why did Paul Write this Letter?

Again, Dunn is helpful. He outlines Paul's purpose in writing the letter to the Romans:

Missionary Purpose: He wanted to reach Rome with the gospel.

Apologetic Purpose:
Not in the sense that he was apologizing for his message. But he sought to defend his message against the charges of the other Jewish Christians that he was abandoning the faith. And he was defending himself against those who said he had no authority in the church.

Pastoral Purpose: Some say that the letter was written to ease divisions in the Roman church. Paul was arguing to maintain unity among the Roman Christians, and a call to mutual acceptance (Rom 3:25-26; 4:16; 11:11-32; 15:27).

Others suggest his letter was a summation of teachings that he had learned and wanted to teach to the Roman Christians.

Political Purpose: This is my addition. Paul was writing to Roman “atheists” in that they didn't believe that Caesar was Lord. They believed that Jesus was. Romans, I believe, is a direct confrontation with the very idea of empire. Beginning with the Roman empire. The Roman Christians were a distinct group who were committed to a different message than the state sanctioned one. They were ambassadors of Jesus, not of Caesar. This had tremendous political implications.

*James Dunn's Commentary on Romans was a big help in putting together this intro.

Romans: The Gospel of New Life Introduction

(NB: You may notice similarities with my sermon from today)

“How many people here hate Paul?” my professor asked, beginning his unit on Paul's writings.

About half of the class's hands when up. A larger number than I expected. Although I had come to learn that Paul received mixed reviews from Christians.

“Why do you hate Paul? Give me some reasons,” he said.

“He hates women, demanding that they be silent in church” one person shouted.

“He's a reactionary, blesses right wing politics,” another blasted.

“He's the reason gay people are treated so badly by some Christians,” still another howled.

“He's authoritarian, tells people to be submissive to people in authority, no matter how tyrannical,” yet another yawped.

“He's anti-Semitic, a self-hating Jew who betrayed his faith, causing Christian atrocities against Jews for centuries,” another shrieked.

“He turned Jesus' message of God's kingdom of justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness for the world into a mere transaction between God and the individual. He didn't get what Jesus was all about.”

I could go on. But you get the idea. This was, of course, a more left-leaning crowd. If the class was of a more conservative bent they would find other issues with Paul to complain about:

He's morally lax, they might say. Justification by Faith lets people off the sin hook too easily. He picks and chooses what he likes from the Tradition and discards the rest. He's slippery with the Old Testament, often taking passages out of context to prove a point. He too egalitarian in how he structures his churches, preferring an organic system to a ordered one. He sticks his nose into politics where it doesn't belong.

Paul is an equal opportunity offender.

The problem is, these people are not wrong. Paul CAN be accused of all these things. If you want I can give you chapters and verses where Paul would plead guilty to these charges.

But other problem is that these people are not right, either. Paul is more than these things. And together, as we read Romans, we'll see how Paul's message of New Life and New Creation transcended the individual issues that people lob at his sandals. We'll see that Paul's message has so many layers that we need to look at the whole of this theology to understand what he has to say to us. His theology is greater than the chapters and verses of his writings.

One thing you can say about Paul is that his theology will not fit on a bumper sticker.

Last year when I was in Mexico, I spent a morning reading through Paul's letters. Spending a morning on a Mexican beach with the apostle Paul was an exercise in contradiction. Paul was writing from prison. I was at 5 star hotel with people waiting on me. Paul used every ounce of his physical and mental energy to proclaim the gospel. I was lazing under an umbrella with a drink in my hand. Paul described a different reality than the one the world gave. I was luxuriating in the world's pleasures, suppressing any guilt that tried to emerge.

And as I kept reading, I found Paul's voice unsettling. But in a good way. Being unsettled is not necessarily a bad thing. Especially when Paul is doing the unsettling. Paul understands that we human beings fail in living how God wants us to live. Paul knows that we hurt ourselves and each other. He knows that a life of faith is not one big climb up to the mountain top, but that a life of faith is a series of fits and starts, of climbing and falling, of wounding and being wounded. Paul has no illusions about what resides in the human heart.

Which is why, at the heart of his message is that we come into a right relationship with God not through any good works, proper prayers, moral behaviour, or church going. But we come into a right relationship with God by God's grace through faith. And even that faith is a gift. Because faith comes by hearing God's Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us” as Luther's catechism says.

We don't accept God's grace. We can only receive it. We don't choose to be God's people. God chooses us. We are not in the driver's seat of our salvation. God is.

That means that we don't have to be perfect. That means we have the freedom to live how God wants us to live without fear of failure. Because we WILL fail. And that's okay. Perfection is not the point. Simply being God's child is Paul's gospel point.

If I can sum up Paul's message it would be this: Because of what God has done in Jesus, you are forgiven. You are free. Now live in the forgiveness and freedom that God wants for you.

Maybe we can put Paul on a bumper sticker after all.

Sermon: Romans Series Part 1 (Rom 1: 1-17)

Roman 1: 1-17

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks in today’s gospel. We may have our own answer to that question, but Peter blurts out with a brisk, “You are the Messiah.”

“Good answer,” Jesus seems to say. “Just don’t tell anyone.”

Like most juicy secrets, this one got out. The secret passed from person to person until it landed on the apostle Paul’s desk. It’s almost as if Jesus had asked Paul that same question, and Paul uses the first couple verses of his letter to the Romans to answer it, by way of introducing himself, saying:

“I, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which God promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

That’s quite the beginning to a letter. I certainly don't start my emails like that. It's a bit of a run-on sentence, but it doesn’t leave any doubt about who Paul thinks Jesus is. And it’s a good way to begin our journey together through Romans. Since my first official trek with Paul wasn’t so...(whole thing here)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Romans Daily Reading Schedule

Romans Daily Reading Outline
September – October 2009

September 13 Rom 1: 1-17
September 14 Rom 1: 18-32
September 15 Rom 2: 1-11
September 16 Rom 2: 12-16
September 17 Rom 2: 17-24
September 18 Rom 25-29
September 19 Rom 3: 1-8
September 20 Rom 3: 9-30
September 21 Rom 4: 1-8
September 22 Rom 4: 9-12
September 23 Rom 4: 13-25
September 24 Rom 5: 1-11
September 25 Rom 5: 12-14
September 26 Rom 5: 15-21
September 27 Rom 6: 1-11
September 28 Rom 6: 12-14
September 29 Rom 6: 15-23
September 30 Rom 7: 1-6

October 1 Rom 7: 7-13
October 2 Rom 7: 14-25
October 3 Rom 8: 1- 17
October 4 Rom 8: 18-38
October 5 Rom 9: 1-5
October 6 Rom 9: 6-17
October 7 Rom 9: 19-29
October 8 Rom 9: 30 – 10: 4
October 9 Rom 10: 5-17
October 10 Rom 10: 18-21
October 11 Rom 10: 5-17 (same as October 9)
October 12 Rom 11: 1-10
October 13 Rom 11: 11-24
October 14 Rom 11: 25-36
October 15 Rom 12: 1-8
October 16 Rom 12: 9-21
October 17 Rom 13: 1-7
October 18 Rom 12: 9-21 (same as October 16)
October 19 Rom 13: 8-10
October 20 Rom 13: 11-14
October 21 Rom 14: 1-12
October 22 Rom 14: 13-23
October 23 Rom 15: 1-8
October 24 Rom 15: 7-13
October 25 Rom 13: 1-10 (Sunday Reading)
October 26 Rom 15: 14-23
October 27 Rom 15: 22-30
October 28 Rom 16: 1-16
October 29 Rom 16: 17-23
October 30 Rom 16: 24-27
October 31 Rom 3: 9-30 (re-read in honour Reformation Day)
November 1 Rom 16: 1-27 (a good All Saints reading)

Reading the Bible Together: Romans

In my congregational annual report last February I told my congregation that I wanted 2009 to be a year of learning scripture and our theological tradition. Back in Lent the church read Mark's Gospel together, and I supplied daily reflections.

So, in a similar vein, from September 13 to November 1 the church will be reading Paul's Letter to the Romans together.

I know what you're thinking, “ROMANS!? REALLY!?”


Why Romans? Some reasons:

1. Many people call Romans the heart of the Protestant canon. I think they're right.

2.If I were a bible scholar I'd focus on Paul's letters. And Romans is the crown jewel of the Pauline corpus. We can find everything we love and hate about Paul within these 16 chapters.

3.As a Lutheran, major theological themes are found in Romans: Justification by faith, law and gospel distinction, new creation. It's all there.

4.Some say that the whole of Paul's theology is covered in this book. Romans is like a Pauline survey course.

5.It's a hard book. You need to spend time with it to really get Paul's argument. Proof texting is impossible with Romans (or should be). You can't just find a verse here and there and think you understand what Paul is saying. He stacks his arguments one upon another, until he arrives at a final point. Sometimes this takes numerous chapters to happen. So, Romans is both an intellectual AND spiritual challenge.

6.Romans has been formative in my own understanding of God.

On Sundays we'll be deviating from the lectionary a bit by dropping the first lesson (do we really need to listen to Proverbs?), reading the gospel first, and then the Romans reading I assigned for the Sunday as a third lesson. My sermon will be on the Romans reading.

I invite YOU to join our congregation's Roman journey. Share your thoughts. And grow in the knowledge and love of God through the reading of scripture.

(btw: my wife made this graphic. Cool, eh?)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sermon: Pentecost 14 Year B

“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” writes salty theologian Anne Lamott.

Someone should have told that to Jesus' disciples.

I'm sure that some of Jesus' followers began that day with great comfort in knowing who they were better than. Many of them thought they knew who was on their team and who wasn't. Who they were allowed to talk to and who better not get in their way. For some of them, the world was firmly ordered. Fixed. The furniture was nailed down.

And yes, Jesus pushed the edges of that world, adjusting the furniture.

Yes, he brought those...(whole thing here)