Let every person be subject to the governing authorities;” Paul says, “for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.”
On what planet was Paul living on when he wrote that? “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.,” he says.
Really? Is that so?
Paul should know better. After all, as a Roman citizen he knew what the Roman government was capable of. He was eye-witness to brutal executions. The empire-building on the backs of slaves. He watched as people were forced to worship Caesar. No matter what religion they were.
In Jerusalem, he knew all about Herod's slaughter of 1000s of innocent children. The corrupt, puppet governments. The two-faced, double-dealing leaders.
This passage makes no sense when you think of where Paul came from. Or where any of us come from.
And this passage defies logic when placed along side of the rest of Paul's message. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul rails against the “rulers of this age.” Earlier in Romans, Paul demands that Christians confront the “principalities and powers” of this world. Not to submit to them.
This passage seems shoe-horned into this letter. As if it's not meant to be here. It feels out of place. Like someone put words in Paul's mouth.
In fact, a small group of scholars say that's exactly...(whole thing here)
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Romans 13: 11-14
Paul thought the world was going to end soon. And Christians ever since have followed suit. It seems that every TV preacher likes to say that we’re living in the End Times, that Jesus’ return is going to happen before the next commercial. If we’re not careful, we’re warned that we may be “left behind.”
So, we better watch what we do. We don’t want to be caught sleeping when the Day of Salvation comes.
Every generation seems to believe that it is the last. But now with weapons being kept out of terrorist’s hands by a padlock. With the polar ice caps melting. With droughts every increasing around the world. We (or at least I) fear that this might be the generation that sees the End of All Things.
If that’s true, or even if it isn’t, Paul is saying to be alert to what God is doing. And live as if it is your last day.
Monday, October 19, 2009
October 19 Romans 13: 8-10
I had a friend in university who, although a Christian, had a visceral dislike for poor people, government, Bill Clinton, liberals, and secular music.
When the Ontario Provincial government cut welfare payments by 22% before closing a major psychiatric hospital in Toronto, sending 1000s of people on to the street (literally), because, the government said that they needed to bring down the deficit, this fellow gloated.
“How can you be so gleeful about mentally ill people forced on to the streets? Haven’t you read Matthew 25 where Jesus said that Christians should make helping poor people a priority, or the Old Testament prophets who spoke on behalf of the most socially vulnerable in society?
He responded, “Haven’t you read the part in the bible where it says you should never go into debt?”
I’m assuming he paid cash for his house.
He was thinking of Romans 13: 8 “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves one another has fulfilled the law.”
I think he forgot the second part.
But I found his attitude appalling. He was, in effect, saying that homeless people and the mentally ill should pay off the deficit.
He’s not alone. We tend to think that we shouldn’t be asked to pay for anything if it helps someone other than ourselves. We don’t like love to cost us anything.
But Jesus shows us how much love costs. It cost Jesus his life. Should we expect that we should pay anything less?
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Romans 13: 1-7
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for their is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13: 1)
How could Paul make such a stupidly naive statement? So, God put Hitler in charge of Germany? Stalin in the USSR. Pol Pot in Laos? And the Christian’s duty is to subject themselves to this authority?
What happens to the prophetic voice, advocating on behalf of the powerless? The voiceless? The oppressed?
The Christians in Rome WERE the voiceless, powerless, and oppressed. Which makes Paul’s comment all the more jarring. Either he’s offering practical political advice (keep your heads down, don’t draw attention to yourselves. Just do what you’re doing quietly so as to not arouse the ire of the empire).
OR Paul is recognizing that the Roman empire was doing some good in the world. Yes, they were an oppressive regime. But they also created much needed infrastructure to the areas they conquered.
But is NOT saying to be subservient, but he is saying to participate in the city’s civic life. The prophetic role is not diminished, but then enhanced, as the Christians in Rome play a role in the on-going life of the city.
Christians are not islands, separated from the rest of the community. But rather, to be at the heart of community life.
Some may say that this leads to the domestication of the church. And they may be right. But it would also make our voices heard more clearly when we speak from our unique perspective.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Romans 12: 9-21
Whoever said that faith was reasonable didn't read today's passage from Romans. While we find echoes of this passage in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, chapters 5-7, we tend to throw this sort of message in the back seat. We don't keep it next to us as we navigate our daily encounters with others. In fact, if our Foreign Affairs Minister followed Paul's advice in devising foreign policy, he would be out of a job by lunch time.
I think there is a part of us that doesn’t really care about what Paul was saying. There are times when I’m not terribly interested in following his advice. When I’m more interested in fighting, getting angry, exacting revenge. When I don’t want to live peaceably. When I want justice.
Christians are often know for how we fight rather than how we make peace. But Paul is reminding us we serve a God who reconciles with enemies rather than defeats them.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Romans 12: 1-8
We often hear this passage as a stand-alone exhortation on Christian moral behaviour. But I think this section is a response to the last. The word “therefore” is a giveaway.
It looks as if Paul is saying, “ALL of Israel will be saved. Those pesky Jewish folks who don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah will find their way into covenant with God. So don’t think you’re any better than them. You are one body. Dead in sin. Alive with Christ. You just have various roles to play according to your gifts. One gift is not any better or worse than another. So live your gifts in unity with each other - Jew and Gentile.”
Despite Paul’s best intentions, we tend to see some gifts as better than others. We’ve elevated the preaching office above all others, where Paul sees it as one gift among many.
We (rightly) celebrate at ordinations. But I wonder if we should similarly celebrate at other occasions as well. A lesson well taught. A bathroom expertly cleaned. Numbers deftly crunched. Every gift that comes from God is to God’s glory. I think Paul is asking us to remember that each of us plays a pivotal role in God’s enduring mission.
Romans 11: 25-36
Here Paul concludes, albeit a little condescendingly, that, yes, ALL of Israel will be saved. And God is only saving Israel because “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (v. 29). Irrevocable for US and for GOD. Paul seems to suggest that God saves Israel grudgingly, but only after all the Gentiles find their way into covenant with God (v. 28). But I wonder if his choice of words are more his own discomfort with God saving his fellow Jews without Christ, than in God’s dutibound conscience.
Don’t you hate it when God chooses someone that you wished God didn’t. You may have seen on CNN the Baptist preacher in Arizona who preached sermon a called “Why I HATE Barack Obama.” where he says “he prays everyday that Barack Obama will die and go to Hell.”
Nice, eh? But Paul’s response would be, Pray all you want. God chooses who God chooses. And God NEVER breaks a covenant.
God’s grace is the great leveler. We’re ALL in the same boat when it comes to sin and grace. When God establishes a covenant with us, that covenant will remain solid. No matter what we do to try and break it.
But after Paul’s embittered concession that God hasn’t rejected Israel Paul breaks into a stirring doxology that reminds his readers that we mortals cannot understand God’s thinking. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Romans 11: 11-24
“...remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root supports you” (v.18b)
In the early church there was a movement to expunge the Old Testament from the bible. The reasoning was that the older covenants no longer applied, and that God has moved divine favour from the Jews to the Gentiles, since the official Jewish establishment didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
Later, in history, many church folks tried to take Jesus’ Jewishness from him. They tried to prove that Jesus wasn’t really Jewish, even though the gospels are pretty clear that he was.
It looks like some Gentile Christians in Rome were trying to do the same thing. Paul was responding to a group of snooty Gentiles who looked down their noses at Jewish non-Christians.
Paul was having none of it. In this passage, he is saying, “If you’re a Christian, thank a Jew. You cannot understand Christianity without understanding Judaism. The Jews were the first ones God had chosen to be lights to the world.”
Since the beginning, Christians and Jews have had an uneasy relationship. We Christians often find it unsettling that Jews don’t recognize Jesus as a Messiah, and I wonder, if deep down, we worry that the Jews know something we don’t know.
But, Paul then reminds us that there is no distinction, in God’s eyes, between Jew and Gentile. We are sisters and brothers of Abraham. The Jews simply were first. And Jesus was the way we Gentiles were brought into covenant with God.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Romans 10: 5-17
What will the church of the future look like?
Will churches resemble what we have now? Will churches have pews and pastors, committees and councils, hymns and hierarchies?
Will leaders be trained in seminaries? Will there be a clergy/lay divide? Will we have buildings?
Probably “yes” to all these things. Some churches will hold on the current ways of being and doing church. Why fix what isn't broken? After all, it's worked for hundreds of years. If God didn't want the church to run this way why would God have established it like this? Right?
But also a big “NO.” I think God is doing something among mainline churches, those United, Presbyterian, United, and Anglican, churches that have some roots in the Reformation.
It's hard to say exactly what God is doing. But something is happening. There must be something that God is telling us as God has...(whole thing here)
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Romans 10: 18-21
Here Paul jumps back in his hole, getting his fellow Jews mad at him. Paul is saying that all Jews need to do is look at their bibles and they’ll know who Jesus is. They have heard the faith that he talks about in the previous section.
Paul is trying to open the doors to all gentiles while slamming it in the faces of his fellow Jews.
At least that’s the way it looks in the surface. If you read further, you’ll see that Paul is setting his readers up for another expression of grace in chapter 11.
This is why we can’t read scripture simply by pulling out a verse here and there. Especially not in Paul’s writings. Paul has a way of writing that makes you think he’s saying one thing, then pull the rug out from under the reader. It’s a specific rhetorical strategy that he uses to reinforce the power of his argument.
That’s why we shouldn’t doze off while listening to him. And it’s also why he’s been so badly misunderstood by some people.
Friday, October 09, 2009
Romans 10: 5-17
You may have heard about the “Romans Road” method of evangelism, where the would-be evangelist takes the unbeliever through scattered verses in Romans and ends up on 10:9: “...if you believe in your heart and confess with your lips that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.”
Makes it easy. Salvation just means confessing and believing. All you need are the right tools.
The problem is, this method puts the onus on the non-believer, not with God. This popular verse of scripture ignores the work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation event. And that confessing and believing means that “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 13).
After Paul talks about confessing and believing as the mode of salvation in verses 9-13, he then asks:
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”
I don’t think this passage is a call to evangelism, even though we use it that way. In fact, this was my ordination text. I read it as a summons to proclaim the good news as my life’s work.
But now I think Paul is speaking rhetorically. He ends this section with another popular verse (especially among Lutherans, since this was one of Luther’s favorite bible passages), “So, faith comes from what it heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”
So, faith isn’t something we can argue people into. Faith always comes from outside ourselves. Faith comes from hearing and receiving God’s Word, which is Jesus Christ.
Paul is saying that we can't debate people into faith, we can’t prove the validity of faith scientifically, and we can’t use our best sales tactics to bring people to faith. This also means that our programs, gimmicks, tools, and methods, may bring people into church, but they don’t bring people into faith.
“Faith comes by hearing,” Paul says, “and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”
Our job is to tell people about Jesus. It’s God’s job to do the rest. I don’t know about you but that lifts a HUGE burden off my shoulders!
Thursday, October 08, 2009
Romans 9: 30-10:4
Paul digs the hole deeper. He calls his fellow Jews “ignorant” and “unenlightened” for not having faith in Jesus. Paul confesses a desire that they be saved, but he seems to suggest that chasing after works of the Law as a means to righteousness is, in fact, a form of faithlessness.
Which, in a sense it is. After all, if they’re pursuing righteousness through obedience to the Law, they are saying that it isn’t faith that makes them righteous, but obeying the Law does.
But also, Paul also seems to be saying that such an act of faithlessness is worse than other forms of faithlessness. Either the Jews have been chosen or they have NOT been chosen. If faith is a gift then the people of Israel can’t be faulted for not having that gift.
Christ may be “the end of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4) but does that also mean that obedience to the Law is sinful? I’m not saying that we SHOULD be under the Law, but Paul does seem to suggest that the Jewish Christians are “unrighteous” because of their insistence on obeying the Law’s demands.
Paul seems to be needlessly creating an Us vs Them attitude toward Jewish non-Christians. This is why Jews today see Paul as anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. They counter Paul by saying that the Law was never meant to make them righteous. They aren’t in obedience to the Law so they can be in a good relationship with God. They obey the Law because it is a gift from God to establish them as a unique people, beloved by God. The Law gives them stability and identity, not righteousness.
They might even agree with Paul when he says that the Law does not justify. That’s not the Law’s job. But they would disagree with Paul when he says that the Law condemns. They say the Law gives them life.
Paul may have been responding to a specific fight in the church between Jewish Christians and their gentile brothers and sisters. But we’ve universalized this fight, and in doing so, misrepresented what Jewish people believe today about the Law.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Romans 9: 19-29
This is where Paul gets into trouble with some of his Jewish friends. A big part of his theology is that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. And now Paul is saying that, because many of his fellow Jews haven’t recognized Jesus as Messiah, God is going to cut them loose.
At least that’s what it sounds like he’s saying. And a lot of Christians decided that Jews were fair game for aggressive evangelism because of this passage.
Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not my beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
God is opening the doors to all people. God’s Messiah will be for all people. First for the Jew, then for the gentile.
It doesn’t make sense to say, on one hand, that God chooses an elect, then on the other hand, God rejects them because they don’t have the proper faith. If God chooses then God chooses.
I think Paul is having an argument with his earlier self about how Jesus fits into Jewish thinking and believing. But even more than that, Paul is arguing with some Jewish Christians who don’t want gentiles in their fellowship.
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Clearly, I'm not the target audience for this book. I don't find the idea of diversity controversial. In fact, I find it astonishing that the notion of “diversity” is even under discussion. Especially to the point where Matthew Raley needs to guide an anxious reader through it.
I'll save you the twenty bucks. The book can be summed up thusly: people are more than the boxes we put them in or categories we create. So, throw away your stereotypes and prejudices and love people like Jesus did (does).
Stop the presses.
While Raley tries his darndest to assure the reader that the “diversity culture” isn't really as bad or scary as they might think, I couldn't help but think as I was reading, “The problem isn't 'diversity'! The problem is the culture of compliance that is your primary audience! The problem isn't this 'emerging' culture. The problem is that some Christians confuse cultural and political power with God's power!”
According to the book jacket, “A new culture has emerged. It preaches spiritual openness, moral flexibility, and social diversity – and its making evangelicals feel uncomfortable. Threatened. Excluded.”
What “new culture” is he talking about? The “diversity culture” may be “new” to some evangelicals who've secluded themselves in the suburbs for the last half century. But for anyone who's been paying attention since the 1960's will note that diversity is not “new.” Nor is it an ideology to resist or to be guided through. It's a present reality due to the fact that self-expression is the cornerstone of what it means to live in the 21st century western world.
Raley means well. But I wonder if this book should have been written 40 years ago. The fact that this book apparently needed to be written tells me that there's a problem within some evangelical/conservative/red state thinking.
If they're feeling “threatened” they need to ask themselves WHAT is being threatened. Is it loss of privilege? Trouble finding their place in a changing world they had no hand in creating? The loss of safety in the majority? The disappearance of a past that never really existed?
I don't know if I'm encouraged or saddened by the fact that they're just figuring out now that we don't live in a binary universe, that traditional rural values do not equal historic faith, that Christ's mission is not to create a “Christian culture” but a New Creation, that our job as Christians is to love people without an agenda.
If any of the above is news to you, then you might find Raley's book helpful. Even challenging. But those who've had their eyes open for the past four decades might want to take a pass on this one.
NB: This review is part of my Viral Blogging obligation.
Romans 9: 6-17
“I have loved Jacob. But I have hated Esau.”
I like to make fun of my Presbyterian friends because of what church reformer John Calvin made of this and similar passages. Calvin (who’s writings influenced the Presbyterian Church) talked about “Double Predestination” which means that God decided before the world began who was destined for eternal bliss in heaven, and who better load up on cosmic aloe vera. He, like Paul, called folks headed for heaven, the “elect.” The people destined for Hell, Calvin called “reprobate,” Nice, eh?
But I think Calvin made too much out of this passage. I think Paul was merely reiterating what he said earlier that we are not in control of our being righteous before God, that it’s because of faith that God declares us righteous.
“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” God says, “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
In other words, God decides who God will choose to be righteous.
But does this just send us back to God deciding who sleeps under the divine palm tree and who ends up roasting in the eternal bonfire?
Not necessarily. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall says that God doesn’t choose people for salvation, but for vocation. Just as God chose the people of Israel to be a “Light to the Nations” God chooses us as Christians to be the “Light of the World.”
You have been baptized, named, claimed, and chosen by God to shine with God’s holy light. As Jesus says, “Light your light so shine before others, so they may see your good works and glorify your God, who is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16).
And when God’s New Creation finally comes in it’s fullness, the dead shall rise, and everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
Monday, October 05, 2009
"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
We know that, do we? That's something we can ALL agree on, is it?
We know that all things work together for good or those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose.”
There are days when I don't like this verse. Not because I don't think it's true. But the days I don't like this verse are the days when, it's misused, when I hear it as a cop-out, a way of protecting our beliefs against the mystery of suffering. When its used to push aside or even dismiss other peoples' pain from someone who's uncomfortable with strong feelings. When it's used as an easy answer to life's hardest question.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose.”
If only it were that easy. If only we could always trust that it were true. If only those words worked like a magic formula when pain arrives at our front door.
But there are days when it's hard to make sense of what Paul is saying.
When staring at the...(whole text here)
Romans 9: 1-5
Clearly, Paul’s new Christian vocation is rubbing hard against his Jewishness. He knows something has changed. Either he has changed or his fellow Jews have. Paul evidently still feels deep kinship towards his fellow Jews, even to the point that he wishes “that I myself have been accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
But, of course, he can’t. Paul spends a good amount of time in the chapters leading up to this demonstrating how he is bound to Christ. Christ’s Church is now his family, whether he likes it or not. Jesus put him where he is. And even if Paul wanted to go back to his earlier life, he couldn’t. Saul is dead. Paul is alive.
I can relate to Paul. I know what Paul is feeling. Often, when I spend time with non-Christian friends from home, I feel a sense of loss. Sometimes I think that the “old” Kevin has been lost, and the “new” Kevin is a diminished version of the old. I remember the excitement of questioning, or exploring new ideas about who God is, the challenge of being confronted with the God of the bible.
But I can’t go back. God has changed me and is changing me. I came to realize that “new” doesn’t mean “diminished.”
The same is for you. God is busy transforming you into a new person. That means that the old has passed away. It often means saying good-bye to an old life, an old, comfortable way of looking at the world and relating to others.
But God didn’t say that being a new creation would be easy. The best description Paul could come up with was child birth. And anyone who’s been in a delivery room while a baby is being born will tell you that bear new life is not pretty or pain-free. But out of that suffering, a new life emerges.
How is God changing you? Do you see evidence of transformation? What do you miss about your “old” life? What would you like God to change in your life?
Saturday, October 03, 2009
Romans 8: 1-17
Here Paul’s Greek education is rearing its ugly head. Not that his Greek education was bad, but that it moved him away from his Hebrew roots.
The Hebrews believed that God was present on earth, in people, plants, animals, things. The Greek believed that the earth was evil and that heaven was good. They made a distinction between the “spirit” which was good. And the “flesh” which was bad.
Sound familiar? It sounds like Paul was reading Plato rather than Moses when he wrote this chapter. He talks about the spirit as “life” and the Flesh as “death.”
This is called dualism. And it’s VERY common in popular spiritualities. Cruise the spirituality sections of the bookstore and there’s a plethora of books dedicated to helping us transcend our bodies and commune with God in the spiritual realm.
But God was more interested in how reaching us on earth then in getting us to heaven. We pray “Thy Kingdom come ON EARTH as it is in heaven” rather than praying for US to go UP to God. God comes down. The fullness of God and heaven was/is present in Jesus - the Word made Flesh.
But if you notice, when Paul says “You are not in the flesh; you are in the spirit” he’s not talking literally. He’s saying that God has renewed you because the same Spirit that brought Jesus back from the dead is inside you as well. So go and live your resurrection life!
Friday, October 02, 2009
Romans 7: 14-25
In the book (and movie) Lord of the Rings, the character Gollum struggles with both the good and evil living inside him. The good side of him wants to obey his master, Frodo, but that evil part wants to murder his master and his friend. There’s a scene where Gollum struggles with both sides of his nature, fighting until one side vanishes.
I think we too, struggle with the good in us - the part made new and which loves God. And the evil, selfish part that that just won't go away.
Paul is under no illusion that we human beings become perfect and pure after coming to faith in Jesus. He knows the evil we’re capable of. He sees within himself (and us) a war between those two natures, fighting for dominance.
Luther called this simul iustis et peccator. Badly translated, simultaneously saint and sinner. Both Paul and Luther knew that the Christian life was NOT one upward climb until we reached perfect holiness.
They knew that we will always fight with our sinful selves, until that day when God will make the whole world new, and finish what God started when Jesus burst from the tomb, the firstborn of the new creation.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Romans 7: 7-13
On the surface, he’s talking about the Law of Moses, Jewish Law. But underneath all that he’s talking about all those unnecessary demands that we heap on people.
Lutheran theology talks about three uses of the Law. Actually two, the third being rejected by the ELCIC and for good reason.
The 1st use is – and I LOVE this term: Civic Righteousness. Even the heathen can do this, Luther says. This is good governance, making sure the street lights work, garbage is collected, and your neighbour can't steal your car. This is civil law. It's what we need to make sure we're not overrun by chaos.
The 2nd use is called the Theological Use: This is what Paul is talking about in today's passage when he says that “No human being will be justified in God’s sight” by deeds of the Law for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” That’s his way of saying that the only thing the Law can do is condemn us. That’s the Law’s job. The Law is to rub our noses in our sin, to drive us to the cross for mercy and forgiveness. Paul is saying that the more we try to obey the law, the more we fall into sin.
So, stop trying. He says. And stop making others live by the law. You have been set free from the Law. Now, live by the grace and forgiveness that God has given you as a gift. God is transforming you from the inside out. No longer do you have to worry that you fail, or if there’s sin in your life. Jesus took you sin, your failure, even your death with him to the grave and rose again in victory.