Friday, December 7, 2007

Romans 11

Romans 11:1-10: Paul has noted that his fellow Jews have not been responding to the good news about Jesus Christ that they have heard. So has God rejected God’s people? In a phrase that Paul has used often in this letter, “By no means!” Paul uses his own case as a reason to reject the thought that God has turned against the Jews. Paul identifies himself as an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. If he has experienced God’s grace then it cannot be true that God has rejected all God’s people. Paul also cites the story of Elijah who thought that there we no longer any faithful Jews but was assured by God that in spite of what Elijah saw, there were persons who would remain faithful. The work of God’s grace continues, sometimes under our human radar.

Romans 11:11-24: Paul’s speaking about a remnant who have been the special object of God’s attention leads one to ask, Is it over of the rest of the Jews? “Have they stumbled so as to fall?” By no means. Whatever their shortcomings, Paul has not given up on them, nor has God. In Paul’s theology, the reticence of those of Jewish faith to renew that faith through the message about Jesus has created an opening for Gentiles to come into a new relationship with God. Somehow God has this worked out. When the Jewish people come on board, whatever that may mean, imagine how great that will be. Whatever one makes of Paul’s more specific claim here, the central points he wants to make have to do with the inclusion of Gentiles in righteousness, and an encouragement not to be too quick to judge those who have not yet come to faith in Jesus – trusting their lives to God.

Paul warns the Gentile Christians in the community not to become boastful or proud, not arrogant as against their Jewish sisters and brothers in the faith. This concern for the concrete relationships between these two groups of people permeates this letter. He encourages those who have become a part of the people of God in Jesus to continue in the kindness of God.

Verse 24 expresses Paul’s deepest hope, even assurance, that God is not yet finished with the Jewish people, who are, in Paul’s view, by nature God’s people.

Romans 11:25-36: Paul reiterates that the wonderful mystery of God’s grace is that while some Jews have not embraced righteousness by faith in Jesus, this has allowed Gentiles to become part of God’s people. Even so, “all Israel will be saved.” Paul asserts that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. God will remain faithful to God’s promises. Does this mean all Jews will eventually come to Jesus? Some might argue for this, but I think Paul leaves this intentionally vague. God’s care for all God’s people is the deepest mystery and we ought to be careful about claiming certainty about the direction of God’s grace. God desires to be merciful to all (verse 32).

The end result of these chapters (9-11) is doxological. Paul concludes in awe, wonder and worship over the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” Finally, not even our best theological thinking can capture all the ways of God or the depths of God’s love. As Paul does, we should give our faith our best thought, but also acknowledge with humility the limits of our thinking. We should never be too quick to appeal to “mystery,” but neither should we shy away from the fact that we often stand in awe before the mystery of the world and of God. At the heart of that mystery is a God working to bring reconciliation and well-being to the world.

Romans 12

Romans 12:1-8: When the Rev. Sally Dyck became the United Methodist bishop of Minnesota, she was asked to address the clergy at retreats whose purpose was to foster and encourage pastoral excellence. Everyone wanted to know how this new bishop would define “pastoral excellence.” Bishop Dyck acknowledged the challenge of the concept, but encouraged the clergy to read Romans 12 everyday. In it there was something about “pastoral excellence.” She encouraged us to read it in Eugene Peterson’s version The Message. I will use some of this in the comments below.

This is an incredible chapter. In many chapters of this letter, Paul’s thinking has been difficult, obscure, addressing issues seemingly far removed from the church of the twenty-first century. Now to be sure there are more connections, even in the most difficult chapters, to our lives and churches than we might initially imagine, but here the connections are more evident, fresh, compelling. At 12:1 the content and tone of the letter shift dramatically: from struggling with profound theological issues to practical instruction on life together in the Christian community. Yet one cannot make a neat distinction between Paul’s theology and his ethics, as though the one were mere theory but the other is commonsense practice. In Christian ethics, nothing is so practical as good theory…. We are thinking beings, and action without thought, even if it is right, cannot finally satisfy. (People’s New Testament Commentary). As someone trained in Christian ethics, I can only say, “amen.”

Paul begins with a significant “therefore.” Just immediately preceding this “therefore” is the doxological passage at the end of chapter 11 wherein Paul extols the mystery and wonder of God’s grace and love. In some ways the entirety of chapters 1-11 are devoted to thinking theologically about God’s love in the face of evidence of human harm, violence, self-righteousness, the mistakes found within religious traditions, and the challenges of bringing Gentiles and Jews together into community. Paul argues that the darkness around us is deep and affects each of us. He also argues, especially in chapter 8, that God’s powerful love is also at work in the world. Now on to chapter 12 with its “therefore.”

Paul proclaims with a pervasive intensity the necessity for, and the vital characteristics of, love in the Christian community. This therefore, then, introduces specific and valuable direction for us and for our churches in this efficient, alienated, and lonely twentieth century. We live in an age desperately in need of the kind of love that this letter describes – that is, a love founded in, and expressive of, glad Hilarity. However, such love cannot be created out of our own resources. We must be connected to life-changing experiences of God’s love, of the power available when faith frees us from legalism, and of God’s immense faithfulness toward his people. (Marva Dawn, Truly the Community: Romans 12 and how to be the church, 7)

Verses 1 and 2 invite us to give ourselves over to the transforming love and power of God, so that we are formed in that love rather than conformed to the world. Eugene Peterson renders these verses in an illuminating and beautiful way. So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. WOW!

As we do this, we are also not to think of ourselves in inflated terms. I recall the definition of humility offered by Robert Emmons. Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating them nor underestimating them. To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself. (The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171) We are invited to be humble in this sense, assessing our strengths and weaknesses in faith. Not only that, but we ought to think of ourselves in relationship to each other. The Christian community of faith is like a body. We belong to each other and have different gifts that should all be celebrated and used for the common good – gifts such as proclamation, ministering, teaching, encouraging, generosity, leading, compassion, cheerfulness (the Greek word is the root of our word, “hilarity” implying a joyousness in the Christian life that is too often neglected).

I think the body image is very important in our day, when “church shopping” has become a common metaphor for how we live together in church. Let me begin by saying that for too long the church often took for granted the needs and hopes of its people. We expected people to be there in church regardless of how poorly prepared an event might be or how low the quality of an event might be. On the other hand, the church is about transformation, including the transformation of our desires and wants. To ask only about what we “want” in a church, though a necessary question, should not be the only question we ask. We may also need to ask what we need. And when we are dissatisfied with some element in the life of a church we should be reticent to leave quickly or easily. Sometimes leaving one church community for another is necessary. But it should not be like changing brands of toothpaste (the church shopping metaphor), it should be more like an amputation (Paul’s body metaphor).

Romans 12:9-21: Paul’s encouragement for the Christian life and for the Christian life together in community continues. “Let love be genuine.” Peterson: “Love from the center of who you are.” Much of what is written here needs little comment. We would do well to read this over and over again, letting the words permeate the center of our being and letting our actions flow from that center. Listen: love, show mutual affection, pray, rejoice, be hopeful, be patient, help others, show hospitality even to strangers, bless others – even if they persecute you, live in harmony, be humble, live peaceably with all. It ends with powerful words reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” The burning coals image may actually be an image of repentance – your actions may invite the enemy to a changed life. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Remember the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Remember the words of the theologian Pelagius: “The enemy has overcome you when he makes you like himself.” Remember the words of the Buddha: “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” Remember the words of Booker T. Washington: “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.” Remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.”

Listen. Let the words sink deeply into your heart, mind, soul. These words are ways God’s Spirit gets inside of us. Listen. Listen. Listen – then live.

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