Thursday, July 25, 2013

Through the Bible: Week 49, Romans - part 8

Romans 5:1-11

            I still remember the celebration and solidarity that the 1971 Super Bowl Chiefs brought to the tense city of Kansas City.  The heroes were white and black, native born and immigrants.  Our civic and racial divisions were (momentarily) reconciled in the common celebration of a victorious team who belonged and reflected us all.
            The subtext of Paul’s argument is that God has demonstrated his love by reconciling all of humanity through the death and resurrection of the Messiah, his son.  The church, in its common life, is to model the kind of relations God wishes for the world. The church is made up of people who are exchanging identities rooted in native land, blood and ideology for an identity shaped and informed by the victory of God in Jesus. We are united by the celebration of Jesus’ victory for us. Three times Paul states the basis of our celebration or rejoicing (cf. boasting – 2:17, 23, 3:27):  
1.      We rejoice in hope of future glory – our true end (v.2)
2.      We rejoice in the reality of present suffering – our normal means (v.3)
3.      We rejoice in God’s past victory of reconciliation in Jesus (v. 6-11)
This comprehensive celebration, if practiced continually and with understanding, will encourage the Church to experience the new humanity that God is creating around Jesus.  Let’s consider how that can be.

5: 1-2
Instead of boasting in our heritage (Jewish, Greek, etc. - Paul’s argument in chs. 2-4), we are invited to boast rather in God’s accomplishment in Jesus.  We have access to a peace that his death makes possible.  We now stand in grace – an environment of costly and unmerited love.  The imagery is possibly of the temple, where a worshipper is invited into the presence of God through the atoning sacrifice of his offering.  The presence of God in the temple portends a future life of unbroken connection and pleasure in God.

Our present and difficult experiences in life might make such a celebration short-lived.  So what do we do?  Paul places them in the context of our guaranteed future – our unbroken fellowship and connection with God – as an essential preparatory experience.  We need the testing of suffering to strengthen our character and hope for the wait is often long and arduous. But God’s love in our hearts reassures us that we are part of God’s future, new people.

The validation of God’s love is not merely experiential; it is historical and rare.  A person might die for a good person but Jesus died for us when were sinners – separated and separating from God.  And if his death reconciled us to God how much more will his life in us prepare us for the future.  The contemplation of this should lead us to rejoice in God.

Through the Bible: Week 48, Romans - part 7


 Abraham: The Paradigm of Faith
Chapter 4

Why does Paul spend a whole chapter on Abraham as the father of faith?  Why is he the model Paul holds up for us?  William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, gives us a clue when he indicates that we tend not to see anything clearly until we see it in exaggerated form.  This was the reason Flannery O’Connor gave for peopling her stories with violent, grotesque misfits.  She explained, if you wish to communicate to those who are hard of hearing and seeing you must shout and use big gestures.  When the bible establishes a paradigm such as Abraham, the contrasts seem exaggerated. 
            Paul also employs the example of Abraham because he warrants Paul’s primary argument: people are included into God’s family by faith!  Faith is the sole criteria of membership. The people of God cannot require of others what was not required of the founder of their religion.  The boundary markers of works, circumcision and the law are important for Jewish self-identification in a pagan world but they are not essential aspects to one’s relationship to God.  Abraham had none of these things when first trusted God.  He demonstrated a faith that was not law-related or church-related.  What does God really want from us?  Not primarily obedience to a law or performance of a ritual.  Abram believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:3 & Gen. 15:6).  Abraham walked and talked with God – and in that we see the essence of his relation with God.  A faith relation marked by interpersonal intimacy and trust is what God expects.  It is this kind of faith that Paul contrast with Jewish 2nd Temple piety – a piety absorbed with works, circumcision and law.  How does the Abrahamic paradigm of faith measure up to these standards:
If religious works (vv2-8) is the basis of Abraham’s acceptance before God then he can boast.  But this is not how Abraham was accepted.  Abraham’s acceptance was not merited; it was a gift.  Abraham’s acceptance into the divine family came by way of forgiveness not the works of the law (contrast Ps 32 with Ps 1). 
Like works, Abraham’s acceptance preceded his circumcision (vv 9-12) therefore circumcision could not have been a condition of that acceptance.  The only condition for Abraham (and by extension for us) is that of faith. Circumcision is the outward validation of a prior and internal relation. 
The promise (vv13-15) of world redemption – for the goal of faith was never merely private – was predicated on the right relationship that comes from trust (cf. 1:17). 
This is why it depends on faith.  God’s purpose is universal and requires a means that is open to all peoples.  Faith puts the promise into reach of all – and makes Abraham “the father of many nations” (vv16-17).
Great Reversal (vv18-25)
Abraham’s faith recapitulated the sin of the first human beings – and all their children (1:18-25).  Abraham’s faith led him to trust God, even against all odds.  Such a radical trust resulted in a deepened faith and worship of God as had not been known since the garden.   

Through the Bible: Week 47, Romans - Part 6

Boasting: Part Two

What is the appropriate response to make as Americans on Veterans Day?  Is it seemly to brag about our nationality – as if we deserved the freedoms that were purchased by others?  What’s the place of boasting in community created and sustained by grace?

In the first part of the chapter Paul argues for the culpability of all people – Jew and Gentile – before God.  No one keeps God’s law.  If people are to be rightly related to God and one another there will have to be another way of doing so.  Paul makes this case for a very important reason.  Just as he addressed the inimical effects of judgment (pretending others are worse than we are) in our community he warns of an equal and opposite danger.  Boasting (pretending we are better than others) will likewise divide and destroy the new family that God has created.    Verses 1-20 demonstrate that we are all guilty of breaking God’s law; even Jews who have been entrusted with law (v.2) are not anymore faithful than our Gentiles. 

However, God remains faithful to his covenant with Abraham (v.4).  Through his son Jesus, God finds a faithful representative of Israel to complete the human side of the covenant.  It is Jesus’ radical faithfulness to God (v22), even to the point of a sacrificial death that becomes the basis for us being put right.  It is also another reason, when properly understood, that there is no room for boasting in the church (v27).  In a community created by the sacrifice of another where is there room for boasting? 

Just as God had called forth Abraham to undo the problem of Adam, God now has put forth Jesus, his Son, to finish the work started by Abraham to restore the glory of God to humans (v23).  The ancient covenant, marked by the blood of bulls and goats (Lev. 16:14-15), reaches its climax in the death of Jesus.  How does this death complete what was started so long ago?  How is the faithlessness of Jew and Gentile recompensed by Jesus’ ultimate act of faithfulness? 

First, God finds the guilty “justified” through an alien righteousness.  The man Jesus represents all of us on the cross.  Jesus has suffered the effects of our disobedience to God.  The alienation of sin was conquered through an act of atonement.  We are now part of the covenant people of God through Jesus’ faithfulness. 

Second, the “sacrifice of atonement” refers to the mercy seat in the Temple where the priest placed the blood of sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16).  Scholars suggest that Paul is alluding to a biblical concept of representative suffering, like that of the Maccabean martyrs (4 Macc. 6:28-29) and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isa. 52:13-53:12).

So Paul has condensed, in typical manner, three trains of thought: (1) God’s righteousness is revealed in God’s giving of Jesus as the faithful Israelite; (2) that Jesus’ faithfulness was unto death, not unlike the Maccabean martyrs or better yet the suffering servant; and (3) Jesus’ self-giving is an act of God whereby sin is judged and mercy is offered simultaneously.

Through the Bible: Week 46 - Romans, part 5

Judgment and Vocation
Romans 2

            Following the catalog of sins in Chapter one, Paul anticipates our proclivity toward judgment.  We are not like the honest pagan, who after being shown the 10 commandments for the first time, ruefully admitted “Well at least I haven’t killed anyone.”  If you are like me, you have a keener ability to detect sin in others than in yourself.  Paul is cautioning us about doing so.  He gives several reasons why judgement is bad for us.

(1)    It is often a case of projection (vv. 1-3).  We often condemn people whose sin is most like our own.  David condemnation of the fictitious character in Nathan’s parable is a case in point (cf. 2 Samuel 12).  Beware of what you rail against; it will betray you – “for in passing judgment you condemn yourself.”

(2)    We misread God’s forbearance.  God is patient so that all of us might return to him.  This patience is as much for us as it is for others (v.5).  God shows no partiality so that judgment and mercy should be expected based on responsiveness to the divine will (vv. 9-11). 

(3)    The advantage of having the law is no advantage if one does not obey it; God reads hearts as they are expressed in behavior (vv. 15-16). 

(4)    Our advantages due to birth do not translate into spiritual advantage (vv. 17-24).  Some people are born on third base and believe they have hit a triple.  But Paul isn’t buying it.  He knows religious heritage has no advantage apart from a renewed heart. 

(5)    Thus, Paul argues, echoing the prophets (Ezekiel 36:26, Jeremiah 31:31) a Judaism of the heart (vv.25-29).

So why is Judgment destructive to the church?

(1)    It usually precludes inner reflection and reformation.  We are too busy comparing ourselves to those who make us look good.  But others are not our standard.

(2)    It is highly selective and tends to undervalue the advantages we have been given.

(3)    We don’t know how hard someone fought against sin before succumbing to it.  Beside it focuses on the problem rather than the solution.  This is wasted energy. Paul prefers a redemption attitude that yields reformation and renewal of life. 

Through the Bible: Week 45 - Romans, part 4

Becoming What We Worship
Romans 1: 18-32

Verse 18 & 32 form bookends around this section of Paul’s argument: God’s displeasure is revealed – ultimately in death – against our tendency to distort God (ungodliness) and thereby one another who are created in God’s image (unrighteousness).  The theme of this passage is that when we displace God (in false worship) we distort ourselves (those who are made in God’s image) in unrighteous living.  When the center goes everything else goes.  God lets it happen (“God gave them up” vv.24, 26, 28) not merely as judgment but also as mercy. 

 Ungodliness – translates asebia which literally means “no worship.”  Ungodliness is the posture of finding one’s center is something or someone other than God.  This false center distorts one’s own perspective and values so that it inevitably leads to false living.

Unrighteousness – translates adikia which means “no justice.”  This is a person who lives as if their own desires and expectations are the standards for all.  It is a false measure based on a false center. 

Unrighteousness is the result of ungodliness.  Their relation is cause to effect.  And the effect is that we distort the cause – “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  What truth is it that our unjust lives suppress?  We suppress the truth of God’s nature which is revealed in the world around us – especially the world of interpersonal relationships.  We suppress the truth that relationships are whole to the degree that they are grounded in God.  And we suppress the truth about how our relations are restored through the “obedience of faith.”

Paul then demonstrates how these effect one another, by “giving us up” to the false centers we construct and give ourselves to.

                        Ungodliness/Cause                             Unrighteousness/Effect
(1)  Lusts of their hearts (v.24)
(1)  To dishonor their bodies (v.24)
(2)  Dishonorable passions (v.26)
(2)  To exchange natural relations (v.26)
(3)  Debased mind (v. 28)
(3)  Filled all manner of unrighteousness

A lot of these unrighteous acts are in the realm of sexual behavior.  Why is that?  I wonder if this is not analogous to our relationship with God?  When we distort God’s image we invariably distort the divine image in us.  If the dominant motif underlying Paul’s argument is the Garden of Eden, then we must recall that the image of God in the garden is defined in terms of male and female relationships.  The divine image in them is constituted by their complimentary and differentiated relation.  The first distortion after their distrust and distortion of God was to practice the same suspicion against one another.  Paul is making explicit in Romans one what is implicit in Genesis three:  Exchange Gods and you will exchange your genuine humanness.  Does life confirm this analysis?