Adopted…not Our Doing

S (Scripture): Romans 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ) – if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him.

O (Observation): To be brought into the fold as a child of God, one is adopted.  Whether a descendant of Abraham or not, one is only adopted, and never privileged to claim the name for one’s self.  

As adopted children of God (through the work of the Spirit), one also becomes an heir of God…not just for the gift of eternal life, but that our whole reason for being is transformed from self-seeking behavior, to life-giving behavior for self and others.   

A (Application):  How hard is it to understand that being a child of God is not something we earn on our own?   We give ourselves credit for believing…but that is HARDLY the case to sustain a relationship with God.  

In a wildly irrational act, Jesus chose to suffer for our sake.  Jesus showed that suffering humiliation and death was way more important than allowing the world to engage in the life of “redemptive violence” (thanks, Rob Bell, for that phrase)..that we each have to get our own way, or the last punch!

Instead of my view of Christianity, or your view of Christianity, there is simply Christ crucified.  And as the Spirit joins us to Christ, we no longer have to fear our failures or shortcomings.  Instead, we focus on our callings to live out God’s love in the world. 

We are adopted into God’s family.  Thanks be to God!

P (Prayer):  Lord, we thank you for bringing us into the fold.  Amen. 

The Church: Pioneers and Settlers Working Together

S (Scripture): Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

O (Observation):  Paul is finally getting to the crux of salvation – and it’s not found in the law of the flesh.   The law had been manipulated over time to favor the “in” crowd (The Jewish people) to the exclusion of everyone else.   

Paul never faults the Jewish people for sensing that they have a special place in God’s eyes…he’s just letting them know that the law of the flesh leads to bondage and sin…and that the law of the Spirit leads to freedom and new life.  

How do we become righteous?  Not by our heritage or lineage.   Not by our laws or customs.  Instead, our righteousness comes about through the law of the Spirit…the “law of the Spirit” being the fact that the Spirit connects us to God and salvation, as opposed to the “law of the flesh,” in which we rely on our own adherence to loyalty and customs.   

A (Application):  How loyal can we be?   And to what are we loyal?   So many struggles in churches are based on misguided loyalties:  type of music, who the pastor is, who the musicians are, printed or projected words, “who do we serve?”, “who do we allow to join?”, and on and on.   

Churches are full of both pioneers and settlers.   Some folks (settlers) are great at locking in the tradition, and some are great at forging into new territory (pioneers).   Quite often, these two sets of folks lock horns.    Typically, we think that the only way to settle this battle is for one side to win.  Or if one side sneaks in a win, the other side needs to fight back or sneak in their own “win.”

This duality rarely allows us to enter a possible third way…   This duality fails to recognize that God himself is a three-way relationship that defies duality.  With our three-fold God, we have an example of living beyond dualistic thinking.  

We can find a third way…a way that brings honor to God, and to the opposing forces in our congregations.    

(One caveat:  sometimes people are just antagonistic and evil…or they feel like they will never be open to a third way.   For these people, all we can hope for is for God to help them settle into a new place of worship.)

As for those who wish to know of a new way forward, we go back to the Romans text. We live according to the law of the life-giving Spirit.  The Spirit brings creativity and life into a situation that seems bleak.  Let us allow our loyalties to reside in our God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  

Instead of opposing forces, let us consider how pioneers and settlers can work together!  As pioneers in the faith forge new territory, they will have to be okay with not settling every territory if it is not bearing fruit.  Pioneers are needed to come along and settle into areas that seem to bear fruit.   And, as this new territory is established, the pioneers are to move along to even newer territory.  If settlers never settle an area, then the work of the pioneers is mostly for naught.   And if pioneers never explore new territory, the settlers will become ever complacent and eventually become completely closed off…and eventually die off…or just re-populate within themselves, which completely ignores the Great Comission.  

We need this third way.  And we receive this third way according to the  law of the Spirit.   

Where do you see pioneers in your faith community?  Where do you see settlers?   Do you despise one or the other?  Why is that?  Is your loyalty to pioneers?  Settlers? Christ himself?

Do you see the third way being possible in your midst?  Is the third way already happening?

P (Prayer): Lord, your Spirit is life-giving and creative.  Help us to embrace  our life in you.  Amen.  

Sin and the Interpretation of Scripture.  (Oh, and Same-Sex Marriage)

S (Scripture): Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! Certainly, I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” … 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.

… 15 For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me. 18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.

O (Observation):  Paul gives a somewhat exhaustive and complicated explanation to the purpose of the law.   The law is meant to bring life, ideally.  The Commandments from God – if lived out – bring about a world that submits to God and brings harmony between people.  So the Law (10 Commandments) and the law (the Jewish laws and interpretations of God’s will for God’s people) is NOT inherently bad or sinful.   Rather, the sin that resides in us is what causes us to do the wrong, which we hate. 

Paul is telling the Jewish Christians of Rome that the Law / law is neither the problem nor the solution.  Instead, sin is the problem!   The Law / law points out our brokenness, and thus, reminds us that no one of us (Jew or Gentile) is better than another.  

So, the Law / law is still meant for good…but is not the marker for salvation.   

A (Application):  Much of the battle between denominations is over the interpretation of Scripture.   Some read more literally (I.e. God created in 7 days), while some view the different parts of the Bible as a collection of different genres, thus interpreting different parts of the Bible based on the genre (I.e. Creation is a myth – story that tells an ultimate truth – and thus it matters not how many days – or eons – it took to create.  Point is: God created!)

This difference in interpretation then leads to major theological differences.  A hot topic is the issue of same-sex marriage.   Should this be allowed or not?   Different denominations come to different conclusions.   Should clergy be allowed to serve if they are in a same-sex marriage (or committed relationship)?   For the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) the answer is:  Yes!  They can be allowed, but the congregation has to decide for itself if they will allow this.  Again, the interpretation of scripture is important, because some will take a broader view of the arc of Scripture and some will look at strict interpretations of key verses to support or refute the decision of the interpretation.  

Why bring this up?  It comes back to the Law / law and sin.   No matter who interprets the Scriptures, some sin will exist in us.  The Scriptures, which are made for our good, can and will be twisted in various ways because of the sin that resides in us.   Anyone who interpreted the Law / law (or more broadly, Scripture) will have an interpretation tainted by sin.   Sin will take the life out of the good intention.  

So, we are all on equal footing.   We are all interpreting the Scriptures with some element of brokenness in our hearts and minds.  So, with the guidance of the Spirit we do the best we can to faithfully interpret Scripture.  As the ELCA, we recognize our shortcomings, and open up the Scriptures to multiple interpretations within our own denomination.  Does that open a can of worms?  Absolutely!  Does that mean we stop interpreting?  Certainly not!

We do the best we can to interpret scripture faithfully.  The main driving point then becomes how do we interpret scripture through the person of Jesus Christ?   That is our main driving point: Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.   Only through that lens, do we feel like we can faithfully interpret the Scriptures. 

Not better or worse than anyone else…just differently.   And hopefully, with the help of the Spirit.  

P (Prayer): Lord, open our eyes to the Scriptures in ways that bear fruit for your kingdom.  Amen. 

Do You Bring Life, or Take it Away?

S (Scripture): Romans 7:1 Or do you not know, brothers and sisters (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law is lord over a person as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of the marriage. 3 So then, if she is joined to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she is joined to another man, she is not an adulteress. 4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. 5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.

O (Observation):  Paul uses a very practical image to help make a deep, theological point:  being joined to Christ’s death releases us from the enslavement to the law, just as a husband’s death releases the wife from her bond to her marriage.     (That’s from 2,000 years ago, folks…today’s example would likely be different.)

Before Christ’s death, we were bound to the enslavement of the law.   An external set of rules guided the lives of God’s people, and so they started seeking salvation within the laws and rules of the people.  That wasn’t working.  

So, God sends Jesus to free us from the human-made laws and to help us follow the Spirit in this new-found life.  Our joyful obligations now come from serving the Lord through the guidance of the Spirit. 

A (Application):  What are we to do with all of this news and division in our country?   We want to fight and fight and win for “our side.”   Yet this seems to be a struggle that does NOT bear fruit.  The text from Paul today makes this fairly clear: play by the rules of the law, unto death; play by the rules of the Spirit, unto life.   (OK, that’s archaic language…but a fair use of “unto,” yes? : )

Getting into arguments that are tit-for-tat gets us nowhere.  Responding to tweets and FB posts in anger or with emotion only doesn’t change anyone’s minds.   And it plays into the system set up for the old way of the “law.”   The law requires fairness, yet can also be manipulated for personal benefit.  The Spirit, however, seeks to bear fruit that is life.  

Life-giving actions and attitudes are what Christ gives us.  We are freed from the tit-for-tat world of tweet and FB battles.   I’m not saying we can’t have some open communication, but rather, let us seek to build up, rather than tear down.  

Don’t like the direction our country is going?   Don’t just blame the President or the national government…get out and make a difference in your community.   Go volunteer!   Show how God has released you from the law and how God works though you for good.   

Are there refugees in your city?  Find out how to help them get settled and familiarize them with how to pay bills and get groceries.  

Homeless people live in your community.  How can you help them with food and clothing?

The list is endless.  Make a difference.  Don’t just fight online battles that change nothing.  Instead, help your neighbor.  Give life, don’t just snuff it out.  Awaken to the life that the Spirit gives. And share that life with others.  

P (Prayer): Lord, helps us to give life to others, just as you have given us a new life. Amen. 

Slaves of Obedience to Righteousness 

(Top Left: Welcoming Refugees workshop; Top Right: “Family Promise” planning meeting; Bottom: Youth Sunday)

S (Scripture): Romans 6:13b …present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace.

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness?

O (Observation):  Paul was clearly defining the motivation in the life of a Jesus-follower.  No one should think about following Jesus as a way of “getting by with the least effort,” since grace covers sin.  Rather, the life of a Jesus follower is to be lived in such a way that you recognize that grace from God has made you who you are.  And as such, your allegiance (that is, your “slave / servant status) is to obedience to God, and not self-centered (sinful) actions.  

The term “slave” is troublesome, because of the history of slavery in America.  So to clarify a bit, many biblical experts have pointed to the type of slavery that Paul talks about.  Paul is NOT talking about slavery as a forced servitude.  Rather, the type of slavery Paul puts forth is more like a proud tie to Israelite heritage (that is, a servant attitude towards God and God’s chosen people).  The footnotes in NET Bible explain this much better than I:

Undoubtedly the background for the concept of being the Lord’s “slave” or “servant” is to be found in the Old Testament scriptures. For someone who was Jewish this concept did not connote drudgery, but honor and privilege. It was used of national Israel at times (Isa 43:10), but was especially associated with famous OT personalities, including such great men as Moses (Josh 14:7), David (Ps 89:3; cf. 2 Sam 7:5, 8) and Elijah (2 Kgs 10:10); all these men were “servants (or slaves) of the Lord.”

A (Application):  In the last 4 days, I experienced a whole bunch of God’s grace.   I attended a workshop on how we here in Murfreesboro, TN, can welcome refugees and serve the least of these.    We learned about what is being done already for these few refugees that have made their way to our city, as well as what we can do going forward.

Last Friday, I attended a workshop about an organization called Family Promise. They help homeless families to get back on their feet and get back into their own living situations as soon as possible, and in a constructive manner that will allow them to care for themselves going forward.

On Sunday, our youth led both of our worship services, as well as acted out the Gospel text.   They also interspersed their own kairos moments and shared how they applied the texts to their own lives.  

After worship, we had a meeting about re-aligning our ministry structure to better serve our vision and goals.  

After that, we had a great congregation council meeting, in which I think we spent more time looking at ministries OUTSIDE OF our congregation, rather than in.  That speaks highly of our opportunity to bear fruit in this community.  

How is all of this possible?   Because we are slaves to righteousness, rather than slaves to sin.  And this is none of our own doing, but rather what Jesus Christ does in us.  In our baptism, we are joining in Christ’s death, which is a death to sin. That means sin is no longer the all-enslaving power.  Instead, our servitude is towards God.  And we are proud of that service.  

What is your servant status bending you towards?   What types of outside ministries are you happy to be a part of?

P (Prayer): Lord, keep us mindful that we are free from the power of sin…free to serve you!   Amen!

Suffering, Yet at Peace 

S (Scripture): Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

O (Observation): Suffering is not something we like, yet Paul reminds the church that sufferings are not the end of the story, because we have a peace with God.   Paul sees how a person given faith in Jesus Christ can see suffering through the eyes of Christ.   Christ’s suffering had a glorious ending.  So, Christ’s suffering has a glorious hope and peace for us all, too!

Paul’s own suffering has produced endurance in him, because of Christ being with him.  His endurance developed his character,  because Christ was shaping him.   Paul’s character allowed him to hope, because Christ was with him.  

A (Application):  I don’t believe that Christ wants us to suffer.  I don’t think it is EVER God’s plan for someone to suffer.  However, when someone is suffering, I very much believe that God can create an opportunity to translate that suffering into hope, as Paul suggests:

Suffering >> Endurance >> Character >> Hope

God, who gives us peace, can take our situations of suffering, and cause us to pause and think about things.  To endure the current suffering, giving us endurance.   This endurance will shape our character (as it did Paul’s).  And finally, as people of a developed character, we will hope.  We will know that suffering is not the end, but rather, a peace in God. 

Many people are suffering in spirit these days, as a result of political movements towards the right.   And to those who are suffering, I say this: Remember Paul’s words, founded in faith in Jesus Christ…that we have a peace in God.  

If you sense that you are suffering, know that this is not the end.  That this will be a time of endurance development, character development.   And that you will be hopeful, because our salvation rests not in political leaders, but in our Lord Jesus Christ, who has overcome the power of evil.  

Use this time to mine for gold down in the pit.  God is with you, giving you strength.  

P (Prayer):  Lord, remind us that we already have a peace in you, made real through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Through Faith Alone

S (Scripture): Romans 4:13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified…20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness.

23 But the statement it was credited to him was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification.

O (Observation):  Paul is starting to dig a bit deeper into the identity of the Jewish people.  Over time, they have become convinced that the works of the Law made them who they were: God’s people.  

Paul is helping them to see that Abraham’s faith in God was not a work of the law, but rather, came about as a gift of faith that originated in God, and thus allowed Abraham to believe at all. Salvation came to Abraham NOT because he performed a “good work” by believing.   Rather, seeing the blessing available to him and Sarah, he responded to the blessing by actually believing in the blessings to come.  

Salvation came to Abraham OUTSIDE OF his own doing.   He recognized that, and ONLY THROUGH FAITH APART FROM THE LAW did Abraham believe.   

Faith was the key to Abraham’s salvation and blessing.  The same goes for those who believe in  the one who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.  Paul tells the Jewish Christians in Rome:  just as Jews credited faith in God with Abraham as a model of faith, so too is the opportunity available for ALL to believe that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, apart from any understanding in the Law or Jewish customs.  

In other words, Gentile Christians have just as much opportunity to be a part of the Church as Jewish Christians.  

A (Application):  I have learned from Mike Breen’s book on discipleship, Building a Discipling Culture, that our identity as Christians stems not from our work towards God, but in God claiming us and bestowing faith upon us.  (This is illustrated in the triangle picture above.). Once that identity in God is established, then we are able to do the work that God calls us to do.   The summation of this, found in Breen’s book is this:  God >> Identity >> Obedience; God is the originator of our identity, which leads to our confidence to be obedient to do God’s work (albeit imperfectly).  

Here is how lots of people express faith in a way that says we earn God’s grace.  Notice how it is the opposite of Breen’s (and Scripture’s) suggestion:

Obedience leads to >> Identity as God’s children >> which then grants us access to God.  

This breaks down when you think about all of the times that we slip up, like when we are angry at someone and speak ill of someone or when we blatantly sin in any way (we’ve all done this, unfortunately).   In this sense, we are always exhausting ourselves to stay in God’s good graces.  Yet this is not the way that the Scriptures describe our relationship with God.  

Rather, God claims us, gathers us, enlightens us, and makes us holy, in order that we might then fulfill God’s will by doing God’s deeds on earth.  The way of God looks like this:

God claims us >> that we might be indentified as God’s children >> that we might be obedient to do God’s deeds.   

Abraham was chosen by God.  Abraham knew (through faith alone) that God would bless him and Sarah and that he and Sarah would be a blessing to others.   Then God brought about righteousness through Abraham’s lineage.  

May we know that God has chosen us and that God can choose to help anyone believe…even those who might not look and act like us…who might not speak our language…who might live a different part of the world.   

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to see that the path to you is by faith alone.  Amen.