Category: Romans (page 1 of 21)

Witness

“The Church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise.” ~Karl Barth

The best thing the Church offers the world is to show the world a way of life that can never be accomplished with social coercion or government power. We serve the world by showing it something that it is not. The world doesn’t know any other way to live but by might and threat and competition and violence.

It could use a witness to something else.

We are witnesses to a reality that transcends the limits of this world. The world can’t fix any of the things that really need fixing. What can the world do other than pass tougher laws and build bigger bombs? That’s it.

The Church provides a witness, a light to the world, an imaginative alternative. Loving your neighbor is very different from being a nice guy. The peace that passes all understanding is not even in the same universe as the peace that comes from having your mortgage paid off. Receiving the forgiveness of all our sins is not the same as rationalizing and justifying our failures. The Church is a separate, distinctive community, not to isolate or protect ourselves, but because we can best serve the world by being the Church.

We reject violence and retaliation to help the world see the way of peace. We refuse to threaten or control people to show the world the way of equality and respect. We break down social, racial, and denominational barriers to show the world the sinfulness of its divisions. We let go of our possessions with joy and gladness to expose the world’s idolatrous attachments to money.

“He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.” ~2 Corinthians 5:15

We live for the risen and reigning Christ Jesus. His vision for the world is our vision for the world. His ways are our ways. What he says goes. As the Church, we see things the way they really are: Jesus is Lord. And when we say “Jesus is Lord,” we’re also saying “Caesar is not.” You can’t serve two masters. You’re either going to love one and hate the other or despise one and be devoted to the other.  We know you can’t have both. So there are moral consequences and political ramifications for a people who define reality as the last being first and the first being last. In our economy, the poor and hungry and sick are the most blessed. In our view, as soon as you try to save your life, you’ve lost it. We take the side of the powerless over the powerful because Jesus views people differently than Pilate does. We’re living for the new heavens and earth where the blind see, the deaf hear, and all the outcasts are coming to the feast!

And that kind of witness is not always practical and it’s not always safe. That kind of message might wreck somebody. It’s dangerous. It might turn something upside down. “Jesus is Lord” means we’re on a trip through the back of the wardrobe, we’re into a different world, a totally different reality that requires a completely different way to live.

The world needs to see and experience the Gospel vision in us. Who else is loving enemies and forgiving murderers and giving away possessions and saying “no” to violence and pre-marital sex and saying “yes” to suffering and sacrifice for the sake of others? The world needs to see that from us. How else will they even begin to imagine it?

We’re not asking the question:  Is what we’re doing effective or practical? Is what we’re teaching offensive? Are the things we’re advocating acceptable? No, our question is: Are the things we’re doing and teaching and advocating true to the fact that Jesus is Lord?

“Let God be true and everybody else a liar.” ~Romans 3:4

The New Testament refers to the Church as saints, the people of God, the temple of the Lord, the household of faith, and about 85 other really high and lofty descriptive words and phrases. That seems very generous on the Bible’s part. The truth is, we have good days and bad days in the Church. We have good decades and bad decades. Actually, the Church has good centuries and bad centuries. We know that. We don’t claim to be right about everything all the time. We’re not immune to sin. We don’t know it all and we don’t have everything figured out. But one of the many things that’s right about the Church is that, by the grace of God, we are a community of faith that exists and acts in Christ. We are the alternative society that sees the world and responds to it differently. And that Christian witness matters.

Peace,

Allan

Divorce & Remarriage: Part Four

Before I post the next section of our “Divorce: It’s Going to be OK” sermon from last Sunday at Central, let me direct you to this story in USA Today detailing the successful efforts of Blue Bell Ice Cream to identify the woman who licked the top of a container of Tin Roof last week and placed it back inside a store freezer. It happened in Lufkin, Texas. Behind the Pine Curtain. What’s wrong with those people? It’s sickening to me that somebody would do this in the first place but, more than that, it’s ludicrous that she and her friend would record it and post the video to the internet. More proof, as if we needed any, that the internet in general and our iPhones in particular are making us worse people, not better.

Also, please be aware that you can buy Little Debbie Christmas Tree cakes now in the middle of the summer. It’s a special promotion they’re calling “Christmas in July.” And please do not be surprised that I am participating.

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God forgives all sin through the cross of Christ –

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly… God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” ~Romans 5:6-10

Divorces cause many burdens: physical, emotional, sexual, and social burdens. And, of course, spiritual burdens. Well, yeah. Divorce is sin. There are consequences for disobeying God. With divorce, there’s a guilt because we’ve failed at this most important relationship. But God forgives us and restores us by offering his perfect Son to cover our imperfections. At the cross, we’re made perfect in God’s eyes despite our many failures, including our failures in marriage. We look to the love of God and the cross of Christ.

We’ve tried legislating divorce and remarriage by laws and rules. So if a person destroys a God-ordained marriage and can’t fix it, we impose some type of punishment or restitution. If you’re going to be forgiven by God and live in a righteous relationship with God — if you’re going to be OK — then you have to do this and you cannot do that. We try to deal with divorce through laws. Praise God, he deals with divorce at the cross!

The cross of Christ is an eternal symbol of God’s limitless love and amazing grace. When we are forgiven at the cross, we become perfect by God’s love and grace and we are completely released from the burdens of guilt and shame and fear and we’re also released from any requirement to make some kind of restitution. The Church has forced divorced people to stay celibate, we’ve forbidden them to remarry, we’ve demanded they dissolve their second marriages, and we’ve disfellowshipped people who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay those prices.

Know this: Jesus Christ is the only one who pays the price. Jesus Christ makes restitution for all the sins of humanity at the cross and that includes restitution for divorce. Jesus paid it all!

“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more!” ~Hebrews 8:12

We do not offer judgment or condemnation to the world or to each other. We gladly offer the cross of Christ. We don’t fix past sins by adding new ones. Sometimes you truly cannot go back and change what’s done. But you can commit to, in our Lord’s words, go and sin no more. All of us can claim complete forgiveness and perfect pardon through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ and work hard to remain from now on faithful to whatever vows we’ve made.

A church that is anchored in the love of God and the cross of Christ is a church that can say to a couple in crisis, “Don’t divorce; stay married.” We can say to the divorcing couple, “Repent of this sin against your family and against God.” And we can say to the divorced, “God loves you; he’s not angry with you; you are forgiven by God in Christ.”

There will be some who accuse us of preaching cheap grace. My response to that is God’s grace is better than cheap; it’s free!

“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~Romans 6:23

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God!” ~Ephesians 2:8

There are some who say you can’t be forgiven for divorce and remarriage if you’re already a baptized Christian when it happens. There’s forgiveness if your divorce was before you became a Christian, but if you were already a Christian you knew better. You can’t be forgiven of that. You’re living in sin.

Really? Go back and read Romans 5:6-10.If baptism into Christ forgives a pre-Christian divorce and remarriage, how much more! If God’s grace is freely given to his enemies, how much more for his children! The idea that Christians receive less grace and forgiveness than non-Christians cannot be our guide. The idea that Christians receive less grace because we understand God’s will better distorts grace. All God’s children have grace. Grace has no value if it doesn’t forgive sin. Romans 8 tells us there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

Peace,

Allan

What Else Barnabas Saw

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad…” ~Acts 11:23

The Jerusalem church leaders sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate the news that Gentiles there were being baptized. Is it legit? What are they being taught? How are they worshiping? Who’s leading them? Can we sign off on this? I’m not sure what the specific concerns might have been, but we do know that when Barnabas arrived, he clearly saw physical, tangible proof that God was at work. What did he see? Can we see those same things today? And are we even looking for those things?

“The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” ~Acts 11:21

Barnabas saw sinners turning their lives to Christ. They believed the Good News that God through Jesus was putting everything back together again. The persecuted proclaimers knew it, the new disciples in Antioch understood it, Barnabas saw it, and we need to believe it! We don’t trust in God’s Word, we don’t believe in God’s power, we don’t believe in God if we don’t think it’s possible in our churches and throughout our cities. Barnabas saw sinners stop sinning. And that’s what you and I need to be looking for, too. That should be our expectation.

But we have this attitude that we expect to keep sinning. Before we ever get out of bed in the morning, before our feet ever touch the floor, we know that we’re human and that we’re going to sin sometime before dinner. What is that?!? Where does that come from?!? Not from the Bible. I know we can’t be completely perfect this side of glory. We’re not saints. Randy Harris defines “saint” as someone who’s life hasn’t been sufficiently researched. But what is this concession to sin?

“Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” ~Romans 6:1-4

God’s grace is the avenue for genuine repentance and change. Where there is God’s grace, you’re going to see changed lives. By the same token, f your life is not changed, perhaps you have not personally received the grace of God — you’re rejecting it or denying it or something. It is God’s grace that motivates and initiates real change. It is God’s grace that empowers you and me to say “no” to sin.

“The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” ~Titus 2:11-14

The grace of God has given us the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That ought to be enough, but it seems like it takes more to get us excited nowadays. We’re jaded. Bored. I know, Jesus saved us by dying on the cross. Yeah, yeah. Yawn. Are you kidding?!?! That is stark raving mad!!!

Jesus has delivered us from our bondage to sin! Jesus has rescued us from our slavery to death! We belong to a loving and gracious God through our risen and reigning Lord! Jesus is reigning right now at the right hand of God! He’s taken office! The ascension is huge! We don’t talk about the ascension enough! Jesus is in charge right now! And he doesn’t reign like Queen Elizabeth — he absolutely rules! And we humbly give our whole lives over to him! We say “No” to sin every day, every hour, and “Yes” to his gracious rule!

With a lot of exclamation points!

That’s what Barnabas saw in Antioch as proof of God’s grace. Is your life radically changed by the love of God in Christ? Do we see dramatically changed lives in our churches? Are we even looking for it?

Peace,

Allan

Kingdom > Church (Part Three)

Jesus is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is Jesus. He brings it, he embodies it, he reveals it and shows us what it is. Jesus is the time and the place, he is the where and when God rules graciously in people’s lives. And as subjects in his Kingdom, we are called to be transformed into people who live completely under his lordship. We share his values, his vision, his mission.

But our view of Jesus’ agenda is sometimes obstructed by our own ideas. Centuries of church development and rule-making and decision-making cloud our vision. When we see the Kingdom as Church, we tend to focus only on the features and characteristics of the Church.

Jesus tells the religious leaders they are looking for the Kingdom in the wrong places:

“The Kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is,’ because the Kingdom of God is within you.” ~Luke 17:20

The Kingdom of God is an elusive, dynamic, spiritual thing that cannot be confined to any institution. It’s much bigger and much more powerful than that. The Kingdom of God is the person, the activity, the ministry, the power, and the eternal reign of the Lord!

Our challenge in our churches is to flex our autonomy enough to insure that our identifying characteristics genuinely correspond to those of the Kingdom Jesus is preaching and practicing. Maintaining our institutional status quo is not necessarily the same as being faithful to Jesus and his mission. Being a member in good standing or being a good middle-of-the-road church isn’t necessarily the same as living under the reign of God.

The true marks of the Kingdom have very little to do with what happens in between prayers and announcements in your worship center.  The Kingdom of God is firmly grounded in and expressed through the weightier matters — those are Jesus’ terms — of justice and mercy and faithfulness. The requirements for us subjects of the King are not keeping the rules as much as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God.

The church in Rome was arguing and dividing, complaining and drawing lines in the sand over all kinds of issues: sacred food and sacred days, worship styles and traditions, praise teams and women’s roles, divorce and remarriage, alcohol and dancing, creeds and translations, politics and preachers, song leaders and small groups — they were splitting the church over these things. And Paul says plainly, “Knock it off! Cut it out! The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by all people” (Romans 14:17-18).

But what if we’re talking about a “salvation issue?”

Yeah, I can hear it now. We have to be clear on the “salvation issues.” We have to make sure we’re right on the “salvation issues.”

What is a “salvation issue?” Will somebody please tell me what a “salvation issue” is? We get into discussions about salvation issues and we start ranking things in order of importance to God. We argue in terms of what’s going to save us or condemn us. And we’ll vigorously debate baptism and church and the authority of Scripture and worship styles, we’ll argue about church services and church structures and church policies, but we never talk about feeding the poor or loving our enemies. We don’t mention love and grace and forgiveness and mercy. Scripture says those are the weightier matters, those are the salvation issues! Those are the things we’ve got to get straight! That is the Kingdom of God!

Building schools in Kenya and training preachers in Brazil and housing teenagers in Ukraine — that’s the Kingdom of God. Reading to a 3rd grader at Bivins Elementary and having dinner with a woman from Gratitude House — that’s the Kingdom of God. Serving food at The PARC and praying at Heal the City — that’s the Kingdom of God. Paying water bills for government workers and taking groceries to your grouchy neighbor and talking to the teenager who feels like she doesn’t belong and forgiving you dad and doing all these kinds of things for others in the name and manner of Jesus with the heart of Jesus who fulfills and embodies in every way the eternal blessings and promises of our eternal Father — that’s the Kingdom of God! Where these things prevail, where these things are obvious, that is where and when the Kingdom of God has come and is coming!

I long for the day when those are the only things God’s Church is passionate about. Don’t you?

Our King came into this world in order to serve and save. That’s the business of his subjects, too. May our Lord bless us as we love and serve, rescue and save, in his name and for the sake of his Kingdom.

Peace,

Allan

Not an Easy Question

The fourth Gospel gives us the account of Jesus healing an invalid at the Pool of Bethesda. The guy had been paralyzed for 38 years. But when Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?” the guy didn’t say “Yes!”

I don’t know how old this guy was — it doesn’t matter. But I do know he can’t move, he can’t walk. Unless someone moves him, he can only get around by dragging himself by his hands. What little this man has, he gets from begging. He’s dirty. He stinks. People stay away from him. He has no contact with normal society. The only community he knows is with all the other outcasts, the unclean people who don’t fit in. Every day this man lies on the ground and begs at the gate to the sheep market.

Why in the world didn’t he say “Yes!” when Jesus asked him if he wanted to get well?

The question must not be as easy as it seems.

This guy had been sick for so long that he’d stopped thinking about getting well. In fact, when he’s confronted with the possibility of being made well, it doesn’t even register. Instead, he blames his situation on others. He makes excuses. He points to his predicament, he points to the people around him and the conditions he’s in and he seems pretty content to just stay exactly the way he is. He was so focused on the reasons he wasn’t well, he couldn’t imagine ever being made well.

We all have a tendency to see things the way they are instead of the way things could be with Jesus. Where is our imagination? Why are we satisfied with our lives the way they are? Why do we allow our culture to establish our priorities? Why do we let our careers determine our goals? Why do we let our families dictate our futures? Why are we so reluctant to let the Lord Jesus show us what’s possible? Why can’t we give ourselves to Jesus and let him heal us so we can reach our God-ordained potential?

Some of the most exciting words in the Bible are found in Romans 4: “God gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”

Our God sees what can be and his will is to make it happen. Our God sees you and all the good and all the great he intends for you and he alone has the power to make it happen. And he so WANTS to make it happen! But our situations blind us. Our circumstances paralyze us to the possibility.

Why are we so resistant to change? Why don’t we want to get well? Why don’t we want to be made whole, as some translations say?

Jesus asked the question because he knew the guy’s heart. He knows all of our hearts. He knows it’s human nature to resist change. Even if the conditions are atrocious and change would make things better for us, we don’t want it.

We hang onto the status quo even when all the evidence shows the status quo is killing us. I don’t know what it is. Complacency? Content to be in a bad spot? Resigned to your fate? Just bad timing or bad luck? Knowing full well that things should be and could be so much better. You could be made well. But you’re just going to keep doing what you’ve always done and hope something changes, which is the definition of insanity.

So watch what Jesus does. He totally ignores what this guy is saying about the people around the pool. And he tells this man who hasn’t been able to do anything for himself in 38-years, “Enough! You! Get up! Pick up your mat! Walk!”

And the man is instantly cured. His life was eternally changed.

This is what happens when you encounter Jesus. The rest of the Bible affirms what these Gospel stories show us: that in Christ, your old body is done away with and you live a brand new life; that in Christ, the old has gone and the new has come; that in Christ, you put off your old self and you’re given a brand new self! Jesus doesn’t give you pain pills or crutches or a wheelchair. He doesn’t give you a pillow or a fan. Jesus makes you well! Jesus makes you whole!

Do you want to get well? It’s not an easy question. But it’s still the main question. And Jesus is still the only answer.

Peace,

Allan

Fellowship of the Spirit: First Part

“I will ask the Father, and he will give y’all another Counselor to be with y’all forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But y’all will know him, for he lives with y’all and will be in y’all. I will not leave y’all as orphans; I will come to y’all. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but y’all will see me. Because I live, y’all also will live. On that day y’all will realize that I am in my Father, and y’all are in me, and I am in y’all.” ~John 14:16-20

Jesus is Emmanuel. God with us. God near us. That’s Jesus. Our Father takes that one dramatic step further with his Holy Spirit. God in us. God inside us.

The pronouns used by Jesus are plural, not singular. This is communal. It’s corporate. The Holy Spirit binds us together in a shared fellowship. Together.

Thirty years ago, a sociologist named Robert Bellah wrote an influential book called Habits of the Heart. He documented what he described as an American phenomenon: ontological individualism. It’s this belief, he says, is unique to us in the United States: an individual is his or her own source of meaning. Nobody can tell me what to do. Nobody can teach me anything I can’t learn on my own. I don’t need anybody. I don’t depend on anybody. The whole thing is about me. That’s a very American mindset. Bellah says most Americans barely have the vocabulary, much less the desire, to express commitment or passion for anything other than themselves.

The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not for individuals. It transcends our identities and surpasses our abilities as individuals. It’s a group thing. It’s the fellowship of the Spirit.

Jesus says, “I will not leave y’all as orphans.” That’s family language. By the Holy Spirit, he says, “I will come to y’all.” Family. Community.

“We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” ~ 1 Corinthians 12:13

When we talk about the work of the Spirit, we usually focus on the Spirit’s relation to the individual Christian. We talk about how the Spirit is active in a person’s life or how a woman or man uses particular Holy Spirit gifts. According to Jesus, though, our emphasis should be on the Spirit’s corporate work. We should pay more attention to the indwelling and empowering of the Spirit in and through the Church.

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in y’all, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to y’all’s mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in y’all.” ~Romans 8:11

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in y’all?” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16

The Church is a community where no one reaches his full spiritual potential and no one fulfills her true spiritual calling apart from the group. Each member of the fellowship contributes something special to the group so that all together the Holy Spirit does so much more for the Kingdom than any of us could do by ourselves. The Church attains to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ together.

“To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good…” ~1 Corinthians 12:7

Some religions teach that meditating or praying in solitude is the highest form of spirituality. But that is not Christianity. The fellowship of the Spirit is not about private Christian growth or individual spiritual formation. What the Spirit gives us is intended for serving the common good, the whole fellowship together.

The Spirit is the one who brings us together. And when we’re together, bound to one another by the Spirit of God, the Church is bigger than we think. It transcends our individual abilities. It’s better than we can see, it’s wider and deeper, it’s richer and longer-lasting and farther-reaching. It’s more than our physical senses can begin to detect. It’s holy.

The Holy Spirit is our guarantee, our down payment of what’s coming. The fellowship of the Spirit is a taste of everything that’s going to be revealed. The Holy Spirit promises us together that, yes, God will act. Yes, God will speak. God will save. God will fulfill. Our God will live with us and in us forever and ever. Hallelujah! Amen.

Peace,

Allan

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