Posts Tagged ‘Romans’

How to read the Bible

September 20, 2011

Enjoy this video in which N.T. Wright explains that we must always read one part of scripture in light of the whole.

In my recent Romans sermon series, I leaned heavily on Wright’s New Interpreter’s commentary. In it—as if to practice what he preaches above—he constantly directed the reader’s attention from one passage to the sweep of Paul’s argument in Romans as a whole. That argument only makes sense, he argues, within the sweep of the Old Testament, whose primary purpose is to point to the way in which God’s covenant with Israel—and through Israel to the world—is fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.

Having (finally) studied Romans carefully in this way, you can’t convince me that there’s any other way to read it.

Two kinds of freedom

August 29, 2011

Ron Swanson, the funniest character on TV.

In yesterday’s sermon on Romans 9:14-24, which often raises difficult questions of human freedom versus God’s sovereignty (not that it should if we understand Paul’s argument), I was tempted to quote my favorite character from my favorite TV show, Ron Swanson of Parks & Recreation.

Swanson is manager of the parks department in a smallish Indiana city, who is also an outspoken libertarian. He once said that his dream is to privatize the parks department and let Chuck E. Cheese’s manage it. “You want want to swing on the swing set? Drop in a quarter.” One time Ron was arguing with someone about diet and fitness. He said, “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 lbs, and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so. To me that’s beautiful.”

This kind of freedom may be beautiful from a political point of view, but it’s deadly from a Christian point of view. Left to our own devices, this is clearly the kind of freedom that we have. As Paul argues elsewhere in Romans (for instance, chapter 7) this kind of freedom enslaves us. So maybe our hyper-Calvinist friends bent on saying that human beings aren’t really free are not entirely wrong. Because libertarian freedom—freedom of choice—is not true freedom.

True freedom, Christianly understood, is freedom to be what God created us to be. At times, however, this freedom may look a lot like slavery: a voluntary kind of slavery in which we submit our free wills to God, to be re-shaped and redirected. True freedom means choosing to be constrained. Think of how St. Paul himself can joyously proclaim our freedom in Christ and say, at the same time, that he is Christ’s slave.

A couple of years ago, I went to a musical that the students at my wife’s school were putting on. One of the students, a 16 year old girl, played a violin solo—and it was quite good. I complimented her after the show. I said, “You didn’t sound screechy at all.” I didn’t mean to damn her with faint praise, but, let’s face it, 16 year-old violinists sometimes sound screechy.

She told me that she aspires to be a professional violinist. She practices four hours a day, every day—and that she’s has been doing so for years! No wonder she didn’t sound screechy! In a way, this young woman has voluntarily made herself a slave to the violin—through time, discipline, hard work. She’s had to forego most activities and interests that her fellow teenagers enjoy.

But consider what this voluntary slavery means: It means that she is free to do the thing she loves most—to play the most beautiful music in the world. Would even the most challenging piece of music stand in the way of her doing the thing that she most enjoys? Imagine the joy that this kind of freedom brings her.

On a larger scale, this is the kind of freedom that God offers us through Christ. I want to know and experience this kind of freedom in all its fullness.

“Not a private or a tame savior, available on tap, like a favorite beer”

August 26, 2011

In last week’s sermon, I discussed the understandable misgivings that we Christians sometimes feel about evangelism  in relation to Jews. Years ago, the Southern Baptists got into hot water in the media (like, when aren’t Southern Baptists in hot water with the media?) because they had some explicit plan to evangelize the Jews. I had a friend at the time, who is Jewish, who was indignant, and he wasn’t alone. We Christians want to say (as we often do say) that Jews have one covenant with God and Christians have another, and so let’s just live and let live.

This is bad Christian theology, and it flies in the face of everything Paul argues throughout Romans, especially in chapters 9-11. But if the only alternative to this bad theology were anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism, then I’d gladly live with bad theology!

But this isn’t the only alternative. If we as the Church love and respect our Jewish friends, we should love them enough to want them to experience this amazing gift of life and love that God has given us in Christ; and we should respect them enough to bear witness to what we truly believe. Namely, that Jesus is Lord, not merely of the billion or so professing Christians living in the world, but of the entire cosmos.

I’m reminded of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode I saw one time. The opening credits of the B-movie that Mike and his robot sidekicks were forced to watch showed the famous space logo for Universal Pictures. And below the logo it read “A Universal-National Production.” (I assume a company called National merged with Universal, and they hyphenated their name.) One of the show’s robot commentators pointed out the obvious redundancy: “If you’re ‘universal,’ doesn’t that imply that you’re also ‘national’?”

If Jesus is Lord of all Creation, he is also Lord of everyone within it, not merely us (mostly) Gentile Christians. Of course this is a challenge to our prevailing ideology of inclusiveness and religious pluralism. But we can’t evade the challenge and be faithful to the gospel. In his commentary on Romans, N.T. Wright deals with this challenge on nearly every page, but I especially like what he says here:

And if Christians remain loyal to Jesus of Nazareth they cannot evade the challenge of his Messiahship, upon which is based his universal lordship. He is not a private or a tame savior, available on tap, like a favorite beer, for those who want some salvation now and then. If he is not Messiah and Lord, the whole of Christianity is indeed based on a mistake and ought to be abandoned. But what if he is?…

Here, in fact, is the crowning irony of today’s attempt to appropriate Romans 9–11. For Paul, anti-Judaism would mean imagining that Jews cannot come to faith in Jesus. For many today, anti-Judaism means supposing that they can and should.

Of course, the idea that the Church can convince Jews today—after the tragic, sordid history of violence and arrogance that has too often characterized our relationship over the centuries—may seem daunting, even hopeless. But the fact remains, even today, that ethnic Jews do become Christians. They are in our churches, and God knows that we Gentile Christians—the “wild olive branch” grafted onto an ancient root—benefit from their witness.

N.T. Wright, “Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol X., ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 697-698.

C.S. Lewis on God’s sovereignty and human free will

August 25, 2011

As I’ve been wrestling this week with the dense and difficult Romans 9, specifically vv. 14-24, for the final week of our “Roman Road” series, I came upon this excerpt from a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote (from the C.S. Lewis Bible). Lewis doesn’t believe we can say as much as we might like about the challenging “inter-relation between God’s omnipotence and Man’s freedom.” But what he does say is brilliant as usual.

(When he refers to the “Calvinist view,” he means the view of God that so highly exalts God’s sovereignty—that God is absolutely in complete control of everything that happens—that human responsibility and freedom become meaningless.)

The real inter-relation between God’s omnipotence and Man’s freedom is something we can’t find out. Looking at the Sheep & the Goats every man can be quite sure that every kind act he does will be accepted by Christ. Yet, equally, we all do feel sure that all the good in us comes from Grace. We have to leave it at that. I find the best plan is to take the Calvinist view of my own virtues and other people’s vices: and the other view of my own vices  and other people’s virtues. But tho’ there is much to be puzzled about, there is nothing to be worried about. It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.

You know what Luther said: “Do you doubt if you are chosen? Then say your prayers and you may conclude that you are.”

C.S. Lewis, “Who Is Chosen?” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1283.

Sermon for 08-28-11: “Roman Road, Part 11: Great Sadness and Constant Pain”

August 24, 2011

Part 11 of our sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans focuses on evangelism. Who needs it? The answer: everyone! The gospel, which literally means “good news,” is good news for the entire world. If we’ve experienced it as such, why would we not want to share it with others?

Paul felt “great sadness and constant pain” as he thought about how his people—his flesh-and-blood fellow Jews—had rejected the gospel. Do we feel at least a little of that same sadness and pain as we consider “our people”—whoever they may be? 

Who do we know within our own circle of friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students who need to experience the gospel as good news in their life? What is the Holy Spirit calling us to do about it?

Sermon Text: Romans 9:1-5

The following is my original manuscript.

I recently heard an episode of public radio’s This American Life, whose theme for that week’s episode was break-ups. The romantic kind of break-ups—breaking up with someone you love or used to love, and how difficult it is. A young writer named Starlee talked about how she had her heart broken—she was utterly devastated—when her boyfriend—the person she was made for, her soulmate, the person with whom she should be spending the rest of her life—dumped her. She was head-over-heels in love with the guy. Looking back on the relationship, she said, “It was hands down the corniest relationship I’ve ever been in. And by ‘corniest,’ I mean ‘greatest.’”

Among other things, the two of them developed a love for singer Phil Collins. It started as sort of an ironic thing, but after while they were convinced that Phil’s many love ballads were practically written to describe their love. If you like ’80s music, you’ll appreciate that when her boyfriend dumped her, the last words that Starlee spoke to him were, “How can you just let me walk away? I’m the only one who really knew you at all”—paraphrasing lines from his song “Against All Odds.” Read the rest of this entry »

A few “tough texts” sermons starting this Sunday

August 18, 2011

Don't forget Vinebranch is at two times now: 8:30 and 11:00. Come early, come often.

After agonizing over how to finish off our 12-week sermon series on Romans (understanding, of course, that we could take a year and not finish Paul’s letter), I’m relieved to have a new plan. My original plan—to cover a little of chapter 9, chapter 10, and chapter 12 (using the suggested Revised Common Lectionary readings)—doesn’t work for me anymore. By which I mean it wouldn’t work for the congregation.

Romans 9-11, which is virtually ignored in mainline Protestant churches, raises too many challenging questions to breeze by it. So, this Sunday, I’m covering Romans 9:1-5, and talking about the difficult question that Paul raises: What about ethnic Jews who aren’t Christians? I know what we all want to say about our Jewish friends: Our differences don’t really matter. The Jews have one perfectly good covenant with God, and we Christians have another.

And I would want to say that, too, if I believed it were in the vicinity of what Paul has been arguing for eight chapters of Romans, or what he focuses on in particular in chapters 9-11. But it’s not. And since, as a good Methodist, I am prima scriptura, I want to be faithful to the Bible more than anything.

So this Sunday, I’m talking about the problem of unbelieving Israel in the context of Romans 9, but I’m going to challenge the congregation to think more broadly about the problem: Do we really believe that what God accomplished in Jesus Christ through his life, death, and resurrection is for the whole world—indeed, for all creation—or is it only for the billion or so people in the world who call themselves Christians?

In Romans 9:1-5, Paul expresses great anguish for “his people,” ethnic Jews who don’t know the saving love of God in Christ. Do we, among our circle of friends and family, have that same passionate concern for our people, whoever they may be? If so, how is it reflected in our actions?

So that’s “Tough Text #1,” and it’s this Sunday.

Next Sunday, August 28, I’ll be dealing with another troublesome question raised by Paul in both Romans 8 and 9, that prickly word (and concept of) “predestination.” This sermon will be more topical, but I will focus on those passages from Romans that are used as proof-texts for important tenants of Calvinism.

The strongest, most conservative version of Calvinism, sometimes called the “neo-reformed” movement, which is enjoying a surge in popularity among followers of John Piper and Mark Driscoll, elevates God’s sovereignty so high that human free will—not to mention, in my opinion, love alongside it—becomes meaningless. Calvinism also emphasizes double-predestination, which means that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. If this sounds harsh to us non-Calvinists, it’s only because we fail to grasp that since everyone deserves hell, the fact that God spares some from it is to his glory. (Such is my revulsion that I struggle to even type those words!)

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get in the nitpicky details of Calvinism, but I do want to rescue these Romans passages from the hyper-Calvinists. What is Paul really saying in context and what does it mean for us today? Avoiding the issue seems irresponsible. If we Methodists—whose founder, after all, was an outspoken opponent of Calvinism—fail to talk about it, our people will only hear popular preachers and teachers in the media talk about it, and what they say often contradicts what we believe.

Finally, on September 4 and 11, I’m going to preach about a religious issue that’s been in the news recently: heaven, hell, who goes there, and why. I’ve read Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, and some of the book’s critics. I’ll bring that into the discussion.

But do I also have to read that best-seller about the little boy who goes to heaven and comes back to talk about it? Maybe… Ugh!

Sermon for 08-14-11: “Roman Road, Part 10: If God Is For Us”

August 16, 2011

Our sermon series, “Roman Road,” continues with Part 10. In this sermon, we turn our attention to Romans 8:26-39, including Paul’s beautiful crescendo to the symphony he’s been composing up to this point: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hear this good news: If you are a child of God through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, nothing can separate you from God’s love!

Sermon Text: Romans 8:26-39

The following is my original manuscript.

Lisa, my wife, gave birth to our middle child on the living room floor of our house in Tucker almost ten years ago. Some people plan to give birth at home, with a midwife—and doing so is a trendy thing these days. When you plan to have a home birth, however, that means that you want to give birth at home; Lisa was, by contrast, an unwilling participant. But she gave birth at home in spite of what she wanted because her husband was out of town on an “emergency” business trip in Florida, and was not home to drive her to the hospital in the middle of the night. Can you believe he did that? No wonder she divorced that guy! Just kidding, just kidding! I am that guy! As it’s so easy to see in hindsight, I should not have gone out of town so close to Lisa’s due date.

Lisa’s mother showed up to drive her to the hospital, but by the time she got there it was apparent that Lisa wasn’t going to make it. So her mom called 9-1-1. The first responders were about eight or nine of Tucker’s Bravest—firefighters—and they were hugging the far wall, as far away as they could get from Lisa. Because they wanted nothing to do with birthin’ no babies. They reassured Lisa that the paramedics would be there shortly. And they were. When the paramedics arrived, Lisa’s first question was, “Do you have any drugs?”—because she really, really wanted an epidural at that point. And the paramedics, who barely arrived just in time to catch Townshend as he came shooting out, said, “Oh, no… It’s much too late for that!” So Lisa gave birth without the benefit of drugs—on our living room floor! And for that, she certainly deserved mother-of-the-year for 2001. And of course every year since then!

We want to avoid pain and suffering, which is why we Americans tend to worship at the altar of modern medicine. There’s a magic pill, we imagine, for every problem these days. Have you watched some of these prescription-drug commercials on TV? Side effects may include dizziness, constipation, and death. Consult your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. I’m not against medicine and prescription drugs, but no pill can change the basic fact that pain and suffering are a part of life.
Read the rest of this entry »

On personal intercessory prayer

August 11, 2011

About 25 years ago, I read an interview with Ray Charles in which he was asked about his faith in God. He was a believer, he said, but he didn’t think we should go to God with every little problem, “every time we stub our toe.” I’ve never met anyone, to my knowledge, who did pray to God when they stubbed their toe, although many—myself included—have used his name vainly when this happens. (What might an appropriate prayer upon stubbing one’s toe sound like? “Oh, God, please don’t let me curse”?)

Still, I get his point: We shouldn’t bother God with the small details of our lives. God has bigger things with which to concern himself, and our problems don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

But I don’t buy it. This objection to prayer is another way of saying that God is really too big for our small problems—the President of the United States, after all, shouldn’t be bothered to fix a pothole on your street.

But in saying God is too big for our problems, we’re really saying that God is too small for our problems. We’re reducing God down to our size—or at least down to a larger, more powerful, more perfect version of ourselves. And if that’s the case, then whatever attention God gives to us and our small problems is attention diverted from other, more pressing matters in the universe.

This is terrible theology, of course, but Ray Charles was hardly alone in buying into it. God is, in fact, “big enough”1 to care about even our smallest problems. Because God is something other than what we are, this means, among other things, that God is able to be closer to us than we are to ourselves—closer than our own thoughts, closer than our heartbeats. Whether we pray about it or not, God already knows when we stub our toes. And it’s no sweat for God to be concerned about it.

Another, more pious-sounding objection to praying for the “small stuff” of our lives is that we are being selfish. On this point, N.T. Wright says something very helpful in his commentary on Romans 8:18-30.

Intercession for the world that is groaning in travail is not, then, an optional extra for the Christian. Within this, intercession for the parts of one’s own life that are in trouble cannot be discounted either. There is a false humility about some protests against such intercession, discounting it as trivial or self-centered. To the contrary: the groanings of each individual, caught between redemption accomplished in Christ and redemption still awaited (8:23), are all part of the groaning of creation. As long as one does not imagine that the world, and the love of God, revolve around one’s own life and concerns—as long, in other words, as one is a mature and adult child of God and not still a spiritual baby—one’s own concerns have their proper place, and can indeed be the starting-point for awareness of, and hence prayer about, the wider groanings of the whole cosmos. Just because we must not be self-centered, that does not mean we should ignore the self and its concerns. If we are God’s beloved children, our small as well as our great concerns matter.2


1. Since words like “big” and “small” only apply to things, and God is not a thing, to say that God is “big enough” only makes sense in a figurative way. Thus the scare quotes. Language will always necessarily reduce a transcendent God down to our size. But, apart from the groanings of the Holy Spirit, language is about all we’ve got.

2. N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 607.

Sermon for 07-10-11: “Roman Road, Part 5: Peace With God”

July 22, 2011

The Gulf of Mexico at sundown. Taken a couple of days ago from the upper deck of the cruise ship I was on.

I’m back from my cruise vacation. Thanks to my awesome friends Nancy, Geoff, and Paul for filling in for me in my absence.

Have you ever been on a cruise? It’s like the Golden Corral combined with Disney World—if Disney World’s only ride were the spinning tea cups. And the lines were longer. I meant to post this sermon before I left, but wi-fi at the Holiday Inn Express was down, and wi-fi on the boat was prohibitively expensive. So here goes…

This sermon is Part 5 of our Vinebranch series, “Roman Road,” which takes us through Paul’s letter to the Romans. In today’s scripture, Romans 5:1-8, Paul talks about the end result of God’s atoning work of Jesus Christ through the cross: Justification (God’s verdict of “not guilty” directed toward us sinners through faith) and peace with God. And “peace with God” isn’t simply a “peaceful, easy feeling.” It’s solid and permanent like a peace treaty.

We also talk about what it means to “boast in our sufferings,” and how God uses hard times to make us better people. (Sadly, my best illustration at the end gets cut off because of a technical problem. You can read it in the manuscript that follows the video.)

The following is my original manuscript.

So, did anything interesting happen in the news last week? I got back from vacation, and everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, everything I turned on and watched or read or listened to, people were talking about the verdict. I thought I had been living under a rock, because I actually had no idea what they were talking about at first. In a highly publicized trial, a young woman named Casey Anthony, who certainly seems to be guilty of murdering her child, was found “not guilty,” and as a result she avoided the death penalty.

People who followed the trial closely told me this was the most shocking “not guilty” verdict since the O.J. trial. And I’m sure it was. For those of you who followed the trial, think of the shock and surprise you felt when you heard the verdict. Read the rest of this entry »

Reflection on this Sunday’s scripture by C.S. Lewis

July 14, 2011

The scripture for this Sunday in Vinebranch is Romans 6:1-11. I enjoyed these words from Mere Christianity, which speak to the issues raised by this text. (I have a copy of Lewis’s book, but the C.S. Lewis Bible tipped me off to this particular quote.)

The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes fo the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

C.S. Lewis in “Walk in Newness of Life,” The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1276.