Grace Presbyterian Church
September 24, 2017, Pentecost 16A
What Is This Place? Who Are These People?
I don’t know how it was for you, but when I was growing up we children were given “illustrated” Bibles – that is, Bibles with pictures in them. Usually the pictures were reserved for the “big stories” – Noah and the ark, the Exodus, maybe Jonah, maybe a prophet being all fiery. In the New Testament you’d get something from the birth of Jesus, maybe the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, one or more of the miracles like the feeding five thousand or walking on water, the crucifixion and the resurrection. In Acts, you might get something for Pentecost, and a few scenes from the missionary journeys of Paul. As I remember it, though, the pictures tended to become a lot less prolific after that. A really adventurous children’s illustrated Bible might throw something in from the book of Revelation.
There are obvious reasons for that, of course. The remaining books in the New Testament don’t necessarily suggest obvious pictures. How do you draw a picture of one of Paul’s letters (or any other epistle, for example)? After all these weeks in Romans, does anything stand out to you as being easily summed up in a picture? Jay, what do you think?
Anyway, about those pictures that did exist in those Bibles, one thing that seemed so pervasive as to go unnoticed, was that all the stories were illustrated with bunches and bunches of … dudes. Men. Guys. Obviously there were some exceptions – you can’t do a Nativity picture without Mary, for sure, and Jesus at Martha and Mary’s home might have been an illustration – but between twelve disciple dudes and crowds of Pharisees and Sadducees and such, there were a lot of dudes in those picture Bibles.
Here’s the thing; I was pretty impressionable at that age, and in a time when the denomination in which I was raised was not friendly towards women in leadership roles (except for children’s Sunday school classes), it was pretty easy for me to come away from those pictures with the distinct if unspoken or even subconscious impression that church was “men’s work.” The pastor was a man; all the deacons were men; even the music director was a man. The girls didn’t get to preach on Youth Sunday, even. Men’s work.
Clearly, Romans 16 wasn’t a text that informed such decisions.
As has been noted earlier in this series, Paul had not yet been to Rome when he wrote this letter, but that didn’t mean he was totally unfamiliar with the church or churches there, and these final greetings (a typical part of all of Paul’s letters) were much longer and more elaborate than was typical of his epistles, both to extend genuine greetings to his friends and comrades among the Roman Christians and to make clear to the others reading or hearing the letter that he was less unfamiliar with these churches than it might seem.
The first name in this extensive list, though, is not one of the Roman Christians; rather, Phoebe was one of Paul’s fellow laborers in the faith, and probably the one who was delivering the letter to the Romans personally. Paul also calls Phoebe (who is mentioned nowhere else in scripture) by two distinct Greek nouns: διακονος (diakonos) and προστασις (prostasis). The former is indeed the root of the modern English word deacon, as it is translated in your New Revised Standard Version pew Bibles. The term represents an official title or office in the early church, unlike other possible translations such as “minister” or “servant,” although those are valid translations in some contexts. At any rate the term denotes leadership. The latter term, prostasis, also connotes a leadership role, in this case one that involved patronage and official representation. For example, if a member of the community at Cenchreae were called to appear before the local court or government, Phoebe could appear as that person’s representative.
Now those whom Paul greets among the Romans are also an interesting mix. The only ones we know appear elsewhere in the scriptures are the first ones mentioned, Prisca and Aquila, Paul’s fellow evangelists. They first appear in Acts 18 (Prisca is called “Priscilla” there), as among those who minister both to Paul and to Apollos, an eloquent and passionate, but ill-educated, young evangelist who becomes their student, learning the Way of the Lord more accurately from them. Greetings go out to Prisca and Aqulia in 2 Timothy, and they are among those extending greetings along with Paul in 1 Corinthians. Paul goes so far as to indicate that he even owes his life to them, and that’s not a metaphor in this case.
Another interesting greeting goes to Andronicus and Junia, whom Paul calls “prominent among the apostles” and “in Christ before I was.” At minimum this suggests that these two (possibly husband and wife like Prisca and Aquila) had been converts before Paul, and possibly eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. The title “apostle” also denoted a form of authority as well. These two, like Paul, appear to have been traveling evangelists or what we might call “church planters” today, and had apparently been in prison with Paul at least once.
Later in the list, three women are singled out by Paul as “those workers in the Lord”: Tryphaena, Trypohsa, and Persis, who Paul says “worked hard in the Lord.” While no specific title is applied to those women, their work has been enough to be singled out by Paul along with the work of Urbanus, “our co-worker in Christ,” although it is possible from their position in the list that Paul is not as acquainted with them as with those named earlier.
One other interesting name is that of Rufus. Back in Mark 15:21 we are introduced to Simon of Cyrene, the man who was compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry the cross of Jesus when he (Jesus) had collapsed. For reasons known only to Mark, the gospel identifies Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” While it is impossible to know if the son of Simon is the same Rufus greeted by Paul, there is some logic to the possibility, not least that both Mark and Paul feel compelled to single him out: Mark as an identifier to his possibly-Roman audience (if his readers didn’t know Simon’s name they’d know his son’s), and Paul as one “chosen in the Lord” (or the word could even be translated “outstanding in the Lord”).
One more note on names, some of which suggest a particular role in life for their bearers. The names Ampliatus (which means “ample”), Narcissus (a name taken from mythology), the aforementioned Tryphaena (“dainty”), Trypohsa (“luscious”), and Persis, and possibly Hermes and Hermas (more names from mythology) were all common names for slaves in the Roman Empire. This does not mean that all of them were actually slaves at the time Paul writes, but it is quite possible – even likely – that some or all of these persons were either slaves, former slaves who had been granted or able to buy their freedom, or children of slaves or former slaves (whether freed somehow or even born free).
I don’t know how I’d have reacted, with all those illustrated-Bible pictures in my head, had someone taught me this chapter in my childhood. The deacon/minister Phoebe, the evangelist Prisca, and the apostle Junia would have caused a great deal of cognitive dissonance in my small mind up against the pictures presented to me every Sunday in church. (Over the centuries some have also experienced that cognitive dissonance, to the point that some scholars over the centuries have tried to take away Phoebe’s office, calling her only “servant,” or to suggest that “Junia” must really have been a male, “Junias,” because obviously a woman can’t be an apostle – even though in all that we know of that era, the name “Junias” does not, technically, exist.) The degree to which Paul made no accounting for class – slaves or former slaves jostling right up next to the wealthy, or even nobility, wouldn’t have fit very well into my brain either.
And yet this is the church.
Where all are called to use their gifts to the glory of God, no matter their gender or class or anything else, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,” this is the church. This is the body of Christ, and everyone members of it.
What probably looked like a motley crew to the Romans around such a church or group of churches was something glorious for Paul to see, and indeed a collection of followers of Christ with much to teach us even if we know almost nothing about them. Let’s face it, folks: without women to serve as elders we’d have a severely difficult time comprising a session around here, just to name one example.
And yet even today there are churches and pastors out there today that would utterly dis-fellowship that Roman church if they came upon it today for all the ways they “violate” what scripture says about the church. Of course this would be pretty ironic, since if we take scripture seriously Romans 16 is what scripture says about the church, or at least part of it.
The church at Rome is kinda all over the place, and yet the body of Christ. Maybe that sounds or looks familiar to us. So, like the church at Rome that Paul so commends, our job is to do the work of the church with those who are here, no matter what anybody else has to say about it.
For our mothers (and fathers) in the faith, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #4, Holy God, We Praise Your Name; #361, O Christ, the Great Foundation; #404, What Is This Place; #300, We Are One in the Spirit
Image credit: The Harbour at Cenchrea
© V. Gilbert and Arlisle F. Beers (Source: Visual Bible Alive) (remember, Phoebe was the deacon of the church there)
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 17, 2017, Pentecost 15A
The Strong, The Weak, The Lord’s, The Forgiven
Take a look at this cat in the picture on your bulletin insert. That’s Felicity. [see above]
Felicity is one of the cats that came into our household after Lynette Ramer’s death. None of their children could take them in, and well, we’re suckers for cute kitties. So Felicity and her sister Phoebe came to our place, doubling the cat population (we have since added a fifth feline member of the household).
It turned out that Felicity was, and I’m trying to be gentle about this, crazy.
She was terrified of basically everything. She hid under beds, she hid under blankets, she hid under her sister (and this was before they were even introduced to the cats already in the household). If anyone got near her she turned, if not quite vicious, definitely hostile. When Mickey and Pluto came into the picture things only got worse, with Pluto in particular becoming the focal point for a lot of hostility.
At one point the two got into such a fight that one of Felicity’s claws was damaged, and she had to go to the vet for treatment. When she returned home, she had to be kept in isolation from all of the other cats and given a litterbox with shredded paper (in our bathroom, as it turned out), as exposure to cat litter could have caused a much worse infection in the wound.
Of all things, it was this period of isolation that allowed something of a personality to start to show in Felicity. She hated the wound treatment Julia had to give her, but otherwise during this isolation she actually started to respond to the world around her with something other than hostility and fear. She actually accepted attention and affection at times, and even started to give it on rare occasion. Figuring that maybe it was better to go with it, we kept that space in our bathroom set up for Felicity. There were bumps in the road, to be sure, and she and Pluto still don’t get along, but now Felicity is a valued part of the family, no less loved than any other of the cats, and even ventures out into our bedroom and the dining room on occasion.
Okay, maybe it’s not a direct path from Felicity to today’s reading from Romans, but Paul might recognize in her (to the degree he wasn’t freaked out by us moderns keeping cats in our homes) one of the “weak” of which he speaks, within the dynamic of our home. And the point of Paul’s instruction here, or at least part of the point, is that the “weak” are called of God, chosen of God, forgiven by God, and loved of God every bit as much as the “strong.”
Of course, Paul doesn’t really help his case here by using words like “weak” and “strong” (and you’ll notice if you read on to verse 14 that Paul counts himself among the “strong” on this particular subject, having no problems eating meat). While it might be surprising that food is the thing that apparently trips up the Romans to whom Paul is writing, a very similar problem also prompted Paul to spill a lot of ink in his letters to the Corinthians. (For that matter, maybe if you’ve come together for a big family meal only to discover that one of the grandkids is a newly-minted vegetarian, maybe you do understand how food can become a flashpoint.)
To explain as briefly as possible, persons living in Rome didn’t exactly have access to herds of cattle from which to obtain meat to eat. Not completely unlike most of us, a Roman would have to go to a market to purchase some to eat.
Where that market differs from the Publix or Aldi up the street is that in some cases, the meat offered for sale might have had an interesting history. Rome, not unlike Athens of its time, harbored quite a few shrines to numerous deities, and in some cases those shrines practiced sacrificial offerings, in which the meat had been offered on or over an open flame – in other words, roasted or broiled.
Since the stone or wooden idol never was going to consume that offering literally, these shrines had an awful lot of perfectly good meat on their hands, and sometimes that meat ended up at the local market. This could be a problem to the discerning Christian supermarket shopper in two ways: (1) for some, the very idea of eating meat offered to an idol, i.e. a false God, was itself problematic (this particular question is what Paul addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians); and (2) meat offered in such fashion was very unlikely to be prepared according to Jewish dietary law, i.e. it wasn’t kosher, so to speak. The latter seems to have been the root of the issue in Rome, whether among Jewish-born members of the churches at Rome or among Gentiles who had converted to Judaism before following Christ.
In this, the one case in this letter in which Paul seems to be addressing a very specific concern in the church communities of Rome, his answer still points to the very universal teachings that have been laced throughout the letter. For example, only God can judge; it is not our place to presume to judge those who, by our standards, are “weak.” Sin is still always lurking, seeking any entry to create discord and hatred, and quarrels over food are as good an opportunity as any. Or, our freedom is not an absolute license to do whatever, whenever, however. Our freedom in God is freedom to build up the community, not to tear down one another over food, or the color of the cloth on the communion table, or any other matter great or small.
Or perhaps most of all, we aren’t the gatekeepers of the church.
In his systematic theological treatise Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin stressed as one of the most central tenets of Christian faith that God, and God alone, held all rule and dominion over everything – all created things, all people, everything. From this idea Calvin extrapolated that the ultimate fate of all people rests solely in the hands of God.
It all sounds good and theologically proper to us, but we’re not always good at following through on it. We – speaking broadly of the Church Universal – have an incredibly persistent tendency to appoint ourselves gatekeepers. They can’t be in, because they don’t believe <insert favorite doctrine here>. <My favorite Bible verse> says this, so they have to be going to Hell. No. To be more theologically precise, Hell, no. The moment we find ourselves slipping into anything like that mindset we are usurping the sovereignty of God.
And with exclusive sovereignty comes exclusive judgment. That’s how Paul wraps up this segment of his letter, reminding the Romans that judgment is the exclusive province of God and God alone. As verses 10-12 put it,
Why do you pass judgment on your brother and sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For all will stand before the judgment seat of God.
For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
We are not in a position to judge, and that holds true for issues far beyond eating or not eating meat.
Just as in chapter 12 Paul had reminded the Romans that vengeance was solely the province of God, here too judgment is solely the province of God. And that remains true no matter how many Bible verses you summon up by which to judge others. Something like this is also behind the truth of today’s gospel reading; rather than get hung up on a literal mathematical “seventy-seven times” (or “seventy times seven” whichever translation you prefer), to presume not to forgive your sister or brother is to presume the right of judgment, which belongs solely to God.
The flip side of this point is that in all cases, the meat-eaters or the vegetarians, Sunday abstainers or Sunday indulgers, the honor goes to God. Again, it’s not about a checklist – it’s not “eat this, not that.” Whatever you eat, do so honoring God. Whatever you don’t eat, do so honoring God. And yes, this goes well beyond meat-eating or not meat-eating.
Whichever we do, we do so in the Lord. We don’t do so only to ourselves – we aren’t islands; we are in the Lord. And as the body of Christ, we are in the Lord together, whatever we eat or don’t eat.
Leave aside the judgment and vengeance and gate-keeping; live in forgiveness, live in the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the course and intensity of Hurricane Irma, Grace Presbyterian Church will not have services on Sunday morning, September 10, 2017.
For those who don’t want to let the Sunday pass, perhaps the following loosely-stitched collection of music and readings may offer an opportunity for contemplation or even a little bit of worship as the morning passes, before the storm makes its way to Gainesville.
Preparation for Worship:
Everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being: You have made us for yourself, so that our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Give us purity of heart and strength of purpose, that no selfish passion may hinder us from knowing your will, no weakness keep us from doing it; that in your light we may see light clearly, and in your service find perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
A prelude, from Bach.
Call to Worship: Praise the Lord! Sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful, for the Lord takes pleasure in the people. Let the faithful sing for joy! Let us worship God!
Opening hymn (bonus: from Wales, the home of this hymn! Watch out at the end…)
Gloria Patri (and you supply the singing!)
Prayer for Illumination: Awaken our hearts and minds to your Word, O God. Give us understanding, so that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, we are able to do all that you command for love’s sake. Gathered in Christ’s name, gathered around the Word, we pray. Amen.
Responsive Reading: Psalm 149 (why not read responsively?)
Old Testament Reading: Exodus 12:1-14
Gospel Reading: Mattthew 18:15-20
Epistle Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Affirmation of Faith (adapted from the Confession of Belhar, the newest addition to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions:
We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another.
We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.
We believe that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God.
Prayers. (I think you can figure out who and what to pray for, but be sure to include those recovering from Hurricane Harvey, and those who have been, are being, and will be struck by Hurricane Irma…)
An offertory. (Not the usual kind.)
May the peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.
Note: with a few exceptions this is more or less the planned order of service. Printed texts are from the Book of Common Worship and Feasting on the Word Worship Companion, Year A. It’s no substitute for being together, but maybe on this morning it’s better than nothing.
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2017, Pentecost 13A
That’s Not What It Says
When North Korea fired a missile that passed over a portion of Japan this week (not to mention detonated a nuclear device overnight), it served as a reminder that, before the second once-in-a-lifetime hurricane of my lifetime and before the awful events in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a point when this country was seemingly too close to a nuclear encounter with North Korea, to the point that both South Korea and the island of Guam were both caught up in the tension and seemingly in the crosshairs. Remember that, just a few weeks ago?
During that particular moment of crisis, a prominent evangelical pastor, Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas (a prominent supporter of the US administration), offered the opinion that scripture gave the president authority to “take out” North Korea, and particularly its dictator. The particular scripture he cited was no less than Romans 13, the chapter we’ve just heard. This pastor also went so far as specifically to reject any application of Romans 12 to the situation – remember last week, those difficult passages about not repaying evil for evil and overcoming evil with love?[i]
While Romans 13 (particularly the first seven verses) has been a difficult and oft-abused passage of scripture virtually since it was first written down, the particular interpretation offered here (that these verses give a government carte blanche to do as it plases) is one that has been roundly denounced since the earliest days of the church. The precise theological term for such a reading is … “nuts.” “Bonkers” also works.
One could go through a laundry list of problems with such an interpretation; not all who study this scripture even grant that the “ruling authorities” spoken of here are governmental authorities; some contend that they are the “governing authorities” of the synagogue, or possibly military authorities; and as well, the description given isn’t really congruent with even Paul’s own experience (in enough Roman jails to qualify for frequent-stayer points) with the “governing authorities” of the Roman Empire (although it is interesting to note that when Paul is brought before officials of the Empire in Acts 26 and 27 – events after this letter was written – he did treat those officials with a formal, but not slavish, deference). Even the instructions given in those seven verses don’t seem to hold water in every case in scripture; the Hebrews in today’s reading from Exodus clearly are not submitting to the authority of the Egyptian government, for example.
But the biggest problem with such a reading is that the verses do not speak to those “governing authorities” at all. No, the passage speaks to those followers of Christ who are under the authority of such ruling authorities, addressing how they are to respond to those in authority. Paul is not a stupid person, and knows enough to know that he’s in no position to speak to “governing authorities” and tell them how to do their business. No, the only instruction here is to followers of Christ, and while their power is acknowledged, no “governing authorities” are given any kind of permission at all.
(As a side note, it’s interesting to see that Part of Paul’s instruction to those followers of Christ is to … pay their taxes, echoing Jesus’s instruction in Mark 12:17.)
In the bigger picture, though, one of the biggest problems with such an interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 is that it tends to drown out the hard-hitting teaching of Romans 13:8-14. Continuing with the theme expressed so vividly in chapter 12, Paul charges his hearers with a devastatingly simple command: “Owe no one anything, but to love one another.” Echoing Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:39, Paul rolls up instruction from the Ten Commandments into the mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and caps the teaching with the powerful conclusion: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
There it is. All of Paul’s wrangling about the law and its insufficiency to save us; about the power of sin in our lives and the needfulness of God’s grace to overcome it; about presenting ourselves as living offerings and being transformed by the renewing of our minds; and in the end, it comes down to loving one another, which of course Jesus had already said.
The portion that follows addresses something that hasn’t come up so much in Romans so far but is a consistent part of Paul’s thought. Among many other things, Paul’s faith is apocalyptic – not in the sense of unavoidable future disaster that tends to cling to the word these days but in the sense of expecting an imminent return of Christ. It didn’t work out that way for Paul, clearly, but his point still holds: live like it could happen any time now. Live honorably, live in light, live in Christ. And of course, to live in such a way is inextricably bound in the love Paul has extolled in these chapters of this letter.
That love for one another is part of why we gather together like this, why we gather around this table, why we give of our time and money for the poor and homeless in our town served by Family Promise this week, or those ravaged by Hurricane Harvey out in Texas, facing years of recovery. It’s why we’re there for funerals and the receptions that follow, for weddings or baptisms or confirmation or the addition of new members; it’s why we don’t cut ourselves off from the community in which we live.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #35, Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty; #366, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling; #503, Lord, We Have Come at Your Own Invitation; #754, Help Us Accept Each Other
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 27, 2017, Pentecost 11A
What It Looks Like
What does love look like?
It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men.
This is what love looks like.
This quote is attributed to Saint Augustine, one of the great ancestors of the church, who lived from 354-430. If nothing else it demonstrates that for a very long time, the Christian church has understood that any claim to live in the love of Christ will of necessity be visible, made known not in words but in deeds of compassion directed both at one another in the body of Christ and to any who suffer, whether “Christian” or not. Christlike love doesn’t get to be selective.
This reading from Paul’s writing to the Romans, continuing Paul’s encouragement to his Roman readers and hearers, moves even more directly in this direction, showing to his listeners “what it looks like” to live in the love of God that redeems the human body and renews the human mind. In many ways the most similar passage to this in Paul’s output is no less than the famous “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, which captures Paul at his most poetic and even ecstatic as he unfolds the beauties of love. The present passage passes over similar ground; the principal difference is that in Romans, Paul narrows his focus to how this divine love looks specifically when it is lived out in the body of Christ.
Unfortunately, most biblical translations don’t quite capture this powerful description because of a Greek grammatical choice. Certain verb forms in Koine Greek can be ambiguous when a verb is omitted implied rather than made explicit. The beginning of verse 9 is such an example; were you to read it in a word-for-word translation it would simply say “love without pretense.” Most translations, NRSV included, assume an imperative verb: “Let love be genuine.” However, a reading as an indicative verb – “love is without pretense” – captures in some ways what Paul is encouraging on his hearers in a way more consistent with his ongoing teaching that all of the life they live in Christ, their very redemption as living offerings and transformation by the renewing of their minds, is itself dependent on the same love of God. Like that redemption and that transformation, this “love without pretense” is itself a gift of God, “not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” to borrow from the letter to the Ephesians.
With this in mind, the series of maxims that follows becomes more clearly a description of the love of God lived out in the body of Christ, and “what it looks like.”
Before that chorus of the characteristics of love, Paul amplifies his initial statement. His language in doing so is strong: “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” The word really is that strong; other possible translations include such vivid words or phrases as “abhor” or “utterly detest.” More than just “dislike” is at work here; the rejection of evil really is an active and emphatic and visceral thing, much as “holding fast” to the good implies an active and vigorous dynamic rather than merely passively “being good.” And this, Paul teaches, is characteristic of genuine, unpretentious, un-hypocritical love.
What follows from here (not just in chapter 12, but continuing into chapter 13 as well) not only reflects Paul’s description of living in love, but also shows one of those two poles of such un-hypocritical love: hating evil and holding fast to what is good. Altogether, these maxims remind us that living in love, far from being a quiet and passive private emotion, is active and vigorous, something that can only be done “out loud.”
Paul isn’t making it easy here, presumably because he knows from experience. Remember, this is a man who has seen the inside of a few prison cells in his career, and in at least a few cases it was because that prison cell was the only way to keep him from being harmed by those opponents of his mission who aimed to shut him up once and for all. He had, in short, known persecution. He had faced what any sane person would call evil, and he had faced it from his own people, because he had chosen to follow this call God had thrust upon him back on that road to Damascus.
So, alongside fairly easy instructions such as “do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord,” or “contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers,” or “rejoice with those who rejoice,” there are the more challenging traits of living in the body. “Weep with those who weep” isn’t necessarily hard, but it is hard. “Live in harmony with one another” gets challenging at times. Sometimes we can get caught wanting to “claim to be wiser than you are,” even realizing we’ve already been warned against that earlier in the chapter.
But then things get really hard. There are those that prompt the accusation that the preacher has “done quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.”
Take this statement: “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.“ Sounds challenging enough as it is, but it’s still our tendency to weaken it, to reduce it to a “don’t make trouble” instruction that we can keep quietly and without anybody noticing. Trouble is, that’s not what it is to live transformed by that renewing of our minds. Like these other instructions, it’s not passive. It requires active doing.
Maybe it’s captured best by Clarence Jordan, preacher and founder of Koinonia Farm, established as a deliberately interracial farm and community in south Georgia at peak Jim Crow. Jordan’s unique contribution to biblical instruction was the “Cotton Patch Gospel,” (maybe you’ve seen the musical based on it?) a combination of scholarly translation of most of the New Testament with a striking re-contextualization; what if these events had happened and these letters had been written in the American South of his time? The “Cotton Patch” translation of this verse captures vividly the active sense of Paul’s instruction, perhaps because Jordan himself had experienced it vividly in his own life at Koinonia: “If it’s possible – that is, from your side – WAGE PEACE WITH ALL MANKIND.” (That last phrase, by the way, really is in all caps.)
WAGE PEACE. Not a passive, unobtrusive thing at all, living transformed by the renewing of our minds. It’s active. It gets in the way. It interferes with the established interests. It does not resign itself to the “peace” of a racially and economically stratified and walled-off nation or society. It doesn’t acquiesce to the powerful oppressing and exploiting the powerless. And that’s hard.
And it only gets worse from here. “Bless those who persecute you”? “Do not repay anyone evil for evil”? “…never avenge yourselves”? “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them drink”?
And then the capper: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Seriously, God, how could you let Paul write anything so crazy as that? Here we go again with the active, “out loud” stuff. It’s one thing to talk like that in the safety and comfort of our own sanctuary; it’s quite another to do so when someone is glowering at you and brandishing a semiautomatic weapon. And yet this isn’t a passive life we’re called to live in the body of Christ; we live in this love among ourselves, yes, but we also welcome the sojourner and extend that good even to those who hate us.
Seriously, this kind of thing makes a preacher reconsider his or her vocation.
Mind you, this set of instruction isn’t through yet; it continues through chapter 13. But mercy, it’s challenging enough just going this far. And it reminds us just how far that transformation has yet to go in each of us or in all of us. And yet this is what we are submitting to, this is the call we are accepting in our lives, if we claim to be any part of the body of Christ.
To love actively; to be committed to Christ and to one another; to be always ready to reach out to those most in need and to defend those most persecuted; to be active in naming and calling out and utterly detesting and abhorring and hating evil, even when it rears its head right next to us, and yet to feed the hungry enemy; this is what it looks like when we truly submit ourselves as living offerings, and are transformed by the renewing of our minds instead of being conformed to the world.
And man, oh, man, is it hard. It’s hard to believe. It’s hard even to imagine. And it’s certainly hard to trust.
Nevertheless, Thanks be to God, anyway. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #409, God Is Here!; #306, Blest Be the Tie That Binds; #727, Will You Let Me Be Your Servant; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again
(Note: image credit here.)
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 20, 2017, Pentecost 11A
To Be Transformed
So what’s the point anyway?
Well, yes, but what of it?
What does any of this mean to me?
What am I supposed to do with all this information?
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of those long and winding lectures and been waiting for the speaker to get to the point, you might have asked one of those questions or something similar. Or perhaps in some cases you’ve had such a question thrown at you – perhaps by one of your children? You might have wondered this about a class in school or a job assignment, or maybe even a sermon on occasion (though I hope not).
It’s fair to suppose that maybe even some of the Romans to whom this letter was addressed, the Jewish and Gentile community of followers of Christ hearing this letter read as a part of their assembly for worship, might just have started wondering the same thing after a while. Paul (who, remember, had never been to Rome and whom most of the Romans had never met) certainly had a lot to say, and had constructed some serious and intricate arguments about sin and human weakness, the grace of God and the love of Christ, and his own feelings about the rejection of Christ by many of his fellow Jews (in what we know as chapters 9-11). By this time it’s entirely possible that those hearing the letter were beginning to wonder “OK, but what’s the point of all of this? What difference does it make? What am I supposed to do with all this?”
Well, now it’s time for the “so what.”
Not surprisingly, Paul introduces this final stretch of the letter with a great big transition word. In Greek it’s ουν (“oun”), which we translate as “therefore.” Paul has used a lot of that kind of language so far, but this is the big one: everything that has come before leads to this. All the intricate and heavy teaching that has come before? Now this is what it looks like in “real life.”
Beyond the opening word, the first two verses of this chapter serve not only to make the transition from teaching to application, but they also provide the foundation for the descriptive material to come. In this platform Paul deftly makes clear that the life for followers of Christ to live is not merely a “private” matter of the heart or the mere checking off a list of beliefs to profess; it is all-consuming, changing the way we live in both body and mind.
Paul’s first exhortation challenges his hearers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Two things should be clarified here. While we might get hung up on grisly images of sacrifice, the act of sacrifice took many forms in ancient Israel and other religions of the time, many of which did not involve the sacrifice of an animal. You might get a clearer image by using the word “offering” here. Also, you might remember how Paul spent a lot of time earlier in the letter lamenting the fallen condition of the human “flesh” (or σαρχ, “sarx”); here Paul is using not that word but the other “body” word, σομα (“soma”), the one that referred more specifically to the physical human body. So this is not some mere spiritualized exercise; this is an instruction that our whole physical self is to be offered up to God.
The very next verse, though, looks to a different kind of surrender: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It’s not enough for body or mind to be submitted, but the whole together. We are a package deal, so to speak. But it’s not about being made super-smart or some other kind of mental prowess; our minds are to be transformed to “discern what is the will of God”: to see, at least some tiny little bit, what God sees, or how God sees is the whole point of the transformed, renewed mind. And so much of being a disciple of Christ starts with this.
Perhaps it is not an accident that, after those exhortations to make our bodies into living offerings and submitting our minds for transformation and renewal, Paul’s next exhortation is to something like what we would call humility. That’s a word we often use badly or even abuse, misunderstanding it as a kind of self-abasement. Novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner captures that misuse:
Humility is often confused with saying you’re not much of a bridge players when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.
If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.
True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.
Even this, though, doesn’t completely capture what Paul is encouraging upon his readers and hearers in Rome. It’s not super easy to capture in words, but what Paul is encouraging here is that each of us should see ourself, in Paul’s words, “with sober judgment” – or “in your right mind,” so to speak, not distorted by arrogance or hatred nor by despair or shame.
In short, there is no room for assuming any kind of superiority – or supremacy, to use a word much in the news of late – to anybody else who is a child of God. My job is at least in part not to think too much of myself because I have the gift of being a preacher, or of being a cancer survivor (so far), or of being white, or male, or middle-aged, or a hybrid-vehicle driver or an introvert or any number of other attributes that I might be guilty of elevating as an object of pride or a means to exalt myself above others. Your list will look a little different, but you get the idea. The things we do or are don’t win us extra merit in the eyes of God. We’re not in this for brownie points. If we’re doing it right we see each other as fellow recipients of the gifts of God, nothing less.
Indeed even the thought of judging our selves “on our merits” doesn’t hold water if we’re truly thinking with that transformed mind from verse 2. It’s not about anything but seeing ourselves and one another as those who have received gifts from God, “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” as Paul puts it, for the purpose of living together in the body of Christ. There’s a lot hinging on that “transforming of our minds,” nothing less than our very ability to be the Body of Christ.
Even our ability to present our own bodies as a “living sacrifice”, our ability to be members of the Body of Christ here in Gainesville or anywhere in the world, hinges on this transformation. Our living in the Body depends on the renewing of our minds. All those lovely spiritual gifts in verses 6-8 start with what happens in verses 1-2.
Up to this point in the letter Paul has been trying to teach the Romans (as he understood it) a myriad of ideas about the law, and its susceptibility to sin; the grace of God and its sole power to defeat sin and to bring salvation to us; and now here is the key to living in that grace, to being “more than conquerors” living in the love of God from which nothing can separate us, as Paul wrote in Chapter 8.
You see, there are certain things a renewed mind, a mind thinking with “sober judgment,” discerning God’s will, cannot do. A renewed mind cannot live in fear. It certainly cannot wallow in suspicion of those who are Other, who are somehow Not Us. A renewed mind cannot see itself as superior because of accidents of birth or ability to check off a list of do’s and don’ts. A renewed mind will never assume that wealth equals righteousness, or that one country is any more special to God than any other, or that our way of doing church is the only way of doing church.
A renewed mind, a mind utterly transforming the way we think and live, discerns the body of Christ equally in a city slum or a shack in the woods. A renewed mind discerns the pain suffered by the oppressed (whether we have ever witnessed it or not), the despair and anguish of the poor and forgotten, the sins of pride of the privileged and elite, and weeps for all of them.
And perhaps hardest of all, a renewed mind is not something we can do. Note that Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, not “be transformed by renewing your mind. “ It doesn’t happen just of our own initiative; we can’t just “change our minds” by ourselves. Only in turning away from and renouncing our own willfulness and control can our minds be renewed by the same saving, loving, transforming grace that delivers us out of sin and restores us into full relationship with God. We don’t want to give up our way of seeing the world, of dividing the world into Us and Them; but a mind submitted fully to the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit learns to see the world through the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
And then, only then, are we no longer conformed to the world, with its scorekeeping and supremacy and walls. Only then do we really start to live as anything at all like the Body of Christ.
Let your mind be renewed, and the Body will follow.
For the renewing of our minds, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #310, I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord; #716, God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending; #322, We Are One In Christ Jesus; #697, Take My Life and Let It Be
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 13, 2017, Pentecost 10A
How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace
The melody is by Felix Mendelssohn, yes, the same composer of “songs without words” from last week’s sermon. This is from a chorus found in the second part of his oratorio Paulus, or Saint Paul. Mendelssohn’s text was originally in German, and the English version is a rather loose translation/paraphrase of the original, meant to fit Mendelssohn’s melody as much as to translate the German text accurately. Even so, neither this English version nor the original German text here in the oratorio has nothing about “feet,” which I suppose is just as well; most of us don’t have what we’d call beautiful feet, if one wants to be literal about such things.
Our reading tells us that Paul is quoting – “as it is written,” he says plainly – and in this case it’s from Isaiah 52:7. In that context the statement is elaborated a bit, clearly influencing the text of the oratorio:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Not surprisingly, Paul is happy to latch on to that one phrase ‘’who announces salvation” and translate it into his own context; for Paul, of course, the gospel is salvation.
How lovely are the messengers who preach us the gospel of peace.
Feet or no feet, Paul’s appropriation of Isaiah here serves to complete a rhetorical point that has been at least ten verses in the making by this time. Today’s reading includes several passages from Hebrew Scripture intended to support Paul’s key claim that all – all, not just Jews but “Greeks” also – all who call upon the Lord’s name will (in the words of Joel 2:32) “be saved.” From this end point Paul walks his readers back to the necessity of those “messengers” – how can they call upon one in whom they have not believed, how can they believe in one of whom they’ve never heard, how can they hear unless someone proclaims, how can anyone proclaim unless they are sent? It’s no surprise that this passage pops up in ordination services on occasion. It does seem to offer a clear rationale for the office of a preacher, or a “teaching elder” or “minister of word and sacrament” in Presbyterian-speak, as one “sent” to proclaim the name of the Lord on whom all are invited to call.
Of course it isn’t all joy. Paul himself has experienced firsthand, by the time he writes this letter, a great deal of rejection of the gospel message, not to mention opposition to it, sometimes violent. He knows fully well that “not all have obeyed the good news,” and turns again to Isaiah for support, or is it consolation – “Lord, who has believed our message?” [Isa. 53:1]
It particularly grieves Paul that many of those who have rejected the gospel are those to whom it was first proclaimed; namely, the people of Israel, or the Jews (Paul usually calls these people by the collective term “Israel”; let us not confuse it with the modern state). The whole discourse from which today’s reading is selected begins with a striking lament from Paul over this, in Romans 9:2-3:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. [Rom. 9:2-3]
Even as Paul spent his missionary career among primarily Greeks, even as this career proceeded under the adopted name “Paul” instead of his given, Jewish name “Saul,” he carried in his heart this grief over the general rejection of the gospel among “Israel.” Obviously this was not a universal case; there were Jews among the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing, as well as elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Still, he grieved over the rejection of the Messiah by the “people of Israel,” rejecting one of their own.
How lovely are the messengers who preach us the gospel of peace
As beautiful as this passage and this key verse is, though, there is danger here. It’s scary because, as Paul learned, people might say “no,” or worse they might change their opinion of us. We might not be one of the “cool kids” anymore. It’s also embarrassing because we live in a society that has seen more than its fair share of bad evangelism, preaching so permeated with hatefulness and exclusivity that any hearer would rightly wonder what’s so good about this supposed “good news.”
Maybe you’ve had the experience of “billboard evangelism,” driving up or down I-75 or the Turnpike to the sight of all those billboards from 1-855-FOR TRUTH or the one that literally aims to “SCARE THE HELL OUT OF YOU” (complete with flames around the word “hell”)?
Or maybe you’ve just been keeping up with the news this week. Perhaps you’ve seen how a pastor endorsed a potential nuclear attack against North Korea, leaving not just South Korea, but the island of Guam as well, contemplating the potential for being caught in nuclear crossfire. This pastor did so using scripture – Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in fact. We’ll get to that Chapter 13 in a few weeks, I promise.
Or maybe you simply watched in horror as events unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. Hiding an act of terror behind a claim of “free speech,” hundreds of “white supremacists” and “neo-Nazis” (really, why don’t we just call them racists and Nazis?) marched into that college town in an act of intimidation that (absolutely to no one’s surprise) turned violent, including a gruesome act of one such participant running down with a car a number of anti-racist counter-protesters not just once, but twice. These are not messengers of the gospel of peace, or of good news of any kind. Hatred is not gospel, and cannot be in the same room with it.
Maybe it’s because of all this bad evangelism that the messengers of the gospel of peace are still needed most desperately. And if we look, we can actually find those who show us a better way to be those messengers, bringing good news.
We might look at Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician from Texas who ended up in the headlines a few years ago as the first American to be diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus then raging in Liberia and other parts of Africa. Those who know Dr. Brantly spoke of a person who was called to be there, even as dangerous or as difficult as it is to be a physician working in inhospitable conditions to combat a disease with then no known cure.[i] Bizarrely, Dr. Brantly became an object of derision for certain American commentators at the time, who apparently believe it was his own fault for going off to a foreign country to do dangerous work when he could have stayed in the US and gotten rich and fat and not put himself in danger. But even a physician can, at times, bring a message of peace.
More historically, we could look at Mr. Rogers. You know, the guy with the neighborhood, the one on the bookmark that might be a pew near you. It was in the 1960s that Fred Rogers (who was, yes, an ordained Presbyterian minister) began his television show for children, and you might remember the 60s as an era fraught with conflict in American life, from the escalating war in Vietnam to backlash against the Civil Rights Movement at home. In that setting and time Mr. Rogers deliberately and decisively moved to make his show, his time with the children of the United States via public television, a time for not only teaching but showing peace, both in the skits with the various puppet characters learning the folly of war and in his relations with the human characters on the show as well. (Ed. note: for more on this aspect of his work see this book.)
Maybe one of his most vivid illustrations came on a hot summer day, when Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a small pool. As the neighborhood policeman, played by Francois Clemmons, a black man, walked by, Mr. Rogers invited him to take a break and cool his feet in the pool as well.[ii] This aired on PBS in 1969, a time in this country when such an image – white feet and black feet, in the same small pool – could get somebody shot or hanged. (I’ll trust you to compare that image with yesterday’s pictures.)
Even yesterday in Charlottesville those messengers of the gospel of peace were present. In a local church, praying and singing and praising God, or standing arm-in-arm at the entrance to the park where the racist rally had been scheduled, refusing to be moved, singing “This Little Light of Mine,” were dozens of clergy from around Virginia and elsewhere, including many of my seminary classmates and friends, people that I am prouder than ever to know. Standing in the face of hatred straight from the pit of Hell, they sang the gospel of peace.
How lovely are the messengers who preach us the gospel of peace.
We might look at each other here in this church, whether helping provide a meal or a night’s stay for the clients of Family Promise or St. Francis House, or providing a home for a possible Korean worshiping community here in Gainesville. For, you see, Paul slipped an important point into his discourse, practically when we weren’t looking. Notice verse 8: “the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” in verse 10, but then those beautiful feet in verse 15. Our faith, our gospel is not confined to the mind, but it occupies all of us from lips to feet, from head to toe. Our witness is embodied. We are messengers of the gospel of peace in not just what we say, but what we do. The hand of fellowship extended to the one we don’t know, who may have ducked in just to escape the heat or the rain; the word of the greeting to the coworker holed up in the cubicle next door; the cup of cold water given in Jesus’s name. Our message is not just spoken, but enacted daily, even when we may not realize it.
The message is not only embodied in each of our own individual bodies, it is embodied in all of us as the body of Christ. Our witness in staying together and continuing to come together as a congregation, being not merely in our community but being part of it, our welcome to those that others – even other churches – would declare unwelcome; this is a gospel of peace.
To be messengers of the gospel of peace, all of us, is not optional; it is inevitable. The only question is, what kind of messengers of the gospel of peace are we?
How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace.
How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #644, Give Thanks, O Christian People; #462, I Love to Tell the Story; #741, Guide My Feet
Sung benediction here.
[i] “Send me: U.S. doctor treated for Ebola drawn to mission work since youth,” http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/02/health/ebola-kent-brantly/index.html (Accessed August 7, 2017).
[ii] “Walking the Beat In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Where a New Day Began Together,” npr.org, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/11/469846519/walking-the-beat-in-mr-rogers-neighborhood-where-a-new-day-began-together (Accessed August 7, 2017).
This is no gospel of peace, nor are they messengers of it, no matter what they may call themselves or what “churches” may endorse or support them. Period.