Glory on the Horizon

                             Sermon on 25, September 2016 Romans 8:15-25;26-30                                                                                   PASTOR DON PIEPER

 

                             “GLORY ON THE HORIZON!

 

            Ever wonder what heaven will be like?  There are some rather interesting idea's in circulation these days. Gary Larson once depicted a man sitting on a cloud, looking bored, saying, “I wish I'd brought a magazine.”     Scrat, from Ice Age, winds up in a heaven filled with acorns....

            [YouTube video, “Scrat in Heaven”....]

            That's like the cat being told by St. Peter at the pearly gates that he can have or do anything he wants.  The cat responds that he'd like his master's satin pillow to sit on.  “Granted”. 

            Next Peter is approached by a group of mice.  He also offers to grant them whatever they want.  They tell him they've always dreamed of owning roller skates.  “Granted,” Peter exclaims. 

            The next day Peter is making rounds inside the gates when he sees the cat. “Well, Mr. Cat, what do you think?  Are you enjoying your satin pillow? 

            “To be sure!” says the cat.  “And might I say that the meals on wheels was a nice touch, too!”

            So some think it will be boring, sitting around on a cloud, playing a harp or some such thing – others that it's where we'll get to do and receive whatever we want.  But isn't that what plagues us here – unchecked selfishness, greed and self-indulgence?  Isn't that how things went south way back in the Garden...? There's a great deal of confusion out there regarding what lies beyond the pale. The question remains, what exactly is God offering us past that far distant shore, to which Jesus said he's the way...? 

            Paul answers that here at the center of his letter by pointing to glory on the horizon! No less than six times in thirteen verses Paul speaks of a future glory: “You received God's Spirit when He adopted you as his own children,” he writes, “and since we are His children..., together with Christ, we are heirs of God's glory.” (Romans 8:16-17)  Why is this glory better than getting what we think we want?

            Paul provides the first of several insights regarding this future glory that suggest this glory in question fills a need that is connected to the purpose of why we exist.  He says Christ makes us heirs of God's glory. That is, we don't earn it; it is bequeathed to us by way of a family relationship. As we relate to God's Son, Jesus, we become coheirs of his kingdom.  As Jesus declared: “God blesses those who are poor in heart, who realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of heaven is theirs...  God blesses those who are humble for they will inherit the earth...  God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.  God blesses those who are persecuted...for the Kingdom of heaven is theirs.”                   (Matthew 5:3, 5, 10)

            These attributes are the attributes of Jesus himself, and those who resemble him, adopted by His Father in heaven, inherit the Kingdom of heaven.  As Paul puts it, Jesus shares his glory with them.  “Now we live with great expectation,” Peter once wrote, “and we have a priceless inheritance – an inheritance that awaits us in heaven, pure and undefiled...” (1 Peter1:4)                                                                                  

           In Charles Dickens' Nickolas Nickleby, Nickolas befriends an orphan at the orphanage he works Appalled at the his cruel treatment at the hands of the headmaster, Nickolas takes him under his wing...

            [DVD clip from the film, Nickolas Nickleby; 39:40 – 40:50]

            Dickens, a devout Christian, points to some profound truth here.  The world around and within us that separates us from God will never be set by him.  We wander but in the end, he is our home!  

            Ultimately, Nick brings Smike home, where his family adopts him as one of their own...

            [DVD clip from the film, Nickolas Nickleby; 1:14:55 – 1:15:57]

                                                                               

            The inheritance of greatest value to Smike is that of the family's unconditional love and the gift of being in the ongoing presence of his friend and coheir, who shares his glory with his friend.

            A second insight Paul provides in Romans 8 is that this future glory puts our present troubles in perspective: “If we are to share Christ's glory, we must also share his suffering.  Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory He will reveal to us later.”  (Romans 8:17-18) 

            Paul points to a timeless truth here.  Seasons of pain come and go, but the joy that awaits us, the unconditional love, that we'll experience 24/7 will last for all eternity.  What we experience here is temporary at best.  What we experience ever-after is neverending! 

            It's one of the reasons I like to pray beneath a canopy of stars.  A starry night reminds me of how small and seemingly insignificant my worries and problems are in the big scheme of things, and yet, the Creator of the cosmos cares about them and me, and sent Jesus to draw me to himself that he might give me fresh perspective, hope and a great expectation. As Jesus said: “Don't let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God, trust also in me.  There is more than enough room in my Father's home. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you'll always be with me where I am.”                                                                                                                                     (John 14:1-3)

            Paul was no stranger to hardship and trouble: whipped, stoned, mocked, shipwrecked and bitten by snakes. Yet he said: 'What I suffer now is nothing compared to the glory He'll reveal to me later'  

                                                                                                                                    (Romans 8:18) 

            Paul goes on to point out that this future glory will involve the revelation of who God's true children are.  That's good news.  There are many today claiming to be Christian, or being identified as Christian, that don't in the least way resemble Jesus.  That frustrates me because I know many seekers give up on Jesus because of this fact.  I hear it a lot at Alpha.  Heard it this week!  But I'm encouraged, “For all creation is waiting eagerly for that day when God will reveal who His children really are!”                                                                                                                                (Romans 8:19)

            So its not just me!  All creation is eagerly waiting for that day.  There's a TV show, 'To Tell the Truth', in which three people pretend to be a fourth person.  The panelists try to guess which of the four is the actual person in question.  At the end, the host asks, 'Will the real...(John Smith), please stand up'. 

            Apparently, part of the way Christ will share his glory is by revealing the truth.  “Will the real Christ followers please stand up!” And only those who really are, will, and all of creation will rejoice!   

 

            Then Paul adds: “With eager hope, all of creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay...  We eagerly wait for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.” 

                                                                                                                                    (Romans 8:21-24)

            There's a moment in the book/movie, Heaven Is For Real, that I particularly like. Four-year-old Colton tells of meeting his father's maternal grandfather, “pop”, during his time in heaven.  When his father later showed him a photo, Colton said, 'Dad, nobody's old in heaven and nobody wears glasses'.

         

            Frustrated that he didn't recognize him, Colton's father sought out a much older photo, dating from 1943 with 'Pop', age 29, sitting with several other people.  When he showed it to Colton, he asked what he thought.  “Hey, how'd you get a picture of pop?  How come it's in black and white?”

            Part of our sharing in Christ's glory one day will include new resurrected bodies.  One day, not only will the pain of this world be swallowed up in joy and victory but so will all forms of age & decay.

No more glasses, psoriasis, arthritis, knee or back issues – and lots more hair!  Yes...!                                                                                

            Paul continues his insights of future glory by noting that “we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory.”  (Romans 8:23)  This builds on what we read this: “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you!”  (Romans 8:11)   God's resurrection power is to be released thru us by the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. That's what makes prayer so exciting! Furthermore, this outpouring of His Holy Spirit gives us a foretaste, a glimpse, of heaven.

            We catch powerful glimpses of such activity in the Book of Acts: “The apostles were perform-ing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people...  Crowds came from the villages around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those possessed by evil spirits, and they were all healed.”                                                                                                                                    (Acts 5:12, 16) 

            Many who've been prayed for here, have experienced physical and inner healing.  Paul says this is a mere sampling of what awaits us, a glimpse what Christ's kingdom in heaven is like!

            We experience this as “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words, and helps us to be in harmony with God's own will.”                                                                                                                                                       (Romans 8:26-27)

            We also catch a glimpse of God's glory when we see God's redeeming hand at work, transform-ing our mistakes, our woundedness, even our past waywardness itself to further His salvation plan for us and others.  “For we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”  (Romans 8:28)

            This is the overall witness of Scripture.  One of the most powerful images is that of the trees in Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 and those in Revelation 22.  The trees of life & knowledge are the catalyst for our separation from God as Adam & Eve eat from it's forbidden fruit, and the trees in Revelation 22 show God using the two trees to cause everything to work together for our good!                                                                                    

            “On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit.  The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”  (Revelation 22:2)

           In God's good plan, nothing gets wasted.  It is God's ultimate victory over the enemy, even that which he plots and schemes to bring death and decay wind up being used by God for our good, for the healing of the nations and the redemption of all creation, better because the wounds reveal God's grace in ways that would not be visible or known any other way, than by his redeeming what was broken. 

 

            And that's not all, Paul writes, “God chose His people to become like his Son..., and having chosen them he called them to come to him..., and in so doing, gave them His glory.”                                                                                                                                      (Romans 8:29-30)

            This is God's ultimate plan, to transform you into the image of his son, that is, to sanctify you, by drawing you to himself.  It is by being in his presence that we become more and more like him, that indeed we come to reflect his glory.  Like Smike, we whisper, “You are my home! We're family!”

            There's the story of a woman who was dying of cancer.  During her pastor's visit she whispered to him her dying wish.  There was something she wanted to be buried with.  And so when the time came, he made it so.  At her open casket funeral people paused, marveled and murmured.  “Why, in the world, has some one put a common table fork in her hand?  What's that all about?” 

            The pastor explained.  The woman was an active member of his church and had attended countless church potlucks over the years in which she and others had been told at the end of the meal, with the yummy desserts waiting in the foyer, “Save your fork, the best is yet to come!” 

            Troubles will come, but don't let them distract you from the prize.  Christ intends to give you glimpses of future glory through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but don't crave the manifestations, crave the relationship behind them.   Christ himself is the ultimate prize and he intends to share his glory with you!   Nothing could be more exciting!  So save your fork, the best is yet to come! 

            “Nothing can compare to the glory He will reveal to us later! We are heirs of God's glory!”                                                                                                                                    (Romans 8:17-18

Living In the Spirit

                                      Sermon on 18 September 2016 John 14:15-21,25-7/                                                Romans 8:1-16          PASTOR DON PIEPER

                                                                                                                      

                                          “LIVING IN THE SPIRIT

 

            Last week..., we read of how Paul admits to a battle waging within him: “There is another power within me that is at war with my mind.  This power makes me a slave to the sin that is within me – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong!”  (Romans 7:21-23)

            It's quite the dilemma..., but it doesn't end there.  Many of us convince ourselves we're good enough as is.  The last thing we want is anyone suggesting that something's amiss or wrong with us... 

Hobbes:          Aren't you supposed to be doing homework now?

Calvin:                        I quit doing homework. Homework is bad for my self-esteem. 

Hobbes:          It is?

Calvin:                      Sure! It sends the message that I don't know enough! All that emphasis on right answers makes me feel bad when I get them wrong. So instead of trying to learn, I'm just concentrating on liking myself the way I am. 

Hobbes:     Your self-esteem is enhanced by remaining an ignoramus? 

Calvin:                  Please! Let's call it “informationally impaired”.   

            Calvin's comments reveal the danger of living in denial of our need to know when/where we are in the wrong.  Paul explains that this is the purpose of God's law.  The law, like a mirror, reveals our flaws, where we are out of sync with the character and will of God.  The story of Adam & Eve teaches us that getting out of sync...separates us from God and that separation brings death – physical/spiritual.

            As Paul declares at the end of chapter 7: “Oh, what a mess I am!  Who will free me from this life dominated by sin and death?  Thank God!  The answer is Jesus Christ our Lord who brings victory...by showing us a new way of living by walking in the Spirit!”  (Romans 7:24-25)

           This, then, brings us to the heart of Paul's letter – Romans 8 – the center of his letter.  Here Paul speaks of the freedom we gain through this life-giving Spirit – the Holy Spirit, who sets us free from the fear of being condemned for messing up God's perfect plan for us and others, and then adds this:           “The Law was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature so God did what the law could not do.  God declared an end to sin's control over us giving his son as a sacrifice for our sins.  He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.”  (Romans 8:3-4)

            It's like the extraordinary experience of Ernest Gordon, a British officer captured by the Japanese during WW II. Gordon was sent to work on the Burma-Siam railway where 80,000 men ultimately died, 393 fatalities for every mile of track.  It was a brutal place, dominated by hate and survival at all cost.  Stealing and backstabbing were prevalent. At one point a shovel went missing so a guard lined up the men demanding to know who took it but no one spoke. 'All die;all die!' he screamed raising his rifle to fire at the first man in line. At that instant an enlisted man stepped forward stood at attention and said 'I did it'. The guard fell him on with a fury, ultimately crushing his skull with the butt of his rife.  Later when an inventory was made, a mistake was discovered: there was no shovel missing! The words of Jesus were quoted that night: “There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.”     (John 15:13)

            Gordon credits that event for why he stopped following his sinful nature....and instead began following the Spirit.  He even pursued the ministry after the war.                                                                                  

            So how does this work?  How do we follow the Spirit whom we can neither see nor touch?

Paul offers several key insights...:

1)     The Holy Spirit resides within all who open the door of their hearts to Jesus.

2)     His life-giving Spirit sets us free by guiding us and giving us a whole new mindset.

3)     The Holy Spirit living within you has resurrection power.

4)     Learning to follow the Spirit helps us grow into the very likeness of Jesus himself.

            One, here in Romans 8 Paul repeats a teaching from his letters to the churches in Corinth, where he wrote: “No one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.”  (1 Corinthians 12:3)

            Paul echoes that teaching here in Romans 8: “The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.”  Or again, “For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm we are God's children.”                              (Romans 8:11, 16)

            Paul makes it clear that as we open our hearts to Jesus, His Spirit comes to live within us.  This echoes the promise Jesus himself made when he said, “Behold!  I stand at the door and knock.  If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in...”              (Revelation 3:20) 

            As the perfect gentleman he is, he doesn't force his way in, he waits at the door of your heart and your life, knocking, waiting for you to open the door.  He knocks sometimes by sending people into our lives who give witness to his love and grace.  Othertimes by setting up so called coincidences that grab our attention or by stirring His Spirit within ours, as he suggests in verse 16... 

            If you've never done so, why not do so today?   Open the door, and invite Jesus in... 

            Second, Paul tells us His life-giving Spirit sets us free by guiding us and giving us a whole new mindset.  Paul writes, “No longer follow your sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.  Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.   Letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death, but letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.”  (Romans 8:4-6)

            So how does that work?  How do we follow the Spirit?  Well, put one foot in front of the other!

            Step 1: Learn to recognize Jesus' voice.  Jesus said: “(I am he) who calls his sheep by name and leads them out.  I walk ahead of them and they follow me because they recognize my voice.”                                                                                                                                    (John 10:3-4)

            How do we come to recognize his voice?  By listening to and studying his words in the gospels.  As you come to know his heart and the things that're important to him you'll recognize his words to you.                                                                                                                      

            How do we follow the Spirit?  Step 1: Learn to recognize Jesus' voice.

            Step 2: Learn what pleases the Spirit.  Paul wrote: “Those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.”  (Romans 8:5)  How do you learn to do that?  Listen for what he's up to in the places in Scripture that focus on him.  Jesus talks about him, as we heard in this morning's first reading.  As we see in Romans, Paul talks a lot about him.  There's even a book in the New Testament that is solely dedicated to telling of the Spirit's influence on the early church: Acts! 

            As you read through Acts you'll see that the types of things that are pleasing to the Spirit are when followers of Christ are actively helping, healing, witnessing, glorifying and otherwise loving on others in Jesus' name.  As Paul put it: “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22)                                                                                 

            How do we follow the Spirit?  Step 1: Learn to recognize Jesus' voice.

            Step 2: Learn what pleases the Spirit.    Step 3: Learn from others.  

            There are a number of Christ followers in our community who actively seek to be led by the Spirit who could mentor you.  There are also a host of books out there by other followers who are or have done the same:  Francis Chan, Nicky Gumbel, Catherine Marshall, John Wimber, to name a few. 

            Get mentored!   How do we follow the Spirit?  Step 1: Learn to recognize Jesus' voice.

            Step 2: Learn what pleases the Spirit.    Step 3: Learn from others.  Step 4: Pray and practice!

            It's a process of learning to trust that God wants to directly and personally lead you in order to make your life more meaningful, more significant, as you increasingly look at life and faith as an adventure in discovering what that next thing God has in store for you, from moment to moment... 

            Usually I sense his leading thru inner nudges.  I had one this week about our roofers...  I prayed as I got out of the car but didn't see them anywhere.  When I walked in Walt was telling them about Alpha.  I sat with them, got acquainted, and after Justin asked a question about our church I told him about our worship & Alpha.  Whether he and his family come is in God's hands but I knew God was in the midst of that conversation...  'God is on the move' – our job is to try and keep up and in step...!

            A third insight Paul shares in Romans 8: The Holy Spirit living within you has resurrection power. That's what makes prayer ministry so powerful.  When we pray over one another the Holy Spirit within us is activated.  This week at Alpha, Shawn, Natalia and Josh got up in front and shared how, in their own ways, they experienced this.  Shawn's depression gave way to outgoing vitality, Natalia's pain was turned to joy and Josh's infected gall bladder gave way to healing and God being glorified! 

            “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you!”  (8:11) Trust that...! 

            Fourth, Learning to follow the Spirit helps us grow into the very likeness of Jesus himself. Paul writes: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  You have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves.  Instead, you received God's Spirit when he adopted you as His own child-ren.  Now we call him, 'Abba, Father.'  For His Spirit joins with our spirit.  We are God's children!”                                                                                                                     (Romans 8:14-16)

            Notice that here that relationship is expressed not so much as individuals but as a family, as community.  We are God's children – collectively!   Only together do we become the Body of Christ!

            Remember Ernest Gordon?   For most of the war the prison camp had been a laboratory of survival of the fittest, every man for himself.  Prisoners fought over food scraps, officers hoarded their special rations, theft was prevalent.  Men lived liked animals. Then came the sacrifice of that private.  Afterwards attitudes began to shift.  Prisoners started treating the dying with respect.  Prisoners began looking out for each other rather than themselves.  Thefts all but disappeared.   I'll let Gordon tell it...

            “A new Spirit spread through the camp.  Death was still with us, but we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip.  We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death.  Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-indulgence, laziness and pride were all anti-life.  Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense.  These were the gifts of God to men and evidence that even there...we could walk in His Spirit.                                                                                

            God was calling us to live the divine life in fellowship!”   Gordon tells of the transformation of the men in the camp, a transformation so complete that when liberation finally came the prisoners treated their sadistic guards with kindness and not revenge.  They had come to resemble Jesus himself.                                                                                                           (from the book, To End All Wars)

            The miracle on the River Kwai was no less than the creation of an alternative community, a tiny settlement of the kingdom of God taking root in the least likely soil, a spiritual fellowship that some how proved more substantial and more real than the world of death and despair all around. 

            And now he is calling you and me.  He wants to lead you by the Spirit but he doesn't do so as isolated believers but as the children of God, called, claimed, adopted as His own, that through us, led by His Spirit, we may bring to life, in this place and time, the kingdom of God, as we give up our own agenda to embrace his and as he leads us from the darkness of self into the new life of the Spirit!

            “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you!”  (Romans 8:11) Trust that! 

 

 

I do but I don't

 Sermon on 11 September 2016 - Romans 7:1-6; 7-25

Pastor Don Pieper

 


           

    In our sermon series, going through Paul's letter to the churches in Rome, Christopher explored with us last week Paul's themes of freedom and slavery as covered in Romans 6.  He began with a few comments from our friends, Calvin & Hobbes, who actually have more to say on the subject... 
Calvin:         I can't believe summer is almost over.  Soon school will start.  No more freedom.  
            No more long days outside.  No more fun.  
Hobbes:   Well, let's go make the most of the time we have left! 
Calvin:        Nah, I've reserved the rest of the month for moping.  

    Calvin's thoughts regarding the end of summer and returning to school relates to the common perception about obeying God's word – that it inhibits our fun and robs us of our freedom.  But as Christopher shared last week obeying God's word actually expands our freedom not unlike obeying the rules of any given sport increases the fun of playing and limits the risk of injury... 

    Christopher pointed out that one cannot understand a chapter in the book of Romans without familiarizing oneself with the chapters that precede and follow it.  The book has a flow to it and the themes that Paul writes about are revisited and enhanced as one precedes...  Chapter 7, for example, is the midsection of a subsection that began in chapter five and concludes at the end of chapter 8.  

    Perhaps a quick overview might help.   Romans is Paul's most comprehensive presentation of the gospel and the most systematic theological discourse found anywhere in Scripture.  Where other letters present the milk for new believers here he provides us the meat.  

    Here Paul clarifies the significance of Christ's death and resurrection and the core concepts of the Christian faith: sin and grace, faith and spiritual fruit, justification and sanctification.  

    The letter begins with a kind of prologue, 17 verses long, that include his greeting, thanksgiving and reason for writing – to prepare them for his upcoming visit to them.  He goes on to provide 1) a detailed description of the sinfulness of man (1:18-3:20); 2) an extensive discussion of justification by faith (3:21-5:11); 3) an elaborate exploration of sanctification (5:12-8:39), 4) an inspired correlation between the history of Israel and the calling of Christ's church (9:1-11:36); and 5) instruction on how believers are to live out their faith in relationship to society, the government and other believers (12:1-15:13); before concluding with his personal plans, greetings to specific individuals and blessings                                             (Romans 15:14-16:27).
    Because Paul writes to a mixed membership of those from Jewish and non-Jewish background he repeatedly clarifies such issues as salvation through faith, the power of the cross and the significance of the law, which he takes up again, for the third time, here in chapter seven. This is not only crucial for his ancient audience in Rome but for Christians down through the ages as our tendency is to slip in to thinking and believing that that our hope of salvation is based somehow on what we do or don't do.

    Chapter seven, then, begins by returning to the rhetorical question he asked in the previous chapter: “Shall we continue to sin because we are free of the law under grace?”  (Romans 6:15)  And our survey says...?  NO! Of course not.  And to illustrate that truth he makes a comparison to marriage:
    “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband.”  (Romans 7:2)
                            -2- 

    That is, if one partner dies, the other is no longer bound by the law and is free to marry someone else.  The implication of this illustration would be that the law died as a way to get right, so the believer is free to “marry” grace.”   Who is 'Grace' you may ask?  The single men are wondering is she is cute...  

    No, not that grace – the grace of God.  Paul's point is that in Christ the power of the law has died and as such those who place their trust in him, who are in a relationship with Jesus, are now free to marry God and bear fruit for him, for out of a marriage relationship comes children. Out of our intimate relationship with Christ comes the fruit of obedience and acts of loving kindness to others.  

    “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, this is the point: you died to the power of the law when you gave your life to Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God, a harvest of good deeds that glorify God!”   (Romans 7:4) 

    That's sanctification – a word that means how we work out our salvation, how we become more and more like the one we follow, or in a word, how we become holy, which is what the word means.  
    We become holy by bearing fruit and do this as we learn to serve God not out of compliance but out of thankfulness.  Or as Paul so beautifully puts it: “Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new of living in the Spirit.”  (Romans 7:6) 
    
    So ends chapter seven, section one.  Section two, begins with yet another rhetorical question – Paul's favorite teaching tool: “Well, then, am I suggesting the law of God is sinful?”  And our survey says...., (bing, bing, bing): “No!  Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed my sin!”  
                                            (Romans 7:7) 
    Is the law of God a bad thing, he asks?  Is the law, because some use it to hammer others they deem less godly over the head with it, bad in and of itself?   No, because God gave us the law to reveal to our blind eyes and rationalizing minds, how far off from God we really are.  

    From the metaphors of freedom and slavery in chapter six, which Christopher so skillfully took us through, Paul now utilizes the metaphors of death and defeat as opposed to life and victory.  And as he does so he personalizes it.  For the first time in this letter he shifts to the personal pronoun, “I”...  
    “At one time I lived without understanding the law.  But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died.  So I discovered that the law's commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead.”  (Romans 7:9-10)

    Paul asserts here that the law reveals our desperate state – that we are far off from God, and the scriptures are clear that pernament separation from God is the definition of death.  So even though “sin used the law to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me” (7:8) Paul still emphatically asserts that the law itself remains “holy and right and good”.  (Romans 7:12)

    How can that be?  Ready for another biting rhetorical?  “Did the law, which is good, cause my death?”  And the survey says, (bing, bing, bing): “No, of course not!  Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death! So we can see how terrible sin really is...!”  (Romans 7:13)

    There ends section 2!  The law is inherently good because it reveals the truth!  It reminds me of the classic story of Dorian Gray, a man puffed up with pride, who makes a deal with the devil for eternal youth and vitality, as long as he never looks at his painting....that reveals the truth about his soul
    [DVD clip from the film, Extraordinary Gentlemen;             ]  
                            -3- 

    Section three continues Paul's self-disclosure and self-discovery: “So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good.  The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, I am a slave to sin.” 
                                            (Romans 7:14)
    There's that old slavery/freedom motif again.  What I find particularly amazing about that verse is that Paul speaks in the present tense rather than in the past tense.  As a believer and follower of Jesus shouldn't he have said that he was a slave to sin?  But instead, he humbly declares, I am a slave to sin. 

    No words that Paul writes do I relate to more than those and the ones that follow.  I am so very thankful that Paul wrote them.   In them I see myself and the plight that so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ struggle with, at least those that are honest with themselves.  Some Christians seem to have it all figured out.  They talk about their struggles with sin in the past tense.  That's not me...! 

    You see..., “I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it.  Instead, I do what I hate.”  (Romans 7:15)  I want to do God's good, but I don't.  
    In the world of Star Wars, I'm no Jedi.  When told how to do what is right and good, I tend to respond, “Okay, I'll try”, to which the gerus in my life respond,'No, either do or do not, there is no try'.

    But I keep trying..., and it's two steps forward and three steps back.  Or in the words of Paul: “I want to do what is right, but I can't.  I want to do what is good, but I don't.  I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway...  I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.  I love God's law with all my heart, but there is another power within me that is at war with my mind.  This power makes me a slave to the sin that is within me.” 
                                            (Romans 7:18-9,21-3)
    Does this strike a chord with anyone else?  Why is it that we who believe in Jesus, trust that he has conquered death and sin on our behalf on the cross, still so struggle with the old Adam within?  If we are free to live new lives..., why do I, why do we, struggle so to do so?  I do but I don't!  

    Maybe because there is something within us that fights to be in control, that refuses at all costs to submit to such moral scrutiny, as the law demands and provides?  Maybe I'm more like a willful kid, a specific willful kid, one we know by the name of Calvin, then I'd like to admit...!  
Calvin:     Dear Santa, before I submit my life to your moral scrutiny, I demand to know who made you         the master of my fate? Who are you to question my behavior, huh? What gives you the right?!  
Hobbes:   Santa makes the toys, so he gets to decide who to give them to.  
Calvin:        Oh.....   Time to prepare my appellate case. 

    In other words, Calvin concludes, with a little help from a friend, his only hope is to make an appeal to the judge – or to use a familiar phrase, to throw himself on the mercy of the court!  So it is for me...and for you!  Romans 7 points clearly to the terminal state of our all-too-human condition.  We will never be able to overcome our sinfulness merely by trying harder.  Our only hope is to throw our-selves at the mercy of the court and thank goodness we have an advocate willing to take our case, who has in fact, already taken our case.  And if we ask he will replace our taste for one more pringle, one more forbidden fruit, with the flavor of grace, and the fruit of righteousness that he alone can provide. 

    As Paul puts it: “Oh, what a miserable person I am!  Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is Jesus Christ our Lord who brings victory... by showing us a new way of living by walking in the Spirit!”  (Romans 7:24-25)  
    How so?  Stay tuned...!  That is the focus of Romans 8!  In the mean time, let's pray...

Spending these past weeks in Romans has hopefully helped reveal just how well structured Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is. After spending a couple of weeks on Paul’s introductory words, we moved onto the apostle’s examination of sin. When he has pointed out our sin, Paul emphasizes our immense need for someone to save us. We are in a hole, totally bankrupt, and as a result we can newly appreciate God’s grace through Jesus Christ. We begin to recognize our value and identity as being a tremendous gift, which we cannot possibly earn through our own strength. As my dad explained last week, this gives us reason for joy in all circumstances. Who we are is not determined by our hardships, our failures, our comforts, or our triumphs. Who we are is decided totally and irrevocably by Jesus Christ.

The couple of times that I have been able to preach on Romans this summer, I have tried to unpack with my dad the gravity of this message to the Roman church. It is good news, but it is also wholly new and different news. There is no other religion in the world that tells you, “There is nothing you can do to establish yourself. All of that has been done for you already.” We are, so to speak, given gold medals before we even enter the pool (cf. 21 August’s sermon, “Gold Medals Before We Swim”). However, Paul is also keenly aware of the ethical problem this abundant grace seems to raise: “What will keep Christians in the pool? If they have received everything, what makes Jesus’ grace anything other than a cheap Get Out of Jail Free card?” In the words of some early converts, “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace?” (Rom 6.1 NLT). In chapters five and six, Paul responds to these concerns by tying together three key concepts or themes.

Paul’s three themes are friendship, slavery, and freedom.    

Paul begins with friendship, certainly aware that the idea of friendship is something that his Roman peers value. We still assign some value to friendship today, so Paul’s starting with friendship makes some sense to us, too, but Paul’s contemporaries gave friendship much more priority than we do today. In the modern-day West, we rarely consider it possible that friendship could be something as beautiful as or even more beautiful than our romantic relationships. The ancients thought that friendship possessed a superior beauty. C.S. Lewis once wrote, whereas “very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all … to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue” (“Friendship,” Lewis). Why? Lewis adds that the reason friendship is second priority to us and was first priority to the ancients is because it is the least natural love. It is a non-sexual, non-necessary relationship, and is therefore selfless in a way that all romantic and business connections are not.

Pastor Timothy Keller provides a helpful explanation, “If it weren’t for erotic [romantic] love, you wouldn’t exist; if it weren’t for family love, you wouldn’t have been reared; if it weren’t for neighbor [civic] love, you couldn’t even survive (crime, oppression, that sort of thing, [would wipe you out]). Therefore, in a busy culture like ours, where we’re working long hours or traveling, all the other loves, all the other relationships, will push themselves on you. … You still have to deal with your family; you still need civic relationships; you need vocational networking to get a job; you still want to have romance. But friendship, which takes incredibly deliberate amounts of intentionally spent time, over time, will always get squeezed out. And yet the book of Proverbs says you won’t make it without friends. Friendship love is unique” (“Friendship,” Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living, Timothy Keller). Keller is talking about friendship by delving into the context of the Proverbs, but I think that his description of the remarkable non-necessity of friendship will be helpful to us as we look at what Paul writes, too. Remember this: Keller and Lewis are saying that friendship is “chosen” in a unique sense, which no other love quite replicates. True friendship has the beauty of being fully chosen, without prior need of the other person.

Let’s return to Romans, where Paul brings up friendship himself. We saw it last week, when we read through Romans 5, so we are going to review some of that. Paul writes, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God” (Rom 5.6-11 emphasis added).

Have you ever wondered why Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15.13). I have always stumbled over that passage a bit. I have thought, “What? That makes no sense. It would make way more sense to say that someone who laid down his or her life for their enemies showed the greatest love.” Right? [Because that’s what Jesus did.] If you are asking that question, you are so close. Paul explains it here. Jesus lay down his life for us “while we were still his enemies” and thereby restored our friendship with God (Rom 5.10). Jesus proved and restored friendship with us when he died for us. The man or woman who lays down his or her life for an enemy proves that they are no longer their enemy but a friend. Jesus did that for you. That is the gift—God’s friendship—that Jesus freely gives you.

But that is not the end of the story, for if we were satisfied with reception of the gift—his friendliness—being the end of the story, we would not have understood. Who is really a friend, if he or she feels that the friendship should conclude where it began? Nobody. The joy and the gift of friendship is in the journey that the two of you participate in together. This is where I think Keller’s words about friendship are most helpful to us. Jesus has chosen us for friendship first. That is the bottom line. Still, friendship is meant to be two-sided. It is chosen by both members of the friendship, even if one person is the initiate. That is why Jesus, immediately after saying, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” adds, “If you are my friends, you will obey my commands” (Jn 15.14). There is no one without the other. If we accept the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf, then we accept his friendship. No one in their right mind receives a priceless gift and never makes use of it. If we accept Jesus’ friendship (his gift), we will walk with him, live with him, follow him.

Friends are not, according to Jesus and Paul, independent or free from one another. Friends are connected. You might say, they are chained together. This is how Paul’s second and third themes come to the fore: slavery and freedom. Paul will not allow you to get through this chapter without being provoked by his metaphor of slavery. “Because of the weakness of your human nature,” he writes, “I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy” (Rom 6.19). Be challenged by those words. Do not miss their implication. Paul moves from the concept of friendship with Christ into slavery under Christ seamlessly, and that challenges the foundational principals of most Americans.

[Images evoking the idea of freedom, ending with the Statue of Liberty]        

Don’t “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence). We want freedom, not slavery. Paul knows that, and he therefore has to be as blunt about this truth—another mind-blowing paradox—as he can be: there is no freedom [in the biblical salvific sense] without slavery. We are so fixated on the idea of absolute or “total” liberty in America that this is one of the hardest lessons Paul has for us, but it is wholly biblical. Paul tells us that our freedom from sin comes through friendship with Christ: “For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. … So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Rom 6.7, 11 emphasis added). He then reminds us that friendship to Christ is a life of obedience: “give yourself completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (v 12 emphasis added). And, finally, he tells us that obedience is slavery: “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living” (v 16 emphasis added). In summary: freedom from sin is friendship with Christ; friendship with Christ is obedience to Christ; obedience to Christ is slavery to Christ/righteousness.      

I know it sounds complicated, and I will try to make it clearer. [If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Freedom = Friendship = Obedience = Slavery.]

We are so obsessed with the idea of having our rights and having “total” freedom—that is, the ability to do whatever we like. But Paul wants you take very seriously the danger of sin. The following is what “total” freedom leads to according to Paul: “total” freedom (to sin, too) is friendship with all that the world offers; friendship or intimacy with all the world offers is obedience to sin (because we then engage in sin, too); obedience to sin is slavery to death (we will die if we sin). Paul points out our slavery to or friendship with sin and reveals where that relationship leads (“You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom” [v 21]), so that we can recognize the friendship with and slavery to Christ in all its goodness: “But now you are free [freedom] from the power of sin and have become slaves [slavery] of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life [obedience]. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord [friendship]” (vv 22-23).

Paul is concluding that there is a certain form of boundedness, instead of boundlessness, that is the real, human expression of freedom. Many of us know this from our own experience. We have expressed our “total” freedom through parties, alcohol, sexual looseness, drugs. In the end, we are attached to, we are friends with, we are slaves to those activities instead of the life God calls us to. Romans 5 and 6 remind us, God is infinite. We are finite. Rejecting that truth is the first human mistake recorded in the Bible. Adam and Eve were convinced that they could be like God, but closeness to God and likeness to God had already been given to them. All they had to do was walk with him in the Garden. All they had to do was respond to God’s friendship. Today, through the cross on which Jesus died and the new life he has prepared for you, you are given the opportunity to walk with your Father again. You are allowed to recognize your need for him, and you ought not to be ashamed at that need. You were made for him. You were made for dependence. You were made for friendship with God, and he is offering that to you through his son, Jesus. You were made for obedience, not because obedience makes you less, rather because obedience makes you more: more free, more alive, more of who you really are and were created to be.

To close, I want to read part of Psalm 27, in which David rejoices in God’s provision. He realizes it is everything he needs. We get to sense that David cannot stay away from the Temple of God. Why? God means everything to him! Coming to the Temple is a sign of friendship, just as it is a sign of obedience. In the same way, the Christian life is one of friendship, as well as obedience. David rejoices in everything that God is. God is both friend and king. I pray for you that you may rejoice in everything that God is for you, too. He is so much more than you previously imagined. And his love is reaching from heaven to you through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the gracious gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.

[Psalm 27.4-14]

Our Source of Joy

Sermon on 28 August 2016 - Romans 5

Pastor Don Pieper

Having established that it is by faith in the saving work Christ...that we are made right with God in chapter 4..., Paul goes on to do a compare & contrast between Adam and Jesus: “If by the sin of this one man, Adam, death reigned and was passed on thru that one man,how much more will those who receive grace and righteousness reign in life thru this one man, Jesus Christ?” (Romans 5:17)

To understand Paul's point one needs to understand what went wrong in the Garden of Eden. One comedian I loved growing up, put it like this...: “One day Adam and Eve were running around, all natural, in the Garden together...: 'Dee-dee-dee-dee...” Now Adam is the man; he remains constant. He's into instant gratification. He's always.... See, that's the man. Now the woman, Eve, she's always: 'Come here, come here, come here; get away, get away, get away!' 'Eat these mudpies', she says. 'Oh, yes! I love them; bla-la-la...!' 'Here, eat this tree!' 'Oh, yes – bla-bla-la....!' She was messin' with Adam. I know! I married a women! I know what was going on! But then she ran out of things for him to be eatin', see? So she pulled an apple off the forbidden tree, knowing that she was out of line. Bit it – knew there was going to be trouble and handed it to Adam and said, 'here, eat this.' So he did, knowing full well that he wasn't supposed to, but he did it anyway! Crunch! Now they're both out of line! Next thing you know, there's the Lord: “Okay! (blow whistle) Everybody – out of the pool! Out! Out! Everybody!” And that's how the first, “No Swimming” sign came to be!

People today get all caught up in who was to blame – the man or the woman, but they miss the point. They're both to blame. Both got kicked out of God's perfect swimming hole. Paul's reference to the impact of that first sin in the Garden is not a male/female question but a life or death question. If you know the story you know that the result of their sin is death. Not only will they now both age and die, but animals begin to attack and eat each other, Adam & Eve's own offspring result to murder.

Paul summarizes this truth when he writes: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through his sin, in this way, death came to all men, for all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)

From generation to generation this legacy has been passed down. Our sin separates us from God and such separation brings death for God is the source of all life. “Adam's one sins brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ's one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.” (Romans 5:18)

Paul's contrasting the legacy of Adam with that of Christ reflects back to his opening words in chapter five: “Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.” (Romans 5:1)

Having established how we come to be at peace with God, the one whom we have avoided, ignored, disobeyed, discounted and often outright rejected by our selfish, wayward ways, Paul goes on to talk about how our faith in Jesus, is the source of an otherworldly joy.

Paul identifies the source of this joy in three ways: 1) “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (5:2); 2) “We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (5:3) 3) “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (5:11)

Let's look at those in reverse order. The third, our joy in being reconciled to God, echoes Paul's opening words about having peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.

Paul is saying if we keep our focus on what Christ has done for us, our hearts and lives should exhibit great joy. Mean-spirited, unfriendly, grumpy Christians is kind of an oxymoron, then isn't it? If we really believe Jesus died for us, that God loves you & me that much, seems to me it should show!

Paul echoes that sentiment a few verses later when he writes: “God demonstrates His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:8) God was chasing after you long before you ever acknowledged your need for him! He doesn't love you because you have made such a positive impression on Him. He loves you because He loves you... (H.T.B.!)

I read a book recently about Ronald Reagan. Reagan once asked one of his bodyguards, Tim McCarthy, how he felt he was doing as president to which the man, without hesitation, answered, “Mr. President, I would take a bullet for you.” And that's exactly what he did the day a mentally unbalanced man by the name of John Hinckley took aim and fired muliple times.

His bodyguard did that out of loyalty... Jesus did that not because of the good job you've been doing but because of his undying love and compassion for you. He took a bullet/3 nails for you!

It's like the foolhardy captain who needlessly put himself and those on board his small yacht in peril who embraced the coastguard that pulled him to safety, sobbing tears of joy and gratitude.

If no one intervened, your life and mine, would be a sinking ship, so God sent his only beloved son, Jesus, on a rescue mission, to leap into your stormy waters to rescue you...! By doing so God has demonstrated his love for you! Embracing him who is your lifeline....brings great joy...!

Not only that, Paul declares, “We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3) This comes to us from a guy who was mocked, beaten, shipwrecked, shackled and cursed by his “religious” peers.

Okay – really? We can rejoice in our sufferings? Has Paul gone off the deep end a bit here? Isn't that a bit sadistic, if not unrealistic? Who actually rejoices because of their pain or loss?

Note, however, that Paul doesn't say we are to rejoice because of our suffering but in our suffering. He's not advocating some kind of morbid view of life but a joyous and triumphant one. He wants to save us from a defeatist attitude. After all hardships will come, sooner or later. Everyone dies. Storms are a fact of life. The question is, how will you respond when they assail you?

Paul points to God's redemptive plan. He wants to bring meaning to our loss and grief. God looks to turn the table on the enemy and mold the character of Christ in you. Only thru hardship do we grow. I loved Melanie's testimony a couple of weeks ago. She sat up here and courageously shared how God had used the adversity and pain she was experiencing...to bring to her attention God's desire to mold her character. She came home humbled, yet incredibly joyful, her potential for loving stronger – particularly those who claimed to be Christian but didn't exactly look or act very much like Christ!

Nick Taylor is another prime example... Nick has lost the clarity of his speech due to his battle with illness. If that weren't enough, a few months ago his face and hands were seriously burned in a work-related accident. But in the midst of these things Nick has continued to grow. His attitude has been amazing. His love of the Lord unflinching. He is one of my heroes as his character, it seems to me, more and more resembles that of the one he seeks to follow...

“We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and per-severance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us!” (Romans 5:3-5)

Corrie ten Boom writes of such an experience while she and her sister, Betsie, were suffering in a German concentration camp, in her bestseller, The Hiding Place. She tells, for instance, of her lament

and sorrow of their winding up in packed, flea-ridden barracks with other inmates. Her sister coaches her to rejoice in the goodness of God even in such circumstances and later to not to give in to hate. To their amazement the guards never break up their prayer and worship tho these actions are strictly for-bidden under penalty of death. It is only later that they learn the reason why – the fleas... Thru their witness many women come to cling to the hope of seeing God's glory!

Just before dying Betsy tells her sister that God has given them a message not only for the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck, but to the world after the war. Tell them, Betsy whispers, “...must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit as deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.” (The Hiding Place)

“We rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us!” (Romans 5:3-5)

The hope Paul speaks of here reflects back to the third source of our joy: “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2) We anticipate, Paul writes, a time in which we will see with our own eyes the glory of God! That is, all that God has done and is still doing, even his allowing the pain we endure, is all working to draw us to Himself. God blesses in hundreds of ways but the ultimate prize is God himself. Our hope is experiencing his presence. That's the significance of his filling us with the Holy Spirit – that we might experience His loving presence.

I don't know how many times we've seen folks at the Alpha retreat, overwhelmed to the point of tears with experiencing that. “God is here!” Nicola said that's exactly what she and Melanie witnessed when the Korean kids prayed and worshipped together – tears of joy flowed!

When Betsie died, Corrie was brought to her bedside. She was stunned by what she saw. “Her face was full and young. The care lines, the grief lines, the deep hollows of hunger and disease were simply gone. In front of me was the Betsie of our youth, happy and at peace. Stronger. Freer! This was the Betsie of heaven, bursting with joy and health. 'O Lord, what are you saying,....giving me?!'”

(from Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place)

She was given hope... “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God... We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know they produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character hope. We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (5:2-3,11) I pray, you and me, we may be people overflowing God's great joy...! 

Gold Medals Before We Swim

Sermon on 21 August 2016 - Romans 4

Christopher Pieper

Begin with prayer.

            As usual, I would like to begin with a little context [display map of the Roman Empire, with Rome highlighted]. Many of us have heard the age-old mantra, “All roads lead to Rome.” Of course, those words were far more true when Paul was dictating his Epistle to the Romans than they are today [include picture of the Via Egnatia, explaining a little bit about what I saw in Philippi and Thessaloniki]. The Romans knew the words were true, too. Roman society was proud of its privileged status among the cultures of the globe. My professor of Christian history, Jerry Sittser, has often reminded students like myself, “For Rome, the primary god was not so much Zeus, Hera or any of the mystery cults’ gods and goddesses. Rome’s god was Rome itself.” In other words, the Roman people worshipped the culture they had formed and were a part of. The ancient Roman historian, Suetonius, claimed that Emperor Augustus even boasted, “I found [Rome] of brick, but left it of marble.” It is to members of this majestic city, where Caesar Augustus was still a recent memory, that Paul sends his letter.

            If we are to appreciate the exclusivity and the boldness of Paul’s claims in Romans, we must imagine the society that he is addressing. In the past few weeks, we have already discovered that Paul challenges the pride of the Jewish people. However, Paul’s letter also confronts the culture of the Roman people, for it is to Roman and to Roman-Jewish Christians that he writes. In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul makes it clear that both the Gentiles and the Jews fall short of God’s requirements. Both groups of people are wholly reliant on Jesus for a right relationship with God: “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is” (3.27-29 NLT). In chapter four, our selection for today, Paul begins to unfold that belief in Jesus therefore consists in a radical, unworldly paradigm shift.

            The common understanding between both Jews and Gentiles is that “When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned” (4.4). The rule seems so obvious, it is almost redundant to state the fact. It is a our worldly, human assumption; we see it all the time. Turn on the television these days: Olympians stand on podiums and receive their medals. Men and women are collapsing at the finish line after multi-mile races. Swimmers gasp for breath while interviewers tease them for answers. The medals are hardly a gift. The medals are earned. The way we respond to corruption, like white-collar crime, is further evidence of how deep within us this rule is. Few things get under our skin more than when one person or group sabotages or profits by another person or group’s hard work. The justice of getting what you deserve is one of our highest principles. We crave it and build our legal systems around it.

            Then Paul writes to us as much as he writes to the Christians in Rome, “But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners” (4.5). The focal point of this passage is this verse. We need to take it in. We need to soak in it. The Christian life begins with the realization of the truth that this verse is witnessing to. “But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.” [pause] I think that Paul wanted the Roman Christians to be stunned by these words. I think Paul wants the same of us. They are radical words. Here the Romans are, Gentiles and Jews alike, surrounded by either the incredible culture they have meticulously constructed on the one hand (Romans) or by the pious religiosity they have formed on the other (Jews). Here we are, surrounded by our American culture—which we so often proclaim the greatest—or surrounded by our dedication to Christian spirituality, worship practices, and culture. Paul says it again elsewhere, “It all doesn’t matter. …  I once thought these things [circumcision, heritage, level of obedience to the law] were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. … I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Phil 3.7-8a, 9). Paul’s conviction is clear: faith in the provision and work of God is the crux of the matter. Paul reminds the Roman-Jewish Christians that “circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised” (Rom 4.11a). The Roman-Jewish Christians were not to think they had any advantage over other Christians. They were not to think that they had any claim on God for right standing before him. Our relationship with God “is given as a free gift” (Rom 4.16).

            Circumcision is no longer a major issue for the global church, but the basic problem that we make signs of the relationship with God into idols is no less prevalent today than it was in the early church. I have done this often in my life, and we are all in danger of doing so. When you find yourself assuming that due to the lack of presence of a certain “sign of relationship” with God, someone is less Christian than you, you are supplanting the gift of Jesus’ mercy with self-righteousness—the idea that anything you do in your strength is fundamental to your relationship with God. Two of the most common examples for Christians are our passion for social justice and our passion for evangelism. Constantly, I see these two signs of faithfulness being idolized – even to the point of being pitted against the other. The social activist feels that the evangelist who spends less time in protests is not really following in the footsteps of Jesus. The evangelist grows frustrated with the social activist, supposing he or she has placed his or her social work above sharing the Word of God. The social activist thinks that activism makes him or her a Christian. The evangelist thinks that evangelism makes him or her a Christian. They are both wrong. Jesus makes them Christians. There is no following Jesus, there is no speaking the good news of Jesus, unless Jesus has done so first. “For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort” (Phil 3.3-4 emphasis added). Paul writes these words in the same letter in which he again and again encourages the recipients to live according to the example of Christ! He knew that the lives of true Christians would be transformed, but that transformation was not the prize. The prize had already been given. The gold medal is given to us the moment we step into the pool, and we haven’t even begun swimming!

            In other words, the good news of Jesus Christ is radically different than everything we are always being taught in the world. We compete, compete, compete. Jesus gives, gives, gives. We say, “Give us our rights.” Jesus says, “I will take mine to the cross.” We are so driven to prove ourselves the worthy Christians that we often leave Jesus at the diving board. He is ready to give us the medal before we even get our feet wet, ready to tell us how valuable we are and how much he loves us. May we pause long enough to hear Jesus calling us from behind. He will send us into the pool soon enough, so that we can call to those competing for their worth, so that we can tell them, “Everything you needed was ready for you at the start. Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be God with us? Could he possibly be what we were racing for all along” (Jn 4.29 italics added).

            Paul refers to Abraham’s story, in order to turn us around in the pool. Abraham “was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises” (Rom 4.21), and for this reason, Abraham was content with the promise of God, even though he could not understand it. Abraham developed that remarkable faith over many years, which ought to encourage those of us who feel dwarfed by his mighty faith. For Abraham and his wife, Sarah, there was nothing more humiliating than their failure to produce a legitimate heir together. They had left Haran and Abraham’s family because they were promised by God, “I will make you into a great nation [people; family tribe]. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. … All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12.2). To leave their family and their home was already a great sign of faith, but then Abraham and Sarah found themselves waiting and waiting. After many years, Abraham asked God, “O Sovereign LORD, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? … You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir” (Gen 15.2, 3). God promises Abraham, “No your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir. … Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” (v 4, 5). Abraham believed, but may still have questioned how God would make this happen. He had a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s servant and offered Ishmael to God for God’s blessing. But God intended for Abraham and Sarah to fully trust in his provision, so he blessed them with a son of their own, despite their barrenness.

            Finally, Abraham gets it: “The LORD will provide” (22.13). Even if Abraham must sacrifice his own son, Isaac, which God asks him to do before providing a ram in Isaac’s place, Abraham believes God will fulfill his promises. It is an incredible story. God blesses Abraham on account of his obedience, but the relationship Abraham has with God, as Paul points out, is established through faith (Rom 4.22; Gen 15.6). Through the story of Abraham, Paul determines that the cause of true obedience is faith. Yet the object or goal of our faith is not obedience at all, it is a single-minded focus on and reliance on Jesus Christ: “because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4.22-24). It is another of Paul’s paradoxes! Obedience comes out of the conviction that one can do absolutely nothing to gain God’s favor. Once we have realized that universal fact, we can finally have faith that Jesus is the only one who has earned and through whom we can receive God’s favor. And when the beautiful truth of Jesus’ love hits us, having already given up on ourselves, we can wholly give ourselves to Jesus. That is where true, faithful obedience begins.

            “If there was any idea that God had set us a sort of exam. and that we might get good marks by deserving them, that has to be wiped out. If there was any idea of a sort of bargain—any idea that we could perform our side of the contract and thus put God in our debt so that it was up to Him, in mere justice to perform His side—that has to be wiped out.

            “I think every one who has some vague belief in God, until he becomes a Christian, has the idea of an exam. or of a bargain in his mind. The first result of real Christianity is to blow that idea into bits. When they find it blown into bits, some people think this means that Christianity is a failure and give up. They seem to imagine that God is very simple-minded. In fact, of course, He knows all about this. One of the very things Christianity was designed to do was to blow this idea to bits. God has been waiting for the moment at which you discover that there is no question of earning a pass mark in this exam. or putting Him in your debt” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 142-143).