2017, Rom 15:4-13 & A Plea for Unity (part 4): Welcome Each Other!

In the 1980s the Black Student Association at Fresno State displayed this slogan, “We have a SIN problem, not a SKIN problem.” It’s a true statement that sounds overly simplistic. Skin problems are still here because sin is still here. Some briefly thought we might be living in a post-racial world. We now realize that sin hasn’t gone away—and with it tensions about race have resurfaced with a vengeance. We live in what could best be described as “a post post-racial world” where distrust & division are rearing their heads in places we thought we’d made great progress.

In Romans, Paul argues that sin is responsible for a divided world. (See my earlier posts.) Sin weaves its way among us: idolatry, greed, arrogance, sanctimoniousness, sexual immorality, bigotry and racism. These divide nations and people. They even wreak havoc in the minds of Christians and in churches. Sin is powerful.

God’s power is stronger still, and the church should be a force for unity. Paul’s words in Rom 15:4-13 summarize the great Romans epistle and its passionate treatise to bring all creation together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

If all creation is to live under Jesus, shouldn’t the church be working toward that goal even now? Yet how are we to bring people together in a world afflicted by a sin problem? Where do we begin?

We see in Rom 15 that Paul has the answer. If sin is today’s problem, then God’s righteousness is tomorrow’s answer. This was Paul’s conclusion back in Rom 11:26, And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” This is a challenging text to say the least. I can give you a nutshell version of what Paul is saying: God is so just and God’s plans are so right that God’s promises of salvation for all will eventually come true—in spite of the apparent rejection of these plans by hard-hearted people. How is this possible? How can God accept those who appear to reject his plans?

That’s why Rom 15:4-13 is so helpful. It lays out the explanation which is essentially a summary of Romans: For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised, on behalf of the truth of God, in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15:8-9a). CliffsNotes’ version: All people now receive God’s mercy.

This is the central thesis upon which Paul builds his most important instruction. This is the foundation for what he tells us to do—and for how he explains his ministry to those who scoff at his love for Gentiles. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7). This has been Paul’s concluding exhortation since chapter 12: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Let love be genuine. Bless those who persecute you. And in chapter 14, Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. In other words, live your lives to God’s glory by welcoming others.

What’s the point? Paul is telling us to stop worrying about how or if God will sort things out. Why? Because God has already taken care of it. Instead of deciding who’s in and who’s out, your job is simple: Welcome people!

But some will retort, “What about 1 Cor 5 when Paul told them to kick out an immoral brother? Paul doesn’t want us to welcome sinners!” This is the go-to passage for this issue, and I understand why. But singling this out without paying attention to the bigger canonical message creates room for unhealthy interpretations. What’s a good way to read this?

When you pay attention to Paul’s bigger message, you see a trend. In 1 Cor 5, Paul is concerned—as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus—about the witness of Christ’s body and about the salvation of all creation. This man’s actions are divisive, and not only within the church. His behavior is disgraceful in the world, too, and it’s destroying the church’s witness.

So he tells them to kick the brother out so they can restore the unity of the church and the integrity of their mission. But notice an often overlooked part of this passage: Send him on his way so that his spirit will be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5b). The man’s salvation is not the question here. This is all about the church’s mission. Paul tells them to disassociate from him as to add no extra obstacle to the already difficult task of preaching Christ crucified.

I know this doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t simplify hard issues like same-sex attraction or Christian-Muslim relations. But here’s what it boils down to:

God’s righteousness will triumph! In the meantime, we should welcome people! Welcome each other. Welcome your weaker brother. Welcome your neighbor. Welcome those who are different. For God through Jesus welcomed you.

Christ sacrificed everything so that we as sinful people could enter God’s house. Now, we should follow Christ’s example and welcome others. Why? Because God is just, and God’s plans are right. God will do whatever is necessary to fulfill the promises. The image of God is in each of us. If you strip away the sin that divides us—the lies, the falsehoods, the immorality, the prejudices—then we are all humble servants born into the family of God ready to receive the promises of God and to do our jobs for the sake of God’s good purposes.

Yes, we have a skin problem. We can’t help but judge based on what we see. But it’s ultimately a SIN problem. And God has given us the key to overcoming the divides of sin. You must welcome others! Since God has overcome sin through Jesus, we too ought to show welcome.

In 2017, I pray that the church will be more unified than ever as we welcome others under the Lordship of Jesus.

2017, Rom 15:4-13 & A Plea for Unity (part 3): Paul’s Fictional Turmoil

If the Book of Romans is Paul’s most important letter, then we ought to hone in on passages such as Rom 15:4-13. These ten verses summarize the entire message of book: The good news is that ALL are God’s chosen people—both Jews and Gentiles. Glory be to God!

Paul’s universalist-sounding message brings up a key question. If we are all fellow recipients of God’s promises, then how well are we to get along while we wait for those promises? Shouldn’t ALL of God’s people be united in the knowledge that we ALL fall short of God’s glory in our actions yet through God’s grace we ALL receive the free gift of eternal life through Jesus? Shouldn’t unity be our calling card?

Yet as the past year has demonstrated in the US and elsewhere around the world, the people of God are anything but unified. People whose primary allegiance ought to be the family of faith instead have defined themselves by beliefs on gun rights, health care, questions of race, and political candidates. We’ve lost sight of Paul’s passionate plea in Romans! Why do we fail to hear Paul’s message about the unifying force of God’s grace?

Thanks to Luther and Freud, we’ve changed Romans into a psychoanalytical diagnosis of Paul’s “inner turmoil.” The division between human beings is Paul’s primary concern in Romans, but we’ve lost sight of this. Most folks today assume that Paul, like Martin Luther some 500 years ago, is racked by guilt. They assume Paul feels unworthy. The culprit, according to Luther and according to all those who read Paul through Luther’s lens, is legalism. If not for God’s rules, people would be happy and free.

Luther, needing to break free from the constraints of medieval Catholicism, discovered grace in Romans. It was a needed breakthrough for him. Luther was paralyzed by a sense of unworthiness. Romans freed him from this. While we can all give thanks that Luther discovered God’s grace, we ought to stop assuming that Luther is like Paul. We need to hear Romans without imposing upon it the burden of medieval Catholicism or even of twentieth-century legalism in Churches of Christ. Paul’s journey wasn’t Luther’s. And it certainly wasn’t the same as ours either.

So what is Paul battling in Romans? For one thing, Paul assuredly isn’t bashing God’s instruction as handed down through the Law! Listen to Rom 7:22-23, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Paul is channeling the psalmists who write, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). There is nothing evil about the Law of God. How can there be? In the same sense that there is nothing evil about humans made in the image of God, there is no evil in the good and perfect words that come from God’s mouth.

What then is evil? What is it that Paul and all of humanity struggle with? It’s not God’s Law. Rather, it’s the law of sin and death that wages war on our bodies and on our relationships. In other words, it’s Sin with a capital S. The culprit that destroys us is Sin. Sin ruins people. Sin eats away at relationships. Sin makes us arrogant. Sin causes us to segregate and separate. Sin brings on the problems of prejudice, bigotry, insults, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, violence, greed and idolatry. Sin is the power that wrecks humanity.

When you remove the fiction of “Paul’s inner turmoil” and instead read Romans in this light, then everything changes! This is Paul’s dilemma: How can we overcome Sin that keeps on dividing us? How do we get past Sin that causes me to judge people by their skin color, their education level, their social status, their Facebook posts, or by who they voted for?

Paul is torn by the fact that Gentiles are receiving Christ, yet Jews—who should know best—are rejecting Jesus and rejecting these new believers. The problem, says Paul, isn’t religion or the Law or circumcision or ethnicity or even the Roman Empire. The problem is Sin. God’s instruction hasn’t corrupted the Jews. Sin is wreaking havoc.

When you know the real problem, you can finally look for the real answer. So what’s the answer to the power of Sin? Stay tuned for my final post in this series.

2017, Rom 15:4-13 & A Plea for Unity (part 2): The Divider-in-Chief

Does religion divide people? Is it race, socioeconomic status or politics that separates us? Is our world and are the churches that inhabit that world hopelessly divided by things that we are helpless to control?

As a Jew trained by the prominent Jewish teacher Gamaliel, Paul had learned that what divided people was religion. Jews had the Law and were therefore superior. Gentiles did not have the Law and were therefore inferior. According to Jewish thinking, God’s gift of the Law separated them from others, making them superior.

A Jewish man might therefore pray, “Blessed am I, Lord, that I was not born like these pagans but rather among your chosen people who have the Law.” Or as Jesus portrays the common prayer of a Jewish leader, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I worship properly and I give a tenth of my income. Thank you, God.”

But as he reveals in Romans, Paul finally comes to a different realization. We don’t fully know what changed Paul. Did he figure this out when the bright light blinded him on the Damascus road? Did he spend seven years in the Arabian desert coming to this conclusion? Or was his heart softened by the sorrowful realization of how much he had fought against the followers of the Way?

Here’s what Paul discovered: Sin divides us. Not our birth certificates. Not our ethnicity. Not even the Law. It’s sin that divides people from one another and from God—the sins of arrogance, laziness, anger, idolatry, etc. They all build barriers that keep us apart.

This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Blood doesn’t divide us. Flesh doesn’t separate us. Sin wrecks relationships and tears the world to pieces.

Think back with me to the story of creation. Why do we have the stories of Genesis 1-2? These aren’t scientific records of how God orchestrated the details of the universe. Instead, they explain to us what’s in the heart of God and what the role of humanity in God’s glorious creation is supposed to be.

One of the most important lessons from creation is that humans are made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image! In other words, the image of God is deeply implanted into each and every person. Stop and consider that for a moment. You are made in God’s image! Say it to yourself, “I am made in God’s image.” But now look around and say about those near you, “They are made in God’s image.” Each and every person has the image of God within them. How can something made in God’s image be bad or evil.

One of the things you learn when you’re married to a child development expert (as I am) is that you shouldn’t call kids bad or good. It’s common to hear even from Santa Claus, “Have you been a good girl?” Or a frustrated parent will say, “Why are you being such a bad boy?” The truth is that kids aren’t bad. They do bad things and make bad choices, but they aren’t bad.

The same is true of people. Can you really say that a human being made in the image of God is bad? Does God make bad things? This is what the creation story teaches us: When done with creation, God said, “It is good. It is very good.” Would you want to argue that God makes bad things?

Now it’s true that there are some people who do some awful things. And this is what guides Paul’s conclusion. The awful things they do that divide people are the result of sin.

But even people who genuinely do good things tend to become smug and self-righteous. This is another kind of sin that creeps in and divides people. The truth is that we are all made in the image of God. But by the same token we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Our actions don’t match the image that is inside us. And this divides us from each other and from God.

Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa. In 1968 she had the crazy idea of letting her kids participate in an experiment. “Blue-eyed kids,” she announced, “are stupid and will be second-class members of this class. Brown-eyed kids are the best.” So for the next two days she watched with astonishment as previously bright leaders who had blue eyes suddenly became timid and insecure, making unusual mistakes on their assignments. Meanwhile, brown-eyed kids found an amazing degree of confidence. Some previously quiet kids came out of their shells and began to assert themselves, feeling more confident in their roles and in their skills.

Then Mrs. Elliott switched the experiment. Blue-eyed kids were now bright while brown-eyed kids had their rights taken away. It was an astounding test that met with widespread derision—especially there in Riceville—as she began to draw acclaim and curiosity around the country. She even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Elliott asked the kids to write about what they learned. One student, Debbie Hughes, said things that typify the other responses. “The people in Mrs. Elliott’s room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five extra minutes of recess.” When the experiment switched, she wrote, “I felt like quitting school . . . I felt mad. That’s what it feels like when you’re discriminated against.”

This clearly illustrates Paul’s great discovery in Romans. The things that divide us are artificially produced by the power of sin. They are either of our own creation or of a power beyond our control. That’s what Paul says in Romans: “You were slaves to sin.” Sin takes people hostage and through this savagery destroys what is good in all of us.

Think about it for a second. If we all stood in the presence of God, stripped of our sin and aware of being made in God’s image, wouldn’t we get along swimmingly? This is why Jesus came—to undo the damaging divide of sin. Jesus refused to separate people the way his compatriots did. Knowing this, Paul writes in Rom 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The glory of God as revealed in creation is visible when we tear down the divisions and welcome one another as fellow human beings made in God’s image.

So here’s my challenge for you based upon Paul’s massive discovery. What have you allowed to divide you from your neighbors? What obstacle have you empowered to stand as a divider between you and others who—like you—are made in God’s image? And what are you going to do about it? Sin is the divider-in-chief. Let’s stop feeding it.

2017, Romans 15:4-13 & A Plea for Unity (part 1): Intro

As we leave behind the acrimonious year of 2016, can I make a plea for unity among God’s people in 2017? Paul made a similar appeal in the first century. His letter to the Romans provides us with clear markers for how to get there. In particular, Romans 15:4-13 is a text that summarizes the complex message of Romans. It reveals Paul’s steadfast hope for unifying God’s people.

This passage in Rom 15 has the capacity to literally transform the ways we understand faith, evangelism and the sovereignty of God. To grasp this beautiful and important passage of scripture in its proper light, it’s helpful to comprehend Paul’s two major discoveries shared in Romans. And in the midst of them, I have to debunk the most common misconception in Romans about Paul.

In three succeeding articles, I’d like to outline Paul’s building blocks for creating unity among God’s people. I wish I could affirm that it worked in Paul’s day. During his Christian ministry, he faced the problem of Jewish believers not wanting to accept Gentile believers. They didn’t heed Paul’s words. In the years that followed, however, we see that Gentile Christians were increasingly unwilling to accept Jewish believers. (A warning for us is that in no time the shoe can easily be on the other foot!) They appear to have not listened to Paul either.

The odds of finding unity may be no better today than they were in Paul’s time. But still, we ought to try. And I can think of no better place to begin than with Paul’s two Aha! moments that undergird his efforts for unity two millennia ago. Will you read on with me? In this New Year, I wish you the blessing of rediscovering the Father’s hope.

Defining Your “We”

The Mennonite professor stood in front of his Christian Ethics class at a local seminary. It was the first day of class. “Take out a sheet of paper and answer the following question: What should we have done after 9/11? Quickly write down what you think we should have done.”

Students scribbled furiously for a couple minutes before the teacher interrupted and declared, “I don’t want to know what you wrote. But I do want to know one thing. Who is your we? When you started to answer, tell me which we came to mind when I asked what ‘should we have done’ after 9/11.”

The point was simple yet profound. The students’ we was “we Americans.” For most people in the class at this seminary, their first impulse was to answer for the United States of America. They wrote down what their country should have done after 9/11.

Some had no doubt assumed this would be a discussion about the merits of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars or the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and all the changes that came with it. But the professor needed to deal with a more profound issue. Even these seminary students were thinking as Americans first and Christians second. Their we was the American nation-state.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking as Americans. If you’re a fellow American, then we share a common identity as Americans. We live in a great country. Citizenship provides us with real advantages that we can enjoy.

As Christians, however, our first we isn’t supposed to be our national identity. The we of the Christian faith has nothing to do with birth certificates, passports, skin color, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth or even geography. For followers of Jesus, our we is all those who belong Jesus. Our primary identity is the Kingdom of Heaven. We are children of God, fellow heirs with all who claim allegiance to Jesus.

Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). Or elsewhere, “For [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15). And again, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of on Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

If you want to belong to Jesus, you must also accept that you belong to his people. Your primary identity is in Christ and in the fellowship of faith. Will your country save you before God? Will your ethnicity remove your sins? Will your passport form you into the image of Jesus? Only your identity as a follower of Jesus can do these things, and Christians ought to think as Christians first. Everything else should lie in submission to the we of faith.

I am deeply troubled at what I see in the American church today. It’s sad and disheartening to see what so many people think. Their posts and their comments reveal a primary loyalty to something other than the community of faith.

In one sense, I’m grateful that the truth is coming out. We’re seeing things as they really are. We’re discovering that the we for many of our fellow Christians in the US is not the biblical we but rather an ethnocentric we. Instead of sharing primary allegiance with believers across the world from among people of every nation, language, race and ethnicity, they only feel solidarity with those who salute their flag.

These Christians would have been right at home in Rwanda where ethnicity trumped God’s Kingdom. It has been widely noted that Rwanda was the most Christianized nation-state on the African continent at the time of the genocide. Bowing to incitement and fear-mongering, Christian Hutus massacred Christian Tutsis in barbaric ways. Loyalty to a race was more important than loyalty to Jesus. (I wonder who taught them this version of Christianity?)

It’s bad enough that too many American Christians have fellow Americans as their we rather than fellow believers. Still worse is the fact that some Christians sort themselves out in even narrower terms. Their we is Americans who share the leanings of their political party—either Republican or Democratic. And some go even further by saying that their we is only those who support Trump or Hillary or their particular wing of their party. That’s the we they think of above all else.

Have Christians really fallen this far from Paul’s vision of the people of God? Sadly yes, they have. Of course, we ought to admit that first-century Christians struggled with this as well. Early Jewish Christians struggled to accept believers who weren’t Jewish. And within a century the tables had turned to the point that Gentile Christians had difficulty accepting Jewish Christians who didn’t give up all Jewish practices. But that reality doesn’t lessen the target at which we are to aim.

As Christians we are habitually tempted to focus on the wrong we or to simply make our version of we far too small. In this day of political rancor and hatred, however, can some of us agree to redefine our we in terms keeping with Paul’s vision for the people of God? Let’s be clear that it’s not just Paul’s vision; this is the biblical vision: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:10). Thanks be to God for those who have the vision and the courage to define their we in keeping with our spiritual reality in Christ Jesus. Are we in this together?