Monday, August 29, 2011

Romans Series Week 5 Notes and Questions

We are now in Week 5 of our eight week series on Romans- "Grace is for Everybody". This week we're reading chapters 9 through 11, specifically Romans 11:1-2a, 13-24.

This passage caps off another section of Romans that, like chapters 5 through 8, some scholars think to be a precomposed unit unto itself. If one took these three chapters out, the line of argument going through chapter 8 could flow straight into 12. Given how much Paul jumps around and frequently stops mid-sentence only to come back to the same idea after going down a totally different path, the incongruity of these chapters isn’t all that surprising, given what we know about the writer. Whatever the case may be, these chapters are here, and people have had a lot of opinions about them.

The central question is, given what God has done in Jesus the Messiah, how do we understand Israel’s role in what God is doing?

Some writers have posed this question slightly differently, asking now that Jesus has come, what is Israel’s purpose? That question, framing it in terms of time, rests upon the assumption that Israel’s sole purpose is to produce the Messiah. But as many messianic promises and foreshadowing as we Christians tend to read into the Old Testament, we never see such a thing expressed as part of God’s covenant with Israel.

The covenant language we read in the first books of the Old Testament talk about Israel being a “holy people” and “priestly kingdom” whose purpose is to demonstrate to the world who God is. Christians believe that this is what happens in the person of Jesus, being the definitive (but not final) revelation of who God is, but this doesn’t mean that this is the only way Israel goes about proclaiming God’s identity.

When discussing the relationship of the Judaism and Christianity (which, at the time of Paul’s writing, were not two separate religions as we understand them today), there is an 800 pound gorilla sitting in the corner that has not been there for most generations encountering this text: the Holocaust. Obviously mass genocide is not the context in which Paul is writing, but it is part of the context in which we interpret what this text means for us, so while the actions of Adolf Hitler have to come in to the discussion, they don’t need to set the agenda.

We should also note that the current popularity of Dispensational theology (the Left Behind novels, etc.), with its insistence that the reestablishment of Israel as a political state (which has, of course, happened) and the building of a third Temple (which has not) are necessary for the “second coming” of Jesus, plays a role in how many people address this question today.

NT Wright claims that the story Paul is setting up in these chapters is intended to be a counter-narrative to that of the Roman Empire. Rome points back to Romulus and Remus, traces its heritage through great rulers, all culminating in Caesar sitting on the throne as lord of all creation. Paul, in turn, takes the shape of that same story, points back to Abraham, whose descendants become Israel, culminating in Jesus, who is “Lord of Lords and King of Kings” (a title taken by the Caesars). So rather than explicit supersessionism, Paul is likely being politically subversive against the theological claims of the Empire. As a citizen of the current most powerful nation in the world, this gives me pause to examine the stories we tell about our own nation and what God’s role is in our rise to dominance. Perhaps we should back off on our claims of God’s unquestioned approval of all our government’s (or one particular party’s) actions.

Like last week, the whole “predestination” thing rears it head in these chapters, particularly chapter 9, and we likely won’t be addressing that issue this time around. Perhaps it merits coming back to for another sermon or series as part of a larger discussion about who God is and what salvation is.

Paul laments of Israel’s “unbelief”. Since he, himself, is a Jew, and never renounces that identity, he desperately wants the rest of his people to experience what he is experiencing. This is not, necessarily, because he thinks they will go to Hell if they don’t get on board. I have never read any examination of what, if anything, Paul believed about the concept of Hell, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. If any New Testament scholars want to point something out, I’d be grateful.

In spite of Paul’s lament over Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, he emphatically states that God has not abandoned Israel (11:1, 11:11, etc). In the part of chapter 11 that we will be reading on Sunday, Paul is warning Gentile Christians against falling into the same trap that some of the Jewish Christians had- assuming they were superior because of their ethnicity. This is the part I’m most interested in, because one of the biggest temptations that human beings experience is to assume that they are better than someone else because of any kind of external factors, instead of seeing that the image of God in all people makes us all of equally sacred worth.

The image of branches grafted on to an olive tree is a very vivid one, even if it doesn’t represent what horticulturists would actually do, blending wild and cultivated vines in the way Paul describes. There is empty space left by cultivated branches that were intentionally broken off, and those spaces are filled by the wild branches. If the vine represents the Kingdom, is there some implication here that space is limited? I hope not!

There’s also a certain messiness implied in the grafting of branches from one tree on to another. While they’re similar enough to coexist, they’re different enough that the mingling can easily go wrong, so there has to be a lot of tending and care for it to work. Does that say something for us about diversity in the church and how we handle cultivating the meeting and mixing of different cultures?

I’ve thrown out several questions in the above paragraphs, so feel free to comment on those or anything else you feel relevant. Then tune in next week to see how this came to fruition in the sermon.

New AUMC Podcast- Grace is for Everybody part 4

The latest episode of the Arlington UMC podcast is up. This message is part 4 of our eight week series on the Book of Romans- "Grace is for Everybody". It's called "Nothing Can Separate Us", and is based on Romans 7:15-20; 8:31-39.

You can listen on the media player below, on Arlington's webpage, on, or subscribe on iTunes. In fact, if you're on iTunes, could you take the time to rate our podcast and write a review? That will increase the chances that iTunes will promote our podcast.

Check in later today for notes and questions on Romans chapter 11.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I'm "Them"

When I was in college, I was a political science major, and I couldn't get enough of campaigns and debates. I had cable news on all the time, and I was actively engaged in whatever they were talking about.

Maybe it's because I'm a little older, or more cynical, or that I have more responsibilities, but those things that used to invigorate me now just wear me out. Particularly all the scapegoating we see going on. Everything that happens is somehow proof that whomever is speaking's agenda is correct, and any problem is always somebody else's fault.

I get that that's the game when it's one candidate or political party vs. another, but what really amazes me is when we point to things like "the economy", "the market", "the media", or "the voters". All these terms are simply the sum total of actions taken by members of the groups of which we are a part, but very few people seem to own up to their participation.

(Sidenote- the irony that the biggest ratings giant in cable news is the one who most frequently villifies "the media" is simultaneously awesome and highly depressing)

So I'll go ahead and own up to it. I'm part of "them". I'm part of the problem.

I'm part of "the economy" because I'm a middle class American that consumes way more than my share of the world's resources.

I'm part of "the market" because I'm saving for my retirement and my kids' college tuition using the stock market, with the sole goal of making money on my investment.

I'm part of "the media", not because lots of people read my blog (they don't- I'll show you the metrics), but because, like everyone else, I'm much more likely to look at a story about a sex scandal than I am one about monetary policy, famine in Africa, or someone making a positive difference in the world. Media organizations are businesses that are almost entirely dependent on ad revenue, so the more eyeballs they draw, the more money they make, and they know what we will consume.  In fact, I'm more guilty than most because, as Homer Simpson said, "I'm a white male between the ages of 18 and 45. Everyone cares what I think!"

I'm part of "the voters". I vote, even in midterm elections. I communicate my concerns to my representatives and to my best to talk about issues with others in a respectful manner. I have yet to create a sign that puts a Hitler mustache on anybody. So maybe I'm not so much part of the problem in this respect.

I try very hard to be part of the solution, but at the same time I continue to be part of the problem. Perhaps if we spent more time examining our own role in large, complex problems, and less time pointing fingers at the list of usual suspects, we might make some progress in solving them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Romans series week 4- notes and questions

This week we're focusing on Romans chapters 7 and 8, specifically 7:15-20 and 8:31-39.

I’m going to go ahead and admit a bias upfront. The last few verses of Romans 8 is my absolute favorite passage in the whole Bible. It’s one of the most profound expressions of how limitless God’s love and grace are, and my temptation is to structure the entire sermon around just that. But there is a lot of theological red meat in chapters 7 and 8.

Paul’s “I” in chapter 7 is likely a rhetorical device, personifying one of the fundamental contradictions of the human conditions- having a sense of the way things, including ourselves, should be, and the disconnect we see in within us and the world. As such, Paul is likely using hyperbole in saying that there is absolutely no good in him, and is not articulating a doctrine of “total depravity”. That’s one that has its roots in Augustine, several centuries later.

To be fair, though, there are plenty of people who have thought that Paul was speaking in the first person and that he was establishing said doctrine. In his extensive Lectures on Romans, Luther states very matter-of-factly that Paul is speaking for himself and on behalf of all humanity. Luther’s chief source to back up his conclusions is Augustine.

The verses that come just before the section we’re reading from chapter 8 have been the subject of much discussion and debate over the years. Paul uses words that get translated in English as “foreknew” and “predestined”, leading some people to conclude that God has decided beforehand who will be saved and who will be damned. This idea has found its fullest expression in the work of John Calvin, but Karl Barth has also put forth the solution of “universal predestination”, whereby everyone is saved, whether they like it or not.

John Wesley preached quite eloquently against said doctrine, saying “if this be so, then all preaching is in vain” (in his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace”). Mr. Wesley, following the lead of Jacob Arminius, thought that if one’s eternal destination were predetermined, then we should all just do whatever the heck we want, and churches shouldn’t bother doing anything, since they can’t affect it. We likely won’t be dealing this issue in the sermon this week, but feel free to comment on it if you’re so inclined.

NT Wright says that Romans 5-8 is one sustained argument, which Wright titles “God’s People in Christ as the True Humanity” that possibly had been composed beforehand and then inserted into the letter. Preachers do this kind of thing with favorite sermon illustrations, throwing them in over and over again whenever it fits the context. The final part of chapter 8, which is included in this Sunday’s reading, is the great crescendo of the sermon, kind of like the repetition of “let freedom ring” in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”.

Paul rounds this section out by articulating his unshakable assurance that God’s love trumps all.

So, here are some questions: Do you think that human beings, whether corporately or individually, are completely incapable of good? What do you make of this paradox Paul is talking about?

It’s easy to say that nothing separates us from God’s love, but how fully do we believe that? Are there things we hold on to because on some level, we don’t believe that anyone would love us if they knew?

Unfortunately, the way Christians act towards others preaches a very different message than what Paul is saying at the end of Romans 8. How might the church look differently if that was our core belief?

Pastors Like Football, Too

Even though we work on Sundays, lots of pastors are football fans. In fact, plopping down on the couch in front of the game can be the perfect way to unwind from a long Sunday morning.

With this in mind, I've created a Fantasy Football league for clergy, seminary students, church professionals, and anybody else who wants to play. The league, "Touchdown Jesus" (no affiliation with Notre Dame) is run through the Sports Illustrated app on Facebook, and it's public, so you anyone can join. Click here if you want to play.

Monday, August 22, 2011

New AUMC Podcast- Grace is for Everybody part 3

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC Podcast is up. This is part 3 of our eight week series on Romans- "Grace is for Everybody"

This week, in addition to Paul's text in Romans 6, we also brought James 2 in the conversation about Law and Grace.

You can listen on the media player below, on Arlington's webpage, download it from, or subscribe on iTunes. If you're on iTunes, please rate us and write a quick review so they'll promote our podcast.

Check in tomorrow for notes and questions about Romans chapters 7 and 8.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Romans series Week 3

Check out how your comments on last week's post made their way into Sunday's sermon by listening to the podcast. Now we continue with Week 3 of "Grace is for Everybody" by reading Romans 6:1-4, 15-23.

This week we’ll be focusing on the relationship between Law and Grace. This is another huge theme in Paul’s writings, and the whole thing isn’t encapsulated in the brief passages we’re reading on Sunday, so please read the chapters around this to get a feel for Paul’s rather lengthy argument.

For starters, “Law” refers specifically to the keeping of the Laws of Moses, and also stands more broadly for doing any good or righteous actions. Paul’s contrast of the Law with God’s unmerited Grace have led some Christians to conclude that the Jewish people’s understanding of the Law was that their actions earned them God’s favor. Other scholars, particularly those in the “New Perspective on Paul” school (a name that none of them created or really claim), point out that the Law was given to help the people understand how to live faithfully as part of the covenant God had already made with them.

Given that Law and Grace is such a major issue, particularly in the birth of the Protestant movement, major Christian thinkers have written volumes on it, and of course we can only begin to scratch the surface here. So here are a few brief snapshots of how some of the most influential Christian theologians have interpreted Paul on Law and Grace.

Augustine said that without God’s grace, no good work or adherence to any type of Law gets you any points. In one of his sermons on the Psalms, he says, “believe in Him who justifies the ungodly, so that your good works may really be good works. For I should not call them good as long as they do not proceed from the right foundation.” Augustine’s own life story and the strength of his experience of conversion led him to have a very low opinion of human nature, thus any attempt on the part of humans to be “good enough” for God was not only a waste of time, but an insult to God.

Martin Luther reads Paul as saying that the Law only serves to make people understand that they can never live up to the standards God has set for them. In essence, Luther is saying that God has set us up to fail. In his Preface to Romans, he claims that those who keep the Law do so “out of fear of punishment or love of gain”. Like Augustine, Herr Luther clearly does not have a high opinion of human nature.

John Wesley was a self described “Bible bigot” and held that all scriptures, including the Mosaic Law, were the fundamental norm for all Christian doctrine and practice. But as hard-headed a biblicist as Wesley could often be, even he recognized that the texts by themselves do nothing without the work of the Holy Spirit, thus grace being necessary to fulfill any law.

Karl Barth views God as fundamentally free, unconstrained by anything, even sets of laws given directly by God. In his commentary on Romans, Barth says that “God speaks where there is law; but he speaks also where there is no law. He speaks where law is, not because it is there, but because he wills to speak.” For Barth, God’s choice to speak to us is itself grace.

Paul Tillich, a contemporary of Barth’s, makes no comment specifically on the Laws of Moses, rather he talk about “law keeping” as one of the misguided human attempts at “self-salvation”, assuming that receiving any set of laws is itself a revelatory experience. Tillich is careful to mention that attempts at self-salvation happen in all religions, including Christianity, but that does not mean these religious traditions are of no value.

In NT Wright’s commentary on Romans 6 in New Interpreter’s series, he emphasizes Paul’s usage of the word “slavery” (usually rendered as “servanthood” in more PC translations) to describe all human existence. We’re all slaves to something, it’s just a question of what. Paul realizes that the analogy isn’t perfect, adding “I’m speaking in human terms because of your natural limitation”. His use of “your” instead of “our” suggests he has a rather high view of himself, and that he can understand things other people can’t. Wow.

Paul’s rather massive ego aside, he has a point in saying that we all serve something. We all have things that drive us, things that factor into every decision we make, even if they’re things we can’t necessarily name. The aforementioned Tillich called that “ultimate concern”. Or as Bob Dylan sang, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

All that being said, here are some questions:

If “the Law” stands in for any moral standard, set of rules/practices, etc., what is the value of following them. What do we gain?

What effect does viewing God’s grace as completely free have? Does it give us license to do whatever we want with no consequences? Or does it have a different effect? In other words, how do we respond to grace?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

New AUMC Podcast- Romans series part 2

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC podcast is live!

This weeks' message is the second in our eight week series on the book of Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". This message is called "The Righteousness of God", based on Romans 3:21-31.

We're inviting collaboration on this series. Later today I'll be posting notes and questions for week 3, focusing on Romans 6:1-4, 15-23.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, on the media player below, listen to/download the file from, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dads are Parents, too

Warning: a rant is about to commence.

The title should seem obvious, but in the last two and a half years, I've noticed a serious double standard when it comes to moms and dads.

I first experienced this when Kate was a few weeks old, after Jessica had gone back to work but before we put her in day-care, and I spent about six weeks caring for her by myself during the work day. Since I was pastoring a church, I couldn't just stay home, so she spent a fair amount of time in her car seat during that time.

I had her with me when I was doing sermon prep and meeting with someone at a local coffee shop, and a lady came up to me just beaming about how I was doing "such a good job" with her, in a tone that sounded like she was talking to a child. Would anyone have said something like that to a woman out by herself with an infant?

Other times people asked me if I was "babysitting" or "being dad today". No, I'm parenting, and I'm her dad every day, regardless of whether she's with me during work hours! Again, would anyone ask a woman if she was "being mom"?

While this apparent double standard is clearly gender-based, I'm not going to call it sexist, because it's only a mild annoyance, and nothing compared to to challenges and discrimination many women face every day.

Still, next time you see a man in public with his children, don't demean him by acting like he's doing something special or incredibly difficult. He's simply doing his job and carrying his share of the load so his wife's life is a little bit easier.

OK, rant over. Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Romans series Week 2

Here are my notes and questions for week 2 of Arlington's eight week series on Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". The passage is Romans 3:21-31.

The term “righteousness” is a major topic for this week’s passage.

Paul seems to be saying that all righteousness begins with God. The Law and the Covenant (not a word used here, but seems to be the subject) are not ends unto themselves, but things that point to a larger reality.

Paul emphasizes that what God has done in Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. In other words, it’s a continuation rather than a reboot.

NT Wright believes that the Greek phrase usually translated “the righteousness of God” (dikaiosyne theou) is not a status that people have before God. Instead, it is a way of describing God’s whole being. The word “dikaiosyne” can also be translated as “justice”, so justice and righteousness are intertwined when one is talking about the nature of God.

Along similar lines (although I imagine Bishop Wright takes issue with him on a number of points), Karl Barth spills quite a bit of ink talking about how the “righteousness of God” is central to Romans. One of Barth’s recurring themes in his work is that everything begins with God’s choice to reveal God’s self to the creation, so this term is the way Paul talks about God’s divine self-disclosure. Barth writes, “the righteousness of God is the meaning of all religion, the answer to every human hope and desire and striving and waiting, and it is especially the answer to all that human activity which is concentrated upon hope.”

Martin Luther, on the other hand, sees righteousness primarily as status before God, almost as coterminous with justification. Luther’s term is “alien righteousness”, meaning that which is clearly not produced of any human effort, bestowed entirely by God’s will. Luther then talks about “our proper righteousness”, which flows from the alien righteousness bestowed to us by God.

Wright makes a very interesting point about v. 22, taking issue with the phrase translated “faith in Jesus”. The Greek word “pistis” (faith) here is not referring to a confessional faith that you or I might have, but instead the faithfulness of Jesus. While changing that one preposition may seem like a small detail, it takes away the likeliness of this verse being used as a proof-text for the type of insider/outsider mentality that Paul strongly opposes in this letter.

Speaking of proof-texts, we find one of the most often yanked-out-of-context verses in this passage, v. 23- “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. In darn near all of the evangelistic tracts I’ve ever seen, this verse is used to “prove” that everyone is completely separated from God, and therefore incapable of doing anything good. The context this statement appears in, though, seems to rebut that idea, since Paul has spoken extensively about God’s righteousness having been revealed, which would be impossible if we were completely separate.

One more thing regarding proof-texts. In v. 25, Paul references the righteousness of God being revealed in the sacrificial death of Jesus, which is often used as “proof” for the “Penal Substitution” atonement theory (the word “atonement” may not be the best translation from the Greek here, but that’s a long discussion and I’m not proficient enough in Greek to articulate it well), where Jesus gets the punishment we deserve. While this understanding certainly has a strong biblical basis, it is not the only way to understand how the suffering and death of Jesus is part of God’s redeeming work for the creation.

OK, this commentary has gone on a lot longer than I expected. Thanks for those who read the whole thing through. Here are some questions:

What comes to mind when you hear the term “righteousness”. Does it have a positive or negative connotation?

How do you conceive of the relationship between God and humanity? How does this relationship get complicated (if at all) by human actions?

We talk a lot about Jesus showing us who God is. How do you understand Jesus revealing God to us (again, if at all)?

Feel free to take on anything not mentioned here. Discuss...

New AUMC Podcast- Romans series part 1

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC podcast is live!

This weeks' message is the first in our eight week series on the book of Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". This message is called "I'm a Sinner, You're a Sinner",based on Romans 1:18-26 and 2:1-6.

We're inviting collaboration on this series. Later today I'll be posting notes and questions for week 2, focusing on Romans 3:21-31.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, on the media player below, listen to/download the file from, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Romans series Week 1

This week at Arlington we're beginning two months spent in Paul's letter to the Romans. The overall theme for our series is "Grace is for Everybody".

Each Monday I'll be posting notes from my own research and reading on the passages for the week, as well as some questions for discussion. Your comments will be a big part of my sermon preparation process. All opinions are welcome, but keep it respectful. Comments attacking others will be deleted and you will be blocked from commenting ever again.

So here's my notes and questions for Romans chapters 1 and 2, specifically Romans 1:18-23 and 2:1-6. The tentative sermon title is "I"m a Sinner, You're a Sinner".

Two preliminary notes. One, we’re going to try our best to read Paul as a first century person and a first generation follower of Jesus. We can’t simply pretend Augustine and other interpreters don’t exist, but we can acknowledge their influence and try to sort out whose voice we're hearing.

Two, there is a problem in Romans that exists in nearly all English translations of the New Testament, specifically the use of the word “Jews”. The Greek word Ioudios more accurately translates as “Judeans”. The Second Temple was still standing at the time of Paul’s writings, and the Judean faith that centered on Temple worship is so very different than the Rabbinic Judaism of today that using the term “Jews” in a New Testament document can be misleading, and can even make Paul seem anti-Jewish, which he's not because he's a Jew! The problem of anti-Judaism is especially sensitive in light things that have happened in the last century, so we’ll be using the term “Judeans” for our discussion here.

Paul’s proclamation of God’s judgment is universal. Judeans don’t get off any easier because of the covenant.

Without doing a lengthy family history, I should say that my parents and I have both had negative experiences with evangelicals who lean heavily on passages like this to convince you you’re hopeless and make you desperate for grace. So I have to acknowledge my own bias and desire not skip over passages that sound very condemning.

Is Paul doing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” here, or does his polemic about everyone being a sinner utterly dependent on God’s more an acknowledgement than a condemnation?

note- “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is perhaps the best known “hellfire and brimstone” sermon in the English language. It was preached by a guy named Jonathan Edwards (no relation to the 2004 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate) in July of 1781, during an era in American history known as the Second Great Awakening. If you’ve never read this sermon, check it out.

Paul talks about no one being in a position to condemn, but when he’s putting out his laundry list of sinful acts and attitudes, he certainly sounds like he’s doing just what he’s telling us not to do. Is that Paul’s genuine voice we’re hearing there, or is it the voice of others whose judgmental attitudes we dislike?

We're intentionally skipping last part of chapter 1, because the “God gave them up” stuff drags us into arguments about sexual orientation, which aren’t unimportant, but for our purposes here would distract us from a larger discussion about sin and grace.

John Wesley's "heart-warming" moment at Aldersgate came as he was listening to someone read Martin Luther's Preface to Romans, which is not exactly a heart-warming document. Luther's clear intent is for you to feel like an awful, hopeless sinner. What do you make of this? (I have my own theory, but I'll hold back for now).

My overall take on these first two chapters is that Paul’s long polemic serves the purpose of reminding us that we’re all in the same boat. None of us is perfect, and we all stand in need of grace. His intent is more about getting insiders off their high-horse than making outsiders feel bad for being outsiders.

Agree? Disagree? Discuss...