Friday, September 26, 2008

Rule Number One

Rom. 13:8-14[1]

Some of the most memorable lines come from films that are entirely forgettable. In the “Karate Kid” series, a boy named Daniel is “adopted” by a kind Japanese man named Mr. Miyagi, who teaches him Karate as a means of helping Daniel learn to stand on his own two feet and choose the right path in life. At one point, Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to his family dojo, where there are only 2 rules to learn: “Rule number one—Karate is for defense only; rule number two—first learn rule number one.” In some ways our lesson from Romans today reminds me of that line—“Rule number one” is and always has been to love God with all your heart and to love others as you love yourself. After all that Paul has said about God and the Gospel, it seems like where he winds up is “Rule number two: first learn rule number one!”

We've covered a lot of ground over the last few months as we've worked our way through Paul's letter to the Romans.

· We’ve looked at faith as trust in God's love that never gives up on us.

· We’ve seen God’s grace as God's great “Yes!” to all humankind.

· We’ve caught a glimpse of what God is about in this world—to restore us all and the entire created order to our rightful place in relationship to Christ.

· We’ve heard the good news that Jesus the Christ died and rose again to set us free from everything that would bind or oppress or destroy us to enjoy a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love.

· We’ve heard that when we encounter God’s grace and God’s constant love in the new life we have through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, we are changed in such a thorough way that there is no going back.

And after covering the whole sweep of “salvation history,” in effect Paul comes back to the heart of what God has been about from the very beginning—a “rule number one”: love God and love others. At the conclusion of all our theology and preaching, all our spirituality and worship, we come right back to where it all started:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Although the subtle truths of the Gospel can be deep and complex for us to grasp, this is not hard for us to grasp at all. That's why Paul says the one who loves others fulfills the whole of God's Law, God’s torah, God’s truth.

But the real question, and where the difficulty comes in, is how we actually carry out the commandment to love others. You’ve all heard the saying, “We have to love other people but we don’t have to like them.” I think that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the kind of life that God has asked of us from time immemorial.

What does it mean to love another person in the way the Scriptures have taught us from the earliest days? Paul says it means that love does no harm to others (Rom. 13:10). In a sense, he echoes the famous Rabbi Hillel, who summarized the whole of torah in a kind of “negative golden rule”: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation.” Sounds a bit like “first learn rule number one”!

Jesus echoed the same idea in his version of the “golden rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). In effect he says to treat other people the way you want them to treat you. And Jesus said this “sums up” the whole of the “law and the prophets.” Again, it sounds a bit like “first learn rule number one”!

One of the interesting features of the Reformed tradition is the way in which our Confessions spell out what that looks like in very specific terms.

For example, in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, loving your neighbor as yourself is defined in terms of showing “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness” to all, even your enemies (Heid Cat 4.107)! It means to “work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may” (4.111), and “to defend and promote my neighbor’s good name” (4.112). In the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 it means to have “a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor” (Shorter Cat 7.080). [2]

So what does it look like in our day and time to go back to “rule number one”? I think, in the most basic sense, loving others means respecting others as human beings and treating them with dignity—the dignity of one who is created in the image of God and made the object of God’s love.[3] In a very real way it means doing what it takes to promote the well-being of another person. But at the end of the day, “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity. It is the very essence of Christian identity. It is the pattern by which every other claim about the spiritual life must be measured if it is to be considered Christian.” [4] When you come down to it, “rule number one” fundamentally means sacrificing ourselves in service to others like Jesus did.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/7/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] For further examples in various aspects of life, see Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-189; 282-288 and Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 297-311.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 255: it means combining, “respect for the other person’s freedom” to be an individual “with deep affection for him or her as a person.” See also ibid., 258, where he says, “the basic law of the community of Christ is acceptance of others in their difference, for it is this experience of our neighbours, and only this, which is in line with Christian experience of God.”

[4] Luke T. Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, 201; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 278, calls this “a life in accordance with the gospel of Christ.” Cf. also ibid., 283-84.

Redeeming Evil

Rom. 12:9-21[1]

I think a person has to go through life with “eyes wide shut” not to recognize that we live in a world in which evil is very real. All I have to do to demonstrate the reality of evil in this world is to simply mention Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Birmingham, My Lai, Soweto, Tianenmen Square, Beirut, Bosnia, Tibet, Sadr City.

Our tendency is to resist evil; we want to take the side of the victims and rush to their protection. But Jesus said clearly that we are not to resistevil, but to redeem evil. I think his words reflect the wisdom that when you respond to evil with force, you only increase the evil. Resisting evil in this way perpetuates the “vicious circles of death” that continually spin downward in a hopeless spiral of exploitation, violence, hatred, and destruction.[2] It is impossible to avoid the truth that fighting fire with fire leads inevitably to the point where we become what we are fighting.

I think what Jesus and Paul are trying to get across to us is that evil can only be defeated by being absorbed. Only a love that is willing to suffer has the power to overcome evil and redeem it.[3] There is no other way to solve the problem of evil in this world! Only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, can redeem evil. That is precisely the response God has made to evil in Jesus Christ. As Frederick Buechner says, “Christianity … ultimately offers no theoretical solution [to the problem of evil]. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene—not even this—but that God can turn it to good.”[4]

You may remember that we heard something similar from the Apostle Peter just a few weeks ago. You may remember he said, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). And he said that as we do that we are following in the footsteps Jesus left for us: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Pet. 2:23). There is a clear consensus in the NT about our calling to respond to evil with kindness and gentleness, with love and mercy.

In a very real sense it is the attitude reflected in the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.[5]

I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said those who want to follow him would have to take up their cross. He wasn’t talking about the burdens of life, as in a “cross to bear.” Rather he was calling us all to follow his pattern of responding to evil by not retaliating, with love and mercy and kindness and forgiveness. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” That’s what it means to overcome evil with good!

This may seem too hard a task for us. After all, we ourselves are just as fallen as those around us. I think one thing that can inspire us is the example of Christ—not to mention the many examples of saints throughout the ages. But I think this is where faith becomes essential. I think the only way we can redeem evil with a loving response is if we share the confidence that that “nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not bend finally to the good.”[6] I think we can only take up our crosses if we know that “God’s light is more real than all the darkness, that God’s truth is more powerful than all human lies, that God’s love is stronger than death.”[7] It is not an easy task, but we can overcome evil by redeeming it because we trust that, as Frederick Buechner says, “Though all is far from right with any world you and I know anything about, … all will be right at last.”[8]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/31/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 293, 301-303, 329-335; cf. also Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 39.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, “Love and Sorrow,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 74-75; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 284.

[4] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 24.

[5] See Leonardo Boff, The Prayer of Saint Francis: A Message of Peace for the World Today.

[6] The Study Catechism, 1998; cf. also Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 67: it is “the stubborn faith that there is no evil dark enough that God somehow, someway, sometime cannot redeem.” See further Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Providence,” in The Shaking of the Foundations.

[7] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 32.

[8] Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, 113.

New Life in a Fallen World

Rom. 12:1-8[1]

Almost thirty years ago I went off to college as a very young “ministerial student.” I didn’t really know much of anything about anything, but I wanted to study the Bible. One of the things the college I attended did with young ministerial students like me was to have us undergo pretty extensive testing. And one of the “tests” was to rank the activities of the church in order of importance. At the ripe age of 18, I think I ranked worship pretty close to last!

In fact, one of great principles of the Reformed Faith is that our “chief duty” before God is to worship. Now if by “worship” we mean going to church services, that might sound pretty ridiculous. But I think what I failed to grasp as a young man—and what many still fail to grasp—is that “worship” includes much more than what we do on Sunday! In a very real sense, when we truly understand what God is about in our lives, we cannot escape the realization that all of life is our “worship.”[2]

That’s Paul’s point in our lesson for today from Romans. Paul has covered a lot of ground explaining his gospel—a gospel that consists of the promise that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we all have new life, a life that truly is life.[3] Paul has gone to great lengths to elaborate the good news that God has determined from all eternity to be the God who has mercy on us all.[4] Was all that really just to give us something to talk about in church? Was it all just to inspire great poets to compose beautiful hymns? Don’t get me wrong—I love the beauty of worship. But that’s not all there is to it. In fact, as Paul presents it, that’s not even the primary point!

Paul insists that the wonderful Good News of God’s grace and love carries with it a summons, a call, a claim on our lives—everything about our lives.[5] The primary point of worship, according to St. Paul, is to make all of life worship. Paul says it this way: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”[6] (Rom. 12:1). Again, I like The Message translation: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” I think the point is that when we truly grasp the depth of God’s love and the extent of God’s grace, we will respond in humble and joyful worship—with everything we are and do![7]

Paul goes on to explain what this looks like: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2). On the surface of things, it’s relatively easy to understand what Paul is talking about. We live in a world that is a fallen place, a society that operates based on principles that are not only contrary to God’s grace but in fact positively resist a life defined by God’s grace. It doesn’t take a Ph. D. to recognize that!

But the difficulty comes in the doing of it! So what makes the difference between “conforming” and being “transformed”? I think Karl Barth is right when he suggests that it’s a humble recognition that we are all fallen—and we are fallen in every aspect of our lives. And the word he uses for it is repentance.[8] I think we will have to agree that one of the fruits of a genuine encounter with God is the humble recognition that we share all the same problems that we see in everyone around us. And when we humbly recognize that, it has to make a difference in the way we live.

But I think there’s another factor here. Humble repentance is important, but if that’s the only distinction to the Christian faith it seems a bit gloomy! I think it’s essential to recognize that the message of God’s unconditional love, God’s all-inclusive grace, and God’s irrevocable acceptance inspires in us a deep sense of joy![9] Yes, I said joy. I realize that we may not be used to associating the words “joy” and “worship.” But joy is one of the most important sources of the kind of worship in all of life that Paul is talking about.

Joy comes from recognizing that, already in this fallen world, we experience at least a taste of the new creation that God is working toward.[10] And I think that we are fooling ourselves if we fail to recognize that joy is one of the most important ways in which we can live our faith, we can practice our worship, in this fallen world. While humble repentance is important, the kind of transformation of all of life that Paul has in mind here can only be motivated by joy!

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/24/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 426-36.

[3] See Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 146, 285-86, 312.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 28-29, 53-54, 218-19, 221, 223, 232, 259; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 53, 151.

[5] Barth, Romans, 207-8: “Grace … is the indicative which carries with it a categorical imperative” that we should live our entire lives to fulfill the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; cf. ibid., 211, 220-22, 234; see further, Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3, 510.

[6] See David Peterson, “Worship and Ethics in Romans 12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993): 271-88; cf. especially 275, where he says that “spiritual worship” should be translated “understanding worship,” meaning “the worship which is consonant with the truth of the gospel.”

[7] Barth, Romans, 431: “The problem of ‘ethics’ is … identical with the problem of ‘dogmatics’: Soli Deo Gloria!”

[8] Barth, Romans, 436-37: he defines repentance as the “affirmation of the full ambiguity of our temporal existence.”

[9] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 109, says that new life in Christ is to be “celebrated as the feast of freedom, as joy in existence and as the ecstasy of bliss.”

[10] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 279.

Random Kindness?

Rom. 11:1-6, 11-12, 25-32[1]

Thirty-five years ago, Karl Menninger, the man whose very name was once synonymous with Psychiatry, wrote a book with a strange title: “Whatever Became of Sin?” In it, Dr. Menninger outlined his thesis that we have gradually eliminated what was once known as “sin”—first by redefining it as a “crime” for which the state was responsible, and then redefining it again as an “illness” for which nobody is responsible![2]

And yet, with all due respect to Dr. Menninger, we do have some notion of sin.[3] We see giant corporations reaping huge profits while the buying power of the average consumer goes down the drain, and we call that “sin.” We see governments forcibly imposing their will on other nations and we call it “sin.” We see people indiscriminately pursuing sexual satisfaction to the destruction of others and even themselves and we call it “sin.” “Sin” is what other people do—whether it’s financial or political or sexual, “sin” inevitably concerns “them.”

I think one reason why we don’t like St. Paul telling us that we’ve all sinned is that we’d much rather focus on someone else’s sin. But there’s that pesky Apostle, telling us yet again that we’ve all sinned. He does it in our lesson from Romans this week right in the middle of making the point that all those who are now seemingly “excluded” God will include in the benefits of salvation! Paul says, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32). That language offends us. What kind of a God “imprisons” people in disobedience? But once again it’s easy to miss the point Paul is trying to make: the reality is that we’ve all imprisoned ourselves in our own disobedience, and God works to include us all in mercy!

Again, I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in.” When you read Paul’s statement in that light, you can see that the emphasis is on all. Yes, Paul wants to remind us that we’ve all fallen into the trap of sin, we’ve all wandered into the prison of disobedience. But we have to understand what Paul means by “disobedience.” “Disobedience” is first and foremost dis-belief, un-faith, the unwillingness to respond to God’s gift and claim with trust. Beyond that, “Disobedience” in this context doesn’t mean standing up for a different point of view (as in civil disobedience), it’s going our own way regardless of the consequences to ourselves or others. “Disobedience” here is not a courageous refusal to be coerced by the powerful, it is indulging in the satisfaction of our own desires at the expense of others. “Disobedience” is not simply accidentally failing to follow the rules, it’s willfully doing what is destructive to oneself and/or others. And Paul insists over and over again, that we have all fallen short, we have all given in to the temptation of indifference toward others, or to the opposite temptation of using others for some form of self-gratification.

But what he insists on with even more conviction is that in response to our disobedience, God works to extend mercy to us all, to include us all in the embrace of salvation. God’s plan is to see to it that we all may enjoy the free gift of new life. And Paul says that this happens because of God’s grace (Rom. 11:6). “Grace” is another word we need to understand.[4] In this context it means “undeserved kindness” (cf. Rom. 11:6, CEV). The fact that it’s undeserved means that God gives it to us as a gift that we have no claim to but God gives it any way because that’s how God relates to people!

God’s kindness may be undeserved—by us all—but it really isn’t a random in any way. In fact, God’s kindness is very intentional: God has determined from all eternity to be the God has mercy on us all! God deliberately chose to include everyone—especially those who seem to have been excluded. That’s what Isaiah the prophet had said long before Paul:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, … these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Isa. 56:6-8).

God’s purpose is about inclusion, not exclusion. That’s always been true. God called Abram and Sarah, not just to single out one family, but in order to “bless all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). What God chooses—always has chosen and always will choose—is to extend kindness to us all![5]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/17/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] That this continues to be an issue 35 years later can be seen in Norman L. Keltner, “Whatever became of Sin? Revisiting Menninger’s Question,” Perspectives in Psychiatric Care July-Sept 2005.

[3] Cf. David H. Kelsey, “Whatever Happened to the Doctrine of Sin?” Theology Today 50 (July, 1993): 169-78.

[4] Cf. D. Mark Davis, “The Centrality of Wonder in Paul's Soteriology” Interpretation 60 (October 2006): 415, “when Paul tries to communicate the mystery that, in Christ, God is fulfilling the covenant to both Jew and Gentile, Paul is pointing to a grace which lies beyond both comprehension and language.”

[5] cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 232, “the end and aim of all God’s ways … is the act of His free mercy”; cf. also 2.2: 259.

Incredibly Generous

Rom 10:5-15[1]

If you’ve made it this far with me you know that I’m a movie fan. You’ve probably gathered by now that my family shares that hobby with me. But what you may not know—and may find shocking—is that my family sometimes disagrees with me about movies. I know it’s simply shocking! Perhaps the most glaring example of this shocking disagreement has to do with Willy Wonka. Yes, we disagree about who the “real” Willy Wonka is. Now, I know you’ll probably need to take this sitting down, but my family actually thinks Gene Wilder is the “real” Willy Wonka! I, of course, prefer Johnny Depp. But perhaps that story is best left for another day.

One of the things I liked best about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the recent version of the story with Mr. Depp as “Willy Wonka, is the way the story revolves around Charlie. As you probably know, the plot concerns the reclusive Mr. Wonka, who launches a contest that gives 5 children a chance to tour his magical chocolate factory. And, of course, the mere hint of a competition brings out the absolute worst in people. In fact, of the 5 finalists, the only likeable one in the bunch is Charlie, a truly wonderful child with an incredibly generous spirit. Unlike the other kids, Charlie doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body! Predictably, Charlie “wins” the contest. Mr. Depp, as a truly dark version of Willy Wonka, offers to give Charlie his entire candy empire on one condition—Charlie will have to leave his family and live with Mr. Wonka, cut off from the rest of the world, devoted to the quest for ever more perfect chocolate.

Well, Charlie won’t hear of it. In fact, one of the prime reasons why Charlie is so keen on winning the contest is his family. You see, his grandfather had worked at the factory before Mr. Wonka fired all the employees. Despite the abrupt termination, Charlie’s Grandpa loved and respected Mr. Wonka, and instilled Charlie with that same feeling. But unfortunately, the family’s fortunes had suffered since that day. There is simply no way Charlie could possibly abandon his family—for any prize. Sharing is essential to Charlie’s very being—especially with his family, but in fact, Charlie is so generous that he’s willing to share with just about anyone.

As you can imagine, the imperious Mr. Wonka is not at all accustomed to being denied. At first he pitches a fit over Charlie’s refusal to meet his conditions. But then he comes around, and agrees to let Charlie’s whole family live with them. Charlie’s incredibly generous spirit transforms even the eccentric [creepy?] Willy Wonka, who had excluded himself from his family and indeed from the whole world.

What does all this have to do with St. Paul and his letter to the Romans? Well—let me tell you. I think Charlie, that incredibly generous child who chooses his family over an incalculable fortune, serves as a great illustration of what Paul has to say about God in Romans—not to mention Jesus’ saying that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these! I particularly like verses 11 and 12: “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Rom. 10:11-12).

I like it even better in Gene Peterson’s The Message translation: “Scripture reassures us, ‘No one who trusts God like this - heart and soul - will ever regret it.’ It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s … background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help.”[2]

“Incredibly generous.” I think that’s got to be one of the best phrases to describe God I’ve ever heard. I think that’s the heart of Paul’s message in this passage. God is incredibly generous to us all.[3] God loves us all unconditionally. God offers new life to us all, without any exceptions or exclusions. And all this is something that God does—completely!

Now, that’s the good news. What it requires of us might come to some of us as “bad news.” The incredibly generous gift that God has for all of us requires nothing less of us than to “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10). I think that’s what Paul’s getting at when quotes from Moses to the effect that the incredibly generous gift God offers us all requires “no precarious climb up to heaven to recruit the Messiah, no dangerous descent into hell to rescue the Messiah.” Rather “The word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as close as the heart in your chest” (Rom. 10:6-7, Message).

The point is that God doesn’t ask us to cross land and sea in order to discover the secret of new life, or even to deserve the incredible generosity God offers us all. What God asks of us is that we open our hearts and trust that our incredibly generous God loves us and wants us to thrive. But that kind of trust is not easy. In fact, an outwardly active response often masks the fact that a person is unwilling to trust God’s generosity.[4] Many of us would rather cross land and sea in some heroic venture—or perhaps even space and time—than to open our hearts and trust anyone, let alone God! But what our incredibly generous God asks of us is this—that we embrace God’s incredibly generous love completely, with open hearts, or as Paul puts it: “body and soul” (Rom. 10:9-10, Message).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/10/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Rom. 3:22; cf. Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 100, Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:217: “The God of Jacob is also the God of Esau.”

[3] Barth, Romans, 102-3, 326-27; cf. Barth, Dogmatics, 2.2:219, 221.

[4] See Barth, Dogmatics, 2.2:246-47, calls it a form of “active unbelief”!

A Question of Divine Mercy

Rom. 9:1-5, 30-10:4[1]

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul goes to great lengths to elaborate on the Gospel of new life in Jesus the Christ. He makes it clear that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we all have new life, a life that truly is life. And yet, in the midst of this wonderful elaboration on the good news, Paul faces an inevitable question —what about God’s own “people”? The fact of the matter is that God’s “chosen people” had essentially rejected Jesus and the good news that Paul and others were preaching. Paul says that it personally caused him “great grief and constant pain” (Rom. 9:2, Inclusive Bible). But it also constitutes an argument that could potentially refute Paul’s message.

Think about it—if this is what God is up to in the world, why is it that God’s own “chosen people” have not embraced it? Or perhaps we could ask it this way—if God is so “faithful” and “loving,” why has God’s project seemingly by-passed the people God promised to bless? It would seem that either the “gospel” is a massive misrepresentation, or that God is after all unfaithful, untrustworthy, and “the promise of God has failed” (Rom. 9:6, TEV).

For Paul, this raises a serious question about God’s intentions on our behalf—and it relates to an issue that defines our understanding of God and salvation throughout the Bible. It is the issue of “election.” In the Bible, election is the idea that God chose to bless the descendants of Abraham. The promises to the ancestors, the Exodus, the feast of Passover, and the covenant are all part of one great act of God in choosing the people of Israel to be God’s people. Of course, in our minds, “choosing” anyone means rejecting someone else—or perhaps everyone else! I think one of the great sources of confusion about God is the idea that God is “out there” picking and choosing who will be saved and who will be rejected. If that’s the case, then Paul’s “good news” really isn’t so good after all!

That’s why Paul takes great pains to address this question. Of course, from our perspective, he seems to talk in circles about Jacob and Esau, about vessels for honor and for dishonor, and it’s easy to get lost in the process! Though Paul’s language hints at the idea that God has chosen some but rejected others, the main idea is that when it comes to our salvation—as well as anyone else’s—“everything depends on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16, CEV). Or as another version puts it, “It is obviously not a question of human will or human effort, but of divine mercy” (Rom. 9:16, Phillips).

At first glance, that might not satisfy most of us. Most people seem to be stuck in thinking that “election,” or “predestination”—or whatever you want to call it—means that God is arbitrary about who gets to have eternal life and who perishes in the flames! Nothing could be further from the truth! When the Bible addresses God’s “plan of salvation,” it presents a God who is always taking the first step toward us all.[2]

What this means is that, instead of viewing election as picking some and rejecting others, if we follow the Scriptures, we will view it as God’s decision from all eternity to be the God who justifies the godless (Rom. 4:5), who has mercy on us all (Rom. 11:32), who takes all notion of rejection away because God takes it on himself (Rom. 8:1; cf. Gal. 3:13).[3] At the end of the day what must be said about the Bible’s witness is that what God elects, what God chooses from all eternity, what God “predestines,” if you will, is our salvation—and the salvation of all humankind![4] This is true even in the case of those who apparently reject God’s love now, of those who seemingly want to be destroyed, of those who have hardened themselves![5]

In this chapter Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea as a reminder that even when God’s own people strayed so far as to be considered “not my people,” God acted to restore them in mercy and love (Rom. 9:25-26, quoting Hos. 1:10; 2:23). Even when they said “No” to God’s love, God said “Yes” to them. And Paul insists that God says a great “Yes” to us all, and does so “without any if or but, without any afterthought or reservation, not temporarily but definitively, with a fidelity that is … total and eternal.”[6]

Though Paul is perhaps not entirely successful in his attempt to plumb the depths of God’s eternal purpose and will, the substance of what he is trying to say is that God’s purpose in Christ Jesus is to show mercy and compassion to everyone.[7] The basis for this is that God’s mercy is the essential, defining facet of God’s very being. Paul alludes to this in quoting from the book of Exodus, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15, quoting Exod. 33:19). In a real sense, one could say that mercy is God’s very name![8] If God “predestines” anything, it is to be the one who extends mercy to us all; if God “elects” anything, it is to be the one who restores those who are wayward; if God chooses anything, it is to be the one who is the Savior of all who are lost!

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/3/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See, for example, Luke 19:10, John 3:16, Romans 5:6-8, 2 Corinthians 5:14-17, Ephesians 1:3-14, 2:4-5, Titus 3:5, 1 John 4:9, 19; cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 15, 26, 54, 60, 101-103, 161-62, 176-78

[3] Barth, CD 2.2: 123-24; cf. also 162-65, 167-68; “He elected our rejection. He made it His own. … That is how God loved the world” [164-65]; “Predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal at His own cost” [167].

[4] cf. Barth, CD 2.2: 28-29, 54; esp. cf. p. 29: God’s sovereignty consists in the fact that “God Himself in His freedom has decided that [man] shall stand, that he shall be saved and not lost, that he shall live and not die.”

[5] Barth, CD 2.2: 34: “God does not acquiesce in the creature’s self-destruction.”

[6] Barth, CD 2.2.31; see also ibid., 29: God “elects the fulfillment and not the non-fulfillment of the purpose and meaning of love.” See further Jürgen Moltmann, “Surviving with Noah,” in The Power of the Powerless, 10-11.

[7] Barth, CD 2.2:15.

[8] Barth, CD 2.2.53-54, 218-19, 221, 223: “God’s nature” consists in the fact that “He freely shows mercy”; also J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 53, 151.

God’s Project

Rom. 8:26-39[1]

I think that one of the great tragedies of the Christian faith is the fact that, despite the overwhelming testimony of the Scriptures to the contrary, Christians throughout the centuries have believed that God’s whole project of salvation is a “transaction”—God offers us forgiveness, new life, and hope in return for our faith and obedience. In my opinion, what the Bible teaches is that God’s whole project of salvation is about a relationship—God loves us unconditionally and irrevocably, and is working to restore us all to the kind of relationship with God that we were all meant to have. It is God’s project from beginning to end—God’s desire, God’s design, God’s work, God’s grace.

I had an interesting experience this week. I decided to Google the words “transaction” and “salvation” to see what I could come up with. I found a Wikipedia entry entitled, “The Economy of Salvation,” which simply and clearly articulated the idea that God’s “project” is to offer us the chance to take part in the transaction of salvation. The idea is basically that through Jesus’ sacrifice, which is a price paid to make it possible for us to be forgiven for our sins, God offers us salvation. The transaction is complete when accept it through faith and allegiance to him. From this perspective, salvation could be expressed by saying, “Jesus paid the price for your sins on the cross, and if you will turn to him in faith and repentance, God will forgive your sins.” Those who view salvation in this way will say, “I was saved on such-and-such a date.”

Well, it’s a good thing I’m a member of Wikipedia. All I had to do was log in and edit the entry. I changed it to express the fact that there is another way to look at it. What I added is that other Christians, especially in the Reformed Tradition, view salvation from a more relational perspective. From this point of view, God takes the initiative in restoring and reconciling our relationship long before any of us can take the step of faith or obedience. The work of salvation was completed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. From this standpoint, salvation could be expressed by saying, “Jesus died and rose again to accomplish your salvation; God has already forgiven your sins. All that is left for you to do is accept that you are loved by God.” Those who view salvation from this perspective will say, “I was saved on a hill outside Jerusalem about 2000 years ago.”

I think that’s what Paul is saying in our lesson from Romans today. The essential, overarching concept in this passage is God’s “purpose,” or “project.” Paul says that God’s project is to conform us all to the image of Jesus the Christ. Of course, he says that God carries out that project by choosing, calling, justifying and glorifying fallen humankind. When we think of “choosing,” we might be tempted as John Calvin was to think that God chooses some and rejects others. But I think it is important to ask, “Whom does God choose?” Well, according to Paul, God chooses Jesus, and in him chooses us all (Eph. 1:4).[2] I think it’s even more important to ask, “Whom does God justify?” This is one of Paul’s favorite concepts for salvation. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says a lot about whom God justifies. At one point he says is that God is the one who justifies the “ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). In fact, it might be more precise to say that God justifies the “godless”![3] That should shock and surprise us a bit. Even with all of our theology of grace, we still have a bit of “segregation” in us when it comes to salvation. I guess the way to put it is this: if God justifies the godless, whom does God not justify?

So basically, Paul says that God’s “purpose” or “project” is expressed in choosing, calling, justifying, and glorifying us all. And just to make sure we don’t miss the point, he reminds us that there is nothing in all creation that can ever separate us from the love God has for us and has given us in Jesus the Christ. Again, some might want to quibble here—they will say that nothing in all creation can separate us, but we can separate ourselves by our own refusal to take the step of faith and obedience. As my favorite theologian asks, however, is our willfulness more definitive than God’s love and grace?[4] I think not!

Paul believed that God’s “project” is to reconcile the entire created order and restore it to its rightful place in obedience to Christ. He believed that there would come a time when “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” and that in the end God would be “all in all.”[5] Paul’s gospel is a gospel of grace—of receiving something undeserved. It is a gospel about the God who loves us unconditionally, the God who accepts us, the God who above all else is for us.[6] I think what Paul is trying to communicate to us about God is that God is “for us.” In all that God does, God is “for us.” “For us” defines God’s essential nature.[7] And this good new creates in us the confidence that God’s love “lasts for ever and that it will not rest until it possesses us wholly.”[8]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/27/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Perhaps the most famous advocate of this view is Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, 2.2, 115-17. See also ibid., 59-60, 101, 103-105.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 94: God has always worked as “the God of the godless.”

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 140-43.

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:10-11. See also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411: “What our God has created He will also uphold, and sooner or later control by His Grace.” See further Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 178, 244; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-39, 57, 151; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 76, 85; Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 147-49.

[6] Emil Brunner, Christian Doctrine of God, 184; Hans Küng, Does God Exist?, 675; Hans Küng, Eternal Life, 212; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 94.

[7] Brunner, Christian Doctrine of God, 192.

[8] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, 344. Our Confession of 1967 puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.” Confession of 1967, 9.53.