Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Galatians: Grace and Trust, Not a New Law

A Friends (Quaker) Perspective on Romans and Galatians
Provided several years ago for Illuminate, an adult Sunday School curriculum published by Barclay Press, a Friends publishing house

Lesson 11
Galatians 1:6-9; 2:11-16, 19-21

I resonate with Paul’s frustration here in Galatians. George Fox taught from the beginning that God calls both men and women as ministers and gifts them to do the work. The second preacher in the Quaker movement was Elizabeth Hooten. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, Quakers in a number of churches preached that women were not allowed by Paul to be preachers (or pastors or elders). Just imagine what Paul thought when he heard that! NO, he shouted from beyond the grave, NOT A NEW LAW!  I said you are set right BY TRUSTING IN JESUS, and you are now free to listen to God and obey what God tells you to do. If God says preach, DO IT!

Just try and pry people loose from a rule that makes them feel competent and comfortable. It’s nearly major surgery. Yet Paul has a similar problem here. He has taught, as he always did, that we are saved through confidence in the work of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, and what that tells us about the character and will of God. This saves us into freedom from rules and laws and freedom to hear and obey the lively and living Spirit; and yet, the Galatians are yearning for something safer and more obvious—circumcision. So much easier, really, a few minutes of excruciating pain and then recognition by others that one is “in.”

I can see Paul tearing his hair out. Live by faith, he says; you were included in Jesus’s death, and now your daily life is lived through and by Jesus. The death of Jesus proves that the law was not doing the job of setting people right. Don’t start trying to use the law for that purpose now.

And don’t be like Peter, says Paul, who talks out of both sides of his mouth—acting like someone without the law one minute and then trying to fit in with those who insist on the law the next. Act consistently with the truth of the gospel. How often do we compromise the free air of the good news because we are afraid of those who insist on following rules?

Lesson 12
Galatians 3:1-14

The measuring stick Paul introduces here is the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of the Galatians. Just as Abraham’s faith was what set him right, so also the Galatians’ faith set them right so that God’s Spirit now dwells in them. This Spirit is the guide for living.

Paul points out some things about trying to live by the law that I wish we would listen to as we apply some part of the law today and ignore the rest. Paul says that those who rely on the works of the law to be right with God are cursed unless they do EVERYTHING written in the law. Paul says that relying on the law is the opposite of living by faith. This is true even with regard to advice Paul gave to churches in his time. Paul is not instituting a new set of laws that set us right with God. He must still be frustrated with us.

What does it mean to live by faith?  We believe the good news about God that Jesus came to tell us and illustrated by the way he lived; he identified with us as human beings doomed to die and brings us along with him into the resurrection. Now, identified with Christ, we have died to the law in order to be free to live to God.

The last part of Galatians 3 celebrates the equality of all in Jesus Christ. When we trust our oneness with Jesus Christ, we are all children of God. We are wearing Jesus. We don’t have lines drawn between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. We are one in Jesus and we are one with Jesus.

Lesson 13
Galatians 5:1-6, 13-18, 22-25

I remember seeing a Gordon setter walking itself around the track at a local middle school. The owner was ahead by ten feet or so, and the dog followed, carrying its own leash in its mouth. A 1000-lb. horse wearing a halter can be led by a tiny person. In both cases, the animal still wears the “clothing” of intimidation or domination. But Jesus has let us off the leash, out of the halter, and has set us up as freeborn human beings.

George Fox wrote of being renewed to the innocence of Eden before the fall. This is a good picture of the eternal truth of what Jesus has accomplished for us. Implicit in it is the truth that each day we make the choice between listening to and obeying what God says and acting on our own advice or as we are dominated by voices other than God.

Paul particularly warns against attempting to bring Judaic practices into the life of freedom in Jesus. His own experience of living under the law made clear to him that he wasn’t going to be able to please God that way; only his face-to-face blinding encounter with the resurrected Jesus made it possible for him to live at peace with God.

As always, freedom is not the same as a license to kill or harm. As the Spirit fills more and more of the corners of our lives, our actions can be characterized not by competitiveness, egotism, or envy, but instead by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This shows that Jesus is working in us to bring about in our bodies what we hope for—our complete redemption.

One word about aging: it seems to me that aging requires us to lean entirely on what Jesus has done for us. I know many older folks who are more rather than less anxious, more rather than less querulous, more rather than less self-absorbed. I encourage the elderly to remember that it is not our own good behavior that earns us God’s love. It comes freely as we trust in what Jesus reveals about God and accomplishes for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

Romans 12 and 14: No Judgment in a Heart at Peace

A Friends (Quaker) Perspective on Romans and Galatians

Provided several years ago for Illuminate, an adult Sunday School curriculum published by Barclay Press, a Friends publishing house

Lesson 9
Romans 12:1-8, 14, 17-21

In Romans 9-11, Paul revisits the comparison between Jews and Gentiles in relation to the faith in God that sets people right with God, each other, and themselves. Most notable is the cautionary example of the Jews, the chosen people through whom came the law, the worship, the promises, and the Messiah (Romans 9:4-5). The Jews, says Paul, look for righteousness based on fulfilling the law and fail, and are thus outside the life of faith and caught in a life of works. We in the church are often in the same place as these folks. It is so human to prefer the known, the law, to the unknown, God’s grace and God’s Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that the wind blows where it chooses and humans do not understand where it comes from or where it goes, and that this is the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

Romans 12 helps us recognize the Spirit’s work, but it is not a new set of laws. Instead, because of what Jesus has already accomplished through identifying with our humanity, our sin, and our death, and through prefiguring the resurrection we all hope for, we are free to offer our whole selves, body and soul, to the service of God. We don’t have to be pawns of the forces that dominate our social world. As we obey God with our bodies, we worship God in spirit and in truth. God renews our minds so we can see clearly the good, acceptable, complete actions that are the will of God for us.

We use the gifts God gives us, as Jesus illustrated in the parable of the stewards. We treasure and care for the gifts of others. We aren’t tied up in the knots of competitiveness and self-sufficiency. We can lay down our sword and shield and study war no more.

The most important practical faith lesson I’ve learned recently is the importance of having a heart at peace toward those who I believe need to change. This is a spiritual discipline for me and involves praying blessing on them and for God to judge between us. And this prayer is frequent, just as frequent as the thought of conflict arises.

Lesson 10
Romans 14:1, 5-17

Underlying Romans 14 is this principle from Romans 13:8-10: all the interpersonal laws are summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself,” just as Jesus said. This means that we live honorably as if under a spotlight, which is where we are (John 3:21).

What about other believers who hold the wrong opinions?  Paul says, welcome them, but don’t argue with them. God has welcomed them. It is before God they stand or fall, not before us. Like us, whether they live or die, they are the Lord’s because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is one practical application of the law of love. Surely we can imagine that as we are judging them for wrong opinions, they are returning that judgment on us, unless we obey the law of love.

The advice not to judge repeats Romans 2. After the list of sins in Romans 1, therefore, Paul says, do not judge, since all have sinned. Here he says, do not judge, since you are no one’s boss, and all believers are accountable to God for how they obey. If a person hears from God that some behavior is unholy, that person must obey. The Gentiles and Jews to whom Paul wrote had different boundaries, and all still had to treat others with tenderness and love.

Another practical application of the law of love is that we don’t push people to violate their sense of what God wants from them. We respect the boundaries people believe God has given them. We don’t think we are better because God allows us different boundaries. Romans 12:3 tells us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought and to respect the fact that not all members of the body of Christ will function exactly like us.

Many times, I think, what causes our brother or sister to stumble is not a freedom in Christ we live into with joy and gratitude but rather the judgment that we pass on that brother and sister who does things differently from us, whether with more or less freedom. When we judge, we place ourselves as superior to the one being judged. Instead, we who are Spirit-led must be humble and obey God ourselves.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Romans 7 and 8: Making Freedom a Habit, Relying on God's Love

A Friends (Quaker) Perspective on Romans and Galatians
Provided several years ago for Illuminate, an adult Sunday School curriculum published by Barclay Press, a Friends publishing house

Lesson 6
Romans 7:1-8, 21-25

Paul is honest about the distance that can exist between the eternal truth that we are free from slavery to sin and the daily experience of choosing good over evil in our actions. The habitual forces of selfishness, self-preservation, and self-promotion, all at others’ expense, are hard to resist on a daily basis.

I know good folks who believe in holiness and freedom from slavery to sin who cannot admit that they make mistakes in human relationships. The result tends to be that they place the fault for the mistakes in the other person.

Paul’s honesty helps us here. We know Paul is set apart, purified, cleaned up (i.e., sanctified), and yet he describes difficulties in making his freedom from sin operational. Note that Paul split up from Barnabas because of “irreconcilable differences” over John Mark’s fitness for ministry (Acts 15:37-40).

We often respond almost reflexively, and when we kick out, we hit someone else. Yet there is a better way to live, modeled by Jesus, who did what he saw our Father doing and what our Father told him to do. The only way I know to change my behavior is to slow myself down so I can see the opportunity to choose differently from my habits. Paul thanks God for Jesus Christ the rescuer, who pulls us along with him and into him. Despite the difficulty we have learning to live free from sin, our inclusion in Jesus’s death and resurrection sets us free from condemnation.

Lesson 7

Romans 8:1-11

This passage comes directly after Romans 7, in which Paul attributes to Jesus the victory over sin and the death that ensues from sin; he asserts that we are no longer under judgment at all. This sets us free to live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the source of the abundant life Jesus came to give us. Because Jesus and we are identified in his death and resurrection, we live outside the law.

Paul has spent a lot of time explaining that we are saved through faith in the promise God made that we can live at peace with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We aren’t saved through doing but through trusting. So this isn’t a sudden shift to another legalistic way of earning salvation, this reference to the law of the Spirit. Instead, what Jesus does for us is move us from a moral universe of “have to” into one of “want to.”  We are no longer afraid of God because Jesus has “oned” us to God. Jesus sets us right, and therefore we can take the risk of listening to the Spirit and doing what we hear to do on a daily basis.

It’s like the difference between fulfilling an assignment in school to write a paper on space travel and falling in love with exploring “the final frontier” and doing what you can to become an astronaut. Or the difference between being a tourist and deciding to emigrate. Or the difference between babysitting and having a baby. Jesus makes it attractive for us to turn to God and run in God’s direction rather than running away.

Walking according to the Spirit is just the same thing as putting the Kingdom of God first. Don’t unite yourself to the concerns of this world’s systems; instead, unite yourself to the concerns of God that the Spirit of God will make clear to you each day. As Jesus said, no one can serve two masters.

Lesson 8
Romans 8:28-39

In between Lesson 7 and this one is Paul’s teaching that reminds us of Romans 7. We are set free from sin and death, free to do the right thing that God tells us to do; and yet we find ourselves fighting against old habits of selfishness, etc. Who will deliver us?  Jesus. Paul refers to our having the early signs or “first fruits” of the Spirit, but groaning inwardly for the redemption of our bodies. Like Abraham, we are saved in hope, which by definition we do not see, and we wait for its fulfillment with patience.

I love the thought that the Spirit translates our prayers and entreats God for us because of our weakness. We can therefore pray for and about anything, knowing that God will answer the prayers in the right way to advance the Kingdom. We can sit in silence before God, knowing that the Spirit is groaning for and with us.

When we love God, which Jesus makes possible, nothing can hurt us. In fact, God makes all things work to our good. God, who sees us coming from a long way off and runs to meet us, has purposed to shape us into the kind of child Jesus is so that everyone can see the family resemblance. He plans to put us right and make us what we ought to be and then brag on us.

Loving God is easy when we realize how God loves us. God wants to give us everything, God sets us right side up, God makes Jesus our judge, Jesus who prays for us all the time. Whatever hardship we face does not come because God has quit loving us. No power can separate us from God’s love.

I am so hopeful that this trust in the work of Jesus will free you and me to go boldly wherever God calls us to go without fearing that we will get it wrong. Of course we will often miss the bull’s eye or fail at perfect obedience, but Jesus is our redeemer, our guarantee, our intercessor and our judge. We could not be in kinder or more precisely healing hands.