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.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Romans 5 and 6: Wrath and Grace

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 4
Romans 5:1-8, 12-14, 18-19

Jesus identified with us by joining us in the death our sins earned, and God identifies us with Jesus in putting all of us right through the resurrection. This is a mystery of our faith, which we trust in without entirely understanding. Because we know now that we are at peace with God, one with God, we move into all we should be. No more fear. So we no longer see hard times as punishments but as chances to endure and be faithful to God, opportunities for God’s love to pour into our hearts.

Charles Williams noticed that Job complains to God about his undeserved hard times, and God shows up and says, “Have you considered the hippopotamus?” Though God does not explain, the beautiful thing is that God shows up. Several times as I have honestly expressed my own negative feelings to God, God has shown up. God doesn’t explain why I am going through trials, nor does God say how much better a person I will be for them. God’s presence does not answer my questions, but it satisfies my hunger for justice and mercy. It’s so clear God is someone we can trust.

Paul reminds us that we don’t earn this kind of relationship with God. Jesus has made it possible for us to be at peace with God. Jesus showed confidence in God and put his life on the line for us. Hidden in the word reconciliation is a metaphor of exchanging currency. Jesus set us free by exchanging himself to death for us, and now his resurrected life keeps us safe and sound from wrath, from agitation of soul.

NRSV adds “of God” to wrath, though the Greek doesn’t have it. Julian of Norwich said that she acknowledged that Holy Church teaches the wrath of God, but that she never saw it in any of her openings. Certainly God loves us so much. But when we stubbornly refuse to enter the Kingdom through the door provided by Jesus, God looks to us like wrath.

Lesson 5
Romans 6:1-14

Paul always walks the fine line between celebrating grace as our doorway to relationship with God and warning that grace does not mean license. This relates so well to the early preaching of Friends. George Fox spoke constantly against “crying up sin” as if Jesus could not really set people free. Fox insisted that dying with Jesus and rising with Jesus actually makes us innocent and able to choose obediently, rather than to make the same habitual selfish, harmful choices.

Jesus said we cannot serve two masters, particularly God and “mammon.“ The issue hidden in the word “mammon” is trust: where do we place our trust?  This returns us to the universal sin of Romans 1, which is to place the created thing in the place of the creator. Such a disposition means we covet, envy, murder, fight, deceive, gossip, slander, defy authority, boast, fool around, hurt, and betray other people.

George Fox refused to take his hat off to social superiors, and their angry and often violent response was evidence to him that their Christianity was hardly even skin deep. This contributed to his understanding that true baptism was spiritual rather than physical, since almost everyone he met had been baptized. Today’s Quakers need to ask whether they have indeed undergone spiritual baptism and understand that we are joined with Jesus in death and resurrection. And we need to ask what in our own lives shows others that our Christianity has not gone deep, that we think we can serve two masters?

Clearly, living under grace is not effortless. We exercise our wills to do what we know is right, what God is telling us each day to do. God washes us, clothes us with new garments, gives us a job to do, and we choose, as slaves of God, to do that job faithfully.