Give Glory

(Genesis 3:14-15; Romans 16:17-27)

Some of you are probably familiar with the work of J. I. Packer—most likely his book Knowing God, if nothing else.  I had the privilege of taking several classes from him at Regent.  You had to pay attention, and no mistake.  His lectures were dense—he always said, “Packer by name, and packer by nature”; plus, he’s a Brit of the old style, very formal, very reserved, and even by English standards his sense of humor is dry as bone.  If you appreciate that, though (and I do), he’s really quite funny.  At first glance, he might seem all intellect and no heart, but that’s nowhere close to being true.  You can see that quite clearly in Knowing God; we saw it in many ways in his lectures, and perhaps most of all in his favorite saying, which was sort of a purpose statement for all his theology classes:  “Theology leads to doxology.”

In other words, we don’t just study about God so that we know more stuff, or so that we can win arguments or tell people what they’re supposed to do; nor is this about our own empowerment, or getting us what we want.  If those are the kinds of results that our theology produces, we’ve gone very wrong.  What we do as we read the Bible, as we pray, as we study together and teach one another, isn’t primarily about us, and it isn’t determined by our goals, our desires, or our ideas of how things ought to be.  It’s about God, and seeing him as he truly is, not as our passions and fears drive us to imagine him; and not just so that we know things about him, but so that we come to know him, as we come to know our family and closest friends.  And the more that happens—the more clearly we see him and the more truly we know him—the more we’re moved to worship.

It’s fitting, then, that as Paul closes his longest and most theologically dense letter, he does something that he doesn’t do anywhere else:  he ends with a doxology, with a song of praise.  That’s ultimately what all this is about, what his whole letter has been for, that the Roman church—and all others who would hear or read his words—would under­stand God’s holiness and glory and goodness and grace somewhat better, and would be inspired to bow before God and worship him.

It does matter that we believe what is true about God, so that we worship him truly; thus we have this digression in verses 17-19.  His greeting in verse 16 from the churches he founded brings to mind the fights he’s had in those churches, and so he warns the Romans:  there are false teachers out there, and they’ll be coming after you.  Be wise enough to see through their lies, and avoid them.  But again, this isn’t about being able to out-argue false teachers.  We counter their lies with truth, but not so that we can win the argument; we don’t want to focus on the argument.  The point is to keep our focus where it belongs:  on God the Father, Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Thus Paul ends with praise “to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ.”  What is Paul’s gospel?  It is exactly the preaching of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.  It is the triumphant declaration that Jesus has done the impossible, and has saved us when we could not be saved any other way.  This isn’t about Paul; he calls it “my gospel” not because the gospel belongs to him, but because he belongs to the gospel.

This is how God strengthens us; this is how he gives us hope and peace to stand firm—through the relentless and joyful proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  The world tries to create them through symptom control, on the personal level (through self-help programs and medications) and on the national level (through laws and programs), but those aren’t enough; and if the church just offers Christianized versions of the same, we’re selling everyone short.  Those things have their place, but they only deal with the effects of sin; they can’t address the real issue, the heart of the matter.  At every level, at every point, by every means, we need to be proclaiming the gospel.  Only that truly strengthens us and enables us to stand firm because only the gospel goes to the root of the problem.  It’s God’s answer to sin—and he’s answered it once and for all.

This is, Paul says, “according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the com­mand of the eternal God.”  Those prophetic writings were centuries old; why does he say the mystery is nowrevealed through texts written long before?  The answer has to do with the na­ture of mystery.  In the biblical sense, it doesn’t mean God was concealing his plan, or the truth about himself; mystery is something hidden in plain sight, not by any effort of God to disguise it, but by our inability to understand it—or, even more importantly, ex­peri­ence it.  The prophets pointed to the mystery and proclaimed what God would do, but no one really understood them; but when Jesus came and fulfilled the prophets, the world saw what they meant, and their message became clear for the first time.

Why?  “So that all nations might believe and obey him.”  The gospel is not just one way to God, for one culture or one sort of people; it’s the one way God has provided for salvation for all people.  His plan is broader than just Israel, and broader than any other nation or group we might name; his purpose is for the whole world, and indeed for all creation.  And it’s his purpose that matters in the end, not ours, and his plan that carries through, not ours, because he’s God, and we’re not.  It’s his to decree, and ours to obey.

The one who has done all this, and is able to do all this, is the only wise God.  It’s his wisdom that formed a plan for the redemption of the world after our rebellion broke it and shrouded it with darkness, and his wisdom that set the plan in motion and brought it to completion.  His wisdom is fully expressed—is incarnated, made flesh and bone—in Jesus Christ, and it’s in Jesus Christ and him alone that we have been saved, or can be saved; thus it is through Jesus Christ that we give him glory.  His glory is forever, as he is forever, as his wisdom is forever, as his gift of life is forever; and so our worship is forever, for he deserves nothing less.  He has saved us, he has set us free from darkness and shadow, he has delivered us from death and given us his life; he has given us hope in a world of despair, peace in a world of anxiety, joy in a world of grief, and love in a world of bitterness and hatred.  To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ!  Amen.  Let’s pray.

Give Honor

(Psalm 91:14-16Romans 16:1-16)

It’s typical of Paul to greet various people at the end of a letter, but nowhere else does he greet so many.  It makes sense; the church as a whole is unfa­miliar with him, and so he sends greetings to everyone in the whole church that he does know—which is to say, all the people who can vouch for him.  That’s an ulterior motive, though, merely a reason the list is so long; it isn’t Paul’s primary purpose here.  You can see that by what he says about those whom he names:  his focus isn’t on himself, it’s on them.  We don’t know much about most of these folks; for most of them we can’t even guess much; but from what we do know we can be sure there are some great stories behind this passage.

Phoebe was a Gentile convert from the church at Kenkhreai—the eastern port for the city of Corinth—and apparently the person carrying the letter to Rome.  Paul calls her a deacon; the formal structure of church offices was only beginning to develop, but it seems safe to say that Phoebe was a recognized leader of the church with responsibility for visiting the sick, caring for the poor, and quite likely helping manage whatever money the church there had.  She was clearly wealthy and socially prominent, since Paul names her as a benefactor or patron to him and to many in the church.  This probably means that the church met in her home for worship, but there’s more than that here.  The word Paul uses was actually a technical term for someone who came to the aid of others, and particularly foreigners, providing them with financial and legal assistance.  In a busy seaport like Kenkhreai, this would have been especially important, and it seems likely that Phoebe took up this ministry on behalf of visiting Christians—including Paul.  Now, he says, she needs the Roman church to serve her as she has served so many others.

After commending Phoebe to the Roman church, Paul greets his old friends and co-workers Prisca and Aquila; you probably know Prisca better by her nickname, Priscilla, since that’s how Luke refers to her in the book of Acts.  They were Jewish Christians whom Paul first met in Corinth—they had been expelled from Rome along with all other Jews by Claudius—and they played a major part with him in the founding and growth of the church in Ephesus.  By this point, Claudius has died and they’ve returned to Rome, and are no doubt among the chief leaders of the church there.  Paul notes that they risked their necks to save his—we don’t have that story, but it was most likely during his three years in Ephesus; for that reason and many others, he isn’t exaggerating when he says that “all the churches of the Gentiles” give thanks for them.

In verse 7, we have greetings addressed to another pair of Greek-speaking Jews.  This verse has been made a point of argument over the ordination of women, but it shouldn’t be.  The text is clear:  Paul greets a husband and wife, Andronicus and Junia—just like Aquila and Prisca, or Philologus and Julia—who he says are “esteemed among the apostles.”  Which is most likely to say that like Prisca and Aquila, they were a married couple who traveled, and who used their travels to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  The fact that they had been imprisoned for the gospel, like Paul, bears this out.

Of the rest, we can say much less.  Epainetus, the first Christian convert in Asia, must have come to faith through the work of Prisca and Aquila, and perhaps came to Rome with them.  Herodion, and the household of Aristobulus—we can’t be sure, but this is likely Aristobulus the brother of King Herod Agrippa I, who killed James the brother of John and tried to kill Peter.  Aristobulus was dead by this point, but it appears the church had spread even into his family and their servants.  Rufus may well be the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Christ part of the way to Golgotha; we don’t know for sure, but there’s good reason to think so.

Obviously, we don’t know much, and we can’t even guess much.  There’s one thing we can say for sure about every person greeted here:  Paul considered them worthy of honor.  Just look what he says about them.  “My fellow workers in Christ”—“my fellow prisoners”—“my beloved in the Lord”—“approved in Christ”—“chosen in the Lord”—“workers in the Lord”—“Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you”—“Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.”  He values these people for their faithful service to the Lord and his church, including in many cases to Paul himself; he greets them because he wants to honor them, and to hold them up for the church to honor.

And you know, he succeeded, far beyond anything he could have imagined.  Even with those for whom we know nothing more than their names, we at least know their names; we’ve at least heard of them.  Everyone they knew, or almost everyone, has been forgotten for nearly two thousand years—but their names are still remembered, and with them, Paul’s approval.  And more than that, this may be just a list of names, but it’s still Scripture, it’s just as inspired by God as any other passage in this book.  If Paul honored them for their faithfulness, I think we can safely say that Jesus honored them, too.

This matters.  I preached a sermon last week basically promising you blood and pain and strife if you follow Jesus, and you know, I won’t take back a word of it; but you could be excused for wondering, if that’s what following Jesus gets you, why bother?  This world values comfort, ease, material wealth, security (financial and otherwise), physical pleasure, and that’s just not what Jesus promises his people.  Oh, you might get those things, but you might not—and if you do, it might not really be a blessing.  So, if not any of those things, what do we get out of this gig, anyway?

There are several parts to that answer, many of which we’ve talked about before; one of the most obvious, of course, is eternal life.   Part of this, too, though, is honor.  It’s not about reputation, which is ultimately in the world’s hands.  Lois McMaster Bujold, in one of herVorkosigan novels, has the protagonist’s father tell him, “Reputation is what other people know about you.  Honor is what you know about yourself.”  A little later, he adds, “Guard your honor.  Let your reputation fall where it will.”  From a Christian point of view, the only thing I’d add is that honor is ultimately what Jesus knows about us—which means it’s rooted in the truth that he has redeemed us and paid the penalty for all our sin, and is transforming us by his Holy Spirit.
As such, reputation may come and go, but in Christ our honor is solid; as we follow him, he is making us people of integrity, faithfulness, and true character, worthy of respect, in and through whom he can do his good work.  We don’t need the world’s ap­proval, we have the Lord’s; we don’t need the world to validate us or vindicate us, because he will.  And because we are worthy of honor in his eyes, we will be honored by those who also give him honor.

The flipside to this is that, like Paul, we should honor those who serve the Lord with honor.  This morning, I think especially of those who were here last night doing all the work of a funeral dinner for Deb Eberly’s family, after the death of her sister.  I won’t make them stand, but I honor the service of Sue Gunter, Marilyn Rice, and Alice Seiman, Pam Chastain, and Mary Ann Cox.  We had two craft shows going yesterday, selling peanut brittle to support local missions, and Mom’s Day Out; we had a lot of people busy in service yesterday, some doing more than one thing.  And of course, beyond the activities of the church, we have people serving Christ in many ways—in the health-care system, in the schools of our community, through involvement in mission to other parts of the world, and so on.

From the Front Lines

(Isaiah 52:13-53:1Romans 15:14-33)

“Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of the gates of hell.”  So said the great missionary C. T. Studd, and he lived it.  After graduating from Cambridge in 1883, he went to serve with Hudson Taylor on the China Inland Mission.  From there he went to southern India—to Oota­camund, actually, where Carolyn Dann is now teaching; he pastored a church there from 1900-1906.  He returned to Britain after that, but he didn’t stay; concern for Africa led him to travel to the Sudan and the Congo.  That began the Heart of Africa Mission, which Studd expanded several years later into the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade, sending workers into South America, Central Asia and the Arab world as well as central Africa.

This is a man who could say in all sincerity, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”  Paul would have understood him well, for he was energized by the same thing—being on the front lines of God’s work in the world.  Indeed, Paul appeals to that in verses 15-16.  He’s written in quite strong terms to a church he didn’t plant, and he acknowledges that, but he justifies it on the grounds of the grace he was given by God to be a minister to the Gentiles.  Maybe he’s never served in Rome, but he still has flag rank, if you will, and not in some staff position back at head­quarters, either.  He’s been in the heat of the battle for a couple decades now, at God’s specific and express appointment; he has earned the right to speak with authority.

Indeed, to say that Paul served in the heat of the battle is to understate the point; in the spread of the church across the Roman world, he was the tip of the spear, practically a one-man revival, and that’s the role he felt strongly called to play.  You can see it in verse 23—it’s almost plaintive:  “I no longer have any room to work in these regions.”  It’s not as if there were churches all over the place in the eastern Mediterranean; but there were enough that Paul felt he was being squeezed out.  You may remember the story of Daniel Boone, who thought that if he could stand in his yard and see smoke from a neigh­bor’s chimney, the place was getting too crowded and it was time to move; that was about Paul’s attitude.  If there were other Christians around who were ready to lead the church, then it was time for him to head off someplace where that wasn’t true.

Now, most of us, if you were to ask where the front lines are for the church today, would think of Wycliffe, of missionaries to the Muslim world, and people like that; and certainly, that’s true.  What we don’t rightly see is that even more, the front lines run right through Western culture.  Look at Europe, look at Canada; look at New England, or the West Coast.  Look to the mountains—where I last served, I think our best guess was that 9% of the population was in church any given Sunday, and many among that 9% weren’t there for God.  Look to those places, because that’s the direction in which this community is moving—it’s just slower here.  Even here, the front lines between the church and the world begin right at the doorstep.

You might be thinking at this point that you do see this—but the problem isn’t that we don’t see anything, it’s that we don’t see rightly.  One of the greatest lies the Enemy has ever pitched has been to get the church to see spiritual battles in worldly terms, and especially political terms.  He’s gotten us to identify our goals in terms of biblical moral behavior backed by legislation, and in terms of economic results to be achieved by political means.  For some, it’s left-wing concepts of moral behavior and economic fairness, while others hold up right-wing understandings of the same—either way, I assure you, the Devil’s just as happy, because he’s gotten us to identify the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of man, and at that point we’re no longer a threat.  I’m not saying it doesn’t matter what our political ideas are, I’m not saying the laws don’t matter, but I am saying, unless God calls us specifically to that work, all that is secondary.

We need to understand, from the front of our consciousness to the pit of our stomach, that we are on the front lines every bit as much as missionaries in hostile countries; and we need to understand two things about that.  One, our goals and our enemies are not physical but spiritual.  Political parties are not the enemy, and better laws are not the goal.  Our goal is that “those who have never been told of Christ”—or worse, who have been told lies about him—“will see, and those who have never heard will understand”; and that those who do know him will be filled with his love and grace and with the desire to know him better, that we may all be able to teach one another.  Everything we do should be all about the gospel of Jesus Christ, nothing else; and nothing else will heal our community or our nation.

Two, we will suffer; and though our enemy is entirely spiritual, our suffering won’t be.  We will be attacked spiritually, yes, but also emotionally, financially, legally, politically, reputationally, and ultimately physically.  We will hurt, and we will bleed.  We cannot make the mistake of identifying success as the people of God with good circumstances, financial security, and the absence of conflict; in truth, that was always a mistake, but in times when looking Christian was part of the cultural expectation, that mistake was easier to get away with.  Now, “the times, they are a-changin’,” and that’s a confusion we simply cannot afford.  We need to commit to following Jesus Christ with the full understanding that following him may leave us bankrupt, despised, wounded, and maybe even imprisoned—just like Jeremiah, Paul, Jesus . . .

I say this as one to whom wisdom has come late.  I’ve been praying since my early teens that God would bring revival, and that he would use me in part to do it.  I’ve prayed that the Holy Spirit would work through me to win battles for the kingdom of God.  At the same time, I’ve complained every time I got hurt and asked God to make life easier.  He was very gentle with me—it’s only the last few years that I’ve realized that these two sets of prayers are incompatible.  You can have a relatively easy life, far from the front lines, where nothing is really at stake; but if you want to win real victories, you must go to the battle, risking all.  That means—that inevitably means—struggle and strife and hardship and pain; those are part of the necessary price of victory.  As the Duke of Wellington said, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

I’m going to do something now, I want you to follow me carefully.  Today of course is Veterans’ Day; all of you who are veterans of the American armed services, please stand.  We honor you for your service, and rightly so, for it is an honorable service for those who serve with honor—and as the depressing news about General Petraeus reminds us, the hardest thing of all is to serve with honor all the way to the very end.
And in that, we profit from your example, and the reminder of your presence.  You are veterans in a particular way, in a particular service to which God called you, of which the risks and the struggles show especially clearly; as such, you provide a model for us in our own service, and we need that.  We need the example of Paul, who could write at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith”; but we need the example of those in our own day who have fought the good fight to the end, to help us do the same.

As Christians, even above our allegiance to this nation, we have a higher allegiance, for we are citizens of the kingdom of God, and we are all on active duty; we are all soldiers against the darkness.  Would you all then please stand.  You are all soldiers in the army of the Lord of Hosts; your battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and authorities and rulers of the evil of this present age.  You go forth not in your own strength, but in the power of the Spirit of God who is in you, to set free those who are enslaved to sin and deliver them from the hand of death, that they too may be raised up by the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord.  The fight will at times be fierce, but you do not fight alone, for we all go forth together; and though there will be losses, yet the victory is certain, for Christ has already won it.  Let’s pray.

As Christ to One Another

(Psalm 69:6-12Isaiah 11:1-10Romans 15:1-13)

As we’ve seen the last couple weeks, Paul is dealing with a conflict in the Roman church between a group who feel they have to keep the Old Testament law in order to please God—it’s a crutch to prop up their faith—and a group of those who understand that they don’t who are quarreling with the first group.  The first group is mostly Jews—not all the Jews in the church, I’m sure, and there were likely a few Gentiles among them, but it’s essentially a Jewish group—and the second is no doubt mostly Gentiles, and so the strife between them has been causing and inflaming division more generally between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome.  That’s a lot of why Paul wrote this letter.

In our passage this morning, Paul lays out the bottom line for everything he’s said in chapter 14:  we aren’t in this to please ourselves, we aren’t in this to get what we want, and we have to understand that when we get into a conflict in the church.  Yes, the strong are absolutely correct that they are free in Christ to eat non-kosher meat and ignore the Jewish feast days and festivals—but if they are doing so in a way that hurts others in the church, that’s a sin.  If they’re living to please themselves and not taking thought to what is best for the weaker members of the church, that’s an abuse of their freedom in Christ.  Christ hasn’t set us free to be selfish, he’s set us free from being selfish.

This does not mean, though, that we need to give others in the church whatever they want.  Look at verse 2:  “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, that is, to build him up.”  The problem with the “strong” in Rome is not that they were making the “weak” believers angry:  their behavior was actually making the weak even weaker, tearing down their faith and making it harder for them to follow Christ.  The point isn’t to keep everyone happy, but to build each other up in faith and help one another grow in spiritual maturity.  Sometimes that means making someone unhappy, challenging them about an issue in their lives and telling them things they don’t want to hear.  The key—note Paul’s use of the word “neighbor,” echoing Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves—is that everything we do should be done out of love, in a spirit of grace.

We should stop a moment to emphasize that this passage is about our responsibility to others in Christ, not about our expectations from others.  I think I’ve noted before that we like to read the commands in the Bible as addressed to other people, and then try to use the Bible to make them do what we want; but you know, I can’t think of a single passage of Scripture that was written for that purpose.  Like all the rest of this book, this was written for us to apply to ourselves, to learn what God wants us to do; what others are supposed to do for us is not for us to worry about.  It’s between them and God.

In verse 5, Paul ties this back to what he said in chapter 12 and chapter 8.  8:5:  “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”  In 12:3 he uses this word to describe the mindset, the perspective, we’re supposed to have about ourselves and our lives; in 12:16 he says the same thing he says here:  “think the same thing toward one another.”  Not “have the same opinions,” not “agree on all the issues”; he’s just spent a chapter and more telling the quarreling factions to respect each other’s views, after all.  He’s on about something deeper.

The point here is the same one he makes to a squabbling church in Philippians 2:  “Let this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who didn’t insist on his rights and cling to his prerogatives, but opened his hands and let them all go to serve us, humbling himself in obedience, even to the point of death on a cross.”  It’s a completely different basis for unity than anything the world knows.  We unify around points of agreement—if you like hymns, you go to this church; if you like electric guitars, you go to that one.  If you have this political view, you go here; if you have that political view, you go there.  If you hold this set of opinions, you vote for the elephant; if you hold that set, you vote for the donkey.  And in so doing, we divide ourselves into all these little groups, and we define ourselves against everyone who thinks different from us.

In Christ, we’re supposed to go deeper than that; our unity isn’t supposed to stop where our uniformity stops.  If you’re unified with those who agree with you on everything you care about, who cares?  Even the world does that.  If we’re in Christ, if we love him and are truly seeking to follow him and to be obedient to his call in our lives, that’s what matters.  We aren’t all going to agree on what that means for what we’re called to do and think; and indeed, we shouldn’t.  Remember Paul’s body imagery—if we were all the same, there would be a lot of necessary parts missing.

We ought to be able to come together in all our differences and disagreements—rockers and classical musicians, hymn-singers and hip-hoppers, Baptists and Presbyterians, and, yes, even liberals and conservatives—and worship together as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Yes, we disagree on many things, but we ought to recognize that we share one salvation in one Lord through one faith by one grace, and none of us has any claim to stand above anyone else.  The more we appreciate our own desperate need for grace—and even the best of us stands in desperate need, make no mistake—the less we will be inclined to look down on others for their need; and the more we see one another as the beloved of Christ, for whom he died and rose again, the less free we will feel to beat one another up to get our own way.  Which is a good thing, because Jesus does not take it kindly when we hurt someone he loves.

This doesn’t mean soft-pedaling our disagreements, pretending they don’t matter or don’t exist.  We should take each other seriously enough, and trust one another enough, to be open and honest when we disagree, or when we have a problem with some­one in the church, when they’ve hurt us, or even when we just don’t like them.  Talking to other people instead of confronting those with whom we have an issue is just as unloving as attacking people and tearing them down.  But even in our disagreements and our hurts, Paul calls us to receive one another—not merely tolerate one another, but receive one another, as Christ received us; not just as people we have to put up with until we can get rid of them, but as family, as people we love.  He tells us to stand as Christ to one another, not just when it’s easy, but seeking to serve and bless one another even when our disagreements are severe—because that’s when we need it most.  Let’s pray.

Grace for the Weak

(Leviticus 10:8-11; Romans 14:13-23)

Law is about control, and the mind set on law is a mind set on control—control of self and control of others, in some combination.  It’s possible to be a faithful keeper of the law and not be a legalist, if your focus is not on the law but through the law; thus we have the psalmist and others in the Old Testament who speak of the law of Moses with great love and joy, because their minds were set not on the law, but on God.  For them, the law was not an end in itself, but a way to see and know God.  They were using the law as God desired it to be used.  But when we collapse law into law—or when we collapse anything else into law—so that our focus is on the law itself and keeping the law rather than on the reality behind the law, then we betray what we claim to serve.
This is easy to see in the “weak” party in Rome, who were insisting on keeping the purity laws and the Jewish religious calendar; they were clearly making the kingdom of God about eating and drinking.  Less obvious is the fact that the “strong” were doing the exact same thing.  We miss that because we think of religious law as telling us not to do worldly stuff (and commanding us to do churchy stuff), but you can be just as legalistic, arrogant, and self-righteous about notkeeping that sort of law as about keeping it.  All you’ve done then is replace “thou shalt not eat meat and drink wine” with “thou shalt eat meat and drink wine.”  Either way, you’re making it all about your dinner, rather than about the Lord, and that’s not what God is on about.
Unfortunately, legalism is hostile to listening and learning, because it breeds the conviction that I’m right and I already know what I need to know; learning, after all, must begin at least with the admission, “I don’t know,” and usually with the willingness to say, “I’m wrong.”  It’s also hostile to compromise, because it turns winning the argument into a moral imperative.  As such, neither side in this dispute is willing to back down.
Now, as we saw last week, Paul agrees with the theology of the Gentiles here.  You’re absolutely right, he says:  the old categories of ritual purity, of things you can’t touch and foods you can’t eat because they’re unclean, are meaningless in Jesus.  None of that matters anymore.  Given that, you might think he would support the “strong” group—but he doesn’t.  Instead, he tells them they are the ones who need to change.  No, they don’t have to start keeping the law, but they do have to respect those who are weaker in their faith, and be considerate of their scruples.  The strong have been flouting their freedom, breaking the Mosaic law right in front of their Jewish brothers and sisters, and pushing them to do the same; Paul commands them to knock it off.
Why?  Because they were the ones with the stronger sense of Christian freedom.  It was their responsibility to compromise because they were the ones who were free to do so.  For the weak to compromise their behavior for the sake of the strong, they would have to compromise their beliefs, to break their faith, by breaking what they believed to be a moral obligation.  For the strong to compromise their behavior for the sake of the weak, all they would have to do is voluntarily restrict themselves—to use their Christian freedom to not act as they would prefer in certain circumstances out of respect for the beliefs of others in the church.  They didn’t have to compromise their beliefs, betray their morals, or give up their Christian freedom; all they had to do was honor others above themselves and put the good of their neighbor ahead of their own desires, just as Paul had already told them to do.  Doing whatever we want is never a moral obligation.
It’s easy to imagine how the “strong” party in the church in Rome would have howled at this, but Paul has three arguments for them.  One, they are causing others pain by their insistence on getting their own way; that’s not loving, and so it isn’t an appropriate exercise of their freedom in Christ.  If the “weak” party were demanding they do something which was actually sinful, it would be different, but that isn’t the case.  Two, Paul says, their behavior is counterproductive, because pushing the Jews in the church to break the law won’t help them understand that they are truly free in Christ.  In the end, all it will do is harden their conviction that not keeping the law is bad.
And three, the strong need to understand that in pushing their weaker brothers and sisters to break the law, they are in fact driving them to sin.  True, the kosher laws are no longer binding on Christians, and so it isn’t a sin to eat non-kosher meat—but if you believe it’s a sin and you eat it anyway, then for you it’s a sin.  That might seem strange, but think it through.  If you believe an act is sinful and you decide to do it anyway, what do you have to do?  You have to decide to disobey God.  That decision is a sin, regardless of anything else.  If you’re absolutely convinced that God forbids us to step on cracks in the pavement, that doesn’t mean stepping on a crack is a sin—but if you believe you’re defying God, your intent is to sin, and so you are guilty of that intent.
Again, this doesn’t mean that we must be bound by the scruples of others—the mere fact that someone believes something we’re doing is wrong doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.  But we must respect their scruples.  For one, we need to listen to them humbly and respectfully, since they might be right; God might be using them to alert us to sin in our lives that we hadn’t been aware of.  And even if they aren’t, we need to respect their concerns and be careful not to lead them into anything that would be sinful for them, even if it’s not sinful at all for us.
Now, as we say this, we need to remember that there’s another sort of weakness in faith, one common to all of us in one way or another, which we can’t just blithely expect people to grow out of; it’s not exactly what Paul’s talking about, but his argument applies nevertheless.  Let me turn things over for a minute to Craig Ferguson of The Late Late Show, who puts it better than I could:  [NB:  start at 9:21; I can’t figure out how to make the embedded clip begin at that point]

Drinking alcohol isn’t a sin for everyone, but for some people it is.  Why?  Because you have to know your own weakness, and be wary of it.  We all have temptations that are particular weaknesses for us; some are just more societally acceptable than alcoholism, and more subtle.  Whatever they may be, we have to respect the danger they pose, and set guards in our souls around them, because even going near them is playing with fire.  To take another example, if sexual temptations are a particular weakness for you, there may be times when even turning on a computer is sinful, because that will be the trigger for temptation; that’s your point of no return.
We all have temptations for which even creating the possibility of being tempted is going too far; they’re like a black hole in our heart—once we cross the event horizon, we’re going to be sucked in.  We have to draw lines around them in our souls, because whatever anyone else might be able to do, we can’t even go toward them safely.  We can’t insist that everyone else has to draw the same lines, though we can certainly tell others why we’ve drawn the lines we have for ourselves; and we have every right to insist that our fellow Christians respect those lines when they’re around us.  By that same token, we have the responsibility to respect the lines others have drawn for themselves, so that we don’t put a stumbling block or a cause of offense—in the Greek, a skandalon—in their way.  Therefore, let us not judge another for their weakness, but let us instead judge our own behavior, so that we do nothing to make our brother or sister fall.

The Lightsaber of God

(Isaiah 45:22-25Romans 13:11-14:12)

The break between chapters 13 and 14 marks the beginning of the last major section of Romans, but we need to be careful not to make the break too sharp.  It seems abrupt, and in a way it is, but chapters 14 and 15 continue to develop points and themes from earlier in the letter.  In particular, chapters 12 and 13 aren’t just abstract teaching about Christian behavior; though they do apply generally to every part of life, they’ve also been intended to lay some specific groundwork for what comes next.
We’ve said all the way along that Paul is particularly concerned for the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church; that’s why he lays out his argument in a way that stresses the continuity between God’s work in the church and his past work in national Israel.  That’s also why Paul puts so much time and effort into, first, arguing that Jews and Gentiles now come to God on exactly equal footing, in exactly the same way—through Jesus Christ—and, second, showing that this doesn’t contradict anything God said through the Law and the Prophets, but in fact fulfills them.  His concern is theological, but good theology is practical:  bad theology on the part of both Jewish and Gentile Christians has led to quarrels and division in the body of Christ, and needs correcting.
The root of the matter appears to have been, as you would expect, disagreement over keeping the Jewish law.  On the one hand, you have Jewish Christians who do believe that they are saved by Christ alone, but also believe that they need to continue to keep the Old Testament law as law in order to live the kind of holy and pure life God requires.  On the other stand Gentile Christians, many of whom never kept the law before, who see no need whatsoever to do so now, given that their salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  This wouldn’t need to be a problem, except that each group is convinced that they are right and the other group needs to change, and is bad for refusing to change; as a result you get quarrels, name-calling, accusations, put-downs, and all the other things that make up the political ads I talked about last week.
In this case, the Gentile group despises the Jewish group as weak in faith for continuing to cling to the law of Moses, while the Jewish group is con­demning the Gentile group as unrighteous—as not even caring enough to be righteous—for refusing to keep the law.  Paul is not going to let this continue.  Whatever else either side may have right or wrong, their attitude toward each other is absolutely sinful and inappropriate.
He makes this argument even though he clearly agrees with the Gentile Christians that their Jewish brothers and sisters are indeed showing weakness in their faith.  They couldn’t be sure that the meat was kosher, and both it and the wine might have been offered to idols before being sold, so—just vegetables and water for them, just like Daniel and his friends.  There were many religious days to keep—besides the major feast and fast days, many Jews would set aside a day each week to fast and pray.  Is any of this necessary?  No; but how does that give the Gentiles any right to pass judgment?  Or again, what makes the Jews in the church think theyhave any right to judge?
There are a couple issues here.  One, neither group is sinning.  Both have put their faith in Christ alone; both are accepted by God.  Paul would like to see the Jewish Christians grow stronger in their faith, to the point where they no longer feel the need to keep the law—where they can trust their freedom in Christ—but this is nothing for which they deserve to be berated or treated with disdain.  On the other hand, they don’t have the right to claim their weakness as righteousness, much less to judge anyone else by that standard.
Two, both groups’ focus is wrong.  Was it inappropriate for the strong Christians to recognize the weakness in faith of some of the Jewish Christians?  No.  Was it wrong for the weak to be concerned about the way some of the Gentile Christians were living?  In part, but maybe not in whole.  We’re called to build each other up in faith, not to ignore the issues in one another’s lives.  But.  Remember what Paul’s been talking about—don’t think more of yourself than you ought to, honor one another above yourselves, love one another.  Put aside the works of darkness, including dissension and jealousy; don’t try to make yourself superior to one another.
When we see weakness or sin in the life of a fellow Christian, if we can do anything to encourage and guide them and help them grow, we have a responsibility to do what we can; but even when that means exercising discipline, as parents or as leaders, that doesn’t give us the right to pass judgment.  Judgment comes down from above, and we don’t stand that way before each other; we come from beside one another, down on our knees, humbly seeking to serve.  The right to judge is God’s alone, because only the master has the right to judge his servant, and there is only one master:  God.
It’s no accident that this discussion in chapter 14 comes immediately after the commands in chapter 13 to walk in the day and stop planning out ways to satisfy the desires of the flesh; that’s a lot of what the dispute here is about.  OK, so you don’t need the law to be saved—but isn’t it the best way to make sure you’re living the way God wants you to live?  It seems like the most obvious one; but as Paul has already said, it doesn’t work.  The law doesn’t address what’s really wrong with us, and if we believe we need to keep it in order to be righteous, we tend to end up becoming convinced that we’re righteous because we’re keeping it—and thus that anyone who isn’t keeping it with us, isn’t righteous.  To whatever extent we put our trust in law, we’re putting our trust in ourselves rather than in Christ; that weakens our faith, and it makes us judgmental.
Instead, rather than focusing on controlling our behavior—and thus on controlling the behavior of others—we need to focus on the inputs:  where are we spending our time, physically and mentally?  Where are we turning our attention?  Paul has said this multiple times in various ways:  we need to set our minds on the Spirit of God, and the things of the Spirit, and thus open ourselves up for him to renew our minds, to change us from the inside out.  We need to recognize that we’re in a spiritual battle, which means we can’t fight it with weapons of the world—and law is one of those.
Here, by the way, is where we get to the change in the sermon title.  I didn’t realize this until late in the week, but the translation “armor of light” is an odd one:  the word in verse 12 isn’t the word for armor.  Depending on context, it either means “instruments” or “weapons.”  I guess they get “armor” from the clothing imagery in verse 14.  But this isn’t just a passive thing; it’s not just about protecting ourselves.  We are to take the light to the darkness—to actively go after the darkness with the light.
We should attack the sin in our own lives with the light of God; and we should attack the sin in the lives of those around us, and in our culture, the same way:  not with anger, judgment, condemnation, and bitterness, but with love, grace, joy, hope, and peace.  To be sure, people may not want the light shining into their lives, and they may respond with hostility; but our intent must never be to tear someone else down or to punish them, but only to build them up, to help them grow and heal.

Question Authority?

(Jeremiah 29:1-9Daniel 4:19-27; Romans 13:1-7)

As I stand here this morning, we look forward with great interest to a day three and a half weeks from now, when we will finally be free of campaign ads—at least for a year or so.  Honestly, whatever you think of the state of government in this country, I don’t think anyone likes the state of our political advertising, or political conversation more generally—it’s loud, it’s depressing, and it’s exhausting.
You see, our politics these days are powered and poisoned by anxiety; and if you take a look at the roots of that anxiety, it’s troubling.  When I was a kid we used to sing a parody of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”:  “This land is my land; this land ain’t your land.  I got a shotgun, and you don’t got one.”  And so on.  That’s the attitude driving our politics these days:  a frantic insistence that this is my country—and if you disagree with me, not yours.  You see it every election cycle; whichever party’s in power, candidates for the other one stand up and say, “It’s time to take back our country!”
As Christians, we’re supposed to have a broader perspective.  Remember what we said about Romans 8—this is not our home, this is not our final destination; we are in the wilderness, in between the land of slavery and the Promised Land.  That’s why 1 Peter 2 says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”  We are aliens and strangers, we are exiles and transients; we are here for a time on our way to someplace better.  This is not our homeland, but the land of our wandering.  Is this our country?  Yes, but not to own, not to control, not to belong:  this is our country because this is where God has placed us to serve.
Our model is not the Jews in Israel under King David, but the exiles in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar was a highly problematic king from a Jewish point of view, since he worshiped false gods; and though he learned a certain respect for the God of Israel through Daniel, his successors lacked even that.  The exiles weren’t in their true country under their true king, and they knew it; but Jeremiah tells them, for as long as God has them there, to settle in and work for the good of Babylon.  Never forget that this is not your home, to be sure; but equally, never forget that you’re here because God put you here, and he put you here to serve.
Which is what Paul is on about.  As we saw last week, these seven verses sit in the middle of a long passage about love; if you took them out, you’d never guess anything was missing.  But they belong here, because loving others as Christ loved us will have political consequences.  In particular, Paul forbids us to take any sort of vengeance or in any way respond in kind when evil is done to us; instead, he says, “Overcome evil with good.”  And yet, evil must be judged and punished.  That, Paul says, is what government is for; and so he spends a few moments considering the purpose of government and how we as Christians should relate to it.
Note carefully how Paul begins his argument.  Everyone, he declares, must submit to the governing authorities—everybody, period, no ifs, ands, buts, or exceptions.  But he says submit rather than obey.  We must acknowledge the general rule that the government has authority over us, because God who is the source of all authority is the one who has instituted all human authorities; and we submit to them under God.  Our ultimate allegiance is to him, and our total obedience is due to him alone; all human authorities are secondary, deriving their legitimacy from him.  We don’t have the right to reject them, but government doesn’t have the right to do anything it wants, either.  When a government is bent on rewarding evil rather than good, then we must obey God rather than government.  That’s part of seeking the welfare of the country to which he has sent us.
In general, however, we are to obey the governing authorities, because God has established them to serve his purposes in the world.  That’s true whether the authority in question is the town council or President Obama; and it will be true next month whether we see a second Obama term or a victory for Governor Romney.  After all, neither one could possibly be as bad as Nebuchadnezzar was.  The government of Rome wasn’t particularly godly either, even at its best; but even ungodly and flawed governments play a necessary part in God’s work in human history, as Rome most certainly did.
Our submission to government, then, isn’t rooted in the assumption that govern­ment always does what is right—or even that it usually does what is right; Paul isn’t that naïve.  Rather, it’s rooted in trust in God.  God is in control, and in everything that happens he is at work to accomplish his purposes.  He has appointed our governments and their leaders, and so they function as his servants.  If they are rebellious, then he will judge them and take his vengeance on them in his due time; and as Joseph said to his brothers, what they mean for evil, God will use for good.  It doesn’t always make sense to us, and often what happens isn’t what we think God’s will is, or ought to be; but however each election turns out, and whatever laws may be passed—even if they are unjust—we can trust that God is still on his throne, and his plan and his will have not failed.
We need to disengage from the “win at all costs” mentality of our politics—which doesn’t serve us well, and really isn’t ultimately about the issues anyway.  That mentality comes from our politicians; for many of them it is “win at all costs,” not for anyone else’s sake, but for the sake of their jobs.  We’re just being used.  If the American church were to stop playing politics and choose to show our country a more excellent way, we would bear witness to the gospel in a way that the world could not ignore, or explain away.
Yes, we should be engaged with the issues, and yes, we should do everything we can to see that what our governments do is just and right; in our system, we have some small power to influence that, and we’re responsible to use it.  But we must do all things humbly, remembering that we are sinners in need of grace, and people of limited wisdom, just as much as those with whom we disagree—and for that matter, that the same is true of those politicians we support.  There are no messiahs in politics, on either side.  There’s only one Messiah, and he flatly refused to work politically even when he could have.
As well, we should remember that our true battle isn’t political but spiritual, and our true enemy is spiritual; even the most evil people we ever see, though they be judged by God for their evil, are ultimately the victims of our great enemy, just as we are.  We shouldn’t see our political opponents as enemies—and the more we do, the more that obliges us to love them and pray for God to bless them.  Yes, we may pray for him to bless them with repentance and wisdom and regret, but even so, we need to recognize that when God told us to love one another, he meant them, too.
And finally, we need to recognize that when Paul tells us to submit to the governing authorities, it’s because it isn’t the church’s job to be the governing authorities.  Our mission is not to win political battles, and our call is not to make people act in godly ways; that’s law, not gospel.  Law is the government’s nature and mission; the gospel is ours.  Yes, the gospel speaks to the issues of our day, because the gospel speaks to every­thing—and yes, if we preach the gospel faithfully, that will mean challenging the world where it doesn’t want to be challenged, just as that has always been part of preaching the gospel.  But we must keep the gospel at the center of everything we do, and our aim must always be to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, not to push the platform of a political party; and when we speak the truth of God into political issues, we must always do so lovingly, our speech seasoned heavily with grace, in a spirit of peace.  There’s enough loud, loveless, graceless speech in our political ads as it is; heaven forbid we should add to it.

Let Love Rule

(Leviticus 19:17-18Proverbs 25:21-22Romans 12:9-21, 13:8-10)

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love”; so Hal David told us.  “All you need is love,” according to John Lennon.  Is it true?  Well, maybe.  It depends.  Define your terms—what do you mean by “love”?  If we’re talking about the love of God revealed in Christ, then yes, without question; but people usually aren’t.  They more often say things like, “if you loved me, you would”—in which the word “love” is wielded as an emotional crowbar, a basis for demands and manipulation.  That’s not real love.

The problem is, we keep trying to define “love” to suit ourselves; but that would derail everything Paul’s talking about in this chapter.  We need to let love rule in our lives, but that love must be genuine.  That word—the NIV translates it “sincere”—is important; we need to distinguish real love, the genuine article, from the counterfeit.  Real love is no mere pretense or outward display, it’s nothing we can use to suit our own agendas; rather, love is defined by God, who is the source of all love.  It’s an expression of his nature and character, and so it shapes our character to make us more like him.

Thus love is not merely about feelings; that’s part of it, but love expresses itself in action, and so changes our behavior.  The love of God in us moves us to want what God wants, and to want to do what he wants; it takes away our taste for evil, teaching us to loathe it instead.  As such, love fulfills the law of God, because it moves us to do the will of God not out of fear or duty or desire for reward, but out of a renewed mind and heart.  We keep the law on the way, as we’re on about something more important; our focus is not on keeping the law, but on loving God, and loving others as he loves us.

The more we seek God, the better we know him and the more we love him, and the more we’re motivated to love those around us.  As with any relationship, our love will tend to cool if we don’t keep seeking him; we need to keep opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit.  It’s not just praying or reading the Bible—we can easily do both those things with closed hearts; it’s pre­paring ourselves for the Spirit to speak to us, and letting go our efforts to control what he might say or do.  The more we open ourselves up, the more the Spirit fills us with love for God and fires us up to love each other and serve the Lord—to serve the Lord by loving each other.

Part of that is the Spirit’s work in renewing our minds, in giving us the common mindset Paul talked about in verse 3.  Here in verse 16, the NIV renders it “live in harmony with one another,” but we might say “think the same thing toward one another”; the point is not that we never disagree (or never admit we disagree), but that we recognize that we all stand together:  we all share in one salvation, through one faith, by the one grace of God, and we are all absolutely dependent on his grace.  Thus we live in humility toward one another, humbly confessing our own sins and failures and shortcomings, and humbly forgiving our brothers and sisters for their sins and failures and shortcomings, recognizing that we all need grace, and we all need each other.

Thus as well Paul tells us we should seek to bless one another rather than to bless ourselves—and indeed should actively look for opportunities to do so.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ; in a healthy family, we may not always be happy with one another, but we’re always committed to love and care for one another regardless.  We understand that the need of one is the need of all—and we should see our church family in the same way, holding our needs in common and doing what we can to ensure that they’re all met, because that’s what people who love one another and are committed to one another do for each other.  Nor is this just about physical needs.  Paul also calls us to grieve with those who grieve, sharing their burden and letting them know they’re not alone; and, what’s often harder, he tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, not grudgingly or enviously, but wholeheartedly glad with them and for them.

Our love doesn’t end with those who love us, however; we’re also called to love non-believers, and we’re called to love our enemies and those who persecute us.  Indeed, God loves them as much as he loves us, and so we should love them just as sincerely and single-mindedly as we love our friends within the church.  Not only are we forbidden to avenge ourselves, Paul tells us not to call down God’s vengeance on our enemies; instead, we’re supposed to bless them and serve them, and to ask God to bless them.

Now, that might seem like a wildly unreasonable set of commands, on the surface; but Paul wants us to see deeper, and so he quotes Proverbs 25:  do this for your enemies, “for in so doing you’ll heap burning coals on their heads.”  Blessing those who curse you isn’t giving in to them, or cooperating with them in hurting you; rather, it confounds them, because it’s not in their script.  As Oscar Wilde quipped, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”  To freely serve your enemies and bless your persecutors in the love of God is to act in defiance of their hatred and opposition, against their expectations, and out of a power which is completely alien to them; for we can only do so sincerely in  the strength of God, by the work of his Holy Spirit.

Apart from God, when we’re attacked, we can’t see past our own egos and our own hurt; we may hit back in anger, freeze in shame, or run in fear, but we cannot act freely or constructively.  God gives us the strength to respond with love, and the ability to trust him that we will not lose by loving our enemies and asking him to bless them.  You see, the greatest blessing God can give them is repentance—a blessing which can only come through the burning coals of shame and guilt.  It is better for us that our enemies should repent than that we should see them destroyed; better that they become our friends, and better that they confess the wrong they’ve done and seek to make it right.  But if they will not, then God will judge them for it in his time.  Either way, in the end, he will vindicate those who love him, who depend on him and call on his name.

You can’t overcome evil with evil, and you can’t beat hatred with hatred.  Either it crushes you, or you become like it and it absorbs you.  You can only overcome evil with good, and you can only defeat hatred with love.  We lose sight of that, because we get focused on the battle we see, and we think that’s the real battle—but it isn’t.  The real battle is to continue to love in the face of hate, and continue to do good in response to evil; when by the grace of God and the power of his Spirit we’re able to do that, then even if we lose, we win.  We win because the love of God is the power of his kingdom, and the powers of this world are doomed to fail, but his kingdom is eternal, and his love will reign forever.  Let’s pray.

We Need Each Other

(Exodus 19:3-6Romans 12:3-81 Corinthians 12:4-26)

Humility gets something of a bad rap in our culture.  We confuse it with humiliation; we confuse it with false modesty, which is a very different thing; we use it as an opportunity for insults.  Winston Churchill’s famous putdown of Clement Attlee is a classic case in point:  “He is a humble man, but then, he has much to be humble about!”  There are those who berate the church for teaching that humility is a virtue, on the grounds that doing so is harmful to people’s self-esteem.  They seem to think the idea is that God doesn’t like you very much, and so you shouldn’t like yourself very much either.

This all gets the matter drastically wrong, and badly misreads Scripture.  To help you understand why, let me begin by drawing from two men who helped me understand this.  One is C. S. Lewis.  In Mere Christianity, he commented, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays:  he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.  Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. . . .  He will not be thinking about humility:  he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Which is to say, humility isn’t self-deprecation, but a type of self-forgetfulness.  In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis captured this beautifully; he had the demon Screwtape write, “The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.  The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.”
Which of course raises the question, where does this mindset come from?  Where do we find its source?  From a Reformed perspective, the best answer to that question I’ve ever found came (ironically enough) from a Catholic priest.  Fr. Ernest Fortin, a French-Canadian philosopher, argued that “the Christian virtue par excellence is humility—a virtue that stands in stark contrast to any classical ideal:  humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many.  But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith.  We are at every moment God’s creation.”
This all, I think, is what Paul is on about in this part of Romans.  He has said just before this that we are to live our lives as our offering of worship to God, and that this happens not by effort and willpower or tricks and techniques, but by our minds being renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit; that is, if you will, the “law” that’s supposed to govern our lives.  Here, he begins to apply that more specifically, to the question of how we are to live with and behave toward one another:  if our minds are being renewed, how does that change how we see ourselves and the people around us?
Paul uses three different forms of the same word in verse 3, the word translated “think.”  It’s the word used back in chapter 8 when he said, “Those who live by the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live by the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”  This word isn’t about the act of thinking as such, it’s about the frame within which we think—our mindset, our perspective, our worldview.  It seems safe to say that the renewal of our minds begins with a change of our mindset toward God and our understanding of who he is; but the next thing in line is a change in our mindset toward ourselves and our understanding of who we are, and thus in our perspective on our lives.
The key is that we learn to see ourselves clearly and truly as we are, not in the world’s eyes but in God’s sight.  Paul tells us in Romans 12:3 that God has given us all a common faith in Christ by his grace, and that the faith by which through grace we have been saved should be the only standard by which we measure our lives.  We need to see that all is grace, and that we have no right to claim the credit for our life, our gifts, our salvation.  We need to realize that what matters is whether we live our lives by faith in ourselves, or by faith in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit—and whether, out of that, we’re living to glorify him, or to glorify ourselves.
Now, that realization can only grow in us as we draw near to Christ, as the Holy Spirit renews our mind, because it comes out of two things.  One is the understanding, not intellectual but visceral, of just how badly we need the grace of God and how utterly dependent on grace we are—the realization that we really can’t be all that impressive; the other is the visceral understanding of just how great a price God paid to give us his grace, and just how great is his love for us who paid that price—the realization that we don’t need to be all that impressive.  When once we get hold of that—or rather, once that truth gets hold of us, then as Lewis put it, we can “[get] rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing”; we can stop trying to fake it, and stop feeling that we need to fake it, and just rest in God.
The fact is, for all the time we may spend thinking about our lives, our gifts, our accomplishments, and worrying what they say about us, they aren’t really ours anyway, they’re God’s.  In truth, they only say one thing at all about us:  that God loves us with a deep and abiding love.  What we’re no good at, he didn’t create us to be good at.  Whatever worldly standard of achievement we measure ourselves by, he didn’t create us for that.  What matters is that we have the gifts and talents God gave us to do what he calls us to do.  We talked about sheep a bit this summer, and your average sheep is a very stupid animal—but it’s exactly as smart as it needs to be in order to be a good sheep.  It hasn’t been created to be anything else, it’s been created to be what it is, to the glory of God; and so have we, who are the sheep of his pasture, and the flock of his hand.
Yeah, none of us is good at everything; if we’re honest, most of us aren’t really good at all that much.  If anyone tells you they have a whole slew of spiritual gifts, the odds are pretty good they’re either deluding themselves, or trying to sell you something.  Most of us are good at a few things, and really bad at others, and pretty indifferent in a lot of areas—and that’s fine, because that’s how God made us.  Look what Paul says in Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12:  God created us to need each other.  He created each of us to be good at this thing to fill a need over here, and to be bad at that thing so that someone else can be good at it.  We’re all specialized players whom God creates and fits together so that the work gets done and Christ is represented on earth.
And if you think about that long enough, eventually the penny will drop, the great mindshift at the heart of this passage in Romans:  what we do, what we can do, what we’re good at, isn’t primarily about us as individuals, it’s about all of us together.  We belong to God, which means we belong to each other; our lives are not our own, they are his, which means they are for his people, for his body, for his work.  We need each other, because God made us that way; we are needed, because he made us for our part.

True Worship

(Psalm 51:10-17Micah 6:6-8Romans 12:1-2)

Therefore.  Structurally, this might be the most important single word in all of Romans, because the whole book pivots here; this is the point at which Paul shifts from talking about what we need to believe to laying out how we need to live.  That means that this is the point where the Bible-believing church tends to get in trouble, because it’s easy to lose the connection between the two; it’s easy to lose this word “therefore.”
The problem is, when we see commands about moral behavior, it’s easy to forget everything Paul has said about grace and faith and revert right back to law.  I told you last time that scholars often label Paul’s arguments in grammatical terms, as “indicative” and “imperative”—indica­tive words tell us what is, while imperatives give commands; one reason they use this language is to remind us that we’re talking about two aspects of the same thing, the gospel.  It also helps us see that in Paul, the imperative is always rooted in the indicative.  He never gives commands for us to try to obey in our own strength, and it’s never about trying to earn God’s favor or avoid punishment; rather, he gives commands so that we will understand and live into the life the Holy Spirit is creating in us, which we can only do as he changes our hearts and gives us the ability.
Therefore, in view of God’s mercy.  Because of everything Paul’s been saying the past eleven chapters, because of all that Christ has done for us and all that God has promised us, because of the salvation we have been given and the mercy we have been shown, this is how we ought to respond.  Because God’s mercy isn’t just something we received in the past, but is an ongoing power in our lives through the work of his Holy Spirit, this is how we’re being enabled to respond.  And you’ll note, this isn’t just about do this and don’t do that; it’s much bigger than just following a set of commands—the change to which God calls us here is global, nothing less than a whole new orientation to life.
That’s key, and that’s one of the differences between living by law and living by grace—law is partial, it demands we do some things and leaves the rest of life to our own discretion, while grace claims every aspect of our lives.  Quite properly so, because in all fairness we owe God our lives, in total.  He bought us back from slavery to sin, he gave us life when all we had was death—there is nothing we have and nothing we are that isn’t already his by right; and so Paul says, live this way.  Offer your whole life as a sacrifice to God.  Every decision you face, lay it down before the Lord as your gift.  Every desire you have, give it up to him as your offering.  Every action you take, every thought that crosses your mind, present it to God as a sacrifice to him.  Our whole bodies, our whole lives, day by day, belong to him, and should be set apart for him.
This, Paul says, is our true and proper worship to God.  This is the worship that honors God by giving him what he truly wants from us.  We want to be the ones to decide what’s appropriate and sufficient for us to give to God, because we assume that we belong to ourselves; we think our bodies and lives are our own.  It’s easy to get into the mindset that if we give God an hour a week to sit in church and however much money we think we can easily spare, that’s worship enough for him and he should be happy with it. 
Except, it isn’t, and he isn’t.  Not that just spending more time and money would change that.  You could spend all day in church every Sunday and give away your entire life savings, and it still wouldn’t be enough, if that’s all you did.  Micah makes that perfectly clear.  God doesn’t just want more stuff, he wants you to give him your mind—all of it—and your heart—your whole heart, down to the core.  He doesn’t just want you to worship him by doing certain things because you think doing those things is enough; he wants you to worship him with all of everything you are, to give over all of yourself to him, so that you are worshiping him all the time—in church, out of church, wherever—and with all your money—both what you give away, and what you use in other ways—because everything you do is the product of a heart and mind wholly dedicated to God.
And thus we have verse 2:  “Do not conform to this world”—in J. B. Phillips’ classic translation, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.”  Don’t go along with what the world values; don’t measure yourself by its expectations; don’t think you can follow Jesus and still make the world happy.  The church in this country lost track of this one for a long time, because for many years Christianity was quite respectable and main­stream, and it was easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking the world had conformed itself to the church.  It hadn’t.  It was just playing chameleon—taking on a Christian appearance as protective coloration, so that it could subvert the church from the inside; but increasingly, its opposition to Christ is coming into the open.
Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of folks in the church who’ve inherited the idea that it ought to be possible to be a good Christian and at the same time an approved and popular member of this culture, and so they’re letting the world squeeze them—and their worship, and their view of God—into its mold, thinking that must be OK.  To that, the inimitable Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary had a pointed response the other day:  “You really do kid only yourselves if you think you can be an orthodox Christian and be at the same time cool enough and hip enough to cut it in the wider world.”  We cannot make God and our faith fit what the world wants; anyone who says otherwise is not truly worshiping him, but a little god of their own design.
Instead of letting the world’s pattern of life and the world’s way of thinking be the standard for our own lives—instead of letting ourselves be squeezed down so that we never make the world uncomfortable—God calls us to transformation.  By what?  By the power of the Spirit.  What does that look like?  The renewing of our minds.  Back in chapter 1, Paul declared that when humanity rejected God, he gave them over to a “depraved” mind—which is to say, one incapable of recognizing God’s will as good, pleasing, and perfect, much less desiring to follow it; from depraved understanding flowed depraved action.  God’s work in us by his Spirit is to reverse that.
This is a process, and not a quick one; it’s a lifelong work of retraining our hearts and reprogramming our minds.  It’s a process which is powered by the Spirit of God, but everything we do, everything we think, and everything we read or see or hear either contributes to that or hinders it.  We need to be dedicated to the renewing of our minds, seeking to take every thought captive to obedience to Christ, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians; which means we need to take every book, every movie, every song, every conversation, captive to obedience to Christ as well, for those things shape how we think.  We need to make sure that the things we allow to influence us will make us more like Christ, rather than less, and we need to take them seriously as spiritual forces in our lives.
In other words, we become living sacrifices to God when we resist being conformed to this world and allow him to transform us from the inside out by renewing our minds; and our minds are renewed as we become living sacrifices, offering all our choices to God in worship, seeking to make everything we read, everything we watch, everything we listen to, and everything we say an offering to his glory.  It’s a feedback loop, each reinforcing the other; we can’t be halfhearted about it.  It’s all or nothing, and we need to give God our all—all of life our offering to him, that our minds would be renewed day by day, that we might have his mind.  This is our true worship—nothing less.