Starting at the start
1Corinthians 2: God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.
When Paul begins his ministry in the town of Corinth he knows that he needs to take it easy. These folks have little upon which to build. If he starts off dealing with the deeper things of God (like he does in his letter to the church at Rome) they’ll get nothing out of it and will likely turn back to their former way of life. Paul wisely sticks to the basics: Jesus died for our sins and is resurrected. This message speaks to their hearts and they give their lives to the Jesus they hear about from Paul. Still, there’s much more to learn about the Christian life. Now, though, they’re better prepared to learn of the things of God. The reason for this is that now the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. The Spirit, you see, isn’t into keeping secrets. Rather, he’s all about teaching us, leading us one step at a time into a better understanding of the things of God. To some extent we all start our spiritual journey by taking baby steps. It’s important that we, God’s people, remember that in dealing with those who haven’t a clue. There’s no need to argue the finer points of our faith with people who don’t yet have a handle on who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. We start our religious talk here: “Let me tell you about Jesus.” Once a person receives Jesus into their life, the Holy Spirit begins to commune with their spirit, helping them begin to grasp the deeper things of God.
Take Away: We need to start with the basics in dealing with people, and then trust the Holy Spirit to move them along at the pace he knows is right for them.
Can’t we all just get along?
1Corinthians 1: You must get along with each other.
As I understand it, Corinth is a lot like the Old West of American movies. It’s a rough and tough place with lots of immorality. Paul comes preaching the Gospel of Jesus and many of these rowdy people become believers. For a year and a half (a long time for him) Paul stays, establishing them in the faith, teaching them what it means to be Christians. Now, he’s moved on, but has received word that things aren’t going very well in Corinth. One of the big problems is lack of unity. The Church of Corinth is splitting, not into two parts, but into several. In fact, if there’s an opportunity for discord, they’ve found it. Paul writes to them, saying, “You must get along with each other” and then both reasons with them and shames them into unity. As I consider this passage the call of Jesus to his followers to be one even as he and his Father are one feels quite distant. I share the Apostle’s concern as I look at the state of Christianity today. Sometimes “oneness” seems out of reach and I wonder if Paul was writing to the Church today what he would say. There is, though, a silver lining in these opening words of 1 Corinthians. It’s Paul’s sunny, optimistic approach to all this. He describes the church as “cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God filled life” and reminds them that Jesus “will never give up on you.” The Lord has already done a lot in their lives and Paul assures them that he’s going to keep right on working. So, as I read these words today I confess that the state of Christianity today concerns me. At the same time I’m infected by Paul’s optimistic view of the Church. It’s good to remember that God’s still at work today.
Take Away: The Lord is working inside the Church to make us one, and, as we cooperate with him, that’s just what he’s going to do.
No Scripture abuse allowed here
Romans 16: Keep a sharp eye out for those who take bits and pieces of the teaching you have learned.
The first theology book of Christianity is being concluded. The final pages are more about words of greeting than theology. Now, almost an afterthought, the Apostle warns his readers about the danger of taking “bits and pieces” of the truth and using them in such a way as to create an untruth. Some people, Paul warns them, are pretty good at doing this bad thing. They take true statements and then twist them to their own purposes. He tells his readers to stay away from people like that. As I read this warning I can’t help but think that one of the best ways for me to avoid this trap is to study God’s Word, making the effort to know what it really says. Another thing that comes to mind is that I don’t ever want to be one of these troublemakers who abuse the Bible, making it say what I want it to say. I can’t help but think that had Paul seen the future and how it would be his own words that would most often be abused in this way that this particular admonition would have been given a more prominent place in this letter. It might have been placed on page one, written in capital letters, rather than being shoehorned between words of greetings here on the final page.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t take it lightly when people abuse Scripture.
The Holy Spirit working through me
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
Making the main thing the main thing
Romans 14: None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters.
There’s trouble down at the church. Some folks have decided that they have a corner on God’s truth. Other folks have done the same and their “truth” is different than that of the others. They’ve had duels with their Bibles and some of the discussion has brought more heat that light. There have been a few church parking lot conversations and not a few phone calls. Any day now things are coming to head and the result won’t be pretty. The outsiders don’t even understand the fight but they do see this as another example of the failure of Christianity. “They can’t even get along with one another, much less save the world.” The thing is that this isn’t Christian behavior. The Bible says that one Christian isn’t supposed to demand that other Christians do things their way. Paul’s main example is dietary concerns and he also tosses into the mix the concept of keeping a day as holy. The Apostle practices what he preaches here. If I think something is important I’m to pursue it in my life, doing it as unto the Lord. Meanwhile, I’m to leave you alone about it. We have bigger fish to fry (or maybe tofu in this case). The Lord invited us to follow him and to join him in extending the hope of salvation to others. How can we do that if we’re fussing about the finer points of the Law? Beyond that, this isn’t optional in the Christian life. Paul says we’re not “permitted to insist on our own way in these matters.” He adds, “Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ.”
Take Away: If God’s people live in obedience to these words of Scripture the entire church world will be turned upside down.
Wake up and smell the coffee!
Romans 13: Be up and awake to what God is doing!
I’m chest deep in my life in the church. I’m a pastor so I have a love and responsibility for the flock I shepherd. Beyond that, I’m a denominational pastor so I have connections to maintain, meetings to attend, reports to do. I’m okay with it all. I pastor a fine congregation and I’m proud of my denominational ties. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, I have to be careful that programs and meetings and traditions don’t own me. Sometimes, I need to be reminded that God doesn’t exist to help me plan the fall program of the church and he isn’t waiting on the denomination to tell him what’s next. In fact, sometimes God sees trends and opportunities that aren’t even on my radar screen. I need to be careful that my religious life isn’t all about me performing as God sits in the audience wondering what I’ll do next. I belong, not to my local congregation or the denomination or even the Church universal, but to the Lord. I’m reminded of all that today in the words of the Apostle. What’s God doing right now and how does he want me to be part of it? That’s how the Church at large needs to operate. This is how the local church is to think. It’s how I’m to live my life.
Take Away: Don’t get so immersed in church culture that you fail to maintain contact with the Lord.
Romans 12: Get the best of evil by doing good.
Having done the heavy lifting of theology, the Apostle turns his attention to practical Christian living and his opening instructions on the topic, Romans 12, feel a lot like Jesus’ beatitudes. Here I find a series of helpful and challenging concepts. There’s enough material here for an entire book, making it difficult for a writer to pick just one thing and focus on it. Paul’s summary, though, is attention getting. Christians, I’m told, live in a world containing plenty of evil. Opportunities to do wrong abound with even good things, like having personal resources, carrying with them some built in temptations. With the potential of wrong attached to everything from spiritual gifts to that which is obviously wrong how does a Christian cope? The best way, according to this passage is “by doing good.” I take each circumstance of life and ask, “What good thing can I do here?” Some things are easily understood. For instance, if I have the gift of teaching, I stick to my teaching, using that gift for good. Some things are quite understandable but harder to apply: if I have an enemy, I do good by blessing him rather than quietly cursing him. If I don’t have a clue as to what to do, I do my best, believing God will take care of it. This, I’m told is the secret to overcoming evil. I beat it by doing good.
Take Away: This is easier said than done, but, by God’s grace, it can be done.
You aren’t down for the count
Romans 11: Are they down for the count…the answer is a clear-cut no.
The people of Israel, Paul says, have, in general, messed up royally. They had an inside track to God but rejected him. Because of their disobedience and unbelief they’ve been cut off and are no longer connected to the “root” of God’s love and faithfulness. The Lord, who specializes in taking bad situations and turning them into good ones, has used their rejection as a way to open the door for all peoples of the world to come in. When an “outsider” believes in Jesus that person is grafted into the “vine” of God’s grace. In this the outsider becomes an insider. Now, what of those people of Israel who became dead to God because of their unbelief? Is it too late for them? Is their permanent loss a sad necessity that the way to God be opened for the non-Jews? Paul answers, “No way!” He serves a God of Second Chances and even now the Lord’s working out a restoration for those who’ve been cut off. In his plan it’s never been “Jews verses Gentiles.” The Lord’s working right now to bring salvation to all, grafting in all who will come, making them part of his family. Isn’t this good news! The Gentiles have never known God, but now a way has been made for them to connect to him. The people of Israel have a long history with God but blew it. Still, God works to bring them back home. Maybe you were raised in church and knew the Lord as Savior at one time but now all that’s past tense in your life. I have Good News for you. As it was for the people of Israel who messed up royally there remains hope. Right now the Lord invites you to return and be reattached to the vine of his mercy, love, and grace. Even if everyone else has given up on you, God hasn’t.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Romans 10: Grand prossessions of people telling all the good things of God!
Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah all through this passage. In his day, Isaiah extolled the value of messengers who went from place to place proclaiming the message of hope to their generation. That, he says, is a beautiful thing. Paul is sorry that the people of Israel of his day aren’t the “message-proclaimers.” They’ve had every opportunity to play that role but instead insist on doing things their own way. They’re the losers in that. Now, I read this scenario and think about my own generation. Like the messengers of Isaiah’s day, the Church has Good News. We should be happily “telling all the good things of God.” All too often though, like the people of Israel of Paul’s day, we’ve retreated to our church buildings and busied ourselves with committees and programs, hanging our shingle outside inviting those want to know more to come on in. Beyond that, we’ve divided up into different camps, drawing lines and building walls. We’d rather argue over finer points of the Bible than go next door to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. Isaiah reminds us that it’s a beautiful thing when God’s people take the Good News to those who need it so desperately. Paul, though, reminds us that it’s possible for those with the Good News to fumble and fail. Does this kind of thinking alarm us? It should.
Take Away: Who do I know who needs the Good News?
I’ve been included
Romans 9: They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them.
Big issues are in play here. Paul says that while the descendants of Abraham are the people with the promise of God that promise remains under God’s control. Even among Abraham’s descendants some are excluded and have no part in the promise. For instance, twin brothers (Jacob and Esau), before they’re ever born are treated differently from one another by God. One will be part of what God is doing in the world and the other won’t. Some Israelites have the idea that salvation is uniquely theirs because of their lineage. Paul says that’s not how it is. The only real decision maker here is God, so when some of Abraham’s descendants have tried to take the ball and run with it, making salvation their personal property, they’ve run head first into the Almighty who reminds them that this is his doing and not theirs. Israel doesn’t own salvation – God does. This is Good News for those of us who would otherwise be considered outsiders and ineligible for this wonderful plan of salvation.
Take Away: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.