Monday, June 17, 2013

Evidence for Faith [Romans 10.1-13] (1 July 2012)

Today we bring to a close our series of messages on Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome. We are dealing with a portion of chapter 10, which along with chapters 9 and 11 show us Paul’s immense anguish about one overarching issue: Israel’s Messiah had come, but most of the people of Israel were still waiting for their Messiah.

Twenty centuries later, a few Jews still wait for their Messiah to be revealed. But for the most part the Jews have stopped waiting. Not because they believe their Messiah has come. Rather, they have given up any hope of his coming. Paul would be completely distraught today.

But in Paul’s day, they were still waiting. And Paul had to face the burning issue of whether the revelation in Jesus was not enough. Why were only a few Jews convinced that Jesus was and is their Messiah?

We who are separated by twenty centuries of time and thousands of miles need some information that was readily available to the people to whom Paul wrote this letter. 

Romans was probably written around AD 55. In AD 49, the emperor Gaius had the Jews expelled from Rome, as recorded in Acts 18.2 and confirmed by non-biblical sources. Paul spent more than a year at Corinth, during which he came in contact with many Jews who had fled Rome as a consequence of Claudius’ edict. 

When Nero came to power in AD 54, he rescinded the edict and allowed the Jews to return to Rome. Many of the people Paul was writing this letter to were these who had returned. But they were those who had left Rome as Jews, but who had returned as Christians. They knew what had happened to Paul while both they and he were at Corinth.

We need a refresher. In Acts 18.12 and 13 we read that Paul was taken before the proconsul Gallio. The Jews charged him with persuading people to worship God contrary to the Jewish law.

Remembering that they always went first to the Jews as even in Acts 18, we should ask ourselves, “What was so offensive about Paul’s preaching that the Jews hauled him before the proconsul?”

Paul knew the answer. He had been a sworn enemy of the church some years before. He knew the Jews were a zealous people because he himself was zealous. But as he says here, zeal without knowledge is worthless. He looked back at his former worldview and remembered why he had persecuted those who believed Jesus was the Messiah.

Well, for one thing, a dead Messiah is no Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to drive the enemies away from Israel, not end up being crucified by the enemies. A person who ended on a cross could only be cursed by God. And so such a person could never be the Messiah.

He is shaken from such a view on his way to Damascus, when Jesus has an encounter with him. And he has three days of blindness in which he is finally able to see the truth. On the road he asks, “Who are you , Lord?” and he begins to realize that the answer to that question is, “Jesus is Lord.”

Is! Such a small word. Such a powerful word in this context. Not Jesus was Lord. Not Jesus will be Lord. Rather Jesus is Lord. Right then. Right now. Paul realizes that this could only mean that something wholly unanticipated had happened, that in the midst of time, rather than at the end of it, Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Mind you, most Jews of that time believed that God would raise the faithful from the dead at the end of time. The issue that most Jews would have had with the preached gospel was that the Christians said that Jesus had been raised while their mundane lives went on as usual. That was not supposed to happen. 

Resurrection was supposed to be one of the final acts of God when he brought everything to its culmination. But here was this bunch of people who claimed that it had already happened to one person – just one person, and that too in the midst of this era. 

From a conventional Jewish perspective, this was just unintelligible. We can recall the response of the apostle Thomas. We call him doubting Thomas, but really this was the reaction of all the disciples. Even the women who first witnessed the empty tomb did not conclude that Jesus had risen from the dead. Their conclusion was that perhaps someone was playing a cruel joke on them by stealing Jesus’ body.

Most Jews that Paul would have encountered during his preaching of the gospel would have been like Thomas, asking for proof. Some may have said, “If Jesus is really alive, let him come down from heaven and show himself to me, just as he did to you, Paul.” Or “If Jesus is really risen, let me see the place of the dead and confirm that he has been taken from there already.”

People asking for proof of the events of the gospel is nothing new. Paul must have encountered such demands on a daily basis. “Why you? Why not me?” would have been the unsettling question he would have faced.

And Paul knows that proof and faith cannot go hand in hand. Just as he said in chapter 8 that no one hopes for what he already has, so also he could have said here that no one believes what has already been proved to him. Faith and proof are mutually exclusive. Where one exists, the other cannot.

Mind you, I am not saying that we must have blind faith. Far from it. God has given us our minds and our ability to reason. And he expects us to use those abilities. But he also expects us to be humble enough to know when we have reached the end of our abilities.

Here in Romans 10, Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The book of Acts records the preaching of the early church. And from Peter and John to Stephen and Paul the preaching centers around two points: Jesus is Lord and Jesus has been raised. The exaltation of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus formed the hinges of their proclamation.

Twenty centuries later, we read these words and are hardly fazed by them. We have accepted these two hinges and so we are unable to appreciate how ground breaking the gospel is.

As we have seen, resurrection was something the Jews believed would happen. But it would happen at the end of time, when God recreated his marred creation. Resurrection was something that belonged not to this fallen order of things, but to the renewed order that God had promised to bring about, when he would finally come and live with his people.

The resurrection of Jesus in the middle of this old order means but one thing: God has decided to allow the new order to press in upon the old. Without doing away with the old order, God has inaugurated his new order.

Christians are caught in the middle of this invasion of the new creation. On the one hand we experience the Holy Spirit indwelling us. But on the other hand, we still are limited by our sinfulness. Paul has written about these aspects of the Christian life earlier in Romans.

Here he is addressing those who had accepted the proclamation of Jesus’ exaltation and resurrection and we can count ourselves in that group.

The Christians at Rome, who had left Rome as Jews and had returned as Christians, would have returned with others who we still not-Christians. And those Jews would have ridiculed the Christian faith, just as Paul once had. They would have demanded proof of Jesus’ exaltation and resurrection.

But what Paul is telling those Christians and us twenty centuries later is to avoid the temptation of thinking that if one is only more fervent in one’s faith or more vocal with one’s words, one will be able to get a glimpse of Jesus.

The Christian faith is not one of flamboyance. There are few, if any, fireworks. God is not some genie, existing to provide blinding proof of Jesus’ exaltation and resurrection by doing this miracle or providing that sign.

We would like God to simply show himself. We are confident that if Jesus simply revealed himself, people would believe the gospel. But the problem is that you cannot believe what you see. Sight precludes faith. The reason God is hidden is that only his hidden-ness leaves space for faith.

Once again, God does not ask for blind faith. Rather, he provides us with evidence, through scripture, through the voice of the Spirit in us and through the voices of other Christians around us. And as these voices rise in a crescendo around us, we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Conquering Sufferers [Romans 8.31-39] (24 June 2012)

Many of us, I suspect, view God as some sort of Sugar Daddy, who exists mainly to make life easier, to remove difficulties and obstacles from our path, to support us through everything. And quite a few of us might find justification for such a view from our passage for today. 

Let me ask a question. Without opening your bibles, can you tell me how the text for today begins?

[Respond to their answers.]

Paul begins today’s passage with a question: “What then shall we say in response to these things?” Quite naturally, we should be thinking, “What things is Paul talking about?” 

He is talking about everything he has mentioned from the start of the letter. In today’s passage, he is drawing to a close the first big part of the letter, which he began way back in chapter one itself. He began by introducing himself as an apostle of the gospel. And it takes him almost eight chapters to spell out what the gospel is and what it means.

So now he asks, “What then shall we say in response to these things?” And he proceeds to ask a few more questions?

“If God is for us who can be against us?” he asks. God’s being for us is the gospel in a nutshell. But we should not think that what this means is that God endorses and supports our every undertaking. The gospel does not tell us that God will smile on our every endeavor. 

Rather, as we saw in the text we dealt with last week, God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of Jesus. God’s being for us must be viewed in light of this predetermination to Christ-likeness. In other words, God is for us means that he will do what it takes to ensure that we become like his Son.

And then Paul asks, “Who can be against us?” Paul does not answer the questions directly and not right after asking it. But the answer is not “No one and nothing can be against us.” 

Paul knew that there are forces which work against our becoming like Jesus. And if God’s agenda for us is for us to become like Jesus, then anything and anyone that works against that agenda is against us.

Then Paul asks, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” We can easily see this as an argument from something that is greater, in this case God’s Son, to something that is lesser, in this case all things.

But what does “all things” refer to? All too often we might think that “all things” actually means “all things that we consider good” or even “all things that are inherently good.” 

So we might think that God has given us the new job we applied for, but not conclude that he has also given us the letter indicating we have been laid off.

Or we might think that God has given us healing from some terrible disease, but not conclude that he had also given us the illness in the first place.

Or we might think that God has given us a wonderful baby, but not that he has given us a baby with a disability.

We have a tendency in the Christian church of refusing to – for want of a better word – blame God for the bad things that happen to us, for the things that happen that make us uncomfortable.

But Paul will have nothing of this kind of thinking. God is in control. And so whatever befalls us is directly or indirectly God’s doing. Everything that comes to us is given to us by God.

And Paul is speaking about especially the kind of things that unsettle us. Otherwise this passage makes little sense. When are facing some difficulty for a long time, we will experience the accusations. Not necessarily audibly. But the accusations will be there, just as they were for Job. 

“You must have sinned for this to happen to you.” “You must not have obeyed God completely if this is happening to you.” “It is evident that you lack faith.” “You do not truly trust God.” And we can go on with the charges that Christians have used over the centuries to abuse other Christians with.

And when those accusations – audible or merely in our minds – hit us, we will wonder who is behind those charges. Is it God? And Paul answers, “God is the one who justifies us.” Yes we have sinned. Yes we still sin. And yes we will sin tomorrow. But God has chosen to accept the righteousness of Jesus as being ours. That is the gospel. If he has decided to accept Jesus’ righteousness, then he has also decided that our shortcomings are not reason for any accusations.

But sometimes the trouble does not stop with just the accusations. No! Sometimes it moves on to the consequences of the charges. 

“If that is what you believe, then you are not truly a Christian.” “If you have not been baptized with the Holy Spirit, you are not a part of the church of God.” And once again, unfortunately, we can go on with all the different ways we Christians have found to condemn other Christians.

But Paul asks, “Who then is the one who condemns?” In other words, what is the source of these condemnations? Remember, he started chapter eight with “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Here we reach a point in the passage that makes many of us envision a very strange thing that goes against the grain of the passage. When Paul says that Jesus is interceding for us, who is his intercession directed to? We often imagine that Jesus is interceding on our behalf with God the Father. But that goes against what Paul has just said. God is the one who justifies sinners. God is not blind. He justifies only those who are in Christ Jesus, knowing full well that these humans are sinful.

So if Jesus intercedes with God for us, it either makes God look like some absent minded person bent on condemning people or it makes Jesus’ intercession ridiculous. Do we really imagine that every time I sin Jesus says to the Father, “But remember, he is mine” and that the Father says, “Oh yeah! Thanks for the reminder. I was just going to blast him to smithereens”? Or that the Father says, “Remember? I am God! I do not forget who belongs to you”?

Just because Paul says that Jesus is at the right hand of God does not mean that Jesus is interceding with God. So who is Jesus interceding with? He is interceding with those who have brought the charges against us and those who have condemned us. When someone brings a charge against a Christian, Jesus pleads with that person to see the truth. Whenever a Christian faces an accusation or condemnation, it gives Jesus the opportunity to intercede with the accuser in order that the accuser might understand the true nature of the gospel.

And so Paul goes on to ask, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” The accusations and condemnations aim to undermine our belief that we belong to Jesus. They tell us that we are not truly a part of him. And they might lead us to believe that they are signs of our being separated from Jesus.

We hear this often among those who preach prosperity. I will not dignify that kind of teaching by using the often used phrase “prosperity gospel” for it is not the gospel. You hear there that you have a grave illness because you have some secret sin. Or that you have financial difficulties because you did not contribute enough to that particular ministry. Or that you are being persecuted because you are not a true believer.

The prosperity thinking is a dualistic thinking in which only what makes me feel good is from God and what makes me feel bad is from the forces of evil that have a hold on me on account of some sin in my life.

But Paul will have nothing of that. For him the underlying premise is that God wants us to become like Jesus. And Jesus himself did not have a cushy life. His was not a bed of roses. And he faced accusations and was condemned to death.

And so for Paul, the accusations and condemnations that come the way of the Christian are not signs of backsliding or sin, but precisely the evidence of Jesus’ embrace. 

That is why Paul can quote from Psalm 44. “For your sake we face death all day long.” There are two sides to this. The difficulties come to a Christian precisely because Jesus loves the Christian and because God has predetermined the Christian to become like Jesus. But also, the Christian faces these with confidence and without becoming discouraged because he or she loves Jesus. 

We have the opportunity to face accusations and condemnations because God is for us and because Jesus loves us. And we face them with joy because we love Jesus and trust God to do right by us.

And so when Paul uses the words “we are more than conquerors” we should not forget that he preceded them with the words “in all these things.” God does not spare us pain and suffering. He does not provide his people with a comfortable life. To the contrary following Jesus brings difficulties. And God brings his people through those difficulties. And in the midst of those difficulties we are not discouraged, we are not disheartened, because we understand that these things are happening to us precisely because Jesus loves us. And we go through these things because we in turn love him.

“More than conquerors” does not mean that I will say a prayer and my difficulties will vanish. That may happen at times, but that is not guaranteed. 

“More than conquerors” does not mean that I can simply name something I want and believe strongly that it will happen and then it will. That may happen at times but it is not guaranteed.

What is guaranteed is that nothing can separate us from God’s love toward us, the love put on display in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the love made real in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.