July 24th, 2013

Romans #100 – A Look Back at Romans

Thank you for sharing this journey with me over the last seven months.  I’m a little sad to see it come to an end, but I have loved studying Romans, writing about Romans, preaching on Romans, and receiving your feedback.

As I said in my sermon last Sunday, “The End”  Paul closes his letter with a pastoral heart.  He believes his gospel will stabilize the lives of his readers if they remember….

  • God.  He’s in charge, so I don’t have to control people or circumstances.  I’m not in charge or judgment, justice, grace, or the future.
  • Sin.  I can stop comparing myself to those better or worse than I am.  We all deserve God’s wrath, from the godless pagan to the religious moralist.
  • Christ.  Because of his death and resurrection, I have been declared righteous.  In Christ all the requirements of God’s law have been met.  For me there is no condemnation.
  • Gratitude.  In view of God’s mercy, I present my body as a living sacrifice of love, service, submission.  I am free not to sin.
  • Holy Spirit.  Not because I seek him or ask him, but because I am in Christ – the Holy Spirit is always there to assure, guide, help, and pray for me.  I am not alone.

That’s all I need to know, according to Paul in Romans.  And it is SO stabilizing!

Now for the details.

Here are some chapter-by-chapter highlights of the last seven months.  Along the way I’ve linked to some of the devotionals and sermons.  Don’t follow all the links or you’ll never get to the end!  But there may be some posts you want to review.

Romans 1

Paul’s introduction to Romans (vv. 1-17) is packed with so many important words that any one of them could be your “My One Word” for a whole year or a whole lifetime.

One of my favorite new insights in Romans was Paul’s use of pronouns in Romans 1-3 – “their” sins, “your” sins, and “our” sins all deserve God’s wrath.  Romans 1:18-32  is about the sins of others.

Verses 26-27 are hotly debated on the subject of homosexuality.  This led to #7, “Humility and Homosexuality.”  If are you not gay, and you’re thinking, “Get ‘em Paul – that’s what they are,” you are tracking with Paul.  On the other hand, if you are gay, and your response to this text is, “Paul is not talking about those of us in loving, monogamous relationships; he is describing  them – pederasts, the promiscuous, the exploitative,” you are responding exactly as Paul wants.  At this point, Paul wants you thinking about whoever your “them” is.  He is setting you up for chapter 2.

Romans 2

If you judge them, you are just as guilty as they are.  #16 – “Someone Else’s Servant” offered 16 biblical reasons not to judge.  When I judge others, I am comparing myself to other flawed individuals.  I am presuming there is a hierarchy of sins and theirs is worse.  My moral superiority masks my own sins, and keeps me from seeing that I need to change (repent).  It creates false pride.   This undermines community and creates distance.  The whole propensity to judge is idolatry – it sets me in the place of God, and therefore only creates more cause for God to judge ME.

Romans 3

The sermon on Romans 3 coincided with dedication Sunday for our new Bost Memorial Hall.  What a great celebration!  My part of the shared sermon included Paul’s declaration in Romans 3:22 that “there is no difference” between Jew and Gentile in sin or salvation.  Quote of the week:  “The harlot, the liar, the murderer, are short of God’s glory, but so are you.  Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you on the crest of an Alp; but you are as little able to touch the stars as they” (Handley Moule).

Romans 4

In Romans 4 Paul uses Abraham’s story as a biblical example of being justified by faith. One reader observed that the 5th letter of the Hebrew Alphabet is also defined as God’s creative breath (same ending in Ruach). When God changed Abram to “AbraHam” – He was literally putting His “Breath/Spirit” symbolically into the middle of his name as well.  (Sara also became “SaraH”.)

That same week, I got a new iPhone.  I immediately had a problem because the iPhone insisted I live in Israel.    #26 – “Whom Do You Trust?”, #27 – Questions?”, and #28 – “Back from Israel” all used the iPhone experience in relating our experience as Gentiles to Abraham’s Jewishness.

Favorite quotes of the story for me as I tried to convince Apple that I live in Hickory, NC:

  • My son Phil:  “Dad, I think somehow you may have ended up with the long prophesied, but often forgotten direct phone line to Jesus.”
  • My daughter Jeni:  “I refuse to believe it. Apple doesn’t make mistakes. Maybe you were in Israel. You do holy things all the time.”
  • Syed, on Apple tech support, trying to help:  “Bob, I understand that you live in Israel….”

Still today, in my car, when I choose my iPhone for my Bluetooth use, it is identified with Mark Thomas’ bass voice as “My iPhone from the U.S.”

Romans 5

Grammar is critical in studying Romans.  #29 – “Tenses” noted how Paul listed our “benefits” in Christ in the aorist, perfect, or present tense.  For the second time in the Romans studies, pronouns grabbed my attention.  In my sermon I quoted from Julia Childs:  “When properly prepared, a piece of pronoun is as tasty as any chicken, beef, or lamb, and it is also appealing to vegetarians.”   Paul used the first person plural 25 times in Romans 5:1-11.  The sermon was titled, “How We See Us.”  This was also the sermon where I borrowed from Linda’s very excitable college roommate Debbie Ball, who lavishly use exclamation points in person and in print.  Paul’s declarations that “we see us” at peace with God, as insiders, as princes, as friends with God, should prompt us to join in a Debbie-like shout, “Oh, y’all!!!!!”

Mark – the Prequel

We took a break from Romans during Lent, and preached on Mark.  It was a new insight to me that since Mark likely wrote his Gospel in Rome and the Roman Christians were his first readers, we can think of his Gospel as a prequel to Romans!  Paul had written of the grand scheme of God in Christ, and Mark (a companion of Peter) filled in the details about Jesus’ earthly life.

Romans 6

Paul comes to the theoretical side of Christian living in Romans 6, preceding by several chapters the practical side (Romans 12ff.)

From #35 – “You Can’t Go Back” – Preaching grace is a risk.  If we really understand grace, that we have no fear of God’s wrath, then it doesn’t matter how we live, right?  In fact, if we sin more, we give God a chance to extend more grace, right? Hell, No!  Pardon my “French,” but that language is really not too strong for Paul’s exclamation of abject horror at such a thought in Romans 6:2.

#37 – “On Rebaptism” wrestled with whether and when Christians should be baptized again if they have been previously baptized.

Romans 7

This chapter of Romans vexes interpreters a bit, and, sure enough, I got some “push back” on the position I took.  When Paul says, “I am sold as a slave to sin,” is he going back to Romans 1-3 and speaking of his pre-Christian state?  Or can it be that the person who understands he has died to sin (Romans 6) and has the Holy Spirit in him (Romans 8) can still write so graphically about the struggle.

My sermon on Romans 7 was titled, “The Common Christian Experience,” because I take the position that Paul’s struggle is ongoing as a believer and an apostle.  I could be wrong.  But I find the addiction metaphor to be the most apt for Romans 7.  Does an addict ever say, “I used to be an alcoholic”?  Never.  “I am a recovering alcoholic.”  The flesh is always there.  Romans 7 is there to teach us we can never say, even after we acknowledge that Jesus Christ has delivered us (thanks be to God!) “I used to be a slave to sin.”  No.  “In my flesh I am a slave to sin.”

Romans 8

If Romans 7 is about “the common Christian experience,” Romans 8 is about “The Normal Christian Life.”  The flesh is still very real – and prominent even in Romans 8 – as I wrote in #46 – “Devotions for a Down Day.”  “I will not beat myself up for having ‘flesh,’ but neither will I embrace the lie that pleasing the ‘flesh’ will lead to life.”

Several of you identified with me.  One person wrote, “Yesterday I too was on a downward spiral and by 7pm was blaming my wonderful wife for all my disappointments and frustrations. I have a lot to make up for now, words that cannot be taken back, hurts that only by His grace will they heal. I’ll pray for you please pray for me.”

There is so much in Romans 8 it took us three weeks of sermons to scratch the surface.  This is Paul’s teaching on the Holy Spirit, who assures us we belong to Christ and prays with wordless groans.  Speaking of “groans,” Paul uses an extended metaphor of pregnancy and childbirth to describe our longing for the life to come.  The sermon on Romans 8:18-30 declared, “Life is hard.  But it’s OK.  We’re pregnant.”

And all of that was before we came to the Mount Everest of Romans, if not the Bible – 8:38-39.  In #56 – “What Causes Divorce”, we saw that the word “separate” in Romans 8:39 is literally “divorce.”  Paul is “convinced” that a whole list of great forces are not sufficient to drive a wedge between God’s love and us – not death (the great separator), not supernatural and unseen beings, not time (present or future), not space (height or depth), not anything he can imagine in all creation. Believer, hold on to this.  God will never divorce you.

Romans 9

This chapter brought us squarely into the doctrine of predestination.  One person who came to contemporary service that day told Pastor Paul they wouldn’t be back.  If we believe in predestination, this is not the church for them.  The problem is that Paul clearly teaches predestination.  In #60 – “Luther on Election” I noted that the purpose of this doctrine is to teach us humility.  “Our resistance to it is rooted in pride – I want to choose, I want to control, I want to understand, I want to explain, I want credit, I want to be good enough, I want to be Godlike.  Predestination strips me of every one of those ‘I wants,’ leaving me needy, helpless, small, confused, broken, and very human.”

Romans 10

Close on the heels of predestination (Romans 9), Paul counters with free will in Romans 10.  #62 – “Avoiding Extremes” noted 16 possible imbalances just from Romans 9-11.  One of those is thinking that “personally confessing and believing is unnecessary.”  That’s from Romans 10:9-10 – 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.  This led to my Confirmation Sunday sermon, when I urged the Confirmands to “keep it simple.”  I gave each Confirmand a banana slicer as a reminder that we have a tendency to complicate ANYTHING – including slicing a banana!  A relationship with Jesus is a matter of the mouth and the heart.

Romans 11

This is another humbling chapter of the Bible, much debated across the centuries.  It has to do with the future of Israel.  But everyone should be able to agree on a few points I listed in #69 – “The Hound of Heaven,” namely that you can’t reason your way into God’s plans, that God is in charge of history, and that the end result of our meditation should be to focus on praise for God’s pursuing love.

Romans 12

It was my turn to make someone mad the first week I preached on Romans 12.  In teaching on Paul’s command to “offer your bodies a living sacrifice,” I said that the Christian life begins with the Christian’s death.  I gave a rather graphic description of a man coming to the temple to offer his lamb on the altar.  The first person out the door said, “This is my first visit to your church, and that violence was very disturbing to me.  I don’t think I’ll be back.”  I called her later that week and assured her I was not trying to be gratuitous, and that an illustration like that is not part of my usual preaching style.

I called our guest, and she did come back the following Sundays.  But all that week I thought about an alternative way to express what is Paul’s rather dramatic statement on the “living sacrifice.”  So the next week I climbed up on the marble altar in the sanctuary and laid down to symbolize a total commitment to Christ.  One person said the most impressive thing was that I could sit back up without anything to hold on to!  I hope the illustration itself stayed with all of us.  This life in Christ is “all in.”

Paul’s not done with the body after Romans 12:2.  In #76 – “Why the Body” I noted that Paul’s use of the body/flesh so far in Romans had been mostly negative.  Now he uses it as a metaphor for the church?  Why?  Perhaps because flaws and imperfections are precisely the point in Christian community.  This is even true when we serve one another with the gifts of grace God bestows on us.

What impressed me about the end of Romans 12 was, once again, grammatical.  This time it was Paul’s very disorganized grammar in presenting the ideals of Christian love.  The sermon title, “Loving,” was in the form of a present participle because Paul rambles through a whole list of present participles in teaching what love looks like in the messiness of human relationships.  In the same sermon I shared the story of Julie Dollar, whose messy life has come full circle.  The counselee has become a counselor.  The childless divorcee has become a Mom.  The one angry at God has come to love him.

Romans 13

Reading, writing, and preaching on Romans 13 was interesting to me because it fell between a trip to Elon University for the Annual Meeting of the Southern Conference of the UCC and a trip out west for the General Synod of the UCC.  Paul tells us in Romans 13 to submit to the governing authorities.  At the Southern Conference meeting I heard a stirring call to civil disobedience by Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP.  At the General Synod Linda and I didn’t exactly engage in civil disobedience, but we were there in part to symbolize and present active dissent with our denomination’s leaders.

It’s not very American to submit without question to anyone or anything.  So, as the sermon title for Romans 13 asked, “What Was Paul Thinking?”  I think he was still thinking about chapter 12 – being a living sacrifice.  Whatever choices I make about the government or anything else, it has to be consistent with “death to self” if it is to be Christian.

From there Paul balances love and law in chapter 13, and in #86 – “Bible Verses that Changed History,” we recalled that it was Romans 13:13-14 that brought Augustine of Hippo to his knees before the Lord in the fourth century A.D.  Augustine was one of the most influential Christians ever to live and write after the time of Paul.

Romans 14

I missed out on preaching Romans 14 – but I was wrestling with it while Linda and I were at the UCC’s General Synod.  What are “disputable matters” and where do you draw the line?  Even though I didn’t get to preach at Corinth, I did write two devotionals.   #87 – “When Christians Differ” insists that it starts with the heart attitude of acceptance, not condescension.  #88 – “The Weaker Brother” outlined Paul’s principles for dealing with the “weaker brother.”

Romans 15

The first half of Romans finishes the thought of Chapter 14, guarding the unity of the church. In #89 – “Unity and Glory” I noted that Jesus connects the unity of the church and our love for one another to our witness in John 13:34-35 and John 17:20-23.  I loved how Pastor Paul in our shared sermon on this text provided a great analogy:  you can only sing in harmony if all the singers are in the same key.  That’s the balance of essentials and non-essentials.

The last half of chapter 15 and all of chapter 16 show Paul’s personal side.  He’s an ordinary guy, but he’s also applying his theology to that everyday life.  In #94 – “Prayer and Peace” we saw that the purpose of prayer is not getting specific results but about experiencing the peace of releasing a person or situation in God’s hands.  Many of you told me how much that message meant to you as you wrestled with your current prayer concerns.

Romans 16

I love how Paul names his #96 – “Friends in Christ” closes the letter, including #97 “Women in the Church” and #98 – “Nearby Friends.”  But most importantly he concludes with that doxology that stabilizes his readers with the gospel.  (See the introduction above to #100.)

If you’ve read this far on #100 – thanks again!  I figured I would only make this offer to those who made it to the bitter end!  If you would like the whole set of 100 Romans devotionals in a Word document (electronic file) to use for future study, e-mail me back at [email protected] and I’ll send it to you.

I have to admit that I stayed with a commitment to write these devotionals partly out of selfish reasons (to keep me on task in studying for the sermons) and partly out of an obsessive need to finish what I said I would start.  Along the way, I have found a deeper, fresher appreciation for Paul, for this letter, and for my own faith.  Most importantly, my passion to know Christ and share Paul’s gospel, the proclamation of Jesus Christ, has never been stronger.

When we began, I told you to be prepared to be changed.  Paul’s letter to the Romans changed the life of St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Karl Barth, just to name a few.   Romans is still changing lives.  One of you wrote me this week about two key insights from our study –

  1.  I don’t have to understand everything in the Bible or have it “right” to be a Christian.
  2. My salvation is complete.  I don’t have to watch over my shoulders to make sure I am doing the “right” things.

If you get that, you get Romans.

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