A Relational Adventure

We sometimes treat Paul’s letter to the Romans as if it is the apostle’s theory about gospel or his magnum opus of theological insights. Yet Romans is a letter. It is a specific word to a specific people in a specific situation. We should be reading Romans as a relational adventure.

We sometimes have treated it as if all that matters are the greatest hits. We pick the parts we like and treat the rest like b sides. We act as if the selected parts tell us everything we need to know about Romans.  “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” and “For all have sinned…” and “For the wages of sin is death…” and “All things work together for good…” and “If God is for us…” and “Offer your bodies a living sacrifice…” I think you get the idea.

Just saying, we tend to read Romans with presuppositions. We convince ourselves that here we have discovered the straight road to salvation. This is a certain way to miss out on a wild and unsettled Romans that is an important part of our adventure. I suspect this is a constant problem for the church. We spend a great deal of effort cleaning up the messy parts of the bible to convince ourselves of clear principles that do not match with the messiness of real life. This has likely caused many to decide the bible is not for them.

N. T. Wright has said that Romans “sweeps you along on a tide of extraordinary writing and glorious hope.” He also says “it plunges you not only into gloom, but into serious puzzles, knotty intellectual problems, and arguments that will make you wonder whether St. Paul is losing his balance…” I enjoy Wright’s description because it moves us toward Romans as an adventure.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa claims we tend to read it “as if we ride through Romans on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, seeing the same highlights every time…” Reading Romans this way will cause us to miss out on what Romans is saying and we will fail to see that the “metropolitan area is larger, more astonishing, and more disturbing than we imagine.”

Romans is literature that sees church and world in realistic ways, including the clumsy messes where we sometimes find ourselves. Even more, Romans highlights the significance of God’s action on behalf of the church and the world. Gaventa cautions us about the twists and turns on the path that is Romans. And she gives warning that it will take us “into a gospel far more vast than we usually imagine, and that gospel may take us places we would prefer not to go.”

I Corinthians and Spiritual Gifts

Much has been written about spiritual gifts and especially about how to discover your spiritual gift. I Corinthians does not seem interested in much of this literature. At least not the inventories and how to utilize your spiritual gift for church growth. I Corinthians suggests a more active way to discover one’s gift. The letter seems to ask, “what are you doing now? Does your activity strengthen the church?” If so, then this is your spiritual gift. “Does your activity divide?” Then it is not.

I Corinthians has little interest in whether you sing well or read well or if you are crafty. I Corinthians is interested in who receives the glory and whether your activity strengthens the church. Another thing that I Corinthians highlights is that people are gifts as well. Look around the congregation on any given Sunday – you are surrounded by gifts.

I Corinthians and Body Parts

In the midst of a serious discussion, I Corinthians offers a bit of humor. While talking about the members of the body, the body parts begin to talk. The foot starts it off by saying, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body.” And then the ear, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body.” And then the eye to the hand, “I have no need of you.” And then the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” While the content of the discussion is important, it should also be pointed out that not only are the body parts talking, they are talking to one another. Perhaps this is noteworthy in a letter addressed to a church where members are struggling to get along.

I Corinthians and Holiness

The Corinthian Church is addressed early in the letter as “holy ones.” Because of this I expect to find a different group of people than those I read about. Instead, the further I read, the more I begin to think that designation was a mistake.

These people are jealous, full of strife, they boast in their own wisdom. There is immorality among them and they are arrogant. They are covetous, idolaters, drunks, swindlers, fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, revilers. Just saying, these do not sound like saints to me. Yet I Corinthians never revokes the statement that these are “holy ones.”

I Corinthians does go on to say “such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in Christ Jesus.” I Corinthians is a reminder that holiness is not an individual project. To be called “those who have been sanctified” is to acknowledge that holiness is the work of God and that we become holy together.

Preaching Politics and Revelation (Not in that Order)

I am convinced that every four years (every presidential election) we should be preaching from the New Testament book of Revelation. It is obvious the church needs the perspective Revelation provides during this part of the political cycle. Revelation is written for the church. We know this from chapters 2-3. However, for many, chapters 2-3 appear out of context with the rest of the letter. These chapters firmly establish themselves on earth, in specific places that can be located on a map. Yet, the rest of the book is a bit more difficult to locate.

Many consider this a problem that complicates things. I suspect the opposite is actually true. These are not just random places but cities that are home to local churches. Churches that receive specific instruction and affirmation. It is likely Revelation wants us to recognize that the only way to navigate the cosmic mysteries and realities of Revelation is through the church. It is likely Revelation wants us to recognize that the only way to navigate politics is through the church.

So I find myself asking, why aren’t we preaching more Revelation? Revelation begins with Jesus. In fact a picture of Jesus like we have never seen before. And then, Revelation takes us to church. This is important for the Gospel is not for individuals. The Gospel is for a people. The Gospel is always an act of community, never a private exercise, always a political exercise.

It is no accident Revelation takes us to church right after meeting Jesus. One cannot have Christ without the church. We may want to. After meeting Jesus we may think we are ready to go straight to where the seven headed dragon is defeated or to the city where there is no night. But before any other cosmic scene, Revelation takes us to church. This is important because the only way to navigate any of the cosmic mysteries is through the church.

Seven congregations are addressed. No two of them are the same. Affirmations are different. Instruction is different. Each one is defined by its relationship with Jesus. A different sermon is preached to each one. Yet, in each of these churches, they are expected to listen. Listening becomes a theological activity. In a year where we are hearing a lot of words being spoken, the church is where we should be hearing a perspective that is not being preached anywhere else.

Each congregation is significant. Revelation gives details about local congregations because these matter to God. God is interested. His Son is walking among the lampstands. His Spirit is speaking to the Churches. These things matter right here, right now, this place, these people. It is not a fictitious group of saints but real people from real congregations who sing along with the rest of creation in chapter 5 and who receive the mark of the Lamb in chapter 14.

It is emphasized to the churches that earth’s politics are not enough. Rome falls short, Caesar is not in control. Even more, Satan is not in control and his beasts fall short. From the outset, Revelation is clear that Jesus is in control and tells us He can be found among the churches. Clearly, the church has an important role in eternal affairs. Clearly, we should be preaching this very perspective.

It is true, chapters 2-3 may appear out of place in Revelation. They appear so earthy compared to the cosmic out of this world stuff that comes before and after. This is exactly the point. The local church is set smack in the middle of a story with cosmic importance. The local church is set smack in the middle of a political story. The church plays a significant role in this story. Revelation wants us to know there is always more than meets the eye and the only way to see clearly is through the church. Preach it.

Preaching and Politic

Between now and the election candidates will do their best to convince us that party politics fit nicely with the Kingdom of God. More specifically they will try to convince us that the Kingdom fits nicely with their personal vision for the country. In a further effort to convince us, some will even share their vision in sanctuaries and from pulpits.  The fact is, the Kingdom cannot fit into any of these artificial temporary structures (think new wine in old wineskins). It would be like nominating Jesus for president. Why would we try to limit His authority to the United States? His vision is much bigger than that.

I am not opposed to political action (the fact is, I can be quite opinionated about these things). However, I am opposed to the church thinking any political party or candidate speaks for them. Anytime the church becomes bedfellows with any lesser kingdom we will find an unfaithful church.

Taken to its extreme, one side of American politics positions government as a god. Government will become responsible for us, will care for us, and will deliver us from the evils and injustices of this world. At the other extreme, the individual is placed in position as a god. The individual becomes responsible for self, provides for self, and delivers self from evils and doubts. Both of these extremes belong to the same systemic problem that gives allegiance to something other than God and disregards the reality that only God is able to deliver.

This is not a call to solve society’s problems or to ignore them. The fact is, our worldview expects that we will be doing good whenever and wherever we are able. We just do not want to fall into the trap of thinking we can change the world by using the ways of the world. This presents us with obvious challenges. At our best, our struggle of how to go about work in the public sector is connected to a desire to influence as many as possible. At our worst, our struggle of how to work in the public sector suggests a lack of confidence in the plan of God and Jesus as King.

Government is gift but it is not the way of the Kingdom. Winning the culture wars is not the same as the Kingdom story. Our confidence is in King Jesus and our politic begins by gathering in His name. Our politic goes further by acknowledging His Kingship and following His Kingdom vision. This includes being salt and light. But as Scot McKnight says in Kingdom Conspiracy, “the best way to be salt and light is not to coerce the rest of the nation through political power but to witness to an alternative reality by living out the kingdom vision of Jesus in our local church.”

McKnight’s discussion about peace may be helpful here and we can use the same process with a number of other issues. Nearly everyone agrees with the idea of peace but most who talk about it are talking world peace or nuclear disarmament or stopping ethnic wars. The New Testament, on the other hand, keeps talking about peace in the church. Our tendency is to politicize peace but we are actually called to “seek peace in our local fellowship”, to “seek reconciliation with God and with one another”, and “out of this peace-shaped, kingdom shaped church we spill over peace into the world.” If the church is not shaped like peace “Why should the world care what the church believes about peace?”

Any preaching that encourages us to cast confidence in any political kingdom is not in step with preaching about the Kingdom of God. Such preaching implies that things are ok as they are and that the way to change the world is through politics. Such preaching suggests the salvation plan of Jesus is not sufficient on its own and requires help from someone who holds real power.

Preaching should call us to be living as if King Jesus is ruling now. We are not looking for someone else to run things for us here; we are participants in an alternative vision. Ecclesia describes a political gathering. So does Kingdom. This does not make us part of the current political process. It does make our preaching in this political gathering a significant word about what it means to live under the rule of King Jesus.

Preaching a Genealogy

It is noteworthy that when we open the text we call the New Testament, the first thing we find is a genealogy. Some of us read it as if it is interesting to Matthew but has little to say to us. Others as if it is necessary history before getting to the good stuff. Still others do not even read it at all. In reality, it is not our place to dismiss some scripture as irrelevant or uninteresting. There are likely a number of reasons Matthew included genealogy and not one of them considers Matthew 1 as optional reading. This is Gospel.

Matthew wants us to know from the start that much has already happened. Generations and years have passed and God is interested in all of it. God is deeply committed to His chosen people. While people may stray, God does not. When people lose their way, God is committed to bringing them back. Matthew wants them to know that no matter what happens, He is “God with us.”

Scot McKnight, in A Fellowship of Differents, talks about “the story of Israel that morphs into the story of the Kingdom and the story of the Church.” I propose that this genealogy is an important piece of this story. The genealogy is more than information about one family of Middle Eastern origin. It is an introduction to a family of faith that God is deeply involved with and deeply committed to. We become part of this family and are included among the people with whom God chooses to dwell. We become evidence that God is involved with the world and has invested everything that we might receive salvation.

The genealogy reminds us that God has intervened in history through multiple situations and with multiple people. No matter what goes wrong, God does not give up His great desire to be with us. The genealogy reminds us that each of us are born into an already existing story. Our stories are connected to a bigger story, a story that includes Messiah. Matthew 1 prompts us to explore the commitment of God to be with His people since the beginning.  And to recognize His most serious move to be with us is Jesus.

The more we read this genealogy the more we realize God’s interest in people groups like nations and families. God is interested in communicating salvation through common forms of relationship. The Messiah comes through the flesh and blood history of a family. By the time we arrive to the New Testament we are aware that God views salvation as a relational project. We preach knowing that God’s work among people groups is not finished. God continues to work through such groups – primarily the one we call Church.

The genealogy reminds us how theological history can be. Ben Witherington talks about this in The Indelible Image. God becomes involved in the messy events of human history. Indeed, God enters it in the person of Jesus. The more we read the genealogy, the more we realize that this is an unlikely group to be chosen for passing the torch of God’s Good News. Even among the chosen, some things do not happen as we would like. The genealogy acknowledges this reality along with the reality of God’s presence. Certainly there were better candidates with more stability and better decision-making skills. Yet, this is the people God chose to bring the Gospel into the messy events of human history.

Preaching Matthew 1 should encourage a look around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. What will we see? An unlikely group? Not the group you would have chosen? Still, this is the collection of people God has assembled to call His own. This is the family He chooses to dwell among as “God with us.”