There has been a lot written about Paul’s words to the church in Rome as he summarizes the history of the human race. While some thinkers see this scripture as pertaining solely to Gentile culture, others see it more broadly as the way all cultures have failed to recognize God, the creator of the world and the judge of all unrighteousness, and that is the position I find myself prone to take. The reason for a more broad approach is because I think a reader of the Old Testament can easily see that idolatry and dehumanization stemming from it was just as prevalent in Israel as it was in the surrounding kingdoms. In fact, Old Testament scholars point out that at any given time in the history of Israel, monotheistic loyalty to Yahweh was never fully established, and the chasing after other gods was a reality present throughout the history of the Wilderness wanderings, the time of Judges, and the monarchy…not to mention a cited reason for the fall of Israel and then Judah, Northern and Southern kingdoms, once divided.
So, Paul addresses the scene that has played out among the nations and particularly the downward spiral from the intended and godly purpose of humanity, to what we have made of ourselves. Of particular interest to us today is the notion of natural and unnatural relationships cited in this text which leads us to a discussion of human sexuality, sexual freedom, and homosexuality. Here is the text of Romans from the NLT:
Romans 1:24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.
28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. 32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.
Needless to say, this text is extremely controversial and has been used to condemn homosexuals, to contrast the type of homosexuality practiced today from ancient practices, and to particularly condemn those who switch back and forth from heterosexual practices to homosexual practices. Yet, what we need to do when studying a text like this is to remember that Paul was addressing the situation in Rome, and after extracting the principles and lessons that he wanted to communicate there, we can properly move from the ancient world to ours to understand what this text means in our contemporary world.
An aspect of this text I want to point out is that Paul is not speaking of individuals choices or on an individual level. Paul is speaking about a culture of idolatry in humanity at large. This is to say that Paul is not interested in case study or a small scale sample, he has seized on the human condition of worshipping the wrong things and being deceived to think that that worship of lesser beings would bring about the same ends as the worship of God.
For Paul, this worship of lesser things has resulted in a damaged relationship to God, each other, and the creation as a whole. Particularly, Paul cites the sexual practices that were currently happening in Roman pagan culture as a direct result of inaccurate worship. Humanity has “traded the truth of God for a lie” and in so doing they have treated each other’s bodies as objects to be explored and exploited. This argument is “that the existence of homosexual practice in a culture is a sign that that culture as a whole has been worshipping idols and that its God-given male-and-female order is being fractured as a result.” (NT Wright, Romans, New Interpreter’s Bible, p.435)
While it is evident that Paul regards homosexual practice as a dangerous distortion of God’s intentions for sex and sexuality, and while we might agree or disagree with Paul given what we have studied about human sexuality and psychology; what we cannot do is simply sidestep this passage when it comes to Christian ethics and what it says about culture and accepted practices of sexuality in any given culture. However, if we are going to take the citation of homosexuality seriously in the passage above, then we must also head the warning against innate moral superiority that is coming in the next section of scripture starting in Romans 2. That is to say, while some participate in dehumanizing behaviors through “shameful desires of the heart,” others stand aloof to these practices as if they are outside the widespread problem of sin…as if only “those” people and “we” do not. Paul finds this to be complete nonsense and a type of unrighteousness that is just as damaging to the human condition. (So, Paul would categorize any attempt to condemn and hurt a homosexual for being such alongside the very practice of homosexuality—“falling short of God’s glory”)
The phrase that gets some attention is at the end of verse 27, “They suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” While some commentators will point to the modern sexually transmitted diseases or even make mention of AIDS in this context, I don’t think Paul had any specific disease in mind. Paul is making reference to the fact that the end of sin is DEATH. I think that becomes clear in the following paragraph and even later in Romans where Paul would assert that sin pays you in death…(the wages of sin is death - Romans 6:23). I think it is also telling that Paul, along with other Jewish thinkers would see DEATH as a separation and isolation from God, from each other, and from creation (or the natural world) and less of an event at the end of a life. So, in the second paragraph of our text above, we see God hand them over yet again, showing a growing separation between God and humanity. We see examples of relationships being torn apart in the actions associated with… sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip…and even the “disobeying of parents.” Again, we see this as a result of idolatry, moving to dehumanizing behaviors that then play out in our relationships… As it pertains to the natural world and creation, Paul would argue that men were made to naturally fit with women and that women were designed by God to naturally fit with men. And therefore, what we have is, “DEATH” and the process of dying that started when humanity decided to not worship God or even give him thanks, and they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused…
I want to end with some questions for us to ponder:
I know I know…you’re probably humming the song…but this isn’t about that! Today’s reflection comes from John 1, and while I preached through the Gospel of John last year; I did not cover this very interesting text sandwiched between the witness of John the Baptist and the Wedding at Cana. Here is the text:
John 1:43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Come, follow me.” 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, Andrew and Peter’s hometown.
45 Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
46 “Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.
47 As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.”
48 “How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”
49 Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”
50 Jesus asked him, “Do you believe this just because I told you I had seen you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” 51 Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”
My initial thoughts here centered on how a story starts as a “poking-fun-at-rival-towns” in the area and then ends with the heavens open and this Jesus being the stairway to heaven! WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Well, I think it is Jesus just being Jesus…
You have to love the faith of Philip in the story…after Jesus’ invite to be a disciple, Philip is trusting and acting in faith. But then there is the more skeptical Nathanael, and hew really makes the story interesting. I mean, we have read the introduction to John in which Jesus is introduced as the very WORD of God, the LIGHT of the world, and that Jesus has come to create a new people who will be given the power, through the Holy Spirit, to live the abundant life of God. Apparently Nathanael doesn’t read…just kidding…but he is caught up in where this guy is from…Nazareth.
You see, important people are supposed to come from important places. Leaders come from Jerusalem, not Nazareth. Linebackers are developed at Penn State, not Rutgers (yikes). And good quarterbacks play at big high schools, not the little ones. Politicians need to be from metropolitan centers, not podunk rusty has-been towns. The promised one coming from Nazareth…that is surprising. But Philip just invites…Come and see…
So Nathanael does go and see this Nazareth born man that probably wasn’t that awesome Jesus. Jesus immediately offers some encouraging words to Nathanael. In contrast to Nathanael’s response about Jesus, Jesus calls Nathanael a man of integrity and a genuine son of Israel. I laughed at Nathanael’s response…how do you know about me? (I was thinking of him smirking and saying, “Yep…you got that right buddy! But prove it!”)
Then this Nazareth born man that probably wasn’t that awesome Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him…not from a distance, not just now, but under a tree…not just any tree but the fig tree. Jesus claims that before Philip found Nathanael, he knew where Nathanael was…under the fig tree. While Nathanael’s presence under a tree probably meant that he was learning from a rabbi or other teacher, the fact that Jesus has supernatural knowledge takes center stage in the story. In fact, this revelation leads to Nathanael’s proclamation, “You are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”
Yet Jesus is somewhat stunned at the proclamation given that he really didn’t do all that much. What comes next is of utmost importance because Jesus recaptures the image of Jacob’s ladder and places himself as the mediator between heaven and earth. Therefore, we can assert that just as Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, became a symbol of the special relationship the people of Israel would enjoy as God’s chosen people; now Jesus is a new Jacob, establishing a new people who will share access to God through Jesus.
I must admit that as I read this, I wonder what all my eyes will behold because of Jesus. When he tells Nathanael that he hadn’t seen anything yet…I can only imagine Jesus needs to say that to me as well. I sometimes get stuck in the smaller revelations of God that I forget the larger picture…renewing all things, true relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Sure, Jesus saw me first…before I was found and brought to him. But he wants me to see so much more…and Jesus wants you to see so much more. Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus in glory!
Today’s reading has me thinking about 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 in which Paul expresses concern about what the Corinthians have come to believe and practice. It seems that the gift of grace that God provided has been used to perpetuate a notion of liberty that was not intended in the gift. What I mean to say is that Paul is concerned that ideas about the body, sexual relationships, and our relationship with Christ must be addressed among the Christians at Corinth.
They seem to love maxims, short sayings to live by, or proverbial statements. Paul references a few in our passage:
“I am allowed to do anything!” or “Everything is permissible for me!”
“Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food!”
These slogans or maxims were referenced by Paul, we assume, because the people knew them and lived by them. Yet, Paul qualifies these sayings because, as you probably already know, a proverb or maxim is helpful in certain contexts and situations, but are not entirely universally true. And so Paul qualifies “I am allowed to do anything,” with “but not everything is good for you,” and “I must not become a slave to anything.” Paul goes on to qualify the maxim, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” with a more chilling response, “someday God will do away with both of them.”
Yet, this moves Paul to what seems to be the real point. Apparently some of Corinthians christians live by a maxim that says, “Our bodies are made to have sex, and so having sex is what our bodies must do!” And there were many opportunities for sexual activities in that city. If you would like to understand more about the city of Corinth and sexual practices, there has been much study done about that. But for this moment, Paul is not concerned with the cultural practices surrounding the Christian church, but Paul asserts the reality that they have entered into a relationship with Jesus. This relationship is not haphazard nor is it flippant…it is a covenant relationship that looks a lot like marriage (see Hosea 1-3; Ezekiel 16). Here is the entire passage from the New Living Translation:
12 You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. 13 You say, “Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food.” (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them.) But you can’t say that our bodies were made for sexual immorality. They were made for the Lord, and the Lord cares about our bodies. 14 And God will raise us from the dead by his power, just as he raised our Lord from the dead.
15 Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! 16 And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” 17 But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.
18 Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. 19 Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.
I like this contemporary reflection on the passage: “In our individualistic society and culture, Paul’s claim that ‘you are not your own’ will seem decidedly alien. Are we not in charge of our own lives? Can we not do as we see fit? Our own self-control is a fiction that we struggle to maintain. For Paul and indeed for everyone in his time, nobody was without a master, a lord to whom they were in some measure responsible…Some modern people, giving lip service to equality, find a horizontal image preferable; but in reality modern culture is stratified—and that not just economically—much more severely than we sometimes may want to acknowledge.” (J.P. Sampley, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, 866-67)
I think modern Christians must wrestle with the same notion that our ancient brothers and sisters did…We are not as independent and strong as we think we are, and perhaps sex and sexual experiences have us torn between faithfulness to Jesus and thinking that we are just participating in what our bodies were made to do. Paul’s words still ring true, “Glory God in your body!” Freedom is not without a lord (aka “is not free”), but the Lord offers freedom in that you, me, the self, our bodies, can be rescued from shame to the splendor and magnificence of that which God created! For Christians: your body is a temple, a sacred space where God lives.
I start this new year with a recognition of all those who have read this blog, seen the errors in grammar and spelling and kept reading anyway. Those who have received some sort of blessing and/or challenge from its reflections are both friends and those I have never met. Looking back over the last two years, I have shared over 140 pages of thoughts, quotations, devotions, and most importantly Scripture with you. This year will be no different, and I will try to commit myself to two posts a week; the first will be on Tuesday or Wednesday and the second will be on Thursday or Friday. This provides me with structure and discipline, but there will be times that once a week will probably be more doable! (Just FYI)
So, to start the year I want to sing a praise to God and join in all of creation (and outer space because I have been watching the Star Wars movies with my kids) in honor and glory to God. There are some days I need to read about and think about a God who is close to me and knows my needs. A God who sits in my mess and guides me through my daily walk is intimate and understanding. There are other days, like today, where a passage reminding me that God is above and beyond me, my situation, and the stuff in our lives is exactly what I need. A God who doesn't get bogged down in our thoughts and in our actions, but one who rises above to continue His purposes is strong and determined. Because God reigns and is far above the messes that we humans make is why we can honor, glorify, and worship this God. It is what gives God holiness and makes him “other.” And so we join with Psalm 29, a song of David, in praise to the God who deserves honor, speaks in the thunder but rises above the storm, and the one we worship in the “splendor of his holiness”
1 Honor the Lord, you heavenly beings;
honor the Lord for his glory and strength.
2 Honor the Lord for the glory of his name.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord echoes above the sea.
The God of glory thunders.
The Lord thunders over the mighty sea.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.
5 The voice of the Lord splits the mighty cedars;
the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon’s mountains skip like a calf;
he makes Mount Hermon leap like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord strikes
with bolts of lightning.
8 The voice of the Lord makes the barren wilderness quake;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks
and strips the forests bare.
In his Temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”
10 The Lord rules over the floodwaters.
The Lord reigns as king forever.
11 The Lord gives his people strength.
The Lord blesses them with peace.
As we start 2018, with whatever it has already handed you, I think the last two verses will carry us and encourage us.
The Lord rules
The Lord reigns
The Lord gives his people
The Lord blesses them
Be still…settle the soul and quiet the mind…hear the worship of creation and live in the assurance of God’s position beyond our struggles and above our flaws! That is why God deserves our worship, and it is why we can come to him with our needs.
For our faith ancestors, Psalm 126 was traditionally known as a “Psalm of Ascent,” which meant that it was sung by travelers as they made their way to the Temple. Of particular interest is the understanding that this is not a Psalm of David, but one that was probably written during the return to Jerusalem around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, one caution would be to hinder the usefulness of the Psalm by tying it too tightly to its historical circumstances. While historical context is enlightening, God’s people are always in need of salvation and the Lord’s strength to restore us from our chaos and terrible choices.
126:1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
A Note about the Streams of Negeb (or Negev in the NIV) - These streams are well-known for being dry and being dry often. However, these stream beds can suddenly be rushing floods when the seasonal rains arrive. So, we can see the imagery here of a lack of hope suddenly turning into the arrival of life-giving deliverance.
The point of this Psalm is that we as God’s people live by both memory and hope. During this Christmas time, we remember the story of Jesus’ birth and what his coming means for us. We reflect on the cross and the resurrection as we take the Lord’s Supper. We hear the teachings of Jesus proclaimed and lived out as we interpret the Scriptures. We try to become like him as we live in the community of the church. And yet, through the tears, sorrow, and hard times—we hope. We hope that Christ is coming again, and our memory of what Jesus has done compels our belief in what He will do! Like the memory of Jesus burst on the scene unexpectedly and without warning, so we prepare ourselves for the hope of Jesus’ coming that will complete all things. Within these boundaries, we are a glad and joyful people!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.