So, when you tell folks that you're going to write about the subject of circumcision, you get some interesting comments. Some asked me to just cut to the chase about it. Another person suggested the title, “A snippet on circumcision.” While the jokes and suggestions just kept going, and while we tend to circumvent the topic of circumcision at every turn…even I would rather write about it than stand before a congregation and talk about it; but as we tend to downplay it, Paul seems to react to a group of Jewish people who are thinking it is of utmost importance. It seems weird to admit this, but the very practice of circumcision itself was a major issue in the growing and expanding church, and for the churches in Rome, Galatia, and Corinth among others…the distinction of circumcision had to be understood in a different way and eventually overcome if we could talk about unity among Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
Just so we are on the same page. One of the distinctions that separated Greco-Roman “Gentile” men and Jewish men was that as a cultural/religious tradition, Jewish men were circumcised and Greco-Roman men were not circumcised. For the Jews, this was part of the covenant with Abraham where God chose them to be His special people. If we go back to Genesis 17, we read this:
9 Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. 10 This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. 11 You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. 13 All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. 14 Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.”
Therefore, generation after generation practiced this, including Jesus as a Jewish boy; we read about his circumcision in Luke 2:21. Circumcision was the sign of the special relationship the Jewish people had with Yahweh God, and to not by circumcised was to be outside of the covenant…enter the Gentiles…who are obviously outside the covenant because they do not practice the sign of circumcision.
So, Paul’s explanation to the church at Rome has to have something to do with the fact that Gentiles are a part of the church, which is now God’s new chosen people through Jesus Christ; but how can they be included when they don’t practice the sign of the covenant? Secondly, perhaps God works in some sort of tier system where Jewish men who are circumcised are more important (1st class citizens) than the Gentile men who are not circumcised (2nd class citizens) although all are welcomed into the church. As Paul might respond, “By No Means!”
So, Paul addresses those who take pride in the practice of circumcision. In Romans 2 he asserts that the practice of circumcision along with the Jewish law has become a hazard for them and obstacles to faith (…and I should let you know that we are going to stay in the letter to Rome although Paul discusses this elsewhere in the New Testament).
25 The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. 26 And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? 27 In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.
28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.
I think the above statement really points out the problem happening in the hearts of some of the Jews who thought they were special due to their law and practices. Paul says that what makes a person a “true Jew” is a heart that is right with God. That does not happen through keeping the law. That also does not happen in the practice of circumcision. That happens by believing in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and living by faith (Romans 3:21-31).
Paul continues to talk about circumcision in Romans 4 as he addresses why the Jews must be made righteous through Christ by faith just like the Gentiles; moreover, Paul also addresses how the “uncircumcised” can have the same hope in God, same relationship, and same salvation as the “special nation.” Here are Paul’s words:
9 Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. 10 But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!
11 Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. 12 And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Now, here Paul does something that would make some Jewish people cringe…Abraham is the father of the uncircumcised? HOW? WHAT? This is a shocking statement, but one that is founded on the notion of FAITH in God and not on the dividing practice of circumcision. We know that when God changed Abraham’s name to “father of many nations,” God had in mind that Abraham wouldn’t be just the father of Israel…but of all people who have FAITH like he did. And that is the notion Paul is bringing forth in the passage above.
In conclusion, circumcision was a practice that divided people…Jew vs Gentile…and gave some the prideful stance that they were more connected, more special than others because of, if we are honest, a decision made for them at the time of birth to remove a flap of skin. This silly idea became a badge of honor for some Jewish groups and led to the inferiority of other nations. Circumcision was never a matter of faith, and that is where Paul found a problem with the attitudes the practice created. Salvation is by FAITH in Christ Jesus, and all people are welcomed to believe. I wonder what it is we put so much pride in…that has nothing to do with faith…everything to do with tradition…and divides us from other peoples? I even wonder why it is that Christians still circumcise little boys given what the New Testament says about it…but these are all just things for us to think about as we try to live by FAITH in Jesus Christ…the universal solution for our universal sin problem!
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 was just as prevalent in Israel as it was in the surrounding “pagan” 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 the 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 amongst all 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 particular situation in Rome, and after extracting the principles and lessons that he wanted to communicate there, we can properly move from the ancient world into ours in an effort 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 individual choices nor individual behaviors nor individual morality. 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, both heterosexual and homosexual to be inclusive, 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 sin 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”)
A phrase that gets special attention is at the end of verse 27, “They suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” While some commentators will point to 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.
As I continue to read the little book on the Holy Spirit by Lois Malcolm, I am challenged to think about the ongoing work of the Spirit in the life of the church, and in my personal faith, love and hope.
In a chapter entitled, “The Spirit Creates Faith” Lois explains the freedom the Spirit gives us to live the life of Christ. I want to share with you a couple quotes and allow you to simmer on them a bit.
“We do not lose our unique individual identities when we enter into Christ’s life; we do not become Christ. Rather, we become more fully ourselves. Christ’s life-giving Spirit gives us the power to deal with destructive patterns in our lives—patterns that keep us trapped in destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—so that we can be all that God has created us to be, so that we can, by faith, step into the possibilities God would have for us. Where destructive patterns in our lives have abounded, now grace can abound all the more!” (56)
Here’s why I like this--I get the feeling that a current trend in Christianity is that we know a lot about different personalities and then seem to prefer particular ones over others. We have expectations of how men and how women should be (and act)…and in the call to be more like Jesus, we need to be careful not to place our personality preferences on others. We are to walk in the way of Jesus Christ, but we are also to truly be more ourselves and to learn to appreciate who we are in Christ. While the destructive patterns need to cease, introverts filled with the Spirit and extroverts filled with the Spirit may both seek Jesus and do so in ways that are unique! I could go on…but my point is that in being a Christian…you don’t have to fit a “mold,” you are free to live in the Spirit’s guidance of your individual identity! That is a great thought, especially as I (or you) live out my (or your) faith prompted by the Spirit’s work!
A second thought from the book is this:
“Thus, with faith comes profound self-love. Through the Spirit’s power, we are able to love ourselves—and accept even those parts of us we are most ashamed or guilty about—precisely because God knows and loves every part of us. Indeed, it is only when we re no longer so buttressed by the incessant demands of our own fears and desires—when we can actually become an integrated rather than a divided self—that we can truly attend to what others need, that we can truly attend to their interests and not merely to our own.” (59)
Here’s why I like this--I think many people learn to hate a part of themselves, and I think some Christian circles teach this self-hate as way of dealing with sin and making sure that a believer will not return to that sin; thus returning to shame and guilt and all things evil. Yet, how wonderful is the love of God that declares “I love all of You” including the deepest and darkest places of our hearts, minds, and souls. And this love, instead of making us fearful and embarrassed, provides us with freedom from the very sin curse we participate in…and in so doing we are accepted into the family of God. I also like to think that as we are made whole by the Spirit, we join with other people who are made whole by the Spirit and then we have a group of people joining together to make the world whole by the Spirit…and that group is called the church. And it is the church in which we can attend to the needs and interests of others. The opposite of this approach is the all too familiar consumer approach to church…I will sell the good parts about myself and I will only be a part of the church if it serves my needs. This type of faith doesn’t end with “profound self love” and “attending to the needs of others.” Only the Spirit does that!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.