A long time ago, our friend Augustine talked about disordered loves. His contention was things tend to be good in and of themselves but the way we often use those good things is problematic. God created these things, after all – and he called them very good – but these good things were created within an order and with purpose. God's good creation was meant to work a certain way. So our problem, Augustine says, is that we get our loves out of order. We neglect some things while trying to use other things to do more than they were ever meant to do.
I think there's a lot of truth to what Augustine is laying on us here. I think about Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:1-21. He bookends this teaching with dual warnings about being careful where we look for our treasures and rewards. Don't give or pray or fast to impress people. (This was a culture, after all, where giving, praying, and fasting carried major social capital.) If that's where we're placing our worth and identity we'll get our reward, but be careful: those neighbors we've worked so hard to impress with our shows of generosity, pious prayers, and righteous displays of fasting simply cannot bear the weight our bid for approval, worth, and meaning places on them. Investing ourselves in such storehouses inevitably leads to loss because, “moth and rust consume” and “thieves break in and steal.”
Augustine reminds us it's not that our neighbors are bad – or even that we should avoid their approval. Rather, when we make the approval and validation of our neighbors the locus of our worth and identity, the place where we store our treasures, we’ve gotten things out of order. We look for something from our neighbors they cannot possibly deliver in any meaningful way. Only God can. It is only in rooting who we are in God's estimation of us that we can hope to find lasting worth and meaning and identity. This is “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
In Matthew 6:21, Jesus ends by reminding us our hearts will follow our treasures. Another way of saying that is this: You will spend your life chasing the treasure you seek. More, other friends as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, and James KA Smith remind us that it is in this chase that we become who we are. The chase forms us, for good or ill.
What am I seeking? That’s the question we’ve been assigned to ponder and I spend a lot of time doing that. I too often recognize the ways I chase the wrong sorts of treasure – when I place too much stock in whether or not my friends and neighbors think I'm funny or smart or successful or good. I've had to deal with all the ways I've hitched my identity to being a vocational minister, and I've had to figure out what I'm worth now that I'm not that anymore. More, I've had to come to terms with the fact that pursuing those treasures has often made me a more selfish person because it's hard to both love and use my neighbors to satisfy my own neurotic needs. The only path forward I've discovered is to begin putting those loves back in order. This is, after all, the way Jesus showed us.
What do I seek? It has to be God. I stink at the pursuit. I struggle with it. I often get sidetracked and turned around. But, nothing else will do. Nothing else can.
Rob Sparks is a Jesus follower, a father and husband, a nerd, and a paper pusher. He worships and serves with the Fernvale Church of Christ in Middle Tennessee and occasionally blogs at robrsparks.wordpress.com
An attitude proclaiming that there is no way a person can ever change to be anything more than who they currently are.
I often wonder how it is we can talk about transformation, recovery, and personal growth in a culture perpetuating a “be the best you, you can be” mantra. Meanwhile, the church proclaims that we are to look, be, act, and grow more and more like Jesus…not our natural selves. Recovery programs start with step one, the admission that we are powerless to control ourselves, and our lives have become unmanageable. Perhaps your boss has given you a “personal growth plan,” which is a way to communicate the standards and skills you are to have if wanting to continue working or progressing in your career. Yet, how does all of this play out in a world where a person in the midst of glorious self-discovery and “authentic me” cannot be tainted by the expectations of church, recovery, or work (or family, friends, and education).
I find the word “authentic” to be one of the most overused and abused word in our culture. We talk about having authentic relationships, yet can only relate to each other through what is good; good times, good memories, and good qualities of a person. We talk about having authentic conversations, but cannot not bring up controversial issues, and so we stick to a more comfortable shallow common ground with each other while the real heart issues simmer underneath the surface of our communities and nation. I could give more examples, but a part of this conceptualization of authenticity is being “organic” which by definition means untainted and natural. So, while I like both of these words, and strive to be both authentic and organic; the culturally acceptable definitions of these terms and their rhetorical power often keep us at a distance, seeing each other as broken pieces striving to look more put-together than any of us really are. In the midst of this ongoing plot, is the dehumanization concept of the “give-up.”
One would think that the Christian Community would have a great Gospel message to proclaim to the brokenness of this current culture. The Bible is extremely clear that when a person decides that he or she can differentiate between good and evil unassisted, the consequences are the very things that the Lord God fought against and continues to fight against. The biblical concept for humanity’s efforts in being their own gods and creating their own gods is “sin.” While several biblical writers continue to address the sin problem that has come into the world through Adam, Eve and everyone else, Paul writes to the church in Rome telling them that God has continued to fight against sin through things like the Torah, but even that was tainted through the presence and power of sin. So, God sent Jesus, his son, to be the vessel in which grace could be poured out upon sin-filled humanity. Jesus, as a person who actually lived the righteousness of God, served as an example to be imitated. Paul claims that we are offered new life through Christ, free from sin and now in under a new authority—God! We show our gratefulness by striving to be a righteous and holy people. But as the “authenticity gospel” of American culture has crept into the church, Christian notions of confession, repentance, and accountability are not practiced. In their place, we have substituted dehumanizing practices, and I will try to explain them below:
A Proverb that Comes to Mind: Proverbs 28:13
People who conceal their sins will not prosper,
but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy.
A Proverb that Comes to Mind: Proverbs 10:31-32
The mouth of the godly person gives wise advice,
but the tongue that deceives will be cut off.
The lips of the godly speak helpful words,
but the mouth of the wicked speaks perverse words.
A Proverb that Comes to Mind: Proverbs 27:17
As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.
The church is called together for a reason, so that we can be connected to one another. Society is the same, and we reclaim God’s intention for humanity when we seek to be connected in meaningful ways. As a close this rambling and hopefully provoking post, I am reminded of the song we sing from time to time, an addition to the traditional hymn, “Just As I Am…”
I come broken to be mended, I come wounded to be healed.
I come desperate to be rescued, I come empty to be filled.
I come guilty to be pardoned by the blood of Christ the Lamb.
And I'm welcomed with open arms, Praise God, just as I am.
We are called out of dehumanizing practices and attitudes, and into the re-humanizing grace of Jesus. Please choose to wholeheartedly participate!
Well, last week the blog was just not happening. I had a sick child and other things to focus on, so I will try to provide some reflections and thoughts this week, maybe I might even shoot for three posts just to make-up some work. Oh…and how about them Eagles! Congrats to all the well-tested and long awaiting Eagles’s fans. Enjoy this one! (I hope Philly is still there…awaiting reports…)
In view of my sermon topic this Sunday, we looked at Romans 4 for those not present at GracePointe church this past Sunday, this passage in Hebrews 2 speaks to the same notions that Romans 3:21-31 and Romans 4 address. First, Jesus Christ is the solution to the sin problem that has enslaved humanity from the earliest time. Second, Jesus’ death is a special fulfillment of the biblical story and releases humanity from that curse of sin. Third, In the Hebrews passage there is great care in selecting the language to point us to the human-ness shared by Jesus; He was one of us, able to accomplish the victory over death by the power of God and providing hope that we too might “run the race with perseverance” and “gain the prize.”
Here is Hebrews 2 (NLT) for you consideration and reflection today:
14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. 15 Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.
16 We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.
I think about what it means to be a “descendent of Abraham” and how we read the story of the Old Testament as our story as New Testament Christians. As I have said before, the death of Jesus is hard to make sense of unless it is placed in the context of God’s covenant relationship with Israel and their constant struggle of being an “unholy people in relationship with a holy God.”
The main points of this reflection from Hebrews 2 are (1) that Jesus Christ served as the “propitiation” for our sins, that is that he stood in the place of humanity’s sin and took the punishment upon himself. Jesus is our stand-in, our sacrificial lamb…behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Through Christ we are free from the exploitation of sin…but not the struggle, testing, and temptation of a world still waiting for the victory of God to come in full. Which then points us to verse 18, in which we (2) realize that Jesus Christ is not simply the Lamb that takes away sin, but the one who sympathizes and relates to the human struggle. In so doing, Jesus can help us in our times of struggle and testing. He says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” The Hebrews writer encourages us to enter that rest of Jesus Christ…to pursue it in the daily grind. Today, may we choose to enter the rest of Jesus, who paid our sin-debt and provides help to the weary. Amen.
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 want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.