Jul 26, 2013

We're All Debtors

“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors” (Romans 8:12).

A bumper sticker puts it like this, “I owe, I owe, so it’s off to work I go.” The life of debt is a common fact for many modern people. Between house and car payments and the like, almost all people exist under debt’s cloud. For this reason, Paul’s employment of “opheiletes,” (“debtors”) becomes a transitional key. This phrase closes Paul’s discussion about how God’s spirit enables believers to live in the spirit and shun life in the flesh. Thus, Paul helps believers/stewards appreciate that they are no longer debtors to the flesh; rather our debt to the spirit frees us to remember that “we are children of God.”

Paul varies the metaphor of “debt,” substituting images of believers being adopted and heirs of God, beginning with verse 14. Yet being debtors proves a powerful concept in Paul’s transition. One can be either in debt to the flesh or in debt to the spirit. If in debt to the former, then one can anticipate the consequence, which is death. Or if one is God’s debtor, then the result is life. Here Paul writes of life in the sense that Jesus speaks of life: “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

For modern people “to be in debt” is a concept that needs little explanation. Consequently, as a theological notion, “indebtedness” resonates with us. We, of course, commonly understand debt in its monetary permutations, but there is a sense in which owing something to someone makes sense. Whether our debt is owed to a teacher, coach, parent, or pastor, believers who honestly look at their lives conclude quickly that our gain is a result of another person’s interest in us—and help. Few piano players learned to play the piano on their own—although it sometimes happens. Most of our surpassing achievements we accomplish because someone guided us.

Clearly Paul’s use of the idea of debt goes well beyond our learning a craft or an art. But the principle is similar. Paul wants believers to recognize that we have a clear choice, because one way or another, we will always be in debt to someone or something. For Paul the choice is between life in the flesh and life in the spirit. Life in the flesh insinuates that our passions and whims control us. Yet, life in the spirit suggests that God and God’s spirit control a person’s actions. Life in the flesh leads to death; life in the spirit leads to life and life that is abundant.

This Roman’s text (beginning at 8:5) is unusual in that it offers ethical teaching in a part of Romans that mainly concentrates on dogmatic theology. Paul occasionally inserts moral exhortations in the first eleven chapters. This is one example: Paul suggests that those who live by the spirit will live in particular ways. The ways of living indicate whether or not one lives by the spirit or by the flesh.

Being in debt means that one is under an obligation to repay the debt. Good stewards are faithful managers; whether this means managing our talents or our money. But the question arises: “How does one repay a debt to God?” Paul might answer this question by telling us that the most faithful way to put our account straight with God is by passing along to others what God has already given us as a gift. Thus, for good stewards the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, and the love of Christ become methods of repayment. Stewards can only manage what God has first given to them. Vis-à-vis the debt of love, 1 John 4:19 puts it nicely: “We love because he first loved us.”


Jul 19, 2013

The Burden of Pride and Despair

Martin Luther wrote that sin comes in two guises—pride and despair. The sin of pride displays itself in human self-deception that assumes we can live life fully and meaningfully apart from God’s sovereignty. As Proverbs 16:18 reminds is: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

However, concerning despair—it seems harder to grasp. Despair, contrary to those who in pride say they have no need of God, takes the opposite tack. Despairing people say, “My life is so hopeless that even God is of no use to me.” Either way, in the sin of pride or in the sin of despair, people cut themselves off from God. This is sin’s essence: “to cut ourselves off from God” or “to alienate ourselves from God.” What makes us weary is trying to stay in control of everything. WE ARE TOTALLY IN CHARGE. Jesus’ gift of rest means we surrender to God’s grace in Christ.
In 1930 an unusual event took place. It still represents an open case in the FBI missing-person files. On August 15, after dining out with his family, a New York State Supreme Court Justice named Joseph Crater hailed a taxi and was never seen again. Over the years, the intrigue of the judge’s disappearance became so imbedded in New York City’s public consciousness that the term “Pulling a Crater” became slang for vanishing.

The FBI thought the disappearance might be work-related as the judge had heard many mob cases. But there was no real evidence to support that theory. All investigations led to dead-ends. Hidden in a bureau, his wife found several un-cashed checks, stocks, bonds, three life insurance policies, and a note from Judge Crater himself. The note listed his financial assets and then added: “I am very whary (weary), Joe.” That was the last anyone ever heard from him (excerpt from "Lay Down Your Burden").
Judge Crater needed rest. We admire self-dependence, but it is a trait that destroys. Yet Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” In other words, surrender your pride/despair to Jesus who can help. After all, turning ourselves over to Jesus is when surrender means “Victory in Jesus!”


Jul 12, 2013

Biblical Family Values

I find it slightly amusing that the people who most frequently utilize the term “family values” are generally from the fundamentalist wing of the Christian church. It is a term that regularly falls from the lips of people like James Dobson or the late Jerry Falwell. These folks use the term as if it were scriptural.

Yet, even a superficial reading of the Bible suggests that biblical family values are not a solution to contemporary family problems. Indeed, we may already have biblical family values—and this may be part of our society’s problem. If we were to mine the whole Bible for what might be construed as a model “good family,” we would soon find ourselves in an arena fraught with irony. Adam and Eve blame each other for the original indiscretion against God in the garden. Cain kills his brother Abel. Abraham sends his wife and son into the wilderness to die in order to please his “other” wife. Joseph’s brothers first plot to murder him, then change their minds and sell him into slavery instead. Aaron disobeys his brother’s (and God’s) prohibition to create idols. David’s son kills another son after raping their sister. The prophet Hosea’s spouse is less than faithful. On and on it goes. The Bible is inundated with such dysfunctional families. Indeed, in my reading of scripture, and with the possible sole exception of Jesus’ own family, not one of virtually all the biblical families display behavior intended, or at least assumed, by the phrase “biblical family values.”

At the same time, it is also important to note that the church is indeed a family. It is the family of faith, and as such, the church comes in units, however unconventional, that function more like households than families in our typical understanding. Every church has single-parent households, sister and sister households, single person households, and the like. Although most Americans see the “two-parent with children” as the model family, the reality is that fewer and fewer of these typical family constellations exist. A faithful church recognizes the changing nature of our cultural range of households and reaches out to these with the gospel. To do otherwise either denies the power of the gospel to change lives or worse, it denies the reality in which we find ourselves. A bold and cooperative point of view addressing the changing nature of modern families encourages a creative ministry. This ministry is one that meets the needs of people without artificially calling them to be something they cannot or will not become.

Clearly I encourage family values, but more than that, I think the kind of love and concern that nuclear families take for granted are those qualities that the household of faith best exemplifies. Authentic family values in the house of God take a note from Paul when Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:15-16).


Jul 5, 2013

Why Go To Church?

Recently, I tried to find a drain plug for our galvanized steel tank from which our cows drink. While talking to a clerk, he asked what I did. I replied that I was a preacher. His reply startled me: “You need to preach about stealing because it is this store’s number one problem.” I thought to myself, “It is interesting what people think the church is for.” It is hard to imagine getting up and telling our congregation: “Don’t steal.” Yet, the question is plainly on the mind of many today—Why go to church?

One reason believers attend church and worship is because that is what Jesus and his ancestors did. Hebrews 10:23-25 reminds us: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope . . . and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.” When we gather together we are both obedient to our confession of faith and also profit from learning faith in singing hymns and in scripture study.

In addition, our faith teaches us counter-cultural survival skills we need—in praying, tithing, and fasting. Many Americans cannot help us with this spiritual course of study, as they have no idea what praying, tithing, or fasting means in a disciplined life.

Why go to church? We go to church because in a world of bad news, we need to hear good news. We need to notice God’s love. We need to become part of a larger story than ourselves. And last—we are more likely to find people we can count on at church than anywhere else. Routinely, people who attend worship and go to Sunday school are people who want healthier spiritual and physical lives by connecting with God and others. After all, if worship was good enough for Jesus, then it ought to be good enough for us.


Powered by Blogger