Paul’s Story | Proper 19

1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all. 16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.  (CEB)

Paul’s Story

This is, in brief, Paul’s story. It’s very personal and, in it, he reveals both his sin and his experience of God’s overflowing grace. Paul conveys to Timothy his own reflections on how and why God called him into ministry. Paul used to speak against Jesus Christ, attack Christian people, and acted violently and pridefully. Yet, even in his ignorance and unbelief, he received mercy from God. Paul, a sinner—who calls himself the worst of them all—received mercy. He tells Timothy that his story can serve as an example of the patience of Jesus Christ, and for those who will yet believe in Jesus Christ. If Jesus can show mercy to Saul of Tarsus, then we can be assured that the rest of us sinners can receive God’s mercy, too.

In our Tuesday morning Bible study, the question was asked about whether or not we would believe it if someone we knew to be a rather horrible person suddenly said they’d seen the light and claimed a conversion experience. I don’t think we quite came to a conclusion in the study, but I think we’d know the truth of the person’s conversion claim by their words and actions following their experience of God’s mercy. After all, a tree is known by its fruit (c.f. Matthew 12:33; Luke 6:43-44; also Matthew 3:10, 7:17-19; Luke 3:9). Our faith is shown by our actions (c.f. James 2:18-26). So, much like Paul’s experience of the mercy of Jesus Christ, I’d expect that we’d begin to see some recognizable changes in the person.

Do you remember Paul’s conversion story? It begins in Acts 7 when Stephen was stoned to death by the Jerusalem Council. The people who murdered Stephen placed their coats in the care of Saul (c.f. Acts 7:58). Saul approved of Stephen’s murder (Acts 8:1), and he began to wreak havoc on the church by entering house after house to drag women and men off to prison because of their belief in Jesus Christ (c.f. Acts 8:3).

Ironically, Saul’s harassment of the church forced the Christians to scatter, which had the opposite effect Saul and the Jerusalem Council wanted. The Christians preached the good news of Jesus Christ everywhere they went. Saul went to the High Priest and obtained letters that granted him permission to arrest and take to Jerusalem anyone in Damascus whom he found that belonged to the Way, as the early church was described.

During his journey to Damascus, light from heaven surrounded him, and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” (Acts 9:4 CEB). The speaker of that voice identified himself as Jesus, and told Saul to go into the city where he’d be told what to do.

The others who were traveling with Saul stood there speechless. They heard the voice, but they didn’t see anyone. They picked Saul up from the ground, but he couldn’t see. For three days, Saul was blind. He didn’t eat. He didn’t drink. He only saw a vision of a man named Ananias laying hands on him to restore his sight.

Meanwhile, Ananias was less than thrilled about what Jesus instructed him to do. Everyone had heard about Saul. Everyone knew how dangerous he was. Everyone knew what he’d done to the church in Jerusalem, and everyone knew he’d arrived in Damascus—with the authority of the chief priests—to do the same thing to believers there. But the Lord told Ananias, “Go!” (Acts 9:15). So, Ananias walked into a potential Lion’s Den, laid his hands on Saul of Tarsus, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17 CEB).

Flakes fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again, and Saul was baptized. From there, Saul went on to become one of the foremost evangelists and theologians of the church. He carried the name of Jesus “before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” just as it had been declared (Acts 9:15 CEB).

But conversion is often a slow process of continuing to make mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Saul didn’t suddenly emerge from Damascus as the towering figure of Paul that we all think of when we think about him. No! As Dr. Mike Rynkiewich pointed out to me, look what Saul did in Damascus. We’re told he immediately started preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, declaring the truth of Jesus as God’s Son, and arguing his way across the city. He confused the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Saul had this conversion experience where he changed his mind, but his heart was lagging behind in that change. He had come to know the truth about Jesus as God’s Son, but he didn’t yet understand how to love people as Jesus teaches his followers to do. Instead, Saul went around beating people over the head with his proofs and arguing people under the table.

In other words, he was still being an arrogant jerk. He was still very much the same Saul he’d been before his conversion. The only difference was the focus of his mission. Instead of beating up Christians and hauling them off to prison for being wrong, he was arguing Jews into submission for being wrong. Saul was right. He knew he was right. And by golly, if you dared to tangle with him, then you were going to find out just how right he was and how wrong you were. I imagine Saul walking around Damascus with a shirt that said, “COME AT ME, BRUH!” and a sign that said, “DECONSTRUCTION ZONE.”

Saul was so potent and abrasive in his arguments that he caused the Jews in Damascus to hatch a plot to kill him! The Jews were watching the city gates—‘cause they weren’t gonna let this punk go—so Saul had to be lowered through an opening in the city wall in a basket.

Saul escaped to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples there, but they were all so afraid of him that they wouldn’t let him in. Saul was so bad, he’d caused such damage to the church in Jerusalem, that the disciples didn’t believe that Saul was really a disciple! It took Barnabas to vouch for Saul and speak on his behalf to even get Saul in the door.

But Saul was still going around Jerusalem getting into debates and arguing people under the table. I mean, the guy might have had a conversion experience, but he didn’t learn quickly. The Jews in Jerusalem were out to kill Saul, too (big surprise!) so the church had to shuffle him out of the city. They escorted him to the harbor at Caesarea and sent him home to Tarsus. What’s hilarious is that, after Saul leaves the region, the very next verse says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace” (Acts 9:31a CEB).

I mean, can you imagine this scenario? It’s like when Mom and Dad finally get the kids to sleep after grandma and grandpa got them all sugared up on soft drinks and candy, and they sit in the couch, put their feet up on the coffee table and both heave deep sighs of relief. Thank goodness that’s over!

Saul told Timothy, “I was proud” (1 Timothy 12:13 CEB). Other translations render that same word as violent, insulting, injurious, arrogant. Paul confesses that his sin was pride—the kind of arrogance that leads to violence, insult, and injury of others.

This is Paul’s story, and it’s important to remember that this is Paul’s story. Paul’s story is not everyone’s story. Other people’s encounters with God’s mercy and grace are just as potent and significant even as they are different. Paul needed to be set free from his acts of violent persecution, pride, and unbelief.

Martin Luther used Paul’s confession of arrogance, among other texts, to describe a courtroom drama where a man stands before God as the judge and attempts to attain his own salvation. Instead, the man is undone by God who reveals the man’s impotence and pride. But, instead of punishing the man, God extends mercy and declares the arrogant sinner to be righteous in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The root sin of humanity is arrogance.

Yet, this view is very one-sided. Theologians like Valerie Saiving have called our attention to the truth that some “forms of sin…have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride’ and ‘will to power.’ They are better suggested by such terms as…distractibility, and diffuseness…dependence on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the Self” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64).

Paul’s story illustrates how God’s mercy in Jesus Christ exposes and condemns the violence of the oppressor. For Saul, that violence was expressed outward. For many people that violence is expressed inward toward the self. It can be active or passive violence: accepting abuse from others, self-harming behaviors, or the squandering or dissipating of oneself for others. Women and men can both have self-effacing tendencies.

I know that’s one of my own struggles. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like it when the boat rocks. And I have a tendency to sacrifice my own desires and needs just to make sure there’s no turbulence shaking the appearance of my exterior placidity. That’s my default. And it can be downright self-harming, because inside, I’m neither placid nor peaceful. My self-effacing tendencies lead to anger toward myself and bitterness toward others.

Remember Martha in Luke 10:38-42? Stephanie Smith notes that “Martha dissipated herself when she accepted the social role as hostess and denied her true need. Jesus exposed her unbelief as it was expressed in her worry and distraction and challenged her to choose ‘the better part,’ even when it defied social norms” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64). Jesus called Martha to stop her activity because, unlike Paul, it was her activity that was an act of violence against herself. Martha’s activity was a denial of her need for the sake of the other. Such self-denial can become the very bars of a person’s prison cell that disallow their true need from ever being met. That is absolutely destructive.

While Saul experienced salvation as a move from active violence to passive acceptance, for many people, passive acceptance is the very means of their destruction. Abnegation, in that sense, is not virtuous, but violence. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his message. “By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42 CEB).

Saul’s story serves as an example of how even the worst of sinners can experience God’s mercy and learn to become disciples of Jesus Christ. But it is not a one-size-fits-all story. We each experience God’s mercy in different ways because we, ourselves, are each different from the other. Yet, God’s mercy can free us of our pride and our violence, whether it’s directed outward or inward.

“This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’” (1 Timothy 1:15 CEB). How that salvation works its way through our lives: how it changes our minds, how it changes our hearts, how it changes our perceptions of others, and how it changes our perceptions of our self, will be different for each of us as it takes effect. We can have confidence that God will be patient with us. So, we should be patient with others as God is patient with others. Because we’re all on this journey together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Reap and Sow | Proper 9

Galatians 6:1-16

1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too. 2 Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are important when they aren’t, they’re fooling themselves. 4 Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. 5 Each person will have to carry their own load.

6 Those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher. 7 Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. 8 Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. 9 Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. 10 So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.

11 Look at the large letters I’m making with my own handwriting! 12 Whoever wants to look good by human standards will try to get you to be circumcised, but only so they won’t be harassed for the cross of Christ. 13 Those who are circumcised don’t observe the Law themselves, but they want you to be circumcised, so they can boast about your physical body.

14 But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. 15 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. 16 May peace and mercy be on whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel. (CEB)

Sow and Reap

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian Freedom. It was written to an entire region of the Roman empire, Galatia, which is the central part of modern Turkey. We don’t know much about the region or even of individual churches in Galatia, but it was populated by Celtic peoples known as Gauls. Paul passed through parts of Galatia on his second and third missionary journeys. On the third journey, he “traveled from place to place in the region of Galatia and the district of Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23 CEB).

When it comes to books, my Aunt Jan is one of those people whose habit is to always read the last pages of the book first. I don’t know why, but I guess she wants to know the end so she can decide whether she wants to spend the time it’ll take to get there from the beginning.

Paul’s whole letter includes all the categoric sections of typical Greco-Roman literary style. So, what we have in chapter six includes some exhortation about expected behavior (1-10) and a summary of the letter’s main points (11-16). So, if you’re one of those people who, like my Aunt Jan, always read the last pages first, you’re in luck. We haven’t read the entire letter to the Galatians in our worship service today, but the last page tells us all the main points of the letter.

We know that this stuff was so important to Paul that he didn’t dictate the letter through a scribe, but he wrote it by his own hand, in his own style. He even calls attention to his large letters so the Galatians know it’s really Paul writing a personal letter to them.

So, here are Paul’s main points. We know that Paul has opponents. Jewish Christians—possibly from Jerusalem—have followed in Paul’s footsteps and called the Gentile believers in Galatia to turn to a gospel that was different from the gospel Paul preached to them (c.f. 1:6). These Judaizers impressed upon the Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised—they had to become Jews—before they could really be saved because the promises of God were only for the Jews. The Gentiles had to become like them.

They not only tried to change the gospel of Christ into something within the confines of rigid Jewish law, but they attacked Paul’s character and undermined Paul’s apostolic authority. According to them, Paul was a charlatan who presented his version of the gospel message as a commercial enterprise for his own economic gain. They argued that Paul wasn’t preaching a message that was in accordance with the Spirit of Christ.

The Judaizers were certainly sincere. They certainly were concerned for the Gentile believers in Jesus and wanted to “save” them from what they thought was an abomination. Paul’s gospel message of freedom from the law—extrication from the framework of religious rules—was, to them, horrendous and dangerous. The Judaizers probably questioned: How can people be saved when they don’t follow the right rules? How could the freedom Paul preaches, which allows believers to ignore the very laws God provided, originate from God?

Yes, the Judaizers were certainly sincere. But one’s sincerity does not make one correct. The Judaizers are proof that sincere belief can be misguided belief. Sincerity and correctness are not the same thing. So, early in the letter, Paul defends his ministry by telling his story: how he had advanced in Judaism beyond even these Judaizers because of how militant he was for Jewish religious traditions. But God set Paul free by revealing Jesus to him and calling Paul to preach to the Gentiles. Paul’s apostolic authority came directly from Jesus.

Some of this should sound familiar to us because there are those in the church who still engage in legalism and rigidity instead of freedom. We face the Galatian dilemma every day. We want to define who can sit at the table of grace. We want to test others to make sure they believe just like us, act just like us, think just like us. It’s so tempting to turn our personal experience of truth into the singular experience of God’s truth. A.J. Conyers wrote, “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact all of human life is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego” (in Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol.3, pg. 211).

What Paul was trying to impress upon the Galatians—and upon us—is that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a church that incorporates unity with remarkable diversity, and his ministry—the gospel he preached to the Galatians and every other people he encountered—stands in opposition to anyone who would categorize other believers and judge that they are either in or out because of some distinguishing characteristic.

Paul made it clear in chapter five that “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter” (Galatians 5:6 CEB). That statement would have been a challenge to the very Jewish religious tradition in which Paul was steeped before he encountered Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road. It was certainly a challenge for some Jewish Christians to accept that faith works through love, not through the law or cutting of flesh.

It was a radical idea then, and it’s still a radical idea today, especially for those Christians who would insist that other “potential” believers must accept the same parts of the law to which they subscribe, and Christians who would question the validity of the faith of those believers who don’t subscribe to the law as they do. We do tend to pick and choose the parts of the law we think are vital even as Paul tells us that the law is no longer our custodian (c.f. Galatians 3:25).

Paul’s counterargument to the Judaizers is that their motives are not for the glory of the cross of Christ Jesus, but for their own glory. They want to be able to boast about the Galatians’ flesh by saying, Look! Now God can save you because I’ve made you just like me! Paul’s opponents sincerely believed that they were the standard of the standardized test. Yet, Paul argues, the Judaizers themselves were unable to keep the very law to which they were insisting the young Galatian believers submit.

Paul hits his point again when he writes: “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation” (Galatians 6:15 CEB). A new creation is every believer who faith and life are known by the fruit of the Spirit. And, I want us to note that Paul does not say the fruits of the Spirit are… as if there are many fruits. We don’t get to pick through the basket of spiritual fruit and choose only what we want. No. Paul says, “The fruit [singular!] of the Spirit is [IS, not are] love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 CEB). There is one fruit of the Spirit, and that fruit is a new creation—a new life—that exhibits all of these attributes.

We can take Paul’s statement, “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything,” and fill in our own words. Being white or black. Being European brown or Asian brown or Hispanic brown. Being a citizen or a refugee. Being straight or gay. Being evangelical or mainline. Being conservative or liberal. Being male or female. Being rich or poor. Paul had his own list: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

What really matter, says Paul, is how we serve one another through love. If we can’t to that, then we’re the ones with the salvation problem. The warning that we reap what we sow is tied to judgment. The measure we give is the measure we get. The judgment we give is the judgment we receive. We can’t deny that distinctions exist, but we don’t need to make our distinctions matter. Distinctions should not lead to separation.

Paul offers a blessing for those who follow the gospel he preaches. It’s a gospel where believers are no longer bound by past definitions of faith and faithfulness because something new has been brought to our attention through the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul insists on viewing religion from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s about our faith, not our distinguishing characteristics. It’s about how our faith is exhibited in the fruit of the Spirit, not how we follow certain rules.

One of the more difficult parts for us to accept is where Paul writes that we should “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10 CEB). The word all is so dreadfully all-encompassing; so shockingly all-inclusive. I think the reason that word all is so difficult is because we like our safe divisions. We find comfort in separation. We find safety in the wedges driven into the center of what should be our common life. Those wedges are nothing less than new nails piercing the body of our crucified Lord.

All includes people of other faiths. All includes people of other races and cultures. All includes people who are not citizens of our nation. When Paul says, we should work for the good of all he means we should work for the good of all. But the opposite of all is deeply embedded in our mentality. The opposite of all has produced some of the most appalling tragedies in human history.

Paul insists that there’s a better way, and that better way is the only way for those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. The better way is a religious faith that transcends boundaries. It’s a faith that is moved and motivated by compassion for all—even those who are “other” from us. It’s a faith that sees all people as beloved children of God. It’s a faith that seeks to exhibit God’s love by feeding all whom we encounter with the fruit of the Spirit that God produces in us.

What matters, Paul insists, is a new creation. “May peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel” (Galatians 6:16 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Fruit | Proper 8

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. 14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other! 16 I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. 17 A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.


Dr. Phil wrote a wonderful book.

No, not the Dr. Phil you see on TV.

I’m talking about Dr. Phil Kenneson. He wrote a wonderful book called Life on the Vine. In it, he examines the difficulties of living the Christian life faithfully in the midst of the dominant American culture which surrounds us. If you poll any number of people about being a Christian in the United States, you’d find differing opinions. The results would likely show that America is at the same time the best of places, and the worst of places to be a Christian.

On one side stand the seemingly self-evident advantages of religious freedom. We Americans can worship where we want, when we want, how we want, and with whom we want. Some Christians believe this freedom of religion is so important that they pledge unconditional loyalty to the system of government which has guaranteed this freedom and continues to secure. Furthermore, since other people and nations around the world have not been granted a similar freedom of worship, many Christians conclude that there can be no better place to be a Christian than in the United States.

On the other side of the question stand many Christians who have recognized that there is, in the words of Alanis Morissette, “A black fly in [our] chardonnay” (Ironic). While the Christians whom I know are equally grateful for the freedoms this nation gives us those who hold this view also recognize that there is much about its dominant culture that makes living a true and authentic Christian Faith exceedingly difficult. Phil Kenneson suggested that Christians in the American church are producing fruit, but he isn’t convinced that we’re producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Paul mentions the fruit of the Spirit as being love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But the fruits that our culture often tries to produce in us are the polar opposites of these fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of American culture include self-interest, greed, fragmentation, productivity, self-sufficiency, self-help, impermanence, aggression, and addiction. And this is not an exhaustive list. Our culture also values many of the things Paul lists in verses 19 through 21.

So, how do we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our lives in the midst of a culture that is trying to cultivate very different kinds of fruit that are generally easier to grow? They’re easier simply because we’re exposed to them more than we are to the fruit of the Spirit. We live in the dominant culture every day, but we live in the midst of the church at best a few times a week; and often only for a few hours.

How do we cultivate love in a culture that breeds self-interest and encourages us to consider every aspect of our lives in terms of self-interest? Love is central to the Christian Faith. God is love. God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Paul wrote, “All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14 CEB). I recall that someone else said those same words before Paul did (c.f. Matthew 22:39); and before that, God spoke those words to the people of Israel (c.f. Leviticus 19:18). Love is the opposite of self-interest.

What does love look like? We know that love is unmerited because we’ve received it from God even though we don’t deserve it. We receive God’s love all the time, because God’s love is steadfast. There is nothing we can do that can keep God from loving us. God’s love is for us is so powerful that it suffers for us. God is not distant but enters into the very fabric of our lives. God’s love is given to everyone, it knows no bounds. It transcends every human boundary that we build up in order to separate ourselves from other human beings, be they national, societal, economic, or even denominational. What does love, a fruit of the Spirit, have to do with self-interest?

How do we cultivate joy in the midst of a culture that breeds greed? We often use the same word, joy, for the state of experiencing joy, for the source of joy, and for our expressions of joy. In Greek, there are several words that can be translated into English as joy, but the word most often used is χαρά. (I had this word in mind when naming our daughter Kara. Her name means ‘joy’. Joy and Kara both have the same name, but in two different languages).

Joy is not mere pleasure, but a deep and abiding sense of contentment or satisfaction. Unlike pleasure, joy cannot be pursued for its own sake, but comes when we find that which we’ve been looking for. C.S. Lewis wrote the “very existence of joy presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.” Joy is simply one of the consequences of being open to that which is beyond our own self. Joy looks outward.

Greed is the opposite of joy. Greed looks only inward and tries to possess, consume, and gather in all it can for the sake of selfish desire. One of the values of our culture is to seek our own pleasure above all else. Our culture even manufactures desire within us for things we really don’t need but are told we can’t live without. Greed is never happy, never content. But joy is always content. When we look outside of ourselves and see what God has done for us—and for the whole world—and how God continues to care for us, who can help but feel joy within our selves, with each other, and for each other? What does joy have to do with greed?

How do we cultivate peace in a culture that breeds fragmentation and sets people against each other? The people we work with, live by, play with, and go to church with aren’t often the same people. On top of that fragmentation and compartmentalized chaos, we have politicians telling us who we should fear and despise. These things stand in direct opposition to peace. Peace in the Scriptures is more akin to wholeness or even salvation, whereas we think of peace as the absence of war. The words of Isaiah align peace and salvation, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news of salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’.” What does peace have to do with fragmentation?

How do we cultivate patience in the midst of a culture that values productivity over the well-being of the person? Our culture has a peculiar absorption with the clock. Our days are judged by how much we get done and how well we did it in the allotted time period. Delays, whether expected or unexpected, tend to agitate us. But patience is the opposite of productivity. In English, the noun form of ‘patient’ developed out of the verb form of ‘patient’. In the Middle Ages, anyone who suffered patiently was considered a patient. Being a patient and exhibiting patience both require that a person yield control to another: instead of being an actor, we are acted upon. Patience has its root in God’s character. God does not have a hair-trigger temper but bears with us patiently. What does patience have to do with productivity?

I’m not going to get to cover kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in this sermon, because gone are the days when a preacher could talk for 3-hours and live to tell about it. Some of the less patient among us might start feeling a tad bit annoyed.

But I would encourage you to consider the differences between the other fruits of the Spirit and the fruits that our culture values: kindness versus self-sufficiency; goodness versus self-help; faithfulness versus impermanence; gentleness versus aggression; self-control versus addiction.

The fruit of the Spirit and the fruits that our culture is so good at cultivating in us are very different. But we have an advantage in our advocate: the Holy Spirit. As Paul said, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 CEB). It is the Spirit who cultivates the fruits of the Spirit in us. A tree is known by its fruit, and we have been called to bear much good and sweet fruit for the kingdom of God.

But, again, how do we do that?

The thing about the fruit of the Spirit is that it’s not some enigma or mystery that we can’t figure out. It’s how we act. It’s how we treat others. It’s what we display of our character for others to see in us. We are known by our fruit. But are we known for the fruit of the Spirit, or some other kind of fruit?

I like Thomas Merton’s writings. I think he was a very wise man who lived and was guided by the Spirit. He said, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need.” And this is my favorites part, “If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift” (Merton, Life and Holiness, p.17).

God has given us many, many gifts. These magnificent gifts include the Holy Spirit itself, as well as the many means of grace and sacraments. The fruits of this world, which are the desires of the self, will never lead to salvation. As Paul says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 CEB). Let us give attention to the kind of fruit we’re cultivating in our lives, and let’s aim for the good fruit of the Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

God’s Glory | Proper 10

Ephesians 1:3-14

3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. 9 God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. 10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory. (CEB)

God’s Glory

The Book of Ephesians might not be the book to the Ephesians. The oldest Greek manuscripts of this book actually lack the words, “…in Ephesus” found in verse two. It’s possible that Ephesians was not originally written to the church at Ephesus. For one thing, there’s evidence in Ephesians that suggests it wasn’t written to that church. For example, Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” (1:15). But we know that Paul spent three years in Ephesus. He wouldn’t have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love, he would have seen and experienced it first-hand. (c.f. also Ephesians 4:21).

And, there are some possible references in other letters of Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16 CEB). This tells us that Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea, but we don’t have a letter of his that is addressed to that city. It’s possible that what we call Ephesians was originally his letter to the Laodiceans.

Either way, this letter eventually became associated with Ephesus. So, we call it Ephesians whether it was originally written to the Ephesian Christians or not.

So, that’s your little interesting tidbit regarding the history of the New Testament text. Whoever the original recipients of the letter might have been, they got a powerful letter.

Maybe the people Paul addressed in this letter had forgotten just how gracious and good God is. Maybe they had forgotten that God has a plan that includes everything in creation. Maybe they had forgotten that God is the grand designer and creator of this world, and God won’t let our shortcomings or failures get in the way of fulfilling everything God has intended to accomplish. Maybe they had forgotten that the story of salvation, itself, is God’s story. It’s about what God has done on our behalf. God is the main actor. We’re the ones for whom God acts, and we’re the ones who have been acted upon.

In this letter, Paul sets out to remind them—and us—about these things. First, we’re reminded that we have had an abundance of grace and blessings heaped upon us. Because of Jesus Christ, we have every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. In other places, Paul lists some of those blessings.

God has chosen us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. Paul asserts that this choosing was before the creation of the world and, if you recall that God’s original plan for creation was to have human beings living in perfect relationship with God, then this statement is a reminder that God hasn’t given up on that original plan. God made us for that purpose—to be holy and blameless in God’s presence—and even though we fell from that holiness through sin, God intends to make us holy again by restoring our holiness through Jesus Christ.

God made it, we broke it, God fixed it. Even though we turned away from God, rejecting God as our parent and the love of our lives, God still chooses us. God isn’t going to let us go. God chose to adopt us despite our rejection of God because, before the world was made, God designed us to be holy and blameless and to live as children in God’s household. That’s our purpose. That’s who we’re supposed to be. That’s the kind of relationship with God we’re supposed to have. And God isn’t about to let us not fulfill what we were created to be.

The idea that God destined—or predetermined—us to be adopted children is rooted in God’s original plan for us to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. In that sense, the word destined has little to do with the Calvinistic idea of predestination and everything to do with God’s unwavering action to accomplish that original plan for us. It isn’t about individuals, but the whole human race. We will belong to God again, one way or another, because God loves us. God will not let us go. In fact, God has worked around our sin and crushed it by sending Jesus Christ. Our salvation was God’s initiative, and God has done this because God loves us. Everything God has done for us has been for our good, which has always been God’s plan. God has nothing but goodwill toward us.

The problem is, we became captives to sin—and in some ways we still are. But we also have forgiveness for our failures because of God’s overflowing grace. The blood of Jesus Christ has ransomed us from that captivity to sin. Paul writes that God’s grace has been poured over us with wisdom and understanding, which means we have the God-given ability live into God’s plan for us. We can choose good over evil because of God’s grace. While the fullness of salvation is a future event, the effects of what Jesus has done for us are real, now. We can choose to love because of God’s grace. We can choose faithfulness to God and to each other because of God’s grace.

We have the example and teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal God and God’s design for our salvation to us. Again, the plan for our salvation was initiated by God because of God’s goodwill toward us. And God intended to accomplish the plan through Jesus Christ.

One way we can look at sin is as though it’s an infectious disease that we all contract simply by being conceived as a human being. The Greek words for saved and salvation, in their normal sense, mean healed and healing. Sin is the disease, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is the cure.

According to Paul, this plan of God’s is universal. “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph. 1:10 CEB). God’s great plan will come to its climax when all things are brought together in Christ.

All things, Paul writes. It’s reminiscent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all things to myself” (John 6:32, my trans). Jesus told us that in his crucifixion, he would drag us to himself. That word drag is not a soft word. It’s often translated into English as a softer word, such as draw. But it’s not a gentle word. Jesus is going to drag all things to himself. It might require some hog-tying, but Jesus isn’t going to be denied any little part of all things.

That word, all, which is πάντα in Greek, leaves no room for exclusion. There is nothing that exists outside of God’s power, and if God wants all things, then God’s gonna get all things. Some people become aware of our identity in Christ, others might not become aware of it in their earthly lifetime. But not being aware doesn’t mean that person isn’t equally loved, equally desired, equally precious, and equally hoped-for as a child of God. What Paul’s telling us is that getting all things together in Christ is exactly the climactic finale of God’s plan. All means all. And God will accomplish it.

That idea is pushed further by Paul’s mention of an inheritance in Christ. Once again, Paul says God destined us according to a plan. Again, that plan points back to God’s original intent for humanity in creation: that we should live in perfect relationship with God and stand in God’s presence as holy and blameless children. It isn’t that only a small number of people are predestined to salvation. That idea completely ignores the truth of God’s intent “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Galatians 1:10 CEB). God will accomplish everything according to God’s design, and God’s design includes all.

Those of us who are aware of our place in God’s design are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We, who hope in Christ and who know the good news of salvation in Christ as truth, are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit because we believed in Christ. In fact, Paul tells us that “The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:14 CEB).

This is to say that our inheritance is to become family with God. Our inheritance is to become a part of God’s household. Children inherit. Our inheritance is the very thing that was originally supposed to be ours—the thing for which God had destined us before the world began: that we would be God’s children, that we would be holy and blameless, that we would live in God’s presence.

The down payment of the Holy Spirit is for our sake. It’s meant to reassure us that God is taking care of things, that God’s plan for the human race and for all things will, indeed, be accomplished. Our redemption by Christ, and our living as redeemed people, results in the honor of God’s glory.

If we want to honor God’s glory, if we want to glorify the God of our redemption and salvation, then we live as redeemed people. We love as those who know the love of God so deeply that we can’t do anything else but love others as we have been loved. As children of God, we have a purpose and a call.

The fullness of salvation, which is life with God as a family, is a future reality. But it’s when we begin to live that way, now, as people who live and love as Christ lived and loved, that we bring glory to the God of our salvation. It’s then that we bring honor to God for the grace and blessings we’ve received.

We’ve been given the grace to do so. What remains for us is to choose how we’re going to live in the light of that grace, and in the light of those blessings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Foolishness | 3rd in Lent

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called– both Jews and Greeks– Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (CEB)


This text about the foolishness of the cross follows Paul’s appeal for unity in the church. It begins an extended meditation on the meaning of the cross, and tries to show that prideful confidence in human wisdom is antithetical to the deepest logic of the gospel. The fundamental theme in this part of First Corinthians is the opposition between human wisdom and the lo,goj, which is the Word of the cross.

Paul diagnoses the root causes of the conflicts and rivalries within the Corinthian church by showing that they glory in superficial human wisdom. People are boasting about their own possession of wisdom and rhetorical eloquence—or at least they’re infatuated with leaders who possess these qualities. In a cosmopolitan city like Corinth, strong rhetoricians were the pop-stars of the day. It hardly mattered what was said, so long as it the speaker had a convincing argument or strong emotional appeal.

Paul wasn’t necessarily an excellent speaker. He was laughed at in Athens after attempting a speech there. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 10:10, he writes that he knows what others are saying about him: “I know what some people are saying: ‘His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.’” (CEB). Paul wasn’t a gifted orator. So, he used this fact about himself as an example of the very point he was making. God’s message to human beings doesn’t necessarily come wrapped in pretty packages. God’s true nature is revealed in weakness, not in the powerful and mighty and strong, which is what most of us would expect.

God has revealed in Jesus Christ a kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of the world. God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and helpless death of the crucified Jesus. If the crucifixion is the revelation of the deepest truth about God’s character, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned up-side-down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross. Paul takes the central event of the Christian story and uses it as a lens to bring what we know and see into focus so that everything—what we see and assume to know—is viewed afresh.

Much of the controversy among the Corinthians may have stemmed from the tendency of those Christians to regard Paul, Apollos, and Cephas as competing for public approval and attention alongside other popular—and probably pagan—philosophers and rhetoricians. The wisdom that Paul refers to is both the possession of divine knowledge, and the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful, eloquent, and rhetorically polished way.

Here, Paul forcefully argues against the idea that the gospel is just another kind of human wisdom, and reframes the debate into different categories. The gospel is placed into a category apart from the wisdom of this world. The gospel, the Good News of salvation offered through Jesus Christ, is not a secretive or mysterious body of religious knowledge. It’s not a slickly packaged philosophy. It’s not a scheme for living a better life. It’s not a handy self-improvement course. Instead, it’s an announcement about God’s intervention in the world for the sake of the world.

The perspective of God’s radical intervention to bring about something new, is signaled by the way in which Paul describes the encounter between the world and the gospel in verse 18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (CEB). As the word of God—the word about the cross—breaks into the world, it divides all of humanity into two groups. The present participles that describe the two contrasting groups, those who are perishing and those who are being saved indicate, significantly, that Paul sees the judging and saving activity of God as something that’s underway right now. Paul describes the church not as those who are saved, but as those who are being saved. That distinction is important, because Paul will continue to insist throughout the letter on the not-yet-completed, still-in-process, character of salvation in Christ.

Part of the trouble with those who claim to have wisdom is that they suppose they’ve already arrived, already are in possession of the full truth. But for Paul, the power of God is presently stirring, presently occurring, presently percolating, presently on the move in the world through the gospel, bringing both destruction and deliverance: destruction to those who are willfully blind to the truth of God, and deliverance to those who believe.

Paul is saying that the books are not yet closed; God’s final verdict for our lives has not yet been rendered. Thus, as the power of God is at work in the world through the proclamation of the gospel, members of the church find themselves on a trajectory toward salvation, but they cannot unqualifiedly claim salvation at the present time. Salvation, at least in this instance, is described as something we work on throughout our lives. We can have confidence that God will achieve salvation for us in the end, but it only comes through the unmerited grace of God.

Paul’s also making another point. Simply put, Christians—those who are being saved—should see the world differently than those who are perishing. The fixation of the Christian church on a crucified Lord seems to be the height of absurdity to those who are perishing. To them, the word of the cross is not wisdom, but foolishness. The Greek word used there is μωρία (moria), and the root of that Greek word is found in our English word “moron.” The way the rest of the world sees it, we who believe in the power of the cross are a bunch of morons. But we who are being saved see the supposed foolishness of the cross from a different perspective.

The Christians of Corinth, who were celebrating their own wisdom, were celebrating something other than the gospel. It revealed that they still viewed the world from the perspective of those who are perishing. Those who are being saved, however, recognize the cross as God’s power.

This perspective changes the way we understand everything. This is Paul’s great paradox, and he sees its truth revealed in the Old Testament. He quotes from Isaiah 29:14 when he says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent” (1 Corinthians 1:19 CEB). Isaiah’s verb ἀπολῶ (apolo) I will destroy is echoed by Paul’s reference in 1:18 to those who are perishing ἀπολλυμένοις (apollumenois) which literally means those who are being destroyed. According to Isaiah, the thing that God is going to annihilate is the wisdom of the wise, precisely the thing that the Corinthians were prizing.

Therein lies the Corinthian problem. They were relying on human wisdom, which God is going to thwart and destroy. They talked about possessing Godly wisdom, but their behavior of quarreling and causing divisions revealed something else entirely. They made a show of honoring God with their lips, but their behavior toward each other revealed that their hearts were far from God.

When you read the whole of Isaiah’s oracle from which Paul quotes one line, you see that that is what Isaiah was talking about as well. The people of Judah honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God. The message is that talk about God is cheap. Honoring God with the way we live is what ultimately matters. The Corinthians stood under the sentence of divine judgment which would nullify their professed wisdom and unmask their professed piety as a sham.

Having stated his paradox about the word of the cross and supporting it by a citation from Isaiah, Paul cranks up the tension of the passage even higher by developing a series of contrasts between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the cross. The four rhetorical questions of verse 20 pose a direct challenge to the philosophers, scribes (who were experts in Jewish Law), and debaters of the world (the pagan orators). They all belong to this age. In apocalyptic thought everything of this age will be swept away, or simply made to appear ridiculous when the new age is inaugurated. The wisdom of this world will be revealed as foolishness by God’s strange way of revealing grace through the cross.

In the ancient world, rhetorical eloquence was highly prized. Powerful orators received the same sort of acclaim that today we reserve for movie stars and professional athletes. But Paul now regards all this acclaim as utterly negated by God. “Where are they now?” Paul asked rhetorically.

Philosophers, Torah scholars, and popular orators—all the most esteemed pundits of Paul’s day—failed to understand what was really going on in the world. All their wisdom had failed to grasp the truth about God. Paul notes the irony. He says it is “In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21 CEB).

Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are contrary to what our fallen minds would call common sense. In contrast to this age God has blown common sense away by revelation “through the foolishness of preaching.” That Greek word, μωρία (moria), suggests the utter craziness of the gospel message by the standards of common sense wisdom. How can the humiliating death of Jesus on a cross be the event of salvation for the world? One would have to be a fool, a moron, to believe it!

I guess that makes us fools for the Gospel.

Paul’s language throughout this part of 1 Corinthians reveals the paradoxical twists of God’s grace. But this isn’t just Paul’s version of worldly wisdom and rhetoric. The fundamental theological point is that if the cross itself is God’s saving event, all human standards of evaluation are shaken up and dumped up-side-down. The outlandish message confounded Jews and Greeks alike, who quite understandably sought evidence of a more credible sort, either “signs,” which would be empirical demonstrations of power, or “wisdom,” which would be rational and persuasive argumentation. But Paul offers neither signs nor wisdom. Instead Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:23 CEB).

The scandal of this message can be a little difficult for us Christians of later eras to imagine. In Paul’s day, to proclaim a crucified Messiah was to speak nonsense. Crucifixion was a gruesome punishment administered by the Romans to make an example out of rebels, insurrectionists, and those who would otherwise disturb the Roman peace. It was a horrible form of public torture and execution, designed to demonstrate that no one should defy the Empire. Yet, Paul’s Gospel declares that the crucifixion of Jesus is somehow the singular event through which God has triumphed over Rome and all other worldly powers. Rather than confirming what the wisest minds already knew, the cross confounded the knowledge and wisdom of the world.

Those Corinthians who had been converted to Christianity under Paul’s preaching ought to have known this, because his whole message was “Christ crucified.” This proclamation of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and absolutely nuts to the Greeks. But for those who are a part of the church—made up of Jews and Gentiles together, those who are called at Corinth and elsewhere—the mind-warping paradox is God’s power and God’s wisdom.

To enter the world of the Gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination. It’s to see all values transformed by the foolish and seemingly weak death of Jesus on the cross. God doesn’t do things the way we expect. Human wisdom is subverted by the power of God which is revealed in weakness. And the seeming defeat of death gave way to the victory of resurrection.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Credited to Us | 2nd in Lent

Romans 4:13-25

13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled. 15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. 16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations. So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have. 19 Without losing faith, Abraham, who was nearly 100 years old, took into account his own body, which was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb, which was dead. 20 He didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith in God’s promise, but he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.

23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us. (CEB)

Credited to Us

My health insurance’s wellness program is pretty cool. We use Virgin Pulse, and it gives rewards based on physical activity and participation in features of the program. I wear my FitBit Blaze, which tracks my steps, active minutes, stairs, heartrate, and even sleep. All that information goes into the cloud and gets recorded by the Virgin Pulse website. I earn a certain number of points based on how many steps I’ve taken, and how many active minutes I’ve had in my day. I can record meals and healthy snacks. They have health coaches who call me and talk me through setting goals for physical activity and give me encouragement. I can even challenge friends of mine who are also in the Virgin Pulse program. I get points for all it.

All those points add up on my account, and I can earn small cash rewards based on the number I’ve earned. I usually dump mine into an Amazon gift card to help feed my book-reading habit, which my daughter appreciates because she gets to read the books, too. So, it’s pretty cool that I get to earn rewards for my healthy activity. But I wouldn’t earn anything if it weren’t for the wellness program that offered them. They have faith my ability to work toward better health, and that makes me want to work for it even more. Besides, I’ve already got my Amazon Wish List ready with my next book orders.

In the same way, our faith is a gift to us from God. It may be credited to us as righteousness, but faith isn’t something we have apart from God’s gracious gift. God offers faith to us as our response to God.

Paul’s writings are some of the more difficult to put into a sermon because you often have to look at his full argument, instead of pieces of it, and understand the context from whish he’s writing. It’s difficult to take a single text and preach about it because the preceding and following verses are also part of Paul’s argument as a whole. And, with this text, we need to include the reading about Abraham from Genesis 17 if we’re going to understand it.

Abraham is the key to understanding Paul’s argument here. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abraham represents something important. But it’s different for each of the three Abrahamic faith traditions. For Jews, Abraham is the literal father of the nation. Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham. For Muslims, Abraham is the example of a model Muslim—one who submits to the will of God. For Christians, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the “father of many nations” is fulfilled in the faith of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now, here’s a little background. Back in the year 49, Emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jews out of Rome. As a result of that decree, Priscila and Aquila had emigrated from Rome to Corinth, which is where Paul first met them on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-2). When the Jews were expelled, the Gentile Christians in Rome likely rose in prominence.

Less than a decade later, during the winter of the year 57 or 58 while he was staying in Corinth on his Third Missionary Journey, Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Church. By then, the ban of Jews in Rome had been lifted, and Priscila and Aquila had moved back. We know that because Paul sent his greetings to them in verse 16:3. When these Jewish Christians returned, it probably caused some ethnic discord between the Gentile and Jewish Christian congregations.

Remember that the earliest communities of the church often had Jewish and Gentile congregations who worshipped separately. It was a struggle for some, especially the Jewish Christians, to fully accept their Gentile sisters and brothers in Christ as such. Some Jewish Christians even argued that Gentiles had to first convert to Judaism before they could be Christians, because Christianity was a Jewish thing. The main thrust of Paul’s argument here is ethnicity, and he’s trying to show both groups that they’re actually equals through faith.

Earlier in Romans, Paul argues two main points. First, he argues that everyone knows the law, including Gentiles, because we can clearly see and understand God through the things God has made (c.f. 1:20). Yet, everyone rejects God instead of honoring God. Second, he argues that no one follows the Law, even the Jews who might boast of possessing it (c.f. 2:23). It seems like he’s painted himself into a corner with his argument when he concludes, “It follows that no human being will be treated as righteous in his presence by doing what the Law says, because the knowledge of sin comes through the Law” (Romans 3:20 CEB). In fact, he uses a list of Psalms in verses 3:10-18 to add to his point that no one is righteous.

At this point, we almost want to toss up our hands and throw in the towel, thinking, Well, who can win? And that starts the next phase of Paul’s argument. We can’t win. But God can. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, BUT all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24 CEB).

Then, we get to chapter four, and our text for the day, where Paul introduces Abraham as his primary example of righteousness, not because Abraham followed the Law, but because Abraham had faith in God and believed in God’s promises. It’s important to note that, in Greek, faith and believe (or had faith in) share the same root: πίστις and πιστεύω (pistis and pisteuo). So when Paul is talking about faith as a noun, or believed as a verb he’s talking about the same thing, though the words are different in English. According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham was reckoned as righteous, not because he followed the Law, but because he believed God’s promises.

Only God can create faith in those who have faith. Righteousness is credited to those who believe, not because it’s something they earn through having faith, but because it’s accounted to them by God as a something God freely gives. Adherence to the Law depends upon human choice and agency. We choose to either obey or disobey the Law. In that sense, if the Law makes us righteous, we would essentially be making ourselves righteous by obeying the Law. But, Paul argues that the Law doesn’t make us righteous. The Law is educational, and serves to show us that we aren’t righteous. And, faith comes before obedience. The gift of faith to us is God’s initiative, God’s action, God’s agency. God makes us righteous because of our faith, we can’t make ourselves righteous by following a list of DO’s and DON’Ts.

For Paul, the timeline of Abraham’s life is important. Abraham’s belief in God’s promises, for which God reckoned him as righteous, came before circumcision as the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17:10. So, it wasn’t any act of covenant or Law that made Abraham righteous. According to Scripture, itself, it was Abraham’s faith in God back in chapter 15 that made him righteous.

Paul also argues that God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of MANY nations, not merely the father of one nation. Jews thought of their birthright as Abraham’s direct descendants as an advantage, but Paul argued that it wasn’t really an advantage. John the Baptist made a similar argument when people were coming to him for baptism. He said, And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones” (Matthew 3:9 CEB). He went on to argue that what mattered was the fruit we produce. How we live matters to God.

It’s all people who have faith, Jews and Gentiles together that fulfills the promise of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. God is able to bring forth life from what is dead (Abraham was nearly a hundred years old when he got Sarah pregnant) and from that which is barren (Sarah was also around ninety years old when she finally got pregnant). In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God again brought forth life from death.

Now, we can wonder about Paul’s words in in verses 19-21. He says Abraham’s faith never wavered, he didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith, but believed God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations even when it seemed impossible for him to have children. But we know Abraham’s story. We know that he fell on his face, laughing when God qualified the promise to mean that Abraham’s son would be with his wife, Sarah (c.f. Genesis 17:17). We know that, before that episode, Abraham got worried and he and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands. Sarah had him get Hagar pregnant, which didn’t work out well for Sarah (c.f. Genesis 16:2-4). So, in one sense, it seems that Paul views Abraham through some rose-colored glasses.

But, it might be that Paul says these things about Abraham’s faith because Abraham really did have faith and believe in God’s promises. If Paul sees Abraham’s faith as unwavering, it’s not because Abraham never had doubts, it’s not because he never tried to take matters into his own hands. It’s because, in Abraham’s story as a whole, he really did have an unwavering faith. When Abraham was about seventy-five years old, he left the security of his home, his family, and his community because God told him to. (So much for kicking back and enjoying retirement, right?). He journeyed through the land in stages despite the dangers. He was even prepared to sacrifice his own son, and all the hopes of God’s promises that were attached to him, because he had faith that God would accomplish the promises despite his son’s death.

The reason Paul can say that Abraham’s faith never wavered is because, when God called, Abraham put it all on the line and trusted God. As messy as things got at times, Abraham had faith in God, and he lived that faith out completely. Abraham was convinced that God could and would do what God promised. That belief, that trust, that faith, is why God accounted Abraham as righteous.

And there’s one last thing. Paul wrote, “But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us” (Romans 4:23-25 CEB).

Muslims view Abraham as a model Muslim. Long before that, Paul used Abraham to describe a model Christian and to show us that, no matter who we are or what our genealogy is, faith puts us in a right relationship with God. The good news that Paul preached was that those who have faith in God, whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, are made righteous through that faith. We can believe that the God who raised Christ from the dead will give us life, too.

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to this kind of unwavering faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we’ll never have doubts. It doesn’t mean we’ll never try to take matters into our own hands. But it does mean that when God calls, we lay it all on the line and step out in faith. It means that we have permission to go out in boldness, even if we don’t know exactly what it will mean or where God’s call will lead. But we can trust that, when God calls and we follow in faith, our faithfulness becomes a blessing to others, and God credits our faith as righteousness.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Live to the Lord | Proper 19

Romans 14:1-12

1 Welcome the person who is weak in faith– but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. 2 One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5 One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. 6 Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. 9 This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God. 11 Because it is written,

As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (CEB)

Live to the Lord

The thing Paul discusses here is kind of a difficult idea. Honestly, for some of us, these words are a tough pill to swallow. A modern-day comparison of what Paul’s talking about might be our current political landscape. I’m only 41, so I don’t remember a time when our nation was so politically divided between liberals and conservatives. Maybe the ‘60s were similar, but I didn’t experience that. And the ‘60s didn’t have social media. Some of the political viciousness, especially on Facebook and Twitter, is intense. I’ve seen a lot of the meanness. One guy even attacked my wife in a thread. Yeah. Not cool. I was attempting to engage in a serious discussion, and he was dismissive from his first post. He knew he was right, so why have a conversation about it? To his mind, all the rest of us needed to do was subscribe to his perfect viewpoint. When we didn’t, we were clearly wrong.

There are issues about which we are incredibly passionate. Sometimes, we’re so passionate about them that we can’t help but label those who oppose our position as confused, unlearned, or outright stupid. When it comes to matters of faith, we can be even more serious, and stubborn, about our positions. Sometimes, our disagreement with others over certain issues and lead us to think it would be better if we broke fellowship with them. Honestly, division and schism is one of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation. Protestants have proved themselves to be really great at one thing: breaking fellowship with each other. That’s one reason why there are over 41,000 Protestant denominations. Forty-one thousand different groups of people have said, We can’t be in fellowship with you because you don’t think like us.

While Methodism has a history of reversing that process—the 1939 merger of the three major Methodist denominations in the United States, for example—we still have our own sad histories of splintering apart. Over the past several years, there have been talks within United Methodism about breaking apart over the issue of homosexuality. Those discussions are alive and well in both camps. I’ve seen online postings touting the need for “an amicable separation.”

These people clearly aren’t listening to Paul. Whatever the controversial issue might be, whether it’s abortion, homosexuality, evolutionism, creationism, ordination of women, authority of the Bible, interpretation of the Scriptures, or how often we should have Holy Communion; if you have picked a side and you think that issue is divisive enough that you would be willing to divide the church so we don’t have to include those on the other side of the aisle… If we want to use those disagreements as an excuse to exclude others from our fellowship… Paul is speaking to you.

I think he’s probably speaking to those who aren’t so immovably staunch, too, but I suspect that most of us have at least one or two issues that just make us want to shake the salt out of people who disagree.

By the way, if you didn’t grin just a little bit when I read the first two verses of this text, then you missed the irony. As Paul is telling us not to judge others, he describes those with whom he disagrees as “weak in faith.” “Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:1-2 CEB).

Now, I would love for this to mean that I am not a weak person. Not long ago, I fried up some breaded, bacon-wrapped chicken. And, since there was a little milk in that breading, you could almost say that I ate three animals in one meal. But Paul isn’t saying this to build me up at the expense of vegetarians. What he is doing is addressing the kinds of doctrinal issues that were so serious to some of the Christians in Rome that they saw them as a viable reason to cut off their fellowship with Christians who believed differently.

What Paul does not do is tell us to change our view or stop discussing the matter with others. Paul’s a guy who seemed to enjoy a good argument, and he could get as passionately caught up in the things he held to be right or true as anyone. What matters to him is the spirit in which we argue when we disagree, not how right we actually are. We always think we’re right, but we don’t always love and respect each other the way we ought. Paul’s concern is the grace we extend to each other. A life of grace is lived beyond judgment. It’s the kind of life that loves enemies, and those who harass us, and those who persecute us. We’re allowed to disagree and have disagreements about matters. But how we think and act toward those with whom we bitterly disagree is what matters to Paul. And, our spirit for and toward those with whom we disagree ought to matter to us.

Some of our disagreements can be so strong, in fact, that we start to see our opponents as not only our enemies, but as enemies of God. We’ve all heard the phrase, hate the sin, love the sinner, but what usually happens is we end up hating both. Maybe it’s not outright hatred, but it’s very easy for the other to become the personification of the particular sin or evil to which we’re opposed. It’s easy for us to take note of other people’s sin while conveniently glossing over our own.

We can get a kind of zealous energy from putting our self or our cause in righteous opposition to a contrary idea or value. It’s subversively alluring, and it tends to intensify the hostility we feel toward others over whatever issue we disagree. We draw our lines in the sand, build our castle walls, and think if these people aren’t with us, then they’re against us, and they’re against God!

One of the many problems that arise when we become, in our own minds, the righteous opposition is that we can cease to view our opponents as fellow children of God. We can begin to see them as enemies and us as righteous. And we forget that we, too, are sinners in need of God’s grace; that we, too, will be judged; that by judging others as condemned, we are placing ourselves in mortal danger of God judging us as in the wrong.

There’s a reason why Jesus taught, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5 CEB).

Whatever the dispute might be (and, for Paul, it seemed to be dietary practices and observance of holy days) who are we to pass judgment? We might well see ourselves as the “strong” Christians, and those who think differently than us as the “weak” Christians. But, since God welcomes everyone, who are we mere mortals to disparage, despise, show contempt for, or reject one another? Since God is the one who judges, who are we to judge one another? If Jesus Christ can be lord of the living and the dead, if his death and resurrection broke the power of sin and redeemed the whole world, if every knee will bow and every tongue will give praise to God, then we can be confident that Jesus is the lord of all people; even those Christians whom we think are on the wrong or “weak” side of certain issues.

If we fail to love others—really love them and welcome them and choose to continue our fellowship with them despite our differences of opinion—then whatever our stance might be, we are in danger of losing ourselves in our commitment, not to Christ, but to our own opinions. We can make every sacrifice to the point that we feel like we’re being martyred for our cause by the crusade on the other side, but when we can no longer love people on the other side, our own “right” actions are not righteous; defense of our “Christian” ideals is not Christian, and our attempts to build up the community of faith according to our designs are not labors of love.

Without love, even right action can be perverted. In another place, Paul wrote: “If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 CEB). Love’s characteristic is that it puts up with all things, and endures all things (c.f. 1Cor. 13:7). If ours doesn’t, then we probably aren’t loving as we ought, and we probably aren’t as loving as we thought.

Not even something as divisive as politics should be able to break our fellowship with each other. Personally, I voted for the United Methodist candidate. I’ve had fervid conversations in my office with members of our church who voted for the guy who won. We don’t agree. We aren’t going to agree. It’s 100% unlikely that either of us will convince the other to take the opposite position. We disagree, but we love and respect each other. We talk together often. We still see each other as beloved children of God. There’s no issue—political, theological, or otherwise—that will make us think the other isn’t worthy of our fellowship. Unity of faith doesn’t mean we all believe exactly the same way and hold exactly the same opinions. Unity of faith means that, despite our differences, we love each other as Christ loves us.

So, what will we do when we disagree over theological issues and Biblical interpretation: things that might seem insurmountable and irreconcilable? Well, Paul’s instruction is that we welcome those we oppose, not so we can argue about our different opinions, but so we can show genuine love to each other as God’s children.

We have many opinions but we have one Lord, and each of us is accountable to God. “God has accepted them,” Paul tells us. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand)” (Romans 14:3-4 CEB). If God can uphold and make even those other people stand in the judgement, we can have hope that we’ll stand, too.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!