Don’t Forget God’s Benefits

Dr. James Flaming was my childhood pastor until I was about 12.  I don’t remember a lot of what he said.  I do remember that he often began worship quoting Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O My soul and all that is within me bless God’s holy name.  Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits.”  Psalm 103, 104, 105 and 106 are fairly lengthy Psalms that go into detail about the work of God.   In Psalm 103, God’s acts of forgiveness are named.

The Psalm seems to be a reflection on Exodus 34:6-7, “The Lord, the Lord,, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to the thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.  Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”   The Psalmist cites the story of Moses and the people in Psalm 103:7 and then quotes Exodus 34:7 in Psalm 103:8.  As the Psalmist affirms God’s blessing to the children of the righteous (Psalm 103:17), the Psalmist stops short of naming the punishment that befall the children as the result of the father’s disobedience.  This doesn’t negate God’s justice, but like the original creed-like formula in Exodus 34:6-7, the Psalm emphasizes God’s grace above God’s judgment.   Biblical Scholar James Sanders once wrote: “The Bible is full of unrecorded hermeneutics recoverable by use of a triangle of interrelationship of ancient traditions or texts repeated in particular historical context of the believing community by use of certain hermeneutics” (From Sacred Story to Sacred Text, p. 71).  This reflection focuses on God’s grace–after all, “God does not treat us as our sins deserve.”

Do not Forget God’s Benefits
So, it helps to name all the benefits of the Lord’s activities.

  1. The Lord liberates (Psalm 103:6)
  2. The Lord reveals (Psalm 103:7)
  3. The Lord cares (Psalm 103:8)
  4. The Lord is patient (Psalm 103:8)
  5. The Lord removes our transgressions (Psalm 103:12)

The explicit naming of God’s benefits to us help us to see what is the priority from the perspective of biblical faith.  It takes our eyes off of the problems and toward the good news.  Being explicit in this manner, reverses our tendency to count our woes.  Annette Simmons wrote, “If we were to judge by the stories most people tell on a daily basis we would conclude that they are stressed-out, misunderstood victims here to survive red tape and stupid decisions” (Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, p. 23).  Our witness is most effective when it is filled with thanksgiving of what the Lord has done.

Psalm 24

Psalm 24 was written at a time of transition.  The people had endured the transition that took away their national sovereignty. And though the Persians had allowed them to return home and re-establish Jerusalem, they remained a vassal to the Persian Empire.  Yet, they proclaimed God’s sovereignty above all rulers on the earth.  They  had endured the transition that removed them from their homeland and their temple.  Yet, they proclaimed the potential in any place for God to enter. They had experienced the positive transition of the people’s return, a new sense of peace, and the rebuilding of their temple and their city.  Yet, they reminded one another of the importance of not becoming morally lax but remaining true to their ethical commitments.     

Times of transition occur whenever we encounter the instability of change.  Transitions can be initiated or unanticipated.  Transitions can be large or small.  They can be positive or negative.  Yet, all transitions cause us to react emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.  One of the temptations in times of transition is to focus on ourselves—our needs, our wants, our own protection against the changes.  Psalm 24 suggests to us another way to respond to transitions.  By singing songs of sovereignty in times of transitions, we anchor ourselves in that which does not change.  While nothing can eliminate the stress of transition, I suggest four attitudinal shifts that emerge from Psalm 24 that can provide strength in transitory times.

1. Focus on God’s Power.  The Psalm praises God’s majesty.  It emphasizes God as the one who wins battles.  When we face transitions, it is good to remember that God has seen every change that can come to a person and God has managed to overcome those changes and remain in control.  The transitions may seem too big for us but they are not too big for God.

2.  Reflect on Human Responsibility.  In times of transition, we often throw up our hands and say, “Who’s going to take care of me.  Who’s going to take care of my needs.”  Sometimes it feels as though fortune has blessed someone else and we’re left to fend for ourselves.  This turning in ourselves can be a deadly path leading to the graveyard of self-pity, victim mentality and defeatism.  If we remember, however, that ultimately the best place to be is on God’s side we focus on our responsibility to align our lives with God.  Those with clean hands and pure hearts are those who ascend to the hill of the Lord and stand in God’s presence.  Clean hands refers to right action.  Pure heart refers to  right motives.  Together the right internal motivation and the right external action enables us to find security in being on God’s side.

3.  Rejoice in spiritual anticipation.  This Psalm is often used during advent because it anticipates the arrival of God’s presence.  Yet, those who have walked long with God know that you can’t schedule those times when God will make God’s presence known to us.  The calendar may say December 25, but we cannot force the incarnation of God’s glory into a brightly wrapped box.  On the other hand, each moment is filled with the potential that God might enter in a new way.  As the old hymn sings, “Sometimes a light surprises a sinner as he sings.  It is the Lord who rises with healing on the wings.”  Lift up your heads and be lifted up.  God just might enter in today.

Perceive the continuity over time.  Old Testament scholar J. Clinton McCann points out the connections in Psalm 24 to both the giving of the Ten Commandments and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.  The reference to ascending to the hill of the Lord and standing in God’s presence remembers Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai and his privilege to see the Lord’s back.  Anyone who would see God’s face, they believed, would surely die.  Yet, Psalm 24 anticipates the Beattitude spoken by Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”  Psalm 24 ties together one of the most important portions of Ethical teaching in the Old Testament with one of the most important ethical teachings in the New Testament.  That in and of itself deserves more consideration than we can give it here.  But for our purposes, it reveals the continuity over time.  Psalm 24 points us to the tapestry that is woven of God’s authority and our responsibility.  . 

 

 

 

 

Use Words

St. Francis may not have ever said something that’s been attributed to him for years.  “Preach the Gospel always, use words when necessary” has been attributed to him for years, but it turns out he didn’t say it.  People frequently have quotations attributed to them that they did not say.  The sentiment of the quotation, however, is great.  It reminds Christians that words without deeds are not believable.  Witness without work is not believable.    And Christians who get nervous about talking about their faith have been leaning on it for a long time to give cover to our silence about our faith.  We often overlook the converse statement.

Yes, words without deeds are not believable; but deeds without words are not intelligible.  Work without witness can be interpreted as anything.  Frequently work without witness is interpreted as a message about the worker rather than a message about the master.  She is such a kind person; he is so generous; that church is always doing good things.  Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  It’s that last part–about glorifying God–that gets lost when we do not clearly identify our work as being motivated by our Savior’s love, instruction or model.

One value of a Creed is that a creed gives us language to use.  When a person decides to become a Christian, what are they agreeing to?  The Creeds serve the  function of providing wording to use to guide our witness. And this transmission of a creed-like statement as part of a person’s witness is biblical. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) a creed-like statement from the Hebrew Bible contains the following instruction, “Recite them [the words the Lord was giving them] to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7). And Paul  wrote to Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12).  Matthew 28:16-20 emphasized the role of the church in “making Disciples” and “baptizing in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” All of these statements emphasize a verbal testimony to which people ascent as part of their choice to follow Christ.  It’s one of the place where words are necessary.  And, I believe, it is here that our words are sadly lacking.

Crumbling

Paul Tillich, a German theologian who spent a large portion of his career in the United States, published a series of sermons entitled, The Shaking of the Foundations.  The following reflection is not a summary of the first sermon (also called “The Shaking of the Foundations”) rather it is my own reaction to it. Rather than “shaking,” I find the image of “crumbling” more descriptive of my experience.

We live in a world that crumbles.  We have evidence of the crumbling all around us.  Our political environment becomes increasingly divisive and unable to function adequately.  The virtues of tolerance, mutual understanding and dialogue crumble.  Aggression, bigotry, excessive criticism and enmity fill the cracks and make them bigger.  It would be easy to point fingers, but pointing fingers merely reveals my own party allegiance.  The real cause of our divisiveness comes from the very nature of humanity itself.  We seem stubbornly determined to ruin the very things we depend on for life.  It’s why we can’t have nice things.  We see this in other areas of our lives:  science, technology, economy, and pleasure.  Tillich wrote, “The greatest triumph of science was the power it gave to man [sic] to annihilate himself and his world” (p. 5).   In 1948, he was hinting at the power of nuclear weaponry.  We can say the same thing about other areas.  Technology which promises to make us more efficient has become the channel of our obsessive wastes of time. The capitalist economic system that could give each person access to resources through hard work has fostered an entitled and lethargic affluent class.

The most authentic witness to the crumbling comes from those who themselves have been the catalysts of crumbling.  Following the use of the atomic bomb.  Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and somewhat as a reaction to the way it was used, he founded the Nobel Peace Prize and other forms of celebrating humane advances.   J. Robert Oppenheimer became the outspoken advocate for nuclear controls. These and so many others can help us to see the contours of our crumbling world.

We tend toward two responses to our crumbling.  One response is to close our eyes.  Tillich said that we “desire to hear good tidings; and the masses listen to those who bring them” (p. 8).  Yet, our attempts to turn away fail because the crumbling presses in on us. We cannot turn away because eventually even our own bodies force us to acknowledge the crumbling our creation. The other response we initiate is that we try to fix things on our own.  Sadly, our most ardent efforts to fix things often leads to even greater destruction.  We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place–unable to successfully ignore our problems and incapable of solving them.

We can turn to the biblical prophets as models of a more honest and more hopeful approach to what I’ve been calling “crumbling” and Tillich called, “The Shaking of the Foundations.”  One of the saddest developments in our language evolution is that “prophet” and “prophecy” have become associated with telling the future.  Biblical prophets did not write accurate horoscopes.  They were theologians.  They opened their eyes and saw the surface reality of crumbling.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos all unflinchingly examined the experience of privation, famine, captivity and destruction. So much so that I–as someone most often guilty of looking away–find them difficult to read.  However, their moral authority comes from the ground from which they speak.  Tillich wrote, “How could the prophets speak as they did?  How could they paint these most terrible pictures of doom and destruction without cynicism or despair? It was because, beyond the sphere of destruction, they saw the sphere of salvation; because, in the doom of the temporal they saw the manifestation of the Eternal.  It was because they were certain that they belonged within the two spheres, the changeable and the unchangeable.  For only he who is also beyond the changeable, not bound within it alone, can face the end. . . . May we not turn our eyes away; may we not close our ears or our mouths! But may we rather see, through the crumbling of a world, the rock of eternity and the salvation which has no end.”

Love Song for Jesus

At the height of the Christian Contemporary Music trend, someone tried dismissing new Christian music as “love songs for Jesus.”  I was a young adult and had invested much of my music listening to musicians like Petra, Susan Ashton, and Michael W. Smith when I heard that comment.  I thought the comment was terribly unfair.  Some contemporary Christian music could call people to greater faithfulness.  A pioneer of contemporary Christian music, Keith Green, could be quite prophetic in his music.  In one song he said to fellow Christians, “Jesus rose from the grave and you can’t get out of bed.”  John Michael Talbot also called Christians to scrutinize their actions in light of the gospels demands to serve the poor and live a life of purity.  Steve Camp directed his critique more at himself than others, “Could I be called a Christian?” remains one of the haunting questions.

I also thought it an unfair critique because it showed some naivety about Christian devotional music and language.  I mean, have you listened to the words of “In the Garden?”  Talk about your love songs for Jesus.  Christians have historically interpreted the Song of Songs as a poem that speaks of Jesus’s love for the church and the church’s love for Jesus.  Much of the historic devotional literature we have ignored in recent years overflows with affection for our savior. To overstate only slightly:  We have had love songs for Jesus as long as we have had songs for Jesus.

The real question that began forming in my mind in the years since I heard that would-be insult was, “and what’s so wrong with love songs for Jesus?”  Yes, some songs lack deep reflection.  Some songs are more cheese than bread of life.  Still, I find it hard to understand people who have never crossed the line between faithful and fandom.  There is much to praise in Jesus’s goodness, grace, and majesty it’s hard not to go overboard or run short on thoughtfulness.  Indeed, to quote one of my favorite songs, “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25).

Armor of God

It would not have been uncommon a generation ago to see a group of children before a congregation singing, “I may never march in the infantry (the little tike march in place–so cute), ride in the cavalry (they pretend to ride a horse), shoot the artillery/I may never fly over the enemy (you guessed it, a chance to stretch our airplane wings/arms and imitate aerial maneuvers).  But I’m in the Lord’s Army.”  Years of sensitivity toward religiously inspired violence and the desire not to mask the tragic elements of warfare with cute songs has largely removed this song form our children’s repertoire.  Still, as biblical interpreters, we are left with the question of what to do with texts like Ephesians 6:10-17 where the spiritual life is understood using the imagery of spiritual warfare.

It would be easy to dismiss if this section was an isolated out-break of violent imagery, but of course the imagers were all drawn from other texts.

Finally, be strong in the Lord–this is more literally translated “be made strong.”  The emphasis here as not that we should find a deep, abiding, intrapersonal strength.  The emphasis is on allowing Christ to make us stronger.  In the strength of his power–Again the emphasis is on the source of power.  Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Satan language can feel problematic to many Christians.  However, the emphasis hear is two-fold.  (1) It emphasizes that the struggle is not

Fasten the belt of truth around your waist, Isaiah 11:5, “He will wear the belt of justice, and truth will be his girdle.”  God’s faithful promise serve to protect us when we fear others. And put on the breastplate of righteousness.

As for shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.  Shoes–Romans 10:15/Isaiah 52:7 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  Proclamation is done on one’s feet as one’s goes.

 

With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  The psalms frequently speak of God as our shield.

The helmet of righteousness Isaiah 59:17–He put on righteousness like a breastplate/and a helmet of salvation on his head/he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,/ and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.

Paul instructs people to regard the elements of faith with the same esteem that we give to the implements of war.

 

 

Compassionate Conservatives

Warning:  This is not my normal attempt at a daily Bible study.  It is a political commentary.  Read if you want, just know that I’m not writing about Ephesians today.

One of my favorite scenes from my all-time favorite TV show, The West Wing, comes in season two.  Ainsley Hayes, played by Emily Procter, is a conservative lawyer and political commentator who gets the best of Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on a political talk show.  President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is a progressive president, but decides to give the bright conservative a job as Associate White House Counsel.  Ainsley wants to work in the White House . . . just not the one occupied by that President.  She has gone to the White House to give Leo McGarry her answer and then has come back to a restaurant to meet some friends. They assume she told them no.

Bruce: I wanted you to say it to his face. I wanted to see…
Harriet: I hate these people.
Bruce: Did you meet anyone there who isn’t worthless?
Ainsley Hayes: Don’t say that.
Bruce: Did you meet anyone there who has any – ?
Ainsley Hayes: I said don’t say that. Say they’re smug and superior. Say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me. The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good. Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots. And I’m their lawyer.

There are days when I empathize with Ainsley—only from the other end of the political spectrum.  Understand, I am not a liberal.  I sometimes get accused of being liberal and I usually say to my accuser, “If I’m your definition of liberal, your worldview needs some serious expansion.  Let’s not dilute the purity of the good liberals I know by classifying me as one of them.”  I’m also not a conservative.  Too many conservative national talking heads say too many reprehensible things for me.  I don’t understand the conservative obsession with creating legal judgments about people’s sexuality. I’m a conflict-avoidant mugrump.  However, I live in Texas so many, if not most, of the people I interact with on a regular basis are very conservative and I seem liberal by comparison.

I had dinner with a couple tonight who are conservative.  They were hosting a fundraising meeting and no one showed.  We thought that might happen.  We weren’t surprised. It meant that I ate a lot of pizza and I got to drink beer while doing it . . . because they offered and since they offered, I guessed they weren’t going to be offended.  So, we just talked and I was reminded of how good they are and how much they care about the needs of others.  They are a lot like so many people I deal with in church.  They are incredibly generous, compassionate people.  They give sacrificially to help others.  When a hurricane threatened the coast of Texas one of our Disciples congregations much further South of us became a shelter for evacuees.  The host church made a request for food.  So, we collected some food.  The husband offered the use of his bobcat which he himself helped load with food and drove all night to deliver.  That trip included me and three other men who saw a need and chose not to pass by on the other side.  They gave without asking.  Just because they knew about people in need.  And all three of those men were far more politically conservative than I am.  That was one isolated example of the kind of sacrificial generosity I see from people every day.  So many people I know are politically conservative and personally compassionate.

So, when I hear the way they get characterized by some of my more progressive colleagues in ministry, I wonder who they are talking about.   The conservatives I know do have political ideology that I think should be engaged.  Not being one of them—completely—I’m probably not the best to give voice to their opinion, but I will try.  I have not heard them blame the poor for their poverty—yes, some national figures tend to do that; the conservatives I know do not.  However, they do believe that regardless of who or what is the cause for a person’s poverty, the solution to poverty is essentially at the individual level.  They tend to believe that large government programs create cycles of dependence and that much of the progressive rhetoric reinforces people’s sense that they are victims rather than bolstering a person’s sense of individual power.  They tend to believe that people must take ownership of their future to change their circumstances.  It can’t be accomplished with a nationally mandated, federally-funded program.  They believe in being free to be personally generous . . . which in my experience they have been far more than I am.  They do not believe in being required by law to be generous, but when given the chance to be personally generous, they take it.   They believe that too many regulations merely restrict the freedoms of the people who already seek to obey the law and do not address the real problems .  .  . law-breakers.  The personally compassionate, politically conservative people I know are thoughtful and have ideas that deserve deeper consideration.  It’s not that their personal goodness means that their political ideas are above scrutiny.  It does mean, I believe, that such scrutiny should be undertaken with respect.

So there are times I want to say to progressives—whom I genuinely love and respect:

Don’t say they’re worthless.  Say they nominate and elect candidates who seem unfeeling and anti-intellectual. Say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like over-funded weaponry and under-funded classrooms. Say they want to give everyone guns and wall borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me. The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good. Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are servants. And I’m their . . . pastor.

 

Wives and Husbands and Household Codes

Roman - Funerary Monument of a Husband and Wife - Walters 2320.jpgThe “Household Codes” of the New Testament–Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-22; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Timothy 5:1-2; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:18-25 and 1 Peter 3:1-7 are some of the most problematic texts for contemporary readers of the New Testament. These texts have been used to justify the suppression of women, child abuse and slavery.  It’s hard to know what to do with them.  I believe equality in marriage.  I believe the Bible points in the direction of equality when compared to its context even as it contains passages that suggest patriarchy.  That said, I would like to point out a few things we should consider about this text before we move past it.

Ephesians 5:21ff May Be a Capitulation to Culture
In their day and age, these texts reinforced existing social structures.  Jesus had introduced a model of family built on faith and mutual obedience to God.  Matthew 12:46-50 reads: “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” Early on, the Jesus movement seems to have maintained this more egalitarian and voluntary perspective on family.

Paul reminded the Church in Galatia of their Baptismal reality, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Galatians 3:28).  He also wrote about mutuality to the church in Corinth, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does”  (1 Corinthians 7:4).  Mutuality of this form does not come without problems, but it isn’t the hard-line patriarchy Paul is often saddled with.

As the Christian movement progressed and especially–it seems–as it moved into the Gentile world, it became more and more consistent with Hellenistic notions of marriage and family.  These household pairs are also discussed at length in Aristotle’s Politics.  His language reflects the extreme patriarchy prevalent during that time.  “The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled” (1245b12). “The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete” (1260a11). (found at http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-pol/#H7)  My seminary professor, David Balch, has compared the early church’s teaching about household behavior with contemporary Hellenistic thought and practice about households and has shown that the early church acquiesced to culture.  Hellenistic culture was far more patriarchal than Jewish culture (Let Wives Be Submissive).  It’s possible that the early church felt pressure to conform in order to keep peace and survive.

The text follows, but significantly augments the household codes of Colossians 3:18-4:1
The pairs–wives/husbands; children/fathers; slaves/masters are taken over from Colossians.  However, Ephesians augments with the understanding of faith.  While the writer accepts the prevailing attitudes about gender and authority, they apply it to Jesus Christ.  “This is a greater mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and Church” (Ephesians 5:32).  Similarly, the teaching on children and parents is footnoted with a reference to the Ten Commandments.  The instruction to slaves reframes slavery as being “slaves of Christ” (Ephesians 6:6).  The challenge for modern interpreters is why neither Paul (see Philemon) nor Paul’s successors regarded slavery as antithetical to the Gospel.  However, the effort on the part of the writer of Ephesians to interpret context theologically is instructive even if we do not concur with the outcome of the interpretation.

The instruction about submission involves mutual submission.
In the original Greek, Ephesians 5:21-24 is all one sentence.  We shouldn’t be surprised that the English translation breaks it apart into multiple sentences.  In Greek, Ephesians contains several very long complete sentence that would be virtually unintelligible if rendered literally in English translation.  The separation of vss. 21 from 22ff not only into separate sentences but–in the NRSV–separate paragraphs or worse–in the NIV–separate subject headings, obscures the meaning.  The context of Ephesians is one of mutuality first and hierarchy second.

In the light

My child-hood church gathered the fourth graders to talk about baptism.  The children’s ministry director explained that our lives are like caterpillars.  We can wrap ourselves in God’s grace and emerge as butterflies.  I connected with the metaphor.  I was a pretty wormy ten year old.  I wanted to fly.  I wanted to be different.

Ephesians 5:6-14 is about baptism.  It concludes with the quotation of a song that probably belonged to someone’s baptismal liturgy.  Hebrews 6:4 also refers to baptism as “Enlightenment.”  In Ephesians 5:6-14, Paul discusses the separation Christians make from the world.  The difference life in Christ makes.  The “enlightened” are no longer to be deceived (Ephesians 5:6).  We do not enter into excessively entangled relationships with the world (Ephesians 5:7).  We become light (Ephesians 5:8).  We are committed to fruitful living (Ephesians 5:9-10).  People of faith do not mention what is done in secret (Ephesians 5:12).  These things are the result of baptism.

Today we speak of baptism almost entirely in terms of God’s love for us.  God coming to us, God forgiving us.  Yet, it’s important that we consider what it means for us to make separation from the world in baptism.

Grace Says

Christian Music Group Mercy Me has an upbeat and encouraging song entitled, “Greater.”  “Greater” relates how a person can be attacked and condemned by others and even by themselves but still not be defeated by it.  The victory over the self-inflicted guilt and the judgmental assault on self-worth comes from an abiding knowledge of God’s grace.  God is “Greater” than the voices in the world.  I love the song.  I love the rhythm and rhyme and message.  I love everything except one single part.  The singer says, “There’ll be days I lose the battle.  Grace says that it doesn’t matter ’cause the cross already won the war.”  I do not think Mercy Me intended to suggest that we could ignore the seriousness of sin because of God’s grace.  Nor do I think we should ban, boycott, or quit listening to a song because of one unfortunate line, but it is an unfortunate line.

Ephesians is a similarly exuberant celebration of God’s grace.  It praises God’s glorious grace and God’s forgiveness of our sins (Ephesians 1:6-8).  It relates the path of salvation  and the implications of our reconciliation to God in light of our reconciliation to one another (Ephesians 2).  Paul’s doctrine is summarized with, “We are saved by grace through faith–and this is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God–and not by works so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  This grace has profound implications or our relationships with people.  God’s forgiveness of us is the basis of how we relate to one another.  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you.  Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).  The book then seems to shift abruptly in Ephesians 5:3-7 as the powerful declaration of God’s grace fades and a picture of God’s judgment takes its place.

Paul  condemned sexual immorality, greed, obscenity, foolish talk and dirty jokes.  Then the bombshell, “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a person is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:5).  How do we reconcile the strong statement of absolute condemnation here with the absolute declaration of God’s grace that has preceded it?

One way is to suggest that there’s before and after quality to conversion.  Conversion is a threshold and once we enter into God’s grace we must not exit again.  Before we come to faith we may be as sinful as anyone can imagine, but once we come to faith we are to leave behind our sinful ways.  History is full of stories about people who waited to be baptized until their dying days just so that they would not sin after baptism and disqualify themselves from salvation.

I reject this interpretation if for no other reason than that I know that I have done far worse things after I was baptized than I ever did before.  Which is not a valid reason to reject something if it is true, but the above interpretation is hopeless and God is not.  I believe that the first thing we need to do is recognize that the declaration of God’s grace we find throughout Paul’s writing was not designed so much to reassure us as it was and is to glorify God’s greatness.  Paul makes a lot more sense when we read his writings as placing God in the center.  To sing of God’s grace is to sing of God’s glory.  From this perspective, God is not a character in our story.  We are character’s in God’s story.

As characters in God’s story we celebrate that God has rescued us and must never forget how serious our rescue has been.  Sin is serious.  Grace doesn’t overcome the cold–some minor flaw in our coding.  Grace overcomes the most destructive force in the world.  With the strongest language possible, Paul reminds us that grace does not give us permission to do whatever we like.  Yes, grace means God has already won and grace says that our lost battles are forgiven.  That’s quite different than saying they do not matter.