Monthly Archives: January 2013

Disnefying Spiritual Gifts

I’m teaching Romans and 1 Corinthians this semester, so I’m giving some thought to spiritual gifts.  Paul speaks of these throughout both letters.

It seems to me that “spiritual gift” talk among evangelicals has been hijacked by the Disney ideology—what’s important is that I am given opportunities to exercise my giftedness.  I need find fulfillment, to realize my spiritual potential.  If my community is an obstacle to personal fulfillment, I’ll go elsewhere.

I remember taking a “spiritual gift test” when I was in college.  It was fascinating in the same way that personality tests are fascinating.  It told me more about myself and only fostered my already exalted self-image.  It did little to motivate me to serve others.

This isn’t at all how Paul speaks of spiritual gifts.  He opens his letter to the Roman church(es) this way:

I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you, among you—each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine (1:11-12).

Two things are striking.  First, Paul wants to impart to them “some spiritual gift” for their blessing.

Personal fulfillment isn’t a factor for Paul.  He isn’t very specific about what sort of gift he’ll impart to them.  It seems that Paul is open to having his contribution to the community shaped by their needs.

Paul’s giftedness and the opportunity to exercise it are contingent.  What is non-negotiable is that the community be blessed and refreshed.

Second, Paul speaks of an intentional mutuality.  Blessing runs both ways; he wants to be among them to refresh and be refreshed.  This is an attitude that creates space for others to thrive.  He situates himself as a sibling of the Roman Christians, not a parent or patron.

There’s some sort of impulse that runs through the American middle-class (self-reliance? do-it-yourself-ness? aversion to charity?) that makes it very unpleasant for us to receive service from others.  Most middle-class Christians I know are actually eager to serve when presented with opportunities.  Being served by others is another thing altogether.

Blessing and being blessed, refreshing and being refreshed by others, however, is the sort of mutuality that characterizes the flourishing of God’s people.  It’s the sort of healthy community that God, by the Spirit of Jesus, is creating by giving to his people spiritual gifts.

Spiritual gift language is easily perverted by our cultural values and practices.  We need to make sure it is shaped and disciplined by what Paul actually says.

Justifying the “Ungodly”

In Romans 4:5, Paul identifies God as the one “who justifies the ungodly.”  Those who read this passage as an abstract discussion of the mechanics of justification will conclude that Paul is stressing the purely passive manner in which justification is received by morally unworthy people.  It does not come as a result of anything that someone does.

This is partially true.  Justification is indeed a gift from God and it can’t be earned by human achievement.

But that isn’t exactly Paul’s point here.

Paul is taking a sarcastic shot at the Jews’ prejudice against non-Jews—those “ungodly” ones.  He means to offend the Jewish Christians’ presumption that they have an inside track with God.

Paul intensifies his sarcasm in Rom. 5:6, where he notes that “while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”  His rhetoric demands that Jewish Christians identify themselves alongside the non-Jewish Christians as those who are “helpless” and “ungodly.”

If they refuse this self-identification, they also refuse to identify themselves with the death of Christ, putting them outside the scope of salvation.

Paul is undermining the self-righteousness of any group of people who look at themselves as in any way superior to other people before God.

The rhetorical force of Paul’s words does not necessarily have to do with the mechanics of justification the way they were developed in subsequent centuries, especially in dogmatic debates regarding the workings of salvation with reference to the individual before God.

The rhetorical force of what Paul says has to do with relativizing all the groups in Rome, unifying them as both equally unworthy and equally loved by God.  Everyone must recognize their full membership in the “ungodly” group in order to be part of the “justified” group.

Paul Sends Abraham to Rome

In Romans 4, Paul sets Abraham before his audience for consideration.  Why does he do this?  Is it to give an Old Testament example of justification by faith?  Not exactly.

Following the grammar in vv. 13-16, it’s apparent that Paul calls upon Abraham to advance his argument that the divided factions in the Roman church must be unified.

It’s not too fanciful to imagine that Paul sends Abraham to Rome to visit the church(es).  He sets him squarely within the divided Roman church(es), provoking the question of which side can claim the support of Abraham against the other.  Whose side is he on?  For whom is he a cheerleader?

The Jewish-Christian faction would immediately assume he would support their case for privileged status in the Roman church(es).  After all, a number of Jewish texts portray Abraham as the ideal Law-observer.

Do they have a case?  Can they so easily assume that Abraham would endorse their claims?

Well, let’s take a look, says Paul.  Was Abraham justified by deeds that distinguish a person as a faithful Jew?

While Paul does not use the phrase “works of Law” in v. 2, he is still referring to such works.  The tension between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians dominates Romans 1-3 and leads into this discussion in Romans 4.  And Paul returns to Abraham’s relation to the circumcised and uncircumcised in v. 9.  Since this problem frames the passage, it’s likely that Paul has it in mind here, too.

If Abraham were justified by faithfully embodying Jewish identity, then he can boast alongside the Jewish Christians over-against the non-Jewish Christians.

Paul makes clear in v. 2 that he isn’t speaking about boasting “before God.”  He still has in view the boasting of one group over another from a few verses earlier (Rom. 3:27).

If Abraham was justified by deeds that indicate faithfulness to Jewish identity, then he takes one side in the conflict in Rome.

Paul cites Gen. 15:6, which states that Abraham believed God and that God reckoned Abraham righteous because of his faith.  And this was before Abraham was circumcised (v. 10).

After that, however, Abraham was circumcised so that he might be the father of the uncircumcised believers and the circumcised believers (vv. 11-12).

When Paul sends Abraham to Rome, therefore, Abraham puts his arms around everyone—all those of faith, without reference to their being Jewish or non-Jewish. 

Abraham doesn’t take sides in the Roman conflict.  No side can claim Abraham because Abraham claims everyone!

God promised Abraham that he’d be the agent of universal blessing, and God fulfills his promise only by his grace.  Because it is by grace, it can only be received by faith.  No group can claim exclusive rights to the blessing by belonging to any singular ethnicity.  That would eliminate the gracious character of God’s promise.

God’s blessing is enjoyed by faith so that the promise can maintain its character as grace, “so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (v. 16).

Paul sends Abraham to Rome not to serve as an example of the abstracted concept of justification by faith, but to unify the church.

Body Language in Romans, Pt. 3

Over the last few weeks I’ve noted that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a pastoral letter to a church struggling to maintain unity in the midst of developing conflict.

Paul’s narrative of the human body from corruption to transformation runs through the letter as a subtext.  It supports his contention that all Christians in Rome (Jewish and non-Jewish) are subject to corruption and all are transformed on the same basis—by God’s free grace.  They all participate in that human journey, which puts them all on the same level.

As I indicated the other day, Paul’s theological narrative of the body (individual bodies and the gathered body) has significant theological implications.  I’ll mention just a few:

First, God’s “salvation” is not an elimination of embodied human life but the transformation of it.  The evangelicalism with which I’m familiar tends to denigrate the body, associating sinfulness with embodied existence.  The hope, then, is getting out of the body reaching a “spiritual” plane of existence.

In Romans, however, Christian hope is not “getting out of here and escaping to heaven” for an eternally disembodied existence.  Christian hope is for the glorification of God’s children (Rom. 8:18-25)—the glorious transformation of our earthly bodies to true humanity.  Our hope is one day to flourish on a transformed earth as transformed people.

Second, as we await this final transformation, our current Christian existence has everything to do with how we conduct ourselves as bodies and our participation in the gathered body.  That is, growing in Christ means cultivating embodied habits and practices that manifest the character of Christ.

If Paul says that this means that Christians with significant differences need to learn to “welcome each other” (Rom. 15:5-7), then we ought to explore the many ways that we can do this as bodies in the gathered body.  Are there communal patterns or corporate practices in our church that marginalize anyone?  Those need to be eliminated and replaced by corporate practices that draw others in and make them feel at home.

Third, if Paul writes about God’s saving moves in terms of how God is reclaiming bodies, then we must reconsider how we bifurcate existence into “spiritual” and “physical.”  Christians sometimes are hesitant to contribute resources to meet the physical needs of others unless we feel that “spiritual” purposes are being honored.  We should reconsider this dichotomy.  Part of growing in Christ and embodying participation in salvation must involve caring for bodies as the body of Christ.

Fourth, and pressing this point a bit more strategically, the current embodiment of salvation involves specific bodily conduct.  Paul confronts the error that the manner in which the current possession of salvation is embodied is by behavior that makes one Jewish.  Just because one is Jewish does not guarantee future bodily transformation.  So, what does guarantee that?  Paul’s answer comes in Rom. 8:17—all those who suffer with Christ will be glorified with Christ.

That is, we possess salvation if we participate in our bodily practices in the cruciform life of Jesus by the Spirit.  That means that contemporary Christian existence must involve the corporate exploration of concrete communal practices that embody the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

Where such explorations are absent, we should consider any hope of future glorification to have no basis.

Lastly, we embody salvation by pursuing unity as a body.  It is a tragic irony that this letter, intended to unify a corporate body in Rome, is often the battleground over which dogmatic wars are fought.  One wonders if Paul’s point has been grossly missed.

There’s much more and much else to be said about this narrative thread, and other theological conclusions to be drawn from it, but I’ll leave it there for now.  Other thoughts about how Paul narrates the body?

The Prayer of One in Despair

Over the last few days, I’ve heard from good friends in various places facing different kinds of troubles.  Psalm 13 is a prayer of one in despair (Common English Bible):

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

Look at me!
Answer me, Lord my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.

But I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me.

A Warm Welcome

* I used to open our Midtown services with a welcome that clarified why we gathered, who we were, and whose we were.

Welcome to Midtown Christian Community.  Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who died but now lives and reigns from heaven.

Jesus Christ is our life, and he is on his way to restore the world, to restore and heal us, and to bring us into his eternal kingdom–a kingdom that is not characterized by division, hatred, frustration, oppression, pain, exploitation, rage, destructive relationships, bad deals, crushed hopes and shattered dreams.  NO!  When Jesus returns, these horrors will be gone forever!

Jesus is on his way to establish his kingdom that is characterized by peace, by life, by goodness, laughter, wonderful music, good food and good times with friends that leave you both satisfied and wanting more, being known by loved ones who delight in what they find out about you, swimming in clean rivers, climbing up waterfalls and exploring in lush forests, sitting out underneath the stars by a camp-fire laughing hysterically with good friends.

These are the beauties that we long for.  Something in all of us tells us that our current experience isn’t how it’s supposed to be–there’s something more and there’s something else.  We aren’t designed for this enslaved existence.

Sin and Death have corrupted and perverted God’s good world.  But Jesus is on his way to take it back and to restore all things so that we may dwell on the earth as we were meant to–enjoying God, enjoying one another, and enjoying God’s good world.

So we say, with the Spirit, “come, Lord Jesus.”

As a sign that we will enjoy that future kingdom, God has given to us this group of people—this gathering.  He has created us as brothers and sisters, and God himself is present by his Spirit.  By God’s Spirit, we can enjoy a taste of what the restored creation will be like.  So we gather in the name of King Jesus to laugh, to share our burdens and joys, to enjoy good food with good friends, and to cry out for God to restore his world soon, for the glory of his name and the good of his people.

Body Language in Romans, Pt. 2

I wrote yesterday that Paul’s narrative of the human body from corruption to transformation is a subtext of Romans.  It serves his analysis of the situation in the Roman church and supports his argument that no group has any basis to judge another.  Because bodies have been hijacked by the cosmic power of Sin, ethnic distinctions based on bodily practices (e.g., those that constitute an ethnic identity) don’t fix the problem and therefore don’t give Jewish Christians any basis for boasting.

Human rebellion has resulted in human bodies being given over to dishonor (Rom. 1:24), and bodies being hijacked and dominated by Sin (Rom. 3:13-18).

God’s solution in Christ addresses precisely this problem.

[God sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin; he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-4).

Jesus took on our fallen condition, entering the human drama as a body hijacked and dominated by Sin (“sinful flesh”).  In his death, he defeated the entity called “sin in the flesh,” so that all those who are in Christ can be empowered to glorify God as bodies—and as a corporate body.

In light of this, Paul then calls on the Roman church to present their bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular) to God for proper embodied worship (Rom. 12:1-2).  And this worship is a renewed set of corporate practices that embody the unity of the formerly divided groups in the Roman church (Rom. 12-15).

The narrative of the body finds climactic resolution in Rom. 15:5-7.  Paul again makes reference to a body part in his climactic statement:

Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice [literally, “tongue”] glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.

Human bodies were hijacked by Sin and corrupted by dishonor.  Embodied faithfulness to God glorifies God, as Paul notes with Abraham.  For the Roman Christians, then, embodied practices of unity as a corporate body glorify God.

The implications of this for Christian theology and practice are pretty huge, but I’ll wait to draw those out in another post.

Prayer for the Weekend

Lord, You have always given
bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though of anxious heart,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always kept
me safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now,
today I believe.

Body Language in Romans, Pt. 1

Paul writes quite a bit about bodies in Romans, both the human body and “the body” of gathered Christians in Rome.

“Body” language pops up throughout the letter, and in some very interesting places.  One could even argue that at the subtextual level, Paul narrates the journey of the human body from corruption to transformation.


Paul begins his argument by noting that all humanity has become corrupted in their orientation.  Human rebellion against God—refusal to honor God and give thanks—has brought about dishonorable bodily behavior (Rom. 1:24).

In the climax of this section on the universality of human sinfulness, Paul cites Scriptural texts that mention body parts hijacked by Sin for misuse (Rom. 3:13-18):

Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,
The poison of asps is under their lips;
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;
Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes. 

The fundamental human predicament, therefore, is that human bodies have been hijacked by Sin.

After noting how God has acted to set things right in Rom. 3:21-31, Paul cites Abraham to speak of human faithfulness that rightly orients the human toward God.

In doing so, he speaks of Abraham’s conduct in the body.

When Abraham received the promise from God that Sarah and he would have a child, he didn’t weaken in his faith (Rom. 4:19).  It would have been understandable if he did.  After all, Abraham received this promise when he was about one hundred years old—not exactly prime childbearing years!  And Sarah was about ninety.

It’s no wonder that Sarah laughed when she heard this (Gen. 18:12)—such news is indeed laughable when you’re 90!

To explain the radical character of biblical faith as believing God’s promise in the face of what seems impossible, Paul makes explicit—if impolite—reference to Abraham’s embodied behavior.

Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God (Rom. 4:19-20).

Adam and Eve failed to rightly “image” or glorify God and suffered the consequences of bodies hijacked by Sin.  Abraham epitomizes genuine faith in God, being rightly oriented to God in his body, thus glorifying God—imaging God rightly.

For next post: How Paul articulates God’s solution (hint: Jesus Christ did something bodily, affecting bodies and the corporate body, so that Christians might reconceive how to use their bodies and participate in the body).

Prayer for a New Academic Semester

We began a new semester this week, in which I’m teaching Romans, 1 Corinthians, and New Testament Biblical Theology–I’m seriously living the dream!

With every new semester, I think of this prayer for Bible study from the BCP.  I used it to begin our NT Biblical Theology class last night.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.