Discerning Gifts for Spiritual Growth

1 Peter 5:1-7

A Community Process of Discernment
We’ve come to an important time in the process of adding to our leadership. A church is a part of the body of Christ. We exist to help each other and the people around us know the God of the universe who shows himself in Jesus and lives in us in his Holy Spirit. That affects every aspect of life, but its priority is important. We want to discern, participate in God’s work. 
We know from our world how cynically leadership is manipulated. Across history, the church is often no different, just another broken human institution. The process of discernment matters for those who believe/trust in God with renewed minds (Rm 12:1-2). There’s no set method or failsafe technique. We do our best. God works. The Holy Spirit acts among us. Always the challenge of Jesus shows us God’s reality turning our world’s values upside down. We must go back again and again to the scriptures as learners, looking at Jesus, growing. 
Maturity, Task, Responsibility

Inclusive Leadership in a Challenging Culture

Romans 16:1-13

A Community that Broke Barriers
Last week we talked about how 1 Tim. 3 showed how Paul urged Timothy to discern leaders that fit the distinct situation, life, and needs of the congregation. Remarkably, in its first cent. the Jesus movement struggled to be inclusive on every level. Success was real but limited. There were no patterns of associations with women or slaves as leaders. It was hard in that society for them even to speak, much less serve as prophet-teachers or leaders.
But they were pushed by the Spirit giving gifts, by theology/baptism, by Jesus’ example. Jesus treated every person as honored, valuable (paradigm of Samaritan woman // Nicodemus). The Spirit came to all (Act 2) and gave gifts as he willed (1Cor 12:11), not staying in lines. The deep reality expressed by baptism broke down the most fundamental barriers to make believers one in Christ. How could they live that truth in such a divided, hierarchical society?
Calling and Service

Leadership among New Testament Christians

Romans 12:4-8, 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Cf. Titus 1:5-9

Developing Leadership in Early Christian Communities
The NT has a range of descriptions for leadership in the early communities of believers. There is an interplay between everyday and church language(episkopos= supervisor, overseer, into “bishop”) (presbyteros= elder, later transmuted into priest) (diakonos = servant, deacon).
Jerusalem: apostles, elders, presided over by James, Jesus’ brother. Antioch: prophets and teachers. Paul appointed new converts as “elders” (Act 14:23). Philippi used the language of supervisors/overseers and servants (bishops and deacons). Many assemblies were evidently led by those in whose house they met (Mary, Lydia, Priscilla and Aquila, Titius Justus, Chloe). Paul usually describes leadership in terms of gifts of grace (charisma) with a range of functions (Rm 12). He never speaks of elders till 1 Timothy and Titus, near the end of his life.
Paul’s Instructions to Timothy and Titus.
In our own tradition, the descriptions of elders in 1Tim and Titus have often been the law, a kind of checklist, discussed and debated but controlling. We looked for a binding pattern and these texts were explicit enough to override descriptions of leadership in other letters.
It is important to ask what Paul intends in these texts. They’re very important as they show Paul dealing very explicitly with situations in Ephesus and Crete. What are we to learn?

Christ Comes to All the World

Romans 15:13-21

Apostle to Nations who’ve Never Heard of Jesus
Paul knew that he was called to a special role, as one saturated in the Law, a Roman citizen, a Greek-speaker, confronted by the resurrected Jesus, sent especially to cities/people across a pagan Roman empire. He worked in Syria, Arabia, Asia Minor, Greece, now Rome, Spain. Paul has a strong sense of Advent. God is always breaking in, coming to new peoples new lives. He’s seen it. Participated. That’s the particular calling he received. Rome’s empire was tied to its own throng of gods. The Jews’ story seemed superstition. – A crucified Jew as Lord? Paul was the instrument of Advent in regions beyond what’s known in Acts – Illyricum.

Christ Opens God’s Welcome

Romans 15:7-13

Advent – Story of the Event that Shapes Us
Advent means “Coming.” The coming of Jesus as Messiah. All that that event means. No one knows Jesus’ birthday, but Advent/Christmas is about structuring life around the events of God’s promises of grace and salvation flowing from his love: Powerful, continuing Drama: One man (Abram) –> a Nation (Israel) –> One man (Messiah Jesus) –> the Whole World.... Paul comes to the climactic end of the main body of Romans: A way of life and relationships that flows from the whole story. The heart of Christian life & ethics – not general morality. Welcome – As the Messiah welcomed You – God’s Glory. What God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we learn as the permanent heart of God, we learn to practice toward others.

A Harmony that Sings of Jesus

Romans 15:1-7

True Strength -- Loving My Neighbor -- Jesus
A diverse community means that people are at many stages on their journey of faith. Some with long experience, others new, some struggling, others confident, hiding problems. Paul nears the end of Romans, brings together the impact of God's Good News of his Son (1:1-5). 
Here Paul starts with (1) strength contrasted to weakness, lifting up weaknesses, something he's often thought about. (2) He sets that next to pleasing the neighbor, directed love. (3)This flows from focus on Jesus--coming among us, dying for us-- (4) climaxing the long story of scripture. (5) He prays for all the diverse community to shape life by the event of Jesus (6) so that all delight in God's grace for their journey and unite in worship. (7) Do it! 
Paul starts with "we who have strength." Strength is real here, confident faith. But it's easily coopted as power to control, please self. This strength is love, obligated to support others.

Justice, Peace, and Joy in the Holy Spirit

Romans 14:14-23

The Importance of What's Not Important
Paul wants us to see that the profound event that God has brought about in Jesus (Gospel) comes to embodied fulfillment in transformation of life through a renewed mind -- a way of seeing ourselves, others, and God through the lens of Jesus -- his life, cross, & resurrection.
This section is marked by confident assertions: "nothing is unclean," "the kingdom of God is...," "everything is clean," "faith." But something happens. The idea of clean/unclean, holy/ common used to be objective, as in so much of the Torah: God is separate from the world. Paul's statements are heretical to Paul's own past. But Jesus happened! Now God has placed at the center of his holiness and love a cross, a scandal, horror, God dying for us. God is different from the world -- his self-giving, serving love is weakness and foolishness to our world, but embodies his power to overcome death's grip on us and give us real life now.

Being Right and Being Right

Romans 14:7-16

Jesus as Lord and the Love that Shapes Life (7-9)
Paul wants the Romans to see the nature of a community that includes people not only diverse in background but in spiritual growth and understanding. He’s used issues of food and of special days, both with long histories and deep emotions, to highlight fundamentals. Everything flows from the heart of the Gospel: Jesus’ life, death, resurrection that puts him at the heart of human existence as Lord – the Lord who conquers death and creates life. Jesus’ cross opens a relationship deeper and more defining than any human structure. Human power stratifications are rendered obsolete by the one relationship of every person in life and death to Jesus/God as loving and saving Lord. That new, direct tie has deep power to shape life because it embodies God’s love for us in our weakness and hostility. Each individual has a distinct relation to Christ, as a loved creature for whom Christ died. Each is called into “a walk” according to that Love seen in Jesus, empowered by God’s Spirit.

Community of Many Minds

Romans 14:1-9

Welcoming When It Matters

Paul is helping the Romans see a basic vision for the new communities that include Jew, Gentile, Roman, foreigner, slave, free, prosperous, poor. At the same time they transform the life and actions of all by the renewing of mind. The center is what happened in Jesus – living in a world created and sustained by the one God seen in Jesus’ self-giving love. This creates a living body with a great diversity of body parts: gifts, cultures, weaknesses. Welcome/accept/take to yourself is the basic theme, tested when serious differences arise. We sense distance: “weak in faith”– eating vegetables? Faith to eat everything? To us “weak in faith” means doubt. We might reverse the terms. For Paul “stronger faith” is seeing the meaning of Jesus’ story to define a relationship to God by real transformation by Grace, Faith, and Love, rather than various religious practices. But Paul knows those practices carry great weight and are a powerful language for both Jews and Gentiles.

The Dawning Light of the Future

Romans 13:8-14

Unfolding the Renewed Life

This is the final section of Paul’s foundational call to a life transformed by renewing the mind, before he begins applying it to problems in the community in Rome. He began by calling them to give themselves – “bodies as a living sacrifice” – not formed by this age but thinking soberly and with faith. Each person is different – parts of one body in Christ. Each has distinct gifts of grace to be used diligently: prophecy, encouraging, mercy...

He unfolds the character of a community shaped by Jesus’ teaching: a peaceable kingdom. Genuine love, honoring others, celebrating in hope, persevering in suffering, serving. Blessing even persecutors. Focusing on the event of Jesus, his humility, self-giving love. Never taking revenge. Living with beauty, excellence, peace. Conquering evil with good. They live under overarching authorities, seeing them as servants responsible to God. Expect them to do their job. Act for the good of others. Deal honestly with imposed obligations.

Living within a Society

Romans 12:17 - 13:10

Looking At Authority from Below and Above

Rom 13:1-7 are verses that have been used and misused in many different ways across the centuries. After Constantine, the church was attracted to the power of the state to enforce conformity (unity). Luther, Zwingli, Calvin all wanted civil authorities to enforce doctrine. King James I of England (KJV) believed in the divine right of kings and made sure the KJV translation supported his view: ‘He is the minister of God’/‘It is a servant responsible to God.’

Paul writes from Corinth to Rome in the time of Nero. Jews had been expelled from Rome. Paul has suffered Roman imprisonment and beatings (Act 16). The emperor cult was flourishing. Paul looks at Roman authority as a citizen/Jew/Christian and as a victim of Roman hostility. Rome’s overarching authority is real and dangerous but Paul knows that it is not ultimate. Paul is reflecting on the worlds the believers live in. The challenge not to let this age mold the believer but to experience the renewal of the mind to live embodying God’s rule in Christ. Peaceable Kingdom and Avenging Authority

A Peaceable Kingdom

Romans 12:9-21

Renewing the Mind in a World of Conquering Evil

Paul writes to a highly diverse church (Jew, Roman, Greek, Slave, Free, etc.) in the imperial capital. People from different worlds of thought. All challenged by Jesus. In eight years many would die under Nero’s persecution. Should they arm themselves? Form a militia? Split up.

Renewing the mind: How to be a community really shaped by Jesus. Learning to think in a new way, with a shared focus (16). Not conquered by evil calling us into its way (21) The danger is not suffering/persecution, but being shaped by the lure or threat of the world’s ways .

Paul starts looking at the diversity of people, of gifts of grace, of ministry (4-8). That sets the challenge of a community that can embody and experience God’s kingdom coming “on earth as in heaven.” He calls them to that reality (9-16), always aware of how things can go wrong. He helps them to think about a hostile world around them (17-20) to resist the strong urge to respond with defensive exclusion and hostility even when it seems justified.

Living Sacrifice – Gift of Life

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Romans 12:1-13

A Living Sacrifice in a World of Sacrifices

Think of Paul implementing Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in the Greco-Roman world. The world around is very religious – sacrifices continually in temples – trying to manage or fend off the evil of the world. Jesus insists on not managing evil but going deep into God’s heart and purpose, really living in God’s reality – simplicity, solid rock, joy, love.

The cities smelled with burning sacrifices. Paul points to a new vision of living sacrifice, the whole person, not just “spiritual” but body, a whole life offering to God, a vision of worship that is logikos, fitting the message (logos), the Word of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection.

The Powers that Be

Romans 13:1-8

Patriotism, Authority, Rebellion It’s 4th of July weekend.
Memorial of the beginning of the rebellion, 241 yrs ago, 1776. The colonies rejected “the Powers that be” (Rm 13:1 KJV) and began a war for independence. US history is long & complicated, with great advances and profound problems that we still wrestle with. It’s one of many nations, empires, colonies, people groups across history. Christians live within all nations, under all authorities, in tension with all. We all experience patriotism, connection to the land of our birth or ancestors or ethnic group or home.

God’s Spirit and the Power of Resurrection

Romans 8:9-17

Resurrection and Pentecost

Jesus forced weeks of waiting between his resurrection and the first public proclamation of the Good News. He did not allow his disciples to begin immediately. He was not beginning a political, social, or religious movement, though any human group has those aspects.

This was to be a new reality of God’s participation in the life of humans. It began in Jesus’ incarnation, consummated in his resurrection that joins physical life with the life of God in a new way. Now it was empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to bring ordinary humans into a transforming, growing experience of God’s life and love now, drawing them into the very life of Jesus by the power of his Spirit, embodying Jesus’ life of service, love of enemies, forgiveness, healing, trust in God, deep peace ... preparing for their own resurrection.

“Mercy Upon All”

Romans 11:25-36

From Grief to Celebration – Following the Paths of God
Paul began Rom 9-11 with great grief for his Jewish kin – so many were missing out on what they should have delighted in, what was their own story. He ends celebrating what God is doing in this complicated history that reaches back across scripture and into the lives of the believers in Rome. It is challenging and complex! God made human life complex. It’s often hard even to understand ourselves, our own rebellious wills, our hopes, our loves.
If the problem were simple, we could have a book of do-it-yourself resolutions. It would not have required the incarnation and death of God, the defeat of death, resurrection life.
Paul sees the drama of Jews and Gentiles, played out in his own life and ministry, as a sign of God’s choice of a particular human path leading to his faithfulness and mercy to all people.

Foreigners and Family

Romans 11:5-24

Tensions in a Diverse Community
In building a community, there are basic principles, and also particular problems that arise. The church in Rome likely started after Pentecost (ad 30) as the “visitors from Rome, Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10) who became believers returned home (25 yrs before Romans, ad 56). Many Roman Jews were from freed slave families, from Pompey’s conquests a century earlier, not citizens. In c. ad 49 emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome because of conflicts over the new faith (Aquila & Priscilla, Acts 18:2). Claudius died ad 54. Jews returned. The church had been non-Jewish (Gentile) and now has returning leaders. How is all this supposed to play out. Some Gentiles said God rejected the Jews and brought in Gentiles.

Paul, the Pharisee who became apostle to Gentiles, wants to deal with the issue. Not just with practical advice but by understanding the whole narrative of Scripture and their place in it. He has worked with many of the returning Jews and is committed to the nations/Gentiles.
The Troublesome Grace that Makes New People

Reformation Sunday 499: "The Ever-Reforming People of God"

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Romans 10:14-17

A Journey through Centuries
499 years ago tomorrow, a monk named Martin Luther, moved by what he saw as the corruption in the church, walked to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed up a series of 95 “theses” for debate. This event and what followed set off the “Protestant Reformation.” We are heirs of those events in many ways. 

Paul traced God’s amazing paths leading to his own time. The story went on. For 300 years the Good News spread in the Roman Empire and beyond, in spite of strong opposition. In the 4th cent. emperor Constantine became a patron of the church. The church gradually took on the hierarchy and government pattern of the empire. At the top it used tools of empire to enforce conformity. Many wonderful things, but also deep transformations as it became Christendom, the religious governing culture of Europe. With the political and violent power of the state often came corruption and conflict. 

As Christendom came to its zenith in the “Middle Ages,” the church, crossing all political boundaries of Europe, had vast power, but often poor leadership at the top. 

Hearing the Good News of Jesus

Romans 10:10-21

Wrestling with God’s Good News
In Rm 9-11 Paul is striving to express the journey of struggle and discovery that has defined his life. All his life he knew that God defined his relation with the world through Israel and Torah all his life. A crucified Messiah did not fit. He fought it. Then Jesus confronted him.
God called him to proclaim a crucified Messiah to Gentiles, to people outside the ancient covenant, to people not even interested in Israel’s God or Messiah. Wrestling began.

Paul is taking us through a highly compressed summary of his journey of scripture study and experience in preaching, seeing inclusive communities breaking down society’s barriers. Even in Rome a community of Jews/Gentiles, Greeks/Romans/barbarians/slaves/women. New words shine in scripture: “Everyone,” “all the earth,” “those not seeking me.”