Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Day 90: The Millenium, The New Heaven and Earth, The End

So an angel comes down from heaven with a key, and the angel chains Satan in the abyss for a thousand years.

And there is one thousand years of peace, when the saints reign with Christ.

Ever heard of "the millennium"?  Right here in Revelation, Chapter 20, is the millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ.

There are several schools of thought about the millennium.  Some people believe that there will be a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ.  The pre-millennial view is that Christ will come before the thousand year reign, and that he will take believers away (rapture) before the tribulations.  The "post-millennial view" is that Christ will come at the end of the 1,000 years, a time of peace (maybe not a literal thousand years) during which most people will become Christian.

Others (including most Lutherans, by the way) believe that the millennium is not literal, but that the 1,000 years represent the entire church age.  "Amillenialism teaches that good and evil, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, develop simultaneously and grow until the end of this age."  (this sentence is from an old book on The Revelation by Esther Onstad, "Courage for Today/Hope for Tomorrow."

At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan is loosed again briefly, and then, the new heaven and the new earth arrive.  God will dwell with God's people in a new creation that is what God intended in the first place. There is no longer any death or darkness, the holy city is replendent with jewels and wealth, and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of those who have suffered and have been persecuted and have been vilified in this life.

So the basic message of the book of Revelation is this:  even when the world looks darkest and most frightening, even when God's people are being persecuted and killed, the victory belongs to God and the Lamb.

At the very end of the book of Revelation, the Prayer is this:

Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day 89: Babylon and Company

We're nearing the end of the Book of Revelation, and I can't say that I'm unhappy about that.  It's hard to read, for a number of reasons:  1) the symbolism, some of which is pretty easy to follow, some of which is impossible to discern; 2) the violence, 3) the gloom and doom.  But read Revelation in the midst of a war, or if you are a religious minority being persecuted, or at one of those scary apocalyptic times in history, and perhaps the book of Revelation becomes more interesting.

Now we hear more about Babylon (Remember, "Fallen is Babylon the great!)  Babylon probably referred to a particular government or Kingdom at the time Revelation was written (possibly the Roman Empire, with its 7 hills), but now it has come to mean any corrupt kingdom or people.  Babylon does not recognize any god but itself, and idolizes power, wealth, greed, violence.  You name it.

Babylon is "a whore" (pretty strong language) and is contrasted with the church, which is the Bride of Christ.

Babylon will be defeated.  And it's not pretty.

So at the end of Revelation 19 we have this great scene of worship, but we also have this gruesome scene of the defeat of the beast.  And as much as I want the good guys to win, I still have a hard time reading the words about the "feast" at the defeat of Babylon, and "drinking the blood of kings."  All I can say is, when I read these horrible words, is I remember talking to Veterans, and especially Veterans of World War II, and how they don't like to talk about their war experiences much, or at all.  I think it is because they have been to hell and back, and even though Hitler (for example) needed to be defeated, there is no way they want to glamorize what they went through.

So Revelation is about the war between good and evil, between God and the forces of Evil, and the good news is that God will win, God has won already, but in the meantime, the battles are sometimes gruesome.

Tomorrow, we come to the end.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Day 88: More Worship, More Warnings, No Repentance

Again, John sees visions of the saints (the 144,000) worshipping around the throne of the Lamb.  I love the detail about the name of the Lamb and his father written on their foreheads.  They sing a "new song" in front to the throne and (here's something I'm going to remember, too) no one can learn the song except the 144,00).  It's not that I'm eager to exclude people who can't learn the song, it's just that lately I've become so aware of the power of music, and how God uses music to imprint the truth of his love on our hearts.

Three angels bring warnings to the earth about the coming judgment.  They warn people to worship God, to turn from following "The Beast", to watch out for Babylon.

(and do you notice this line?  "Favored are the dead who died int he Lord from now on."  "Yes, says the Spirit, so they can rest from their labors, because their deeds follow them." -- this is where we get our hymn, "For all the saints, who from their labors rest.")

Then there is the judgment, the two harvests.  The Human one has a sharp sickle in his hand, for the harvest is ready.  there is another angel as well, also reaping a harvest, but this is a harvest of judgment. The image is clusters of grapes, "cutting the vineyard of the earth" -- again, here's a song with which you may be familiar, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/he is trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored".  This hymn was written during the civil war, a bloody conflict that must have seemed like the end of the world to those who were fighting.  Both sides felt that God was on their side, and that truth was on their side.  But this hymn was written by an abolitionist, and she used words from the Revelation to express God's judgment on the country for the sin of slavery.

After this there are seven bowls with plagues that will come over the earth.  To me, what I notice most in these chapters is not just the plagues, but the fact that it seems that no matter what plagues are unleashed on the earth, people do not repent.  (This reminds me of the story of the Pharaoh and the people of Israel in Egypt.  God sends many plagues, and yet Pharoah does not repent.  It also reminds me that the book of Revelation was written during a time of great persecution, and was written for a people who were being persecuted.)

We are nearing the end of the book of Revelation.  How much destruction is left?  What more can be said?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Day 87: It gets Worse

...and weirder, too.

This section of scripture is filled with strange, and fearsome images.  We're no longer talking about famines and wars and plagues, but both worship and wars in heaven.  There are beasts and dragons.  So it's obvious that all of this is symbolic, not literal.  What are these visions about?

In chapter eleven a temple is being measured, and there are prophets.  Many people think that this refers to the literal rebuilding of the temple.  Others believe that the measuring and rebuilding of the temple refers to the growth of the church, until the end of the age.  Prophets will come who will testify to the truth of Christ's victory over sin and death, and ultimately, no one will be able to stop the prophets' witness, even though terrible things happen.

The scene shifts to heaven, where the heavenly throng worships and sings "the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ..."  (see how this keeps happening?  reminding beleaguered people of the ultimate victory).

Even though we think of the beast and the dragon as future enemies, it's very possible that the early Christians read them as powerful people who were actively persecuting them then.  Emperors of the Roman Empire and other leaders opposed to the church were waging war against Christians, and the dragon and the beast might be those leaders.

Some people consider that the woman being pursued is the ideal church (remember that sometimes the church is compared to a bride.)

It's worth mentioning that number "666", since so many people refer to it.  Some people try to read it as a code, and think that it might refer to a specific evil person.  Others point out that in Hebrew, numbers have meaning (for example 7 is the number of perfection,  3 represents completeness, and 4 is the number of the earth).  So 6 is one short of a perfect 7, and 666 might just mean "perfect evil.'

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Day 86: The Terrible Things

Back on earth, the seventh seal is broken, and things begin to happen on the earth that no one prays for and no one hopes will happen.  Seven trumpets are ready to be blown, and each will unleash a new plague on the earth.  The first four plagues have to do with things that will happen in creation, and the last three will be plagues on the people.  And incredibly, the plagues do seem to have something to do with the incense, the prayers of the saints.  Are the terrible things that are happening a sort of repayment for what has been done to God's people?  I don't know.  And I'm not sure that it is good to try to think about it too hard, to figure it out too closely.  It is enough to know that Terrible Things are happening on the earth.  Some of the references will be familiar to those who read the Old Testament (regarding wormwood, and also locusts, and the day becoming like night).

It's a pretty dark picture, with people begging for death, but not dying, and yet not repenting of their sins, continuing to focus on themselves and on things that aren't lifegiving.  And if I thought that anyone gloated over such a scenario, and said, "they will get theirs!", I would want to throw the book of Revelation out of the Bible.

But then, I think about the Holocaust, and those who were vilified, and imprisoned, and killed.  The star of David was imprinted on them, but used as a means to seek them out and kill them.  And I wouldn't blame them at all if they thought of those who sent them to gas chambers, and if they thought, "they will get theirs!  They won't ever repent!"

That's the sort of time that Revelation was written for.

So during this dark time, those who had a seal on them will be saved.  It that seems heartless, think of it like a star of David, which at one time was used to identify those who would be killed.  But not it will be used to identify those who would be protected.  I think that's what John is doing.  "You were singling us out for death," he says.  "But later, God will single us out for protection."

Then (notice again) the scene shifts to heaven again, and the most awesome angel imaginable appears on the scene.  John is not allowed to record what he hears from the roaring of the voice of the angel.  And he orders John to eat the scroll, and he finds it both bitter and sweet, like the Word of God contains both promises and commands, both comfort and judgment.

And John is ordered to prophesy again.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Day 85: Visions of Heaven and Earth

So, in Revelation, chapter 4, we start getting into the nitty-gritty of John's vision.  (One of my friends says that she's not sure what John was smoking, and yes, what he sees is strange, but....) Please note that the vision begins in heaven, not earth.   When we think of the book of Revelation and its visions of destruction, it's important to remember that there are other, alternating visions as well:  visions of worship, visions of the throne of the Lamb.  Those visions are just as important as the other ones (perhaps more so).

So the scene opens with the throne of God (and seven of all sorts of things again).  If you can close your eyes and imagine, it's not only strange, but awesome, with a rainbow like an emerald, and a sea of glass.  There are worshipping creatures around the throne, and they are singing "Holy, Holy, Holy"  (sound familiar?)  Many of our hymns come from the book of Revelation.

In chapter 5 there is a scroll to be opened, and no one worthy to open it.  John weeps.  But wait!  There is one who is found worthy to open the scroll!  The "Lion of Judah, the Root of David" (hint:  Jesus) is worthy because he has been victorious. And the Lion, the Root, steps forward, and guess what?  It is a Lamb.

Hey!  Here's a nice aside:  There are twenty-four elders, each holding a golden bowl of incense, and the bowls represent the prayers of the saints.  Somehow I like that, but I like metaphors.  "Let my prayer rise before you as incense..."

Anyway, at seeing the Lamb, everyone breaks into song again,  "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain..." (again, sound familiar?)

And then the Lamb opens the seven seals ..... and then, literally, "all hell breaks loose."  With each seal comes a new plague.  (Have you ever heard of "the four horsemen of the apocalypse?"  Here's where they cone from.  The first horseman is on a white horse, so some people think he represents goodness, but most believe that since, the other four are all negative, that first horseman represents false messiahs. The other horsemen are war, famine and death.  Some people think that these represent special forces let loose at the end times.  But others (and I am one of them) would like to point out that all of these things:  false messiahs, famine, war and death, exist in every time and place.

So, a whole bunch of bad stuff is happening.  Six of the seven seals have been opened.

And then we switch, and again we see visions of heaven.  There are the 144,000 (okay, this is not a literal number, but it is 12 X 12 X 1,000, which is a way of saying the fullness of those who will be saved -- and remember that !2 is the number of the tribes of Israel and of the disciples).

And again, there is worshipping.  Especially the people who are worshipping are those who have come through persecution.

Chapter seven closes with a promise:  "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Some people say that the only people who can really understand the book of Revelation are those who are being persecuted,* because the book was written for Christians who were being persecuted.  It was written to remind them that no matter how bad things are, no matter how bad things get, God is still in charge, will protect and vindicate them.  The one who rose from the dead is still victorious.

If we cut through the strange visions and just look for the core, "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" comes up more than once.

*and by persecution, I don't mean having to listen to people say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas.  I don't mean not being able to pray in school, or having atheists make fun of your faith, although I'm not taking that lightly.  I'm reserving persecution to mean "persecution"  -- being imprisoned, tortured, abused, oppressed for confessing and living your faith.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Day 84: The last Book of the Bible -- love it or hate it

The Book of Revelation (notice the singular) elicits strong reactions -- some people are absolutely fascinated by this book, its strangeness, the visions, and the violence.  Maybe it's the fact that it seems like a code they have to crack is what hooks them; perhaps it's the idea that this books holds keys (sort of like Nostradamus) to the end of the world.

There are others that think that the last book of the Bible for a reason.  It is the last book they are interested in reading.  A couple of years ago when I  offered a course in Revelation to our adult forum during the winter, a few extra people showed up -- but one of our Bible presenters, a retired pastor and great theologian, asked me, "Why are we studying THAT?"

Yet, here we are, and I hope that along the way we can clear up a few misconceptions about that book. There are things to be decoded in it, and there are things that (contrary to what you may have heard) cannot be decoded.  They were written in the way they were to hide them from Roman persecutors; the book of Revelation was written to give hope to persecuted Christians, without giving away too much information to those who were persecuting them.  It is a form of literature called "Apocalyptic", which is not so common in the Bible, but does exist, in a few places (Matthew, Mark and Luke all have short apocalyptic sections, and the Old Testament book of Daniel is known as apocalyptic literature.)   The word "apocalypse" means "revelation", and it does have to do with visions of the end of the world.  Usually this literature was written in a time of persecution, when the people also did not have much power.  Prophets also interpreted the present and the future, and often called the people to repentance and hope.  Apocalyptic prophets preached God's defeat of their enemies and ultimate victory.

That being said, the first three chapters of the Revelation are also a letter, aren't they?  Like all of the other letters that precede this one, John (on Patmos) writes, not to individuals but to churches, seven churches in particular.  He is writing both to encourage and to admonish them, and he has specific words for each church.   Ephesus has lost their first love,  Smyrna is going to suffer, but God will give the the crown of life.  Pergamum is holding on, but some follow "Balaam's teaching" (whatever that is).  Thyatira has done great works, but has also put up with Jezebel, Sardis thinks it is alive, but is dead.  Philadelphia has been faithful and will be protected through a time of persecution.  And then there's the church at Laodicea -- they think they're rich, but they are really miserable.  They are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.

A few little things to notice:  each congregation has an angel.  the message is to the angel of the church.
One of the most famous verse in the Bible, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" is, in fact written to that seventh church, the one at Laodicea.  It is a part of their call to repentance.

The figure that John sees at the beginning of the vision (with the hair white as well) is very similar to a figure in the book of Daniel, the "ancient of days."

Notice all the sevens.  Seven stars, seven churches, seven lampstands.  There are a lot of interesting things with numbers in this book.  The number 7 recurs (this is the number of perfection or completeness in Hebrew numerology).  So, are there really SEVEN churches, are is seven a number indicating John means ALL the churches?

Whatever the answer, this much is for all of us:  "If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."  And know that the strange words of Revelation has really, two purposes:  to cause us to repent, and to give us courage.

What comes next will be easy to hear, but not always to easy to understand.....

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Day 83: Short subjects

Today we're just getting 3 short letters, two by "John", one by "Jude."  The letters are so short, there aren't even chapers.  Just a few short verses in each one.  Both 2nd and 3rd John seem to be written to individuals, one to a noblewoman and her children, the other to Gaius.  I'm a little suspicous (might I say) of the noblewoman.  Perhaps the reference is to a congregation, as often churches are referred to in the feminine.   Just a thought.

In both cases, the theme of loving one another continues in both of these short letters.  As well, the letter writer wants to warn of people who don't believe that Jesus really came "in the flesh."  Some teachers of the time believed that Jesus only "seemed" to be human, and therefore could not have really suffered or died, either.  Third John also wants to commend one leader and criticize another. 

Both positive community habits (the habits of love) and warnings about false teachers and teachings form the core of both of these letters.

The letter of Jude is also concerned with false teachings and teachers.  Listen to what Jude says about some teachers:  "They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; fruitless autumn trees, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea foamong up their own shame...."  powerful words.  You get the feeling that Jude really really doesn't like these people, and they have been infiltrating the community's "Love Feasts."  (It's an interesting glimpse into the life of the early church; we don't have "Love Feasts" any more -- they were probably communal meals of some sort.)

But for all of the harshness of the Letter of Jude, I love these words of closing:  "Have mercy on those who doubt.  Save some by snatching them from the fire." 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Day 82: Little Children, Love One Another

....and keep yourselves from idols.

That is the last sentence in the first letter of John.

Someone told me once (perhaps my uncle, the amateur theologian) that in Jewish literature, often the most important thing was left for last.  This last sentence carries a lot of freight.

Keep yourselves from idols.  What does this mean?  What is an idol?  What are the idols we should keep ourselves from?

I think the right answer to this is, "What do you think?"

In the meantime, the other theme of this letter is:  Love one another.  Over and over again, we hear these simple words:  Love one another.  Love one another in truth and action.  Don't just talk about it.  Do it.  Show it.

Not that there aren't some things to wrestle with (though the basic premise is easy for figure out).  John seems to think that once we come to faith (and have God's DNA residing in us), we don't sin any more.  I would like to talk with Martin Luther about this, because he is the one who said that we were always 100% saint and 100% sinner.  And it is my experience as well that even though I have God's Holy Spirit residing in me, I do still sin, and need to be "born again from above" every day.

Then there is the part about antichrists.  Please notice that there are "antichrists" and not one Antichrist, with a capital "A".  This is not about a prediction about end times, but it is about every enemy and opposite of Christ, in every time.

So children of God,

Love one another.  In word and deed.  But mostly, in deed.

Believe that you are, indeed, what God has called you:  children of God.

And, keep yourselves from idols.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Day 81: How to Wait

The short second letter of Peter begins by reminding us what it means of what it means to live as Christian people in the world:  moral excellence, self-control, endurance, godliness, affection for others and love.  But this reminder has a larger purpose:  the author of 2nd Peter knows that we are in this faith for the long haul.  The earlier letters of Paul spoke of the imminent return of Christ  They believed and hoped that he was coming back soon.  But now, well, he's still coming back, but perhaps not so quickly.  so what do we do, in the meantime?

We wait.  And we live.  And we live faithfully.  Which means....

we are on guard against false teachers, which are everywhere trying to lead us astray, both by teaching and by life style.  The author speaks about teachers who proclaim that there is no ultimate truth, and therefore no point to living a chaste and humble life.

The other two things the author of 2nd Peter does are:

1.  he retells the story of the transfiguration, remembering the moment on the mountain when Jesus appeared to the three disciples.  In the same way we retell the stories (not just of the transfiguration, but all of the stories of scripture, and also the stories of how God works in our lives).

2.  and he imagines the future that they are looking forward to, the future where there is a new heaven and a new earth, and righteousness is at home.

In between these two realities is faithful waiting and faithful living.  The author reminds us that in God's time a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day, and  that the delay is a gracious sign, because the longer God delays his coming, the more people who will hear and believe the good news.

And one more thing:  between God's faithful actions in the past, and our hope for the future, is the present, and the presence of God.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Day 80: Faith under Fire

The Letters of Peter, James, John and Jude are called by scholars the "catholic" epistles -- because they don't seem to be written to any one church (as Paul's letters were) but seemed meant to be shared among many churches.  So they are not known by who they are to, but by who (supposedly) wrote them.   I say supposedly because not all scholars are agreed that every one of these catholic epistles was written by the person to whom it is ascribed.

Aside:  the word catholic means "universal."

That being said, there does seem to be a theme for this short letter.  It is written to a church, or to churches, that are experiencing persecution.  So there is a combination of inspiration, encouragement and exhortation in this letter.  There's the wonderful image of the church as living stones, chosen, gathered up and built into a house by God.  Peter wants the people to remember that God first loved and chose them; this will help them to resist the temptations they encounter and the sufferings that they need to endure.  He identifies the people as strangers among people with different values than their own.  He encourages them to continue to live counter-cultural lives, resisting finery, and living simply.  Persecution and suffering naturally come to those who are faithful (look at Jesus, after all).

I have to admit some discomfort with some of the author's advice, especially his advice to slaves to obey their masters and just keep taking the abuse.  Although this was certainly written at a different time than ours, when the Roman empire did not take kindly to civil disobedience, these verses and others have been used to justify oppression and slavery.    And do we want to counsel women to put up with being beaten by abusive husbands, because suffering can be good for you?

We need to be careful how we read scripture.

Certainly there is truth here.  We can't avoid suffering in life.  And it's true that many have suffered for good cause, and that good has come out of it (I think of those who peacefully protested the Jim Crow laws in the south, and won civil rights for themselves by their faithful witness).

So the author writes to people who are experiencing suffering, and we can hold on to this:  suffering is not good, but when we encounter suffering in this life, it also does not that we have done wrong.  Sometimes it is a price we pay for doing the right thing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Day 79: Christian Wisdom

Here's a little secret:  Lutherans are not supposed to like the book of James, much.  It might be because the author seems to be arguing with the apostle Paul (someone Lutherans really love) regarding salvation by faith alone.  The author of James (and some people think he might have been James, the brother of Jesus) seems to be picking a fight with Paul, saying "Oh yeah?  Faith alone?  I say faith plus works!  Faith without works is DEAD!"

But the argument is overstated, I think.  If we think of faith the way Luther (and Paul) did, faith in Christ Jesus is what raises us from the dead.  And, people who are alive do things.  They act.  Because they are alive.  But the works do not save us.  They are just what we do because we are alive.

At least, that's what Paul would say.

Even though I'm Lutheran, and even though I'll grant that the book of James wouldn't be the one book of the Bible I'd take with me if I could only take one book, I still harbor a sort of fondness for it.  Maybe it's the picture James paints of the poor man and the rich man entering the church, and people fawning all over the rich man, and James saying, "Don't play favorites!"  Or maybe it's the image James paints of a poor beggar with his cup out, and people saying, "God bless you!" to the beggar, but not giving him a penny, or a sandwich or a coat to keep him warm.

Maybe it's the wise sayings about the power of the tongue (I've always liked those), or the advice about what to do if someone in your congregation is sick.

I think of James as Christian wisdom literature.  It's full of true sayings for how to live in Christian community.

Another scholar once told me that James is an example of the survival of the minority opinion in the church.  It's a small peek into what the piety of the Jewish Christian believers might have looked like.  We don't have much of their wisdom in the New Testament, but we have this letter.

So, what do you think of the letter of James?   Do you agree with Luther, that it is an "epistle of straw"? (which was not a compliment).  Or do you harbor a fondness?  If so, why?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Day 78: By Faith, the Cloud of Witnesses

Like when I hear a good sermon (even though Hebrews is a letter, not a sermon), when I read this section of Hebrews, I sense that we are coming to the peak, the climax, the mountaintop of the letter.  Here is where everything is leading, the encouraging and exhorting, the theological arguments for the superiority of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice.  Here we can sense so much the letter-writer's desire that the people not give up, not turn away from their faith, even though (it seems) the times are tough and they are not seeing much evidence for the truth of the faith.

By faith.  What is faith?  Generations of Christians have used this definition:  "The substance of things hoped for."  We believe in things that we do not yet see, but we believe that they are coming, and we live differently because of it.  But there are things that we do know and have seen and heard about, and they give substance to our faith and our lives.

The author of Hebrews recites a whole litany of people who lived by faith, starting with Abel, and ending with Jesus.  In between s/he lists so many people, well-known and anonymous, men and women, who lived by faith, not receiving the end of their hoping, but holding firm to the Promise of God.  Abraham.  Sarah.  Gideon.  David.  Jephthah (yes, even the judge Jephthah is mentioned).  And in sort of terrifying detail, the author goes through some of the hardships and persecutions people before them had to endure.

In the end is Jesus, one of the crowd of witnesses, but also different somehow.  While we are running our raise, and being cheered on by the whole company of those who lived "by faith" we are looking to him, for he alone has crossed the finish line  "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."

After this great climx, this great exhortation, this great finish of the one who went outside the city gates for us, there's not much left to say, except for some reminders of how to live (in purity, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting those in prison), and  a wonderful benediction:

May the God of peace, who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus,
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant,
equip you with every good thing to do his will,
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Day 77: The Better Priest, the Better Sacrifice

That is what the author of Hebrews calls Jesus:  the better sacrifice.  He intentionally sets Jesus up against the priests of the old covenant, and the sacrifices of the old covenant, and declares Jesus to be better, more effective, good Forever.  Because he is perfect (unlike any other priest), he is able to save completely; because he died and rose and is now seated at God's right hand, he able to intercede continually for us.  That is one of his jobs.

And this kind of priest, and this kind of covenant was foretold, by Jeremiah, who wrote, "Look, the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel...I will place their laws on their minds, and write them on their hearts....."  So God always intended for this old covenant to become real.

Some people think that this letter is written to Jewish Christians, who were considering abandoning their new faith, and returning to pre-messianic Judaism.  Sometimes the rhetoric makes me think so.  While I am one who holds fast to the new covenant given and sealed by Jesus (remember the idea that the death of the signee makes the well effective?), I also struggle with some of the words of this letter that seem to say that Judaism is now obsolete and is going away.  Is that what the letter writer is saying?

Jesus in Hebrews is not only the Better Priest, he is also the perfect sacrifice.  His sacrifice on the cross is not again-and-again, but once-for all, so no longer do we need to make sacrifices of animals to be reconciled with God.

On the other hand, if we fall away once we know the truth, this letter has harsh words for us: 'if we make the decision to sin after we receive the knowledge of the truth, there isn't a sacrifice for sins any longer."  What do you think of this?  Do you think that the author of Hebrews is referring to ordinary "sins", or something more encompassing?

Tomorrow we are on to the some of the most well-known passages of this letter.

What is faith?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Day 76: Jesus, our Sabbath Rest; Jesus, our High Priest

So, in his (or her) encouraging way, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews continues to encourage and to chide and to remind the congregation of the superiority of Jesus, of the benefits of knowing Jesus and following Jesus.

First he reminds them of the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, and the promise of sabbath rest.  But there's more to the story than meets the eye.  Sabbath rest is about a literal rest from labors once a week, it's about entering God's rest, it's about trusting the faithfulness of God, whether in the wilderness or the promised land.  So ultimately Jesus is God's Sabbath rest -- the One who trusted God perfectly also offers us a Sabbath when we trust him.

Then, he points out Jesus as a high priest:  and not just any high priest, but a high priest "after the order of Melchizedek."  What does that mean?  Melchizedek is a sort of shadowy figure from the book of Genesis, who appears mysteriously to bless Abraham, and then disappears again.  He is not part of the formal line of priests.  He is prior to the levitical priesthood.  In fact, he does not even appear to be an Israelite.  But he is unique, like Jesus.

Jesus is a priest, our high priest, which might seem a strange thing to our ears.  What do we need a priest for?  A priest is a mediator, an intercessor, someone who pleads for someone else, and most of us don't think this way.  What do we need a mediator for?  What do we need an intercessor for?  What could we be guilty of?  We're pretty good, aren't we?  Maybe we make mistakes sometimes, but nothing we have to worry about.

But the author of Hebrews and his/her congregation do believe they need a mediator.  They know that they fall, and they want to be reconciled to God.  Jesus is a good reconciler because as a human being, he sympathizes with our stumbling ways, but he always has the ear of God.

But what about us?  Is it good news to us that Jesus is rest, or that Jesus is a high priest?  How would you describe the good news of Jesus?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Day 75: The Mysterious Letter

We don't know much about Hebrews.

We don't know who wrote it (very long ago it was ascribed to Paul, but his name is never mentioned in the greeting.  In fact, there isn't a greeting at the beginning, although there are some final greetings at the end.)

We don't know who it was written to, despite the fact that the title says it was written to "the Hebrews."  (Some people think perhaps it was written to Jewish Christians in Jerusalem; others disagree.)

We're not sure when it was written, either.

Some people even think it wasn't a letter, actually but a sermon, an idea which sort of intrigues me.  I am also intrigued by the idea that perhaps Apollos wrote it, or even Aquila or Priscilla.  But don't mind me, I'm also the one who thinks that Lazarus could have been the "Beloved Disciple."

Whatever else it is, Hebrews is a hymn of praise to Jesus.  The mysterious author makes the case for the uniqueness of Jesus as Savior and Son of God, and writes to encourage and exhort people under duress to hang on to him and to the faith that proclaims him.  So, the opening chapters are full of scripture citations and poetic praises of Jesus "The Son is the light of God's glory and the imprint of God's being."  He is more important than any of the other messengers God has sent.

Therefore, don't give up or drift away.  The author will say this, in many ways, again and again.  Don't give up.  Don't drift away.

Although the world and culture and people have change in many ways throughout the ages, in some ways we haven't.  We give up.  We drift away.

"Hold fast to your faith!" the letter to the Hebrews insists.  There's a new world coming, and God has made us to shine in it.

There's nothing wrong with this message (and a lot right with it), but one issue that can get uncomfortable is the fact that the writer again and again compares Jesus with the first covenant in a sort of denigrating way.  Now that we have Jesus, does that mean that there is no use for Judaism?  How can I talk about my faith in a way that doesn't put someone else's down?  It's not as easy as it might sound.

Keep reading to find out more about what the mysterious writer of Hebrews has to say about Jesus, and why we should not give up...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Day 74: Titus and Philemon

Titus and Philemon are similar, and very different, letters.

They are similar because they are both short letters to individuals (rather than the letters Paul wrote to churches).  Titus is a congregational leader, and Philemon may also have been a church leader, but he also appears to be a wealthy Christian individual.  But for all of their similarities, the two letters seem very different.

The letter to Titus seems less personal, more concerned with church order and everyone's behavior.  Paul does not want the congregation members to give offense in the community, so advices masters and slaves, older men and older women, and advices the congregation members to live in peace in the community as well.  Paul seems to concerned that no one make waves -- he doesn't seem like the same person that once healed a slave girl who was possessed by a demon, because she was following them around and shouting.  He doesn't seem like the same person who made waves everywhere he went, until people say, "These people who have turned the world upside down have come here also!"

But something is going on in the world now -- and Paul is concerned that the community not make waves.

Then there is the letter to Philemon.  What I love about this letter is that, just like all good personal letters, we don't know exactly what is going on, because we only have one side of the conversation.  But we know that Paul's letter to Philemon has to do with one of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus.  Onesimus may have run away, or he may have been sent away, but Paul has met him, and now he is sending him back to Philemon.  In the meantime, Onesimus has become a believer, and when Paul sends him back to his master, he asks him to consider Onesimus not simply as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.

There's more going on, of course, but this very short letter is a window not just into an aspect of the first century world and church, but a glimpse of the apostle Paul:  charming, passionate and persuasive.  And witty -- the word "Onesimus" means "useful."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Day 73: Paul is Tired

At least, that's what I hear when I read this second letter he writes to young Timothy, his son in the faith.

There's a sort of passing-the-baton going on here, with Paul giving advice to Timothy, and warning him about what and who to watch out for.  There's a little world-weariness (everyone who wants to live a holy life is going to be harassed, Paul says).  There is some sadness, as Paul lists off people who have deserted either him or the faith, or both.

Getting old is not for sissies.

Usually, when I say this I mean it's because of health issues, or because people who get old have to watch their friends die.  But in this case, Paul is getting older, and looking back and even though he can look back to all of the good things he's done, and his accomplishments, he also gets to look back and see the things that are not going well right now, too.  He sees those who used to be fervent in the faith, and now have cooled off.  He sees people who were well-thought-of, but now have gone astray.  He gets the long view.

But there's a lot of wisdom in these short chapters, too.  There's a little bit of "rule-keeping" exhortation (like people in the military, or athletes, you will benefit by following the rules, he says.)  But I think he's talking not so much about "rule-following" for it's own sake (which is about as far from Paul's theology as I can imagine) but about practice.  Athletes practice; military people practice.  You too will benefit by the discipline of practicing your faith.

One of the most famous passages about scripture is in this letter, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for exhortation....."  what I like about this passages is that scripture is useful, but not always in the same way:  God does different things in us through our hearing of Scripture:  teaching exhortation, comfort,  encouragement.....  I think that the least helpful way we can think of Scripture is as a map or a guide (those "owner's manual's you get for cars?  who cracks open those books, except when you are in trouble?).  Let's revel in the surplus of meaning in scripture, not just keep it in the glove compartment of our cars for when we break down.

Finally, Paul passage the baton when he says to Timothy, "I have fought the good fight."  In his last letter, he exhorts, "Fight!"  Now he looks back and says, "I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race."  The crown of righteousness refers to the laurel wreath reserved for the winners in athletic tournaments.  Paul has already won because he already belongs to Christ, even though many people have deserted him, even though he is lonely, even though he needs his friends to come to me.

The letter ends with all sorts of small personal details:  come and visit, bring my coat, also bring the scrolls and parchments.  Bring Mark.  No one is with me, except Luke.  No one took my side in the court hearing.  Greet Prisca and Aquila.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Day 72: Sound Doctrine, Sound Conduct

That is what Paul is concerned about, and wants Timothy to know:  sound doctrine, and sound conduct.  There will be those who will be led astray by other teachings, tempted by "demons", Paul says.  He specifically refers to sects that prohibit marriage (ascetics) and who forbid certain kinds of foods, and practice all kinds of self-denial.  So the sound teaching is that all things were created good and are to be used with thanksgiving to God.

As for sound conduct, Paul is very concerned that Timothy's church live in such a way that they don't give offense to the culture that surrounds them.  So there's this extended conversation about widows, and who should be provided for, and who should not.  (I have to ask, though:  why are there so many widows, both young and old?)

Paul is also concerned about the reputations of leaders, and what makes a good leader.  (this is a concern contemporary for us as well.  There are leaders who lead their flocks astray, and cause offense today, by abuse of power, as well.)  Paul is also concerned that a good leader be able to make a living without having to justify himself (it goes without saying that for this particular version of Paul, the leader is going to be a man.)

Finally, he calls Timothy to the high calling of leadership, and he exhorts him to hold firm in his faith:  shun temptation, pursue righteousness, fight the good fight of faith.  He reminds Timothy of the public confession of his faith that he made once (confirmation?) and to hold fast to this confession.  He also reminds Timothy of another One who made a public confession before Pontius Pilate.

Paul reminds Timothy of the return of Christ, but somehow there does not seem to be the same urgency as in, say 1st Thessalonians.  "The timing of this appearance is revealed by God alone," he says, as if to say, Jesus is delayed, but we don't know the day or hour, so let's be patient.

Patient.  There was a sort of inpatience in Paul's early letters, a sort of leaning forward into the future.  There's still a little of that (fight the good fight), but not quite as much impatience.

I miss the impatient Paul, who's always looking for the next mission field, crossing the next sea.  He's impatient for the kingdom to come, for the reign of Christ to be manifest, for the lion to lie down with the lamb.  He wants to see it.

Sometimes we can be too patient, and start wishing to just fit in.

Fight the good fight not to fit in.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Day 71: Paul's letter to his "Son"

Up until now, Paul's letters have been to congregations, religious communities, but today's letters (and others) are written to individuals, in this case Timothy.  Since we have been reading in the New Testament, we know a little about Timothy.  He was a young man who had a Jewish mother and a Greek father, he traveled with Paul, and was much beloved by him.

Now I'm going to tell you something that might seem a little confusing:  some scholars don't think that Paul wrote this letter.

They believe this because of some of the subjects Paul discusses:  the particular church controversies he mentions and the qualifications for bishops, for example.  And may I suggest that if this is Paul, the tone of the letter is much more staid and (ahem) establishment-sounding than some of the earlier letters that we read.  There's not as much passion in this letter, although there's still a concern for good order and Truth.

Then there's the pronouncements regarding women's leadership in chapter two.  In Galatians, Paul states that "in Christ there is no male or female," in 1 Timothy he writes that a "wife" or a "woman" should learn quietly in complete submission.  (As well, we are not to wear elaborate hairstyles, or gold, pearls or expensive clothes.)  What are we to make of this? 

As a woman, I'm wondering why some churches adhere so strongly to the position that women are to remain silent in the church, but not to the other requirements that women should not wear jewelry or expensive clothes.  Because it seems to me that both of the things that Paul is concerned about have to do with the culture of the time, and what sort of behavior would adversely affect the Christian community and its witness. 

I can't help but noticing that most of this part of the letter (we'll see what develops tomorrow) deals with how to manage the household of faith:  husband and wives, bishops and pastors, servants and masters.  Yet I'm drawn to the simple statement of faith in chapter 1, which is worth the weight of the whole letter, "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners."  Paul goes on to say that he's the biggest sinner of all -- and his whole life is an object lesson of God's mercy.

There's something about this sentence that makes me smile. 

Our whole lives an object lesson of God's mercy.  Maybe that's enough for me.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Day 70: It's not the End of the World .... Yet

Paul writes a second, even shorter letter to the church in Thessalonica.  Again, he encourages them, prays for them, admonishes them.  There a some great phrases in this short letter.  I love how he calls the Thessalonians "the first fruits", and how he tells them that God has chosen them "from the beginning."  Paul's perspective:  God chooses us from the beginning of time, but I don't think it's a simple determinism, the way we look at it.  But it's a way of looking at the world and our lives as a story that God is writing.

The main reason Paul is writing back to the Thessalonians is this, though:  it's because the idea of "the end of the world" has infected the community with some unfortunate practices.  Some have even been telling them that the Day has already come, and some people think this is an excuse for lax moral behavior.

So Paul tells them that no, the Day has not come yet, and there are things they ought to watch for, things that must happen before the Lord returns.    He also lets them know that even though they believe the Lord is near, they need to keep working and keep living together.  (Paul's comments about people who eat need to work as well imply that the church in Thessalonica lives together communally, working and living together, and sharing what they produce.)  And while I in no way mean to excuse laziness in anyone, I think Paul's comments regarding eating and working are taken out of context when we use them to refer only (in our day) to people who are out of work and receiving government assistance.  Some interpreters believe those who ate without working may have been "idle rich", who were not contributing to the whole community.  For my money, I'm more interested in that second, more neglected phrase,  "they aren't working, but they are meddling in other people's business."  Really makes me wonder what they are meddling about......

Do you notice that at the end of letters, Paul often says that he is now writing in his own hand?  Most of the letter is dictated, but at the end he provides authenticity by signing his own name.

Tomorrow, we will head over to 1 Timothy.....

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Day 69: Paul's First Letter

The letter of Paul to the church in Thessalonica is the very earliest piece of Christian literature we have: it is earliest letter Paul wrote, and earlier than all four gospels.  So we have a small glimpse into the spread of the gospel not so long after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This short letter is filled with thanksgiving for the community, for their reception of the gospel, for their faithfulness.  Paul also admonishes them to holy living, and reminds them that he believes that the Lord Jesus is coming soon.  Not that they have a time or a date set, but they are waiting eagerly for the return of Jesus.  In fact, one of the concerns that the people of Thessalonica have is that they had at first believed that none of them would die before Jesus' return.  Now the unthinkable has happened, and a few of the members of their community have died.  What are they to think about this?

Paul gives them a picture of what he believes will happen:  those who have died, will rise first, and then those who are still alive will go up to meet the Lord in the air.  (I suspect that this is where the term "rapture", which is not found in the Bible, originates.  I'm not sure why it came to be called "the rapture".)  As well, Paul cautions the church members not to grieve "as those who have no hope."  Even though some of them have died, they have hope of the new kingdom and the new life God is preparing for them, and preparing them for.

It's unfortunate, but I suppose unavoidable given the context that Paul disparages "the Jews":  unavoidable because at this time the chief opposition to the spread of the message of Jesus came from Jewish leaders.  It is unfortunate, because rhetoric like this has contributed greatly to great persecution of Jews by Christians throughout many centuries.  While we are at it, we might notice that when Paul admonishes the congregation, he also urges them not to be like the Gentiles, "who don't know right from wrong."    (By the way, most of us who are reading these letters are Gentiles.)

At the end of the letter, Paul gives many memorable, pithy words of encouragement.  Short as haiku, simple and profound, words like "Pray without ceasing" and "Rejoice always" and "Give thanks in every situation" haunt us, because we can remember them.

The Lord may not be coming tomorrow, but the Lord is near.  Do not quench the Holy Spirit.  Just don't.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Day 68: Another Short, Cosmic Epistle

This is another one of those short letter that some people think Paul might not have authored.  Some scholars date this letter slightly later because of some of the concerns named:  false teachers and doctrines, particularly preaching harsh ascetic practices.  Paul writes in part in order to counter these claims and re-assert the claims of the gospel.

Again, I'm struck by Paul's expansive gospel and Jesus:  "All things were created by him, both in the heavens and the earth."  This is a view of Christ that goes beyond the man Jesus who walked on this earth.  Jesus is God-incarnate, and he was around from the beginning of creation.  The gospel is God's secret plan from the beginning of time, not made manifest in the crucified and Risen Christ.  It was a secret, but it is a secret no longer, not since Jesus rose from the dead.

It's possible that Paul speaks this way because he is countering the claims of another religious group that they have a secret access to the gospel not known by others.  Sometimes these religious groups were known as "gnostics".  Paul says that yes, there is a secret, but it has been revealed now, and it's not just available to a few spiritual giants, but to everyone.  what's the secret?  "Christ living in you, the hope of glory."  And that you means all of you, not just a few special people.

As I read this letter I'm also struck by Paul's statement about supplying what is missing in the suffering of Jesus.  I have always been taught that there was nothing missing in the suffering of Jesus, so I'm intrigued by what he means.  What is the meaning of the suffering of Paul, or our own suffering, for that matter?  How does this connect with Jesus?  What does it mean to "supply what is missing?"

You may have noticed that again, Paul gives advice to members of households: husbands and wives, slaves and masters, children and parents.  Even though Paul admonishes masters to be kind to their slaves, I would wish that perhaps the bold Paul could be even bolder with regard to slavery.  Now we have been able to stand up and say that no one should be a slave.  Paul apparently was not able to go that far.  Later one, we would appropriate the Exodus story to work for freedom for those enslaved.  And we still can, despite Paul's caution.

Finally, as I read this letter (and others), I can't help but notice how often Paul speaks of prayer.  He prays, he gives thanks for other peoples' prayers, and he promises to pray for the churches he has visited and the churches he is planning to visit.  Prayer brings a kind of proximity with those who are far away, and binds them all together.

Prayer moves all throughout the letters of Paul.  Let's see if it keeps moving through the next letters we will read.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Day 67: Epistle of Joy, Apostle in Prison

These four short chapters Paul writes to the Philippians while he is in prison somewhere.  Some people think he is in prison in Rome, others suspect an earlier imprisonment.  The church in Philippi, which is not a wealthy community, has sacrificed several times in order to send Paul help, and this letter is a thank you note.

For a man in prison, Paul is in incredibly good spirits.  He puts a good construction even on those who oppose him (those who are preaching Christ, but not from good motives), saying to the Philippians that it matters not what the motives are, only that people are preaching and hearing the gospel.  While he is imprisoned, he also encourages them, for he considers that they too live in difficult circumstances (their poverty), and he tells them to look to Christ as they live together in community.  So they are to serve each other, become slaves to one another, as Christ became a slave to us, in order to set us free.

Philippians 2:6-11 is often called "The Christ hymn", is could possibly be a quote from an early Christian hymn.  It expresses the downward ascent of Jesus, who gave up equality with God to walk with us, even to each, and whose name is now exalted above every other name.  This downward ascent Paul also notes is a mark of the Christian life.

Chapter three is memorable to me for a weird reason:  because my uncle (amateur theologian) used to use it as an example of the colorful, earthy language in the Bible.  In chapter three Paul is trying to describe that it is really true, he is really willing to give up everything, everything, for the sake of knowing Jesus and being found in him.  He's not just willing to give up his sins and the things that weigh him down, but even the things thought valuable, his birthright as a Jew, his righteousness by the law.  All these, Paul says, he counts as "loss", or "rubbish", compared to Christ.  Except that he doesn't use the word "rubbish."  He uses the Greek equivalent of the word "shit."  At least, that's what my uncle told me, when I was an impressionable age.  "We try to make Paul and Luther too genteel," he would say to me.

There's a tantalizing little detail here about a couple of women named Syntyche and Euodia.  They are (um) having a fight (even in the early church, there were fights).  Paul takes a little time to tell them to find a way to agree in the Lord.  For there is important work to do, and they are an important part of it (no mere women's work for Euodia and Syntyche).  

Finally, Paul closes this letter with memorable words of Joy.  We are tempted to consider Paul a Pollyanna, saying that he has learned how to be content with plenty, and with scarcity, that they should rejoice in the Lord always, that they should not worry about anything.  He seems a sort of Pollyanna, telling them to "Accentuate the Positive, and Eliminate the Negative", until you remember that he is in prison.  He is not telling them to put on a happy face.  He's telling them to look all the reality of this life in the face, and still believe that God is with them, that God is blessing them, that God is near them.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Day 66: The Expansive Becomes Local

In the second half of Ephesians, Paul (or one of his disciples) writes about what this expansive vision of the grace of God means for the community life of the Ephesians (and everyone....).  "Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called", he begins, and he goes on to paint a picture of what that will look like.  Humility and patience, compassion and truthfulness -- and most of all, striving for unity, because there is only One Lord, One Baptism, One Faith, even though it looks so much different sometimes (some things never change).  There seem to be many factions and warring sects in the church (much to our detriment, Paul understands), but in reality, there is only one Body of Christ.  Speak the truth, but speak in Love.  Work together.  Come out of the darkness and into the light.  Forgive each other.

Easy words to understand, perhaps.  Harder to do, certainly.

Especially when Paul uses the words, "Be imitators of God, as beloved children."  He just throws it out there, like a bomb, an impossible thing.  In so few words, can you imagine anything so impossible?  Whether you imagine the invisible, immortal, perfect One, or whether you imagine the humble healer, to me it still comes off as mind-blowing and impossible.  Unlike God, we need to practice daily self-examination and repentance.  When Paul speaks about "telling the truth", the first person we need to tell the truth about is ourselves.   (When we get to Philippians, tomorrow, I believe we'll get more insight into just what Paul means by imitating God; at least, that's what I think.)  For the moment, what Paul means by imitating God seems to have something to do with being a Lord who does not lord it over others, does not cling to God's own power.

So one of the exhortations here is to "be filled with the Spirit", not an elective but a required course for anyone who wants to live a life worthy of their calling.  Be filled with the Spirit, guided and directed by the Spirit, returning to the life of God's spirit within you each and every day.

As the letter winds down, Paul ticks off a list of household instructions, some of which might be hard for us to swallow these days, especially those about wives submitting to their husbands.  Paul goes on to explain that Husbands, like Christ, are supposed to be lords who do not lord it over, but still, I think cultural bells go off, that make us say, "even so...."  The advice for husbands to love their wives was radical for its day, and it's interesting that while children are to obey their parents, parents are also not to provoke their children to anger. hmmmm. Interesting.  (I wonder what this would consist of.  Anyone?)

Paul closes with an extended analogy of "the full armor of God."   It is interesting to me that all of the tools are for defense (except the Sword of the Spirit).  They are not for Offense, but for Defense.   In Paul's day, anyway, Christians were much more likely to be wounded than they were to be doing the wounding.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case today.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Day 65: To Ephesus and Beyond

One thing you might notice about the letter to the Ephesians right away is that, unlike Galatians and both of the letters to Corinth, Paul has almost nothing personal or specific to say to the church at Ephesus.  That has led some people to speculate that this short letter really was not written to the Ephesians, but was a letter more generally circulated to all of the churches.  It has led others to speculate that Paul did not actually write it, but instead one of his disciples.  (It would not have been a terrible thing in those days to write a letter "in the name of" one of your teachers.)

So this letter doesn't have juicy details about the sins of the Ephesians, or greetings to individuals that we want to know more about, except Tychicuscxzgt  (Darn.)  But it does have (and you'll just have to trust me on this) those really really long sentences that Paul is famous for (you can tell this especially if you read the original Greek).  I believe the first 15 verses of chapter one are one long sentences.  It also have a wide, expansive vision of God's mission in Christ:  at the end of time, God will bring all things together in Christ, things on heaven, and things on earth.  ALL THINGS.  This is one of the places where Christian universalists get their universal hope.

So Ephesians has this expansive vision of a God who is in the reconciliation business, and this is not just about reconciling individual souls with Jesus, but reconciling strangers and sojourners, Jews and Greeks, lions and lambs, all of creation.  In Ephesians you get the impression that our individual salvation is just a teeny weeny part of a huge plan.

But teeny though we are, we are each a part of something huge:  God's plans for the re-creation of the whole universe.  The doxology at the end of chapter three gives glory to God for just this reason:  because God is doing great things through us and in us, greater than we could even ask for or imagine.

Ephesians is, in a way, like Romans.  It's a miniature theology, only six chapters long.  But Ephesians has more a missionary flavor to it, which might be why, when I was a missionary, I sort of gravitated to Ephesians.   In Romans, we have "peace through God."  In Ephesians, we have the peace that reconciles us not only to God, but the peace that reconciles us to one another.  "He is our peace, because he has broken down the wall of hostility that divides us."

So Ephesians is.... cosmic.  But, at some point, even in this cosmic letter, Paul will get down to earth.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Day 64: Do you want to be Free?

That's the question Paul has for the Galatians.  Do you want to be free, or do you want to be slaves?  He is angry with them because he told them the truth, he spoke the Gospel to them, and God set them free, and he thinks that they want to be slaves again.

Perhaps they do not understand, so he tries to find an analogy.  He tells them about the two sons of Abraham, the son of Hagar (Ishmael) and the son of Sarah (Isaac).  Ishmael was the child of slavery, and Isaac was the child of freedom, the child of promise.   Isaac was given by the promise of God, and so even though the children of Israel lived in slavery for awhile, they were destined to be free, to live by faith rather than by the law.


What does it mean?

Freedom is a loaded word in our culture.  We are the "land of the free and the home of the brave."  Paul  wants the Galatians to be free, free in Christ, which is not "freedom to do anything you want", even though he speaks of "freedom from the demands of the law."  Freedom in Christ is freedom from:  freedom from fear that we are not acceptable to God; freedom from keeping the law in a slavish way.  But it is also freedom to:  freedom to love our neighbor, freedom to love God, freedom for love, joy, peace, joy and all of the other fruit of the Spirit.

Someone wants the Galatians to be circumcised.  Paul thinks that these "Judaizers" think it would be a feather in their cap to claim the Galatians for their cause.  But Paul says, if they do this ritual, they will be enslaved again, they will be obligated to keep the whole law, they will no longer be free in Christ.

Do you want to be free?

That's the question Paul has for the Galatians.

It's not about self-improvement, but it's about death and resurrection, about freedom and new creation every day.  God is making us a new creation, an focussing on what we do is just muddying the waters.

Do you want to be free?  Free to bear one one another's burdens, and carry your own load?  Free to let Christ live in you?  Free to love your neighbor, and claim living resources that are not your own, but that belong to the crucified one?

Do you want to be free?  That's the question that Paul has for the Galatians.  I think Paul, and Jesus, are still asking.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Day 63: You Stupid Galatians!

The book of Galatians is short (only 6 chapters) and Paul doesn't have time to be subtle.  So, after brief, perfunctory greetings, he gets right to the point:

What the heck is wrong with them?????

Why are they abandoning the gospel he preached to them?

That's what he has been hearing.  Since Paul has left the church in Galatia, others have come, and they have been telling the Galatians that trust in Jesus' death and resurrection is not enough to be considered a follower of Jesus.  They also need to be circumcized, and keep the law.  This Paul emphatically rejects.  And he is angry that it is so easy for them to desert the gospel and cling, instead, to the law.

These false teachers are often called "Judaizers."  While Paul is careful not to tell the Galatians that the law is bad, he wants them to know that the law does not save them.  Paul tells the Galatians that the other apostles agreed with him on this (including Peter, who is called "Cephas" in this letter), and he feels that they were cowardly and hypocritical to cave in when opposition hit.

Paul is not going to do this.  He tells the Galatians a little of his own history, about how he, a zealous Pharisee, came to believe in Jesus, and how he came to be an apostle to the Gentiles.  He gives a short, passionate synopsis of his theology from Romans:  The righteous will live by their faith.  And the covenant with Abraham, based on Abraham's trust, takes precedence over the covenant based on the law.  In fact, the covenant that is based on the giving of the law actually depends on the covenant God gave with Abraham.

Do you ever wonder:  why is Paul so passionate about this?  What's the big deal?  What is he afraid of?  What is the slippery slope here?

Perhaps, as we complete the letter tomorrow, we'll get some ideas.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Day 62: Weakness and Grace at the End of 2 Corinthians

So we are drawing to the close of Paul's 2nd Letter to the Corinthians (though some people think it is actually portions of two different letters) and Paul is ratcheting up his rhetoric in the face of his competition:  the super-apostles.  Whether the problem is that those super-apostles are there, on the ground, or that the super-apostles just seems so, well, super, strong, without flaw, awe-inspiring, charismatic, inspiring -- or, perhaps, all of the above, I don't know.  But his reputation among the Corinthians suffers by comparison.  He doesn't speak as well as they do.  He doesn't cut as fine a swatch as they do.  He does not have the mega-churches or large crowds that they do.

So, what does Paul really have to brag about?

Plenty, as it turns out.

He can brag about the hardships and persecution that he has endured.  (and he does.)  He can brag about how much he loves them (and he does).  He can brag about his credentials as a good Jew (he does mention that).  He can brag about Jesus (this is always Paul's point:  if you are going to brag, brag about Jeus!).  And, he can brag about his weaknesses.

Which he does -- because, as Paul writes, when he is weak, God's grace shines even more brightly.

Oh, Paul backtracks a little; he talks about his own and others' visions and revelations, as if to say, "if that's what is important to you, I've had them too."  But then he goes on to say, "being caught up into the 7th heaven is not what is most important.  God's grace is what is most important."

So he talks about his "thorn in the flesh".  No one knows what it is.  A long time ago, I heard some say they thought it was a speech impediment, like a stutter.  More recently some interpreters have opined that Paul struggled with homosexual urges.  Both interpretations are interesting, but actually, we don't know what Paul's thorn in the flesh was.  All we know is that he heard God say that he would not remove the thorn, saying, "My strength is made perfect in weakness."

So, Paul boasts about his weakness.

When I think hard about this, it's about the most amazing thing.  Do I want to boast about my weaknesses?  Do I even want anyone to know what they are?  What does it mean to let God use the holes in our lives, and not just our successes?  What does it mean to boast in God's grace?  Really?  Seriously? 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Day 61: The Offering

A good portion of these chapters is taken up with the offering that Paul is bringing to Jerusalem, and that he hopes the Corinthians will contribute generously to.  In Macedonia, they astonished Paul with their generosity, and it might seem that he is shaming the Corinthians (a somewhat wealthier congregation) to do their part.  It is not that they are not going to give anything; he wants them to (cheerfully) give generously, not just a little.

Paul goes back and forth -- give generously, he tells them.  But then he will say, but I'm not saying you should give above your means, just what is appropriate.  Then again, "God loves a cheerful giver."  But  again, it's not what you don't have that counts, but what you do have.  He doesn't seem to want them to give out of guilt or compulsion, but freely, but this is really really important to him.  He wants it to be as important to them.

I think I understand this.  I want people in my congregation to give, and be generous and support the mission of the church, but I feel conflicted about it, too.  I don't want the widows on fixed incomes to hear the message and  give more generously than they can afford.  But then again, I do know there are people out there who can do more than they are doing right now, and I hope to inspire them.  Then again, I really want people to hear the central message -- the message of the overflowing grace and generosity of God, more than anything else.  I would never want people to think that God's love was dependent on their giving.

So, I think I can understand a little of what is running through Paul's mind.

Perhaps this is why I latch onto that one verse, "for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, became poor for our sakes, so that by his poverty we might become rich"

Again, I'm surprised by some of the things that Paul says.  He has to justify himself (or feels like he does.)  He tells them that he is shy when he is with them, but bold in his letters (which is a fascinating detail to me; I imagine that Paul-in-person would be much like the letters).  He also says that he is quiet and unassuming in person, not eloquent; but he does write eloquently.  Again, this is not the way I imagine Paul.  I may be reading into his words here, but it seems to me that perhaps the Corinthians have heard a flashier preacher of late, and they are wondering if this Paul fellow is really all that he is cracked up to be.

(sigh).  People are often taken in by the flashy public speaker.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Day 60: Treasure in Clay Jars

I'll admit it:  embedded in these four chapters of 2 Corinthians are some of my favorite verses in the New Testament:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ; there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; everything has become new!"
 "For the love of Christ controls us, for we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died."
"We have this treasure in clay jars so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn't come from us."

Paul is unleashing persuasive powers on the Corinthians.  In his first letter, he admonished them; now he's trying to paint a picture of the riches of the gospel, in order to convince them of the beauty and truth of the message he brings.

It seems that Paul still has competition for respect among the Corinthians; he still has to make his case that he ought to be listened to and respected as an apostle.  But it also appears that his warnings have borne fruit; he believes that even though he made the church in Corinth sad, that they are turning from their sins and returning to God, and that is a good thing.

For a long time I thought that the verses at the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 "even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day" were about eternal life, and the "building from God" was simply about heaven.

But now I see it a little more expansively.  I think our "inner nature" doesn't refer to a spiritual reality apart from our bodies, but that our "inner nature" and our "outer nature" have to do with the difference between how the world judges us and how God sees us.  So, for example, "the world" judged Jesus in a certain way because of what they saw:  we saw a poor carpenter who preached justice and who died a criminal's death.  But God saw him differently; God saw that he lived the kind of life that was blessed by God; that he was, in fact, God's son.

So, invisibly, God's grace and love is working in is, to renew our inner nature.  We might be experiencing hardship and trials, but that is not what defines our life.

That's what Paul is telling the Corinthians, both about them and about himself.  He is experiencing hardship, and frustration and poverty and persecution.  But that doesn't mean that he is a failure as an apostle.  And  it is the same with the Corinthians.  God is with them not only in their success, but in their failure, and is working through them.  They can't judge God's favor by what they see on the outside.

At the close, it seems that none of the words I have written are half as powerful as Paul's own:

"If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; everything has become new."

We do have this treasure in clay jars, God's grace somehow shines through in the clay jars of our own imperfect lives, in our own imperfect words, in our own imperfect actions.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Day 59: Paul Writes to the Corinthians Again (beginning)

So after Paul writes a somewhat critical letter to the church at Corinth,  he decides not to visit them again just yet, but writes to them again.  He begins by, again and again, speaking of the comfort of God in times of persecution and trouble.  These are verses we now read often at funerals.  Paul is speaking of one who brings the promise of God's comfort in Christ to people and one who has been through trouble and needs comfort himself.  He and his companions have been through hardships of many kinds in their missionary journeys.

One of the reasons Paul is delaying though, has to do with that other letter he wrote to Corinth, the one in which he was critical of them.  It is clear (and will become clearer as this letter goes on) that Paul feels that the Corinthians are unfairly mistrustful of him, and he needs to re-assert his credentials as an apostle.  He does have their best interests at heart.  He may have changed his plans, but he is not unreliable in what he preaches.  He is not (and Christ is not) "yes and no" to them, but only "yes."

Paul also contrasts himself with missionaries who preach the word for profit.  The only profit Paul seeks is the conversion of hearts to the gospel of Christ.  He feels as if they are requiring "Letters of Recommendation", but Paul feels that the churches he has started, churches filled with people following the way of Christ, should be the only letter of recommendation needed.

He goes on to contrast the glory of Moses in front of the ten commandments, with the glory of Christ.   Moses was able to stand in front of God, but the glory was too great to bear at that time, so he had to veil his face when he came down the mountain.  Paul writes that now, we are being transformed, so that we will be able to see the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Day 58: The Resurrection of the Dead

Finally, Paul gets to another controversy that the Corinthians are involved in:  whether the dead are raised or not.  Apparently this is another disagreement that the Corinthians have, and Paul meets it head on, and ends up with one of the most beautiful (and oft-quoted) chapters in the New Testament.

It appears that the Corinthians do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, because one of the arguments he uses is that, if you aren't raised from the dead, that means that Jesus wasn't raised either.  He also appeals to the witnesses to the resurrection:  Cephas (Peter), the Twelve, 500 disciples, James, and then, finally, to Paul.  (Note that when he sees Jesus on the road to Damascus, it is more like a vision, but it is still proof to him that Jesus has been raised.)

Here's what I don't like about Paul:  he doesn't mention Mary Magdalene, or any of the other women.  Nothing.  Is it because women are considered to be unreliable witnesses?  Still, all of the gospels put the women first....

He's pretty blunt:  if you don't believe in some sort of resurrection, for yourself and for Jesus, then your faith is in vain, and you are dead in your sins.  In other words, the resurrections means victory over sin, the possibility of new living, and victory over death itself.

He tries to describe resurrected bodies (with limited success); they will be very different than the physical bodies we have now, just as a tree is different than the seed that is planted.  They will be real, but spiritual bodies, designed to live in a new realm, a new reign.  And this new reign is the purpose and end of our faith.

Chapter 16 brings greetings and a recommendation to for them to care for Timothy, as well as final words of encouragement and exhortation.  This is a congregation that Paul has corrected, warned and yelled at.  But he ends by saying, "My love is with all of you in Christ Jesus."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Day 57: Spiritual Gifts, Love, Spiritual Gifts

If you want to know something about what the church as "the body of Christ" means, you want to read first Corinthians 12.  There Paul uses a metaphor for the body politic for the Christian community.  It was common to talk about the community, the city, the state as a "body," where there were many members, and where each member had a part.  So Paul wants the Corinthians to consider that they are united in one common purpose, even though they are diverse in gifts.  Paul, of course (as always) tweaks the metaphor so that the weaker members have greater honor.

And then he puts all of the talk about the body in the context of spiritual gifts, gifts given to the Corinthians, but for the common good.  That seems to be a growing edge for the Corinthians, who love spiritual gifts, the glitz and glamour of them, but don't seem to get the idea that the purpose of gifts is to share and to build up the body, rather than to divide and sow contention.

Chapter 14 is an entire chapter devoted mostly to one of the spiritual gifts:  speaking in tongues.  Although Paul is careful to note that tongues is one of the gifts of God, and he also boasts that he "speaks in tongues more than you all", he gives careful guidelines to the use of this gifts, and also seems to disparage it.  (I'll just come right out and say that I don't understand what Paul means when he says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers.  Especially since he contradicts himself afterwards by saying that if unbelievers come into your church and hear you speaking in tongues, they will think you are crazy.)

Speaking in tongues still seems to be controversial even today.  Some churches deny that the phenomenon exists (it was supposed to have died out after the apostolic era.)  Others make tongues the sign of a more mature faith.  Where are you at?

Then, in the middle, is Chapter 13.  Often read at weddings (although there is no word about marriage here), this beautiful chapter seems sometimes out of place.  In fact, you can take chapter 13 out and read  chapter 12 and go directly to 14 and it won't seem like anything is missing.  Where does chapter 13 come from?  and why is it here?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.

As for tongues, they will cease.

Maybe in the middle of all the arguing and the glitziness of spiritual gifts, Paul wants to set down the most important things, remind them of what it worth seeking, of what they have already been given.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Day 56: Eating and Drinking and Appropriate Dress, in Worship and Out

Paul continues speaking about the issue of eating and drinking, circling back first to remind his readers of the unfaithfulness of some of the Israelites back when they were wandering in the wilderness.  Don't grumble or complain or wander away!  He warns them.  Be vigilant! he says.  Everyone in the wilderness had come through the Red Sea, but that didn't stop them from losing their way later on, forgetting their freedom, and focussing on idols instead.

Eating and drinking is connected with relationships, right relationships, and with our neighbors.  So Paul says, it's not that eating meat sacrificed to idols is either good or bad, but it's the effect it has on our dinner companions that makes a difference, and reveals our own hearts.  If you eat meat sacrificed to idols it won't harm you.  But if someone tells you, "Hey, this is meat that was sacrificed to idols," then maybe you shouldn't, because that might cause your dinner companions to stumble.  It's all about what is harmful or good for your neighbor, and for your neighbor's faith.

Perhaps that's what is going on in Paul's convoluted arguments about women praying with their heads covered.  Paul says women should pray with their heads covered because "a woman has authority over head head."  I'll just come right out and tell you I don't know what that means.  And though Paul says that a woman should keep her head covered because "man was created first, and then woman" and that "man is the image of God and woman the image of man", later on he admits that now "men come from women" (biology).  (by the way, in Genesis 1, both men AND women are made in the image of God.  Wish I had Paul right here with me so we could have a talk about that.)

Then Paul returns to the subject of eating and drinking, but this time he is talking about the fellowship of Christians, and the Lord's supper.  In the early church, oftentimes the community would share a meal as well as the Lord's supper, and it appears that in Corinth, the community meal has become the occasion for some to be gluttons and other to go hungry.  There is no sharing going on, and this is part of what bothers Paul.  So, later on, when he talks about eating and drinking worthily, and discerning the body, I don't think he is just talking about the "Real Presence," but he is talking about discerning the Body of Christ in the community, and eating and drinking honoring one another as bearers of Christ.

Again, for Paul, it's all about relationships, about how we treat one another, and how we treat one another reveals the condition of our own soul.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Day 55: What to Do, What Not to Do

In this section of the letter, Paul gives marriage advice to the Corinthians.  It's fair to say that it might be confusing advice.  Don't get married, unless you are having a hard time controlling yourself, in which case, get married.  If you are widowed, stay single.  If you are already married, don't get a divorce.  Single is best, except if being single is too hard for you.  If you are single, you can be single-mindedly devoted to the Lord.  (Theoretically.)  But you possibly might find yourself too tempted to sin if you are single.  In that case, get married.  But, marriage is hard.  I want to warn you about that.  (vs. 28).  I have not ever heard this verse quoted in a wedding sermon.  (Another note:  Paul uncharacteristically calls much of this chapter his opinion.  Perhaps he would be shocked to find out that it got into the Bible.)

There seems to be an abrupt shift again, while Paul gives advice regarding eating meat sacrificed to idols, one of the many controversies of the Corinthian church.  Again, there is a difference between theory and practice.  In theory, they are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they realize that the idol is not real, and the meat is "just meat"; there is nothing especially holy or unholy about it.

BUT, Paul writes, if there are people for whom eating meat causes them to doubt, who wonder if they are sinning when they eat it, or it their consciences bother then, then we should be willing to abstain so that we don't shake their faith.  Again, what is important is how our actions affect our neighbor.

Finally, Paul addresses the issue of compensation for apostles.  He seems to be arguing that he has a right to make a living by the gospel (good for pastors to know!).  After all, the priests got to eat the food that was in the temple (to use one example).  Paul seems to feel that he and Barnabas have been singled out for special criticism in this regard.  Even so, Paul says that even though he could be compensated for his work, he is voluntarily choosing not to be paid, because he wants to do everything possible to be blameless in their eyes.

Well, maybe not exactly blameless, but he wants to work in a way that will make his witness there credible, that will make his witness take root.  So he says that he tries to be all things to all people, to those under the Law, he is under the Law, to those outside the Law he is outside the Lord.

All things to all people.  Who can really pull it off?  Paul is willing to do anything to make Christ real.   And he's intense.  Reading his letters makes me wonder what it would have been like to meet him....

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Day 54: Corinth is sort of like a Soap Opera

Or, at least that's what it seems like, reading Paul's next three chapters.  They've been staying up late in Corinth, and engaging in some actions that some people won't do.  And even if they aren't all behaving immorally, they are not calling into account one of their own who is (ahem) sleeping with his father's wife, for example.

The Corinthians brag that they are free -- they are free, right?  That means they can do whatever they want, right?  Paul is all for freedom, but thinks that the Corinthians might have misunderstood him.

Of course, that's not all of it.  Paul begins by calling the Corinthians on their arrogance.  They are acting as if they "know-it-all".  They don't need a teacher; they don't need instruction.  Paul sarcastically says, "We are fools for Christ, but you are wise for Christ!  We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, but we are dishonored.!"   The Corinthians have let some success in spiritual matters go to their heads, and it has affected their vision with regard to their behavior toward one another as well.

(This reminds me a little of the arrogance of the Enron executives right before its fall.  They were so drunk with their financial success they lost their moral compass.)

The Corinthians are wayward not only in sexual matters, but also in matters of how they treat one another.  They accuse each other and bring lawsuits against each other.  They are contentious.  They treat each other (and themselves) with disrespect.

Yes, you're free, Paul tells them, but free for what?  That's the question.

In Corinthians, Paul's ethics is defined by this axiom:  "Don't you know that your body is  temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?  Do't you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don't belong to yourselves?"

Honor your body.  Respect your body as given by God and a dwelling for the Holy Spirit.  And respect and honor your neighbor's body too.

It's not just your spirit that is important.  It is your beautiful, breathing body, created by God.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Day 53: Wisdom and Foolishness, an Inside Look at a Real Congregation

I like the first letter to the Corinthians.  I think one of the reasons that I like it is that it's very clear, in this letter, that Paul knows these people, that Paul knows this congregation, and that he is responding to very specific issues that have arisen in the community.  Even though it's helpful to read background notes about the people in Corinth, you can figure out some of what is going on without doing any background reading, because you can just tell from the kinds of things Paul is talking about.  It's like reading other people's mail, something of course no one should do, but something perhaps we are tempted to do on occasion, just out of curiosity.

So, what's going on in Corinth?

People are fighting, for one thing.  People are playing  favorites, jockeying for position, saying "I'm a better Christian than you are because such-and-such baptized me."  There are factions based on leadership, and who is the best public speaker (possibly Apollos) or who is the best looking or who is the most "spiritual."

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

As the letter to the Corinthians goes on, we'll find out that the arguing and the factions and the one-upmanship is just the tip of the iceberg.  There many other things going on in Corinth.  It makes you wonder how Paul can keep his temper, because, one of the things people are questioning is whether Paul is such a great apostle after all.  They've had some flashier preachers come in since Paul left, and they've been wowing the crowds and telling them some different things....

All right, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Just for now, we're dealing with the church conflicts, and the arguing.

And Paul uses the occasion to do some great preaching about foolishness and wisdom, about how sometimes the things that look the most foolish are really wise (like the death of Jesus on the cross) and how sometimes the things that look wise to us are not worth the paper they are printed on.

Now while I am attracted to Paul's paradox about wisdom and foolishness, I need to say that I don't think Paul is advocating a sort of "know-nothing-ism."  I don't think that foolishness is the same as ignorance, or that he is advocating being stupid.  I think the wisdom that he is speaking of is a sort of "wisdom of the world", the sort of "if you are rich it must be because you are the smartest person in the world", or "the people who speak fluently are the ones we ought to trust" -- that sort of wisdom that looks at the surface of things and makes judgments.   If it is that sort of wisdom we are looking for, it certain is foolishness to follow Jesus, the one who was crucified, and everyone knows it.  We also believe that he was raised, but NOT everyone knows that.

In particular, Paul is interested in reminding them that when he came among them, all he preached and all he wanted them to know was "Christ crucified."  That was it.  No fancy words.  No secrets of the ages.  Just "Christ crucified", (not even Christ resurrected!) equally confounding to Jews and Gentiles, but powerful and wise to those who heard.

It makes me wonder, in church conflicts today, what would be the results if we began and ended with "Christ crucified."  If we decided to know nothing with each other but this:  "Christ and him crucified",  what would that mean?  If we looked at each other and saw people for whom Christ died, people in whom (by grace) Christ lives, what would that mean?

Would it make any difference?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Day 52: The Weak and the Strong, Travel Plans, Greetings

The letter to the Romans ends with Paul weighing in on what seems to be a local controversy.  There are some among the Christians in Rome who are careful about what they eat, who practice abstinence of certain foods, and feel that this is part of how they are faithful.  There are others who feel that freedom in Christ means that they can eat anything they want to.  Paul seems to agree, in theory anyway, with those who feel that they can eat anything.  But "in theory" is a loaded phrase.  Paul tells the Christian community in Rome that just because they are free to eat anything, doesn't mean it's a good idea, especially if it's going to be harmful to the faith of their brothers and sisters.

So, what kind of food is Paul talking about?  Is he talking about people who keep kosher?  Is he talking about people who eat food which has been sacrificed to idols?  Or are there different dietary restrictions?  I don't know.

But what is interesting to note is that Paul's instructions are based on doing what is good, not for you, but for someone else.  It reminds me of someone who said that the question that always comes up at election tie, "Are you better off?" should really be this one, "Is your neighbor better off?"  That is Christian ethics.

Paul winds down his letter by talking specifically about his plans to visit the church in Rome, after he delivers the offering he is collecting to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  He is passionate about this offering, and what it represents.  It represents unity between Christians who are far away from one another.  It represents a unity of mission, even where there has been disagreement about practice.  Paul wants the Gentile Christians to be generous.

And then he sends greetings.  He sends greetings to specific people he knows, to those he has heard about and hopes to meet.  It might seem to be the least interesting part of the letter, except that there are probably fascinating stories (mostly that we don't know) behind every one of these names.  For example, there is Junia the apostle.  Junia is a woman's name.  Apparently there were some women leaders in the early church.  I would like to know more about Junia.

Paul closes his leader with a great and wonderful phrase about a secret -- the secret that has now been revealed.  I love the idea that the gospel is a secret.  It's been there, all along.  It's not that it's a new thing  It was just that it was a secret before, and now it has been spoken.  The grace of God has been spoken in the person of Jesus.