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Nothing Between – Sermon on Romans 8:26-39

July 27, 2014

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans begins in the middle of a thought that began in last week’s reading. Like a good teacher, Paul has been circling back around his main point, adding layers of understanding with each repetition. Now we find ourselves at the conclusion of chapter eight, a chapter so chock full of meaning, it takes three Sundays to get through it all. Here we are, on the third of those Sundays, about to read the climax of this chapter, which is itself the climax of the whole letter. When we left off last week, we were groaning with all creation in anticipation of “the glory about to be revealed to us” as joint-heirs with Christ. It’s a glory that far outshines any memory of suffering, a glory that completely overwhelms our brokenness. Hear the word of the Lord, as given to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter eight, beginning at verse 26.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are at least three sermons in this passage. First, we could focus on the kind of prayer that surpasses human language, and the way this prayer connects us to God in life-changing ways. As “God, who searches the heart” looks into our souls, we could consider what God might find there, and how to recognize that probing, and respond to it from our inmost being. The groaning of creation, combined with our own and the Spirit’s groaning, is more than the groaning of grief, as we so often think of it. This is the groaning of expectation, of anticipation for all things to be restored to rightness in the fulfilled Kingdom of God. That could be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.

We could also spend a good deal of time considering the middle of this passage, that begins with the much-loved and often quoted verse 28:
“All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The problem with this lovely verse is that translators can’t seem to agree on the best way to interpret Paul’s Greek, and the various versions have led to some questionable explanations. We often quote this verse when we run up against the unpleasant in our lives. Bad stuff happens, and we try to brush it off with, “Oh well, all things work together for good, …” as if God had made bad things happen to us just so he could make something good out of the mess. It has also been offered as a trite phrase meant to comfort those who are in the midst of suffering, but this use sometimes backfires when the person hearing it thinks we are saying, “If you really loved God, if you were really called according to his purpose, you wouldn’t be having this trouble.” But Paul isn’t talking about a transaction here. Grace is a free gift. Paul doesn’t say, “IF you love God and are called.” He says, “those who love God and are called.” This verse introduces a growing awareness that our ultimate goal is to be glorified with Christ. The good that God is working in us is aimed toward this goal of glorification. It’s less about making silk purses out of sows’ ears, or shaming us into loving God more, than it is about progressing from infant believer to a fully formed disciple of Jesus. That could also be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.

Of course, we could also argue about that testy word “predestination” until the cows come home, without coming to any satisfactory understanding of what Paul had in mind when he used it. The word translated here as “predestined” only occurs four times in the New Testament: Acts 4:28, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1: 5 & 11, and here in Romans. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, the word refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation for God’s plan of salvation. In Ephesians and here in Romans, Paul is referring to the inclusion of Gentiles in that plan, reminding his Jewish readers that God had in mind all along to offer salvation to the whole world.

We could talk about how, over the course of Christian history, this word was applied more specifically to an individual’s “predestination” and how Calvin developed an intricate doctrine of predestination that became an important element in Reformed theology. As Methodists, we might do well to review John Wesley’s sermons on this topic. In Sermon #58, he preached,

“What is it, then, that we learn from this whole account? It is this, and no more: — (1) God knows all believers;; (2) wills that they should be saved from sin;; (3) to that end, justifies them, (4) sanctifies and (5) takes them to glory.
O that men would praise the Lord for this his goodness;; and that they would be content with this plain account of it, and not endeavour to wade into those mysteries which are too deep for angels to fathom!”

So maybe today is not the day to tackle the doctrine of predestination. That might make for good discussion in a small group study sometime.

What does that leave us? Paul comes to his main point through four rhetorical questions:
Who can be against us, if God is for us?
Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?
Who can condemn us if Christ died for us, rose again, and stands on our behalf before God?
Who can separate us from the love of God?

And the answer is always the same. No one can come between God and us.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. No one can be against us if God is for us. God will give us everything, since he already gave his only Son for our sakes.
No one will bring any charge against God’s elect, because God himself justifies us. He finds us “in the right,” and if the supreme judge of all the universe finds us in the right, no one can appeal or argue that finding.
No one can condemn us, because Christ has already died and been raised to a place at the right hand of God where he intercedes, along with the Spirit who groans on our behalf. Condemnation has been condemned.

No one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Even when it seems God has abandoned you, Paul writes, you cannot escape his love. Paul quotes Psalm 44, a psalm of lament, to make his point. At a time when Israel felt that God had turned away forever, even then, God’s love for his people could not be destroyed. And now, even more than then, we have evidence of God’s deep love for us in the person of his own Son, Jesus. No, Paul says, we aren’t forsaken. In fact, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

What does “more than conquerors” mean here? What are we conquering, exactly? Through Christ Jesus, we can claim complete victory over the suffering caused by our sin. And what is the source of this victory? God’s great love for us, shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.

Paul’s final answer to the question, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” is one of the most beautiful assurances we can find in scripture. “I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s a pretty exhaustive list, but what if Paul were writing this promise today? What would make the list of things that cannot separate us from God’s love?

During our meeting this week, I asked the Church Council to take a moment to think of the things that break our hearts. We listed children who are vulnerable, families who are displaced by war or natural disaster, the violence and unrest throughout the world, but particularly in the Middle East and Ukraine. We listed places and people who might be feeling separated from God’s love right now. But Paul says, “Nothing can separate us.” Nothing can come between us and the God who loves us. Nothing.

Shel Silverstein once wrote a children’s poem called “Whatif,” that lists all the things a young child might fear, such as failure, disappointment, embarrassment, rejection, even death. “What if, what if, what if?” the poem asks. Adults often play the “What if” game, too. What if I had done this differently, or said that, or made a different decision? What if things go wrong and I can’t fix them? What if?

Paul says, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Stop “what if”-ing, and rest in this assurance: We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Rob Bell, former pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, put out a series of discussion starter videos several years ago. In one of these “Nooma” videos, he makes this profound claim: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.” And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. No matter what we do to try to make God stop loving us, it won’t work. He will not love us any less than he ever did. And no matter how hard we try to make God love us more, it won’t work, because he already loves us beyond anything we can imagine. He cannot love you less, and he cannot love you more.

Know that God loves you no matter what, no matter when, no matter where, no matter who, no matter why, no matter how.

So, live like God loves you. Live like a conquering hero, because that’s who you are. We are all completely victorious over sin and death, through the one who loved us, who loves us now, and will always love us. Live into the assurance that you are God’s own beloved child, and share that good news with the people you see every day who are hurting, disappointed, worried, convinced that they have no worth in the world. Remind them, as you remind yourself, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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A Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Lord, we don’t ask much, just enough.
This text we are about to read is so rich, so full, it’s a feast of words.
We can’t consume it all –
if we tried, it would go straight to our hips as fat stored for a leaner time.
So give us just enough, Lord.
Help us to hear your Word with hungry ears,
and nourish us with what you want us to gain from it now,
so that when we return to these words again and again,
our spirits may be satisfied, as with the richest of foods.
We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus, Amen.

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Learning Each Other’s Songs

Yes, friends, it’s true. I didn’t preach a sermon this week. We had a “hymn sing” at First UMC New Ulm, and it was not like any hymn sing I’ve ever experienced, I can tell you. For one thing, it was hard to hear the congregation actually singing.  For another, we discovered that we don’t really know each other’s songs very well. What is near and dear to the heart of one may be totally new to someone else. It makes us a little nervous to sing songs we don’t know – which may be one reason why the volume level was pretty low as we bravely muddled through the unfamiliar.

We had plenty of opportunities to share. In fact, there were more songs and hymns listed on the chart paper at the front of the sanctuary than we had time to sing. As you might expect, most of the favorites came from the Methodist Hymnal.  As you might also expect, a number of selections from our own “Songbook” of collected worship songs made it to the list. What surprised me was the relatively few number of songs chosen from one of the denomination’s “more contemporary” songbooks, The Faith We Sing. But what really surprised me was the number of songs that were noted on the list, but no one seemed to actually know. When I asked for a show of hands on one of these, only one person claimed familiarity – presumably the person who wrote it on the list before worship began.

What does this tell us about the songs we sing together in worship, and what we value about those songs? Sadly, it means we don’t know each other’s music, and after years of worshiping together, we haven’t bothered to learn what our fellow worshipers find … worshipful. It isn’t a matter of having different musical tastes, or even different theological approaches to singing our praise. It’s a matter of failing to listen to each other with our hearts wide open. And if we aren’t listening to one another’s heart songs, how can we expect to hear God’s voice, singing into and over our lives?

We’re doing this again on August 31st. May God open our throats to sing with gusto, and may God open our hearts to hear one another’s songs with delight instead of fear, so we can sing along with each other as brothers and sisters who worship a living God, a God who sings, who delights in singing.

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The Spirit Is Life – Sermon on Romans 8:1-11 July 13, 2014

When I was growing up in southeast Kansas, I was certain that our state was at the center of the United States. Whenever I looked at a map, there it was, right in the middle. Then I moved to Missouri. It’s right next door to Kansas, so I didn’t move very far. As I taught fourth grade music classes, I ran up against something called Missouri State History month every year, and that meant setting aside the music curriculum for a few weeks, while students learned “The Missouri Waltz,” “Fifty Nifty United States,” and a poem that begins like this…

“I’m from Missouri, the Show Me State,
Right in the middle of the forty-eight…”

Now, which is it? Is Kansas in the middle, or Missouri? Well, the answer kind of depends on where you come from. As we move deeper into Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find ourselves approaching the very center of his theology, the heart of his argument. In this case, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where Paul is leading us, as his careful writing brings us to the main point he wants to make.

Here’s what we know so far, from the first seven chapters:
God’s righteousness has been revealedin the midst of human sin. Whether Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). Paul’s point is that righteousness does not come through the Hebrew Law, but through faith alone. Even Abraham came to God’s righteousness by faith (4:3). In fact, the Law does not have the power to make us righteous, because its purpose was always to show us our sin. Sin has been our problem ever since Adam, and we are all condemned to death because of it. But there is hope. In chapter six, Paul says we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and we are raised to new life in Christ. Last week’s reading told of a battle between the law of God and the law of sin. As human beings, we are bound by the law of sin, and we cannot obey God’s law even when we want to. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul writes. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:22-23). ”

This brings us to chapter eight, which opens with the strong word, “Therefore.” Paul has reached the point in his letter where we find the real meat of his message. Because of everything that has gone before, we are about to learn what Paul thinks is most important as we move forward into our life as Christians. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11

In mathematics, there are a couple of little symbols that Paul could have easily borrowed for this passage. They both consist of three dots, in the form of a triangle. The triangle with a broad base at the bottom and the small tip at the top stands for the word “therefore.” If you flip it upside down, the same triangle of three dots means “because.” As Paul sets out his central idea, and then explains how he has come to this conclusion, his explanation is filled with ‘becauses’ to support his ‘therefore.’ And what is the central idea? It’s the heart of the gospel message: you are not condemned if you are in Christ Jesus.

Paul has spent seven chapters explaining why we should be condemned, under the Law. Sin condemns us. We aren’t just talking about our little individual sins, the ones we ask forgiveness for before we fall asleep at night, if we remember. Paul means Sin with a capital S. The Law was given to God’s people because of Sin, but the Law could never save us from Sin. In fact, Paul tells us, the Law condemns us to death by making us aware of our sinfulness.

Yet Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It’s as if we have been found guilty in a court of law, and we know that the punishment for our crime is the death penalty, but when the judge pronounces our sentence, we hear, “You are free to go.”

It’s more than a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It’s more than having all the charges dropped, or having our sentence commuted to time served plus parole. We are not condemned, after all. We have been found to be in the right, instead. How can this be?

Paul says, it is because we are in Christ Jesus. So, what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that the law of sin and death no longer rules us, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free. How did this happen? Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us. God has condemned the sin that condemns us. Paul has been making this point in nearly every chapter. God sent his own Son – which means God came in person (he didn’t send a substitute) – “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (v. 3) to deal with sin once and for all by condemning sin in the flesh.

Flesh is a word we need to understand clearly, for all this to make sense. The contrast Paul gives us here is not between body and spirit, but between flesh and Spirit. Paul is not talking about our bodies, but what we choose to do with them. The Common English Bible translates the word for ‘flesh’ as ‘selfishness,’ and this might be a better way to think of it – when we are focused on ourselves, our attention turns away from God, where it should be. We become our own idols. We serve our own desires, and this is sin, which leads to death. Listen to verses 4 – 8 from the CEB, and see if this helps Paul’s argument become clearer.

Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t.  People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.

People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God, Paul writes, and if that were the end of the message, we would be doomed. “But that’s not you!” he goes on. Thanks be to God, that’s not who you are!

You are in Christ, because Christ’s spirit lives in you. Christ’s spirit lives in you because you are in Christ. Back in chapter 4, Paul reminds us that Abraham had faith, and God credited it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3). That word righteousness is a big word. It means acceptable to God, found to be ‘in the right.’ It’s the very opposite of ‘condemned.’ Being in Christ Jesus is more than agreeing with ideas about Jesus, it’s more than being loyal to Christ or even trying our best to follow Jesus. Being in Christ is a new way of being, an entirely new system of living that is centered on Christ and surrounded by Christ. Instead of self-focused lives doomed to death, we have been changed, and are continually being changed, into what theologian Karl Barth calls, the “impossible possibility.” Barth writes, “The negation of sin is not a possibility among other possibilities, but the possibility beyond all other possibilities … and we possess [this], the impossible possibility of walking after the Spirit.” (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 282) Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s! (v 11).

Therefore, you are no longer condemned. You are in Christ. You are changed.

On Thursday, I attended a district gathering, led by our District Superintendent. As he spoke, he reminded us of our purpose as Christ’s church. Everything we do, he said, needs to be grounded in this goal: that lives will be changed. That’s what Paul is writing about here. Being in Christ means being changed, being transformed into a “little Christ,” to borrow a term from C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, 171). When we wipe off a table after a Wednesday night meal, or hand out a bulletin on Sunday, or pick up a bit of trash that blew into our parking lot, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we move our youth ministry into the main building of our church campus, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we serve a meal at the Salvation Army in Mankato, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we set up a place for parents to change a baby’s diaper at the County Fair, we do it so that lives will be changed. And as we do these things, with this goal in mind, we bear witness to the Spirit that is alive in us, the very Spirit of Christ Jesus.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.”

If you haven’t stepped into that freedom yet, I invite you to do so today. If you are still struggling under the weight of your own sin, know that Christ died so that your sins could be wiped out – not just forgiven, but completely destroyed. It’s time to step out of the old life and into the new one, a life of joy and peace. Then you can join us in saying to others who long for something more, “Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, home of the uncondemned, home of those who are in Christ, because Christ is in us. Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, where lives are changed.”  Amen.

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Traveling with Flat Jesus – Part 2

JULY 10, 2014
While we were on our way to Chicago, a couple of First UMC kids were on their way to Wisconsin Dells for a little family fun time – and of course, Flat Jesus went along, because he is with us always! (And apparently, Flat Jesus knows all the words to all the songs in “Frozen” to sing along in the back seat…)

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Meanwhile, we headed north, toward Green Bay, WI. No matter which NFL team has your allegiance, Flat Jesus cares about each one of us, so stopping by Lambeau Field should not be taken as an endorsement of the Green Bay Packers over any other team. (One of my friends asked if Flat Jesus could curse the field as he once cursed a fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22. I had to remind my friend that Jesus said we should love our enemies – Matthew 5:43-45 – and Jesus is always with each of us, even Green Bay fans.)

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From Green Bay, we drove north to Two Rivers, WI, which is right up the road from Manitowoc (pronounced MAN-uh-twok), home of the Maritime Museum. We toured a WWII submarine there, and Flat Jesus really got interested in the model boats and the fishing nets on display. I guess he kinda misses his time with Peter, Andrew, James, and John, as they fished together on the Sea of Galilee.

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While we were in Two Rivers, we stayed at a place that has its own miniature golf course! Flat Jesus liked the lighthouse a lot – it reminds us that he is the Light of the world, and that he told us we should let our light shine before others, so they can know how much God loves them. This was one of those places where a stranger came up to help us take the picture, and we got to tell the story of Flat Jesus to our new friend and his kids. Sharing the story of Flat Jesus was a lot of fun. Our new friend said, “That is so cool!” I hope he remembers that Jesus is with him always, too!

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We also stopped at the Wood Type Museum,

2014-07-01 12.14.58and Flat Jesus was glad to see his friend, Flat Gutenberg.  2014-07-01 12.14.36  Johann Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, so Bibles could be printed for everyone to read.

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After we walked on the shore of Lake Michigan (the water was cold, but we did get our feet wet! You can’t see Flat Jesus in this picture, but he was definitely with us) we drove to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and stayed for a few days with family who live there.

Flat Jesus had fun walking on the water (again!) 2014-07-02 16.39.41 and diving off the swimming platform.2014-07-02 16.40.37 He even went sailing with Bruce one afternoon. As we left Crystal Falls, it was raining, but Flat Jesus stayed with us.

Be sure to send me your Flat Jesus pictures as he travels with you this summer. Whether we see him or not, whether it’s raining or sunny, Jesus is with us always.

Here’s one last picture of Flat Jesus, back home at First UMC – come see him this Sunday! Worship is at 9:30 am. See you then! – Pastor Jo Anne

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Traveling with Flat Jesus – Part 1

Note: this post comes from the webpage for First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, MN, under “From the Pastor’s Desk.” 

You know the children’s book, Flat Stanley? Well, this is the same idea.  Only this time, instead of mailing a picture to different places,  the children of First UMC each received a picture of “Flat Jesus” to take with them through the summer. They were invited to color in the picture, maybe even cut it out, and take the picture wherever they might go. Heading to Grandma’s house? Bring Flat Jesus along! Going to summer camp, or on vacation with the family? Flat Jesus is there! Children were encouraged to have someone take a picture of Flat Jesus at each location, and send me the photos by e-mail or Facebook.

It might be difficult to see in the photos, but across the bottom of each Flat Jesus are the words, “I am with you always!” from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20). The whole idea was to remember that Jesus goes with us wherever we go, and will always be with us, no matter what. Isn’t that a great promise?

Since teaching by example is something Jesus did, and I want to be like Jesus,  I decided to kick off the summer with my own Flat Jesus itinerary.  I headed off to Chicago to be ordained to Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church (how I ended up in a Methodist church is a different story for another day!) and took Flat Jesus with me for the journey. After ordination, my husband and I took a few days of vacation before returning to New Ulm.

We learned along the way that total strangers really like helping to take pictures of Flat Jesus, once they hear the story. It was a great way to meet people, and to share the Good News of Jesus with people we might not otherwise have talked to. Here’s where we went, and what we did, remembering that Jesus is always with us, no matter what.

When we got to the hotel in Chicago, the first thing we did was check into our room…

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Then we took a walk to find something to eat. There was a Mexican restaurant nearby that had a great chips and salsa bar – we chose a few different kinds of salsa, and Flat Jesus liked them all!

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After supper, Flat Jesus sang really loud during the worship service!

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The next day was full of meetings, and Flat Jesus thought those pictures would be pretty boring for you, so I won’t post them here. But he was there, believe me! When the delegates voted to approve the 83 ordination candidates, he was very happy!

On Friday, Flat Jesus stayed with us as we took my mom and my sister to eat real Chicago pizza at Lou Malnati’s. On Saturday, he had to check out the ordination stoles during a break in the rehearsal for the ordination service. Then he graciously posed with Donn Engebretson and me – Donn was the Vice President of the Evangelical Covenant Church the year I served on the worship planning team for our midwinter conference, and it was a blessing to learn that he would be the one laying hands on me during ordination. This is all I have time to post right now – I’ll let you see where we went after Chicago tomorrow! Peace, Pastor Jo Anne

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Flat Jesus checks out the stoles, which were each made by my friend, Vicki Twigg.
83 stoles – that’s a lot of sewing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dying to Live – Sermon on Romans 6:1-11

June 22, 2014

Last week, as we heard the challenge of the Great Commission to make disciples by going to them, baptizing them, and teaching them, I urged you to think about the idea of baptism as a means for enfolding others into the family of God. In today’s reading, we will take another look at baptism, this time through the eyes of the Apostle Paul, as we begin a journey through his letter to the church at Rome. That journey will take us through the summer, so it might be a good idea to start with some background information as we begin.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is an interesting book on many counts. For one thing, Paul didn’t know these people yet. Paul’s other letters were addressed to churches he had started, nurtured, and left in the hands of able leaders. But at the time Paul wrote this letter, he had not yet traveled to Rome, so instead of writing to follow up on a church he had planted, Paul was writing to introduce himself to Christians who did not yet know him, or his teachings.

But Paul had a pretty good idea of what was going on in Rome. He knew that a group of Jewish Christians had been pushing the Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, and he knew that convincing the church in Rome to depend on grace alone would require a carefully worded message. So Paul took care to clarify his own theology for the Christians at Rome, in preparation for the teaching he would provide when he finally arrived.

The resulting letter to the Roman church is a dense theological treatise. In fact, it’s a good example of what Peter meant when he wrote about his “dear brother, Paul,” saying, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:14-16). Two thousand years later, we are still chewing on some of Paul’s ideas. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to receive these teachings for the first time, and how radically strange Paul’s ideas of sin and grace might have seemed to the early Christians who read his letters to each other.

Paul states his main idea early on, and then presents his response to those who might disagree with him in the rest of the letter. Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written,The one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17).From this bold statement, Paul explains and defends his view of grace for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

In chapter five, Paul describes how Adam’s original sin has enslaved us all to death, but that in Christ, we have been made right with God by grace alone. In Adam, all of us became bound to sin, and the Law only made things worse. Then Paul throws in a twist as he moves into the heart of his argument: “but where sin increased, grace multiplied even more,” he writes.

Paul must have anticipated that this radical idea would have raised some questions among his readers, so he kicks off a diatribe to end all diatribes, answering those questions as thoroughly as he can before they can even be asked. Chapter six opens with Paul’s central argument about grace as God’s free gift. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter six, verse 1-11:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But ifwe have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

What then are we to say?  …
Paul must love this rhetorical question, because he asks it a lot. In his letter to the Romans, it appears half a dozen times, at key turning points in Paul’s argument. “So what do you think?” Paul asks, “Should we sin more so we can experience more grace?” In his diatribe, Paul answers his opponents’ arguments by carrying them to the extreme, in order to prove them wrong.

The group that was causing the most trouble in Rome consisted of Jews who still viewed righteousness as something to be obtained by being born Jewish, and doing good works by following the law. Paul argues that God’s grace is available to all who believe, and that it is through faith alone that we become righteous.

Paul imagines his opponents answering this argument with one of their own: doesn’t free grace just promote free sin? If God’s grace is so free, so all-encompassing, and there is nothing I can do to earn it, why bother being good?  If God is going to forgive me anyway, why not just go on sinning to my heart’s content? In fact, doesn’t it make sense to sin more, so that God can forgive me more?

Certainly not, Paul tells us. It is precisely because we have chosen to align ourselves with God, and not with sin, that we have been changed.

And this is where baptism comes into the picture.

“We have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes, “so we might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is more than a simple rite of passage. It marks a radical change in identity. The old, sinful self is buried in the waters of baptism, and what comes up out of the water is a new creation. Just as the children of Israel walked into the Red Sea as runaway Egyptian slaves, and walked up out of that sea as God’s own nation, so we are called to walk in newness of life, set free from our slavery to sin.

So, what then should we say? What does that mean for us?

It means that Christ’s death was a one-time event, and he will not die again. If we are baptized into that death, we are also baptized into Christ’s resurrection to new life. I cannot say “new life” enough! We have been united with Christ in something completely new. Remember that Christ’s resurrected body was not his old body; even his closest friends did not recognize him at first. In the same way, our baptized selves are not anything at all like our old, sinful selves.

And yet, we often do not live like we have this “new life.” We stay stuck in patterns of behavior that ignore the fact we have been made into completely new people, children of the living God. Paul thought the Roman Christians were acting as if sin was a good thing, reasoning that the more we sin, the more God forgives us. Theologian David Bartlett summarizes Paul’s answer in two parts: “You’ve got to be kidding!” and “Be who you are.”

Be who you are. You are not just washed clean in the waters of baptism. Baptism has drowned your old sinful self and given you a new identity. Live into that new identity as Christ’s own. You have died to sin, so stop acting like it rules you. Bartlett continues,

“When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the time and the place or who were the sponsors or who performed the sacrament. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you have died to sin and now you live a new life in Jesus Christ. It is a way of saying: Be who you are.
“Remember your baptism” also means, “Remember who you belong to.”  (David Bartlett )

“What then are we to say?” Are we to chime in with the “I’m Ok You’re OK” culture  and claim that, since God accepts us just the way we are, there is no need to change? Do we subscribe to the notion that sinning is actually good, because it creates more opportunities for grace? Or do we recognize that in becoming a follower of Jesus, we move from one kind of humanity, steeped in sin, into the very life of Christ? Because this is what Paul is saying, friends: since Christ is our model, whatever is true of him is now true of us, too. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We have died to sin, we are risen to new life with and in him, and when he comes again, we will be ready to join him in eternal glory. What part of that would you not want to claim as your very own?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells us, “Living in accordance with a change of status requires that you recognize it and take steps to bring your actual life into line with the person you have become. … Once you are baptized, of course, you can try to shirk or shrug off your new responsibilities. You can pretend you don’t after all have a new status. … But what you can’t do is get unbaptized again.” (N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: Romans Part 1, 102.)

The passage ends with a bit of a hymn that was apparently known to Paul, and perhaps known already to the Christian communities in Rome who first received this letter. When he writes, “We know that…” (verse 9), in a way he’s really inviting his hearers to join the song:

Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again;
Death no longer has dominion over him.
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all;
But the life he lives he lives to God.

Then Paul adds his own verse to the song, and this must have been a powerful addition for those Christians in Rome, to hear these new words being sung to them, as they are to us:

So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ.

When Paul says, “consider” he isn’t asking you to think of yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. He isn’t asking you to ponder this reality as an abstract idea. No, the verb translated here as “consider” is really a bookkeeping term. Other translations use the term “reckon” and we could just as easily use the word “calculate” to understand what Paul means here. When you calculate a sum of numbers, you come up with a new number, but it isn’t really “new” – it was there all along; you just didn’t know what the total sum was until you calculated it. Add it up, Paul says. You have already been reckoned dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. It may be hard to believe the answer you get when you do the math, but this is the reality. we need to be who we are, redeemed children of God, and we need to start acting like it.

Sin has no hold on us any longer; it’s time to let go of it. New life means living into new habits and behaviors, new ways of thinking and relating to people. It means living into our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Let it be so.