The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.

Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience. (A lot of scholars argue he actually began the address to the Jews in the reading for last week’s sermon.)

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that even Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah tended to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: the Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council at Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

We can see the results of such righteousness in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite Psalms is the 51st, composed by King David after the full weight of his sin has fallen upon him. (He had recently been caught committing adultery and murder.) The psalm contains these words:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.

That psalm was written by a man seeking more than a legal remedy. He was far beyond sacrificing some bulls to atone for his sins. He had seen his brokenness, and in this psalm he begs for God to lay hands on him, to change him, in the process restoring his joy. It is a good psalm, a good prayer. On a personal note, I have to say that it has sustained me in times of brokenness and made me feel restored.

This heartfelt righteousness also appears early In the New Testament. We see the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph, described as a “righteous man.” The term is applied not in reference to his adherence to the law, but instead to the moment when he desires to show Mary mercy, despite believing she has become pregnant by another man and knowing how the law said she should be punished.

This kind of righteousness also allowed Joseph to hear from God directly in dreams and better understand the situation, taking Mary and the Messiah in her womb under his wing. A righteous man was the earthly protector of our infant savior.

And of course, the ultimate example of righteousness is the grown Messiah, Jesus. Being God in flesh, his understanding of God’s will was so powerful that he was willing to suffer and die so the power of sin could be broken.

If the law is a call to transformation, then Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ makes our transformation and the transformation of all creation possible, and he makes it as simple as us having faith in his work.

We will explore these ideas of righteousness and communion with God’s Spirit in coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s try to do what Paul urged the early Jewish Christians to do. Let go; let God work within.

There are actions to take. Seek God in prayer, seek God in Scripture. But in doing so, seek the changed heart that pleases God. Over time, we may find ourselves looking less like people of the world, but the world will be better for our presence.

The featured image is “King David in Prayer,” Pieter de Grebber, circa 1635.

Wedding Wine

John 2:1-11

Weddings are joyous events, but they also can be enormously stressful. Groom, bride, parents—they want everything to go “just right,” perhaps as a sign of blessings to come.

When I counsel a couple about to be married, I try to help them put some of that stress aside. Something usually goes wrong, I tell them. Don’t worry about it. The unexpected event gives you something to talk about on your anniversaries.

Often in my experience, the problem has something to do with the rings. I have seen a ring bearer drop the ring and let it roll under a pew, forcing a tuxedo-clad groomsman to soldier crawl after it; I also have presided where the best man forgot a ring and had to leave for several minutes to find it. While we all waited, I gave a long and very extemporaneous meditation on the symbolic meaning of an endless circle of gold.

Other problems arise, too. My own beautiful bride forgot her bouquet because the pastor was rushing her. (He had scheduled back-to-back weddings too close together.)

Anticipate the error and try to laugh, I tell brides and grooms to be. How you deal with such problems says a lot about how you choose to live life. The most recent wedding I performed is a positive example. I and my son hiked with a couple near the summit of Rocky Top Mountain, where they were to be married, only to discover the groom had left the rings with the backpacks near base camp. The groom quickly made two rings out of birch bark for the ceremony. They now wear the metal rings, which I blessed later, but they also keep the bark rings as a memento.

Jesus, of course, is the all-time master of making good out of bad. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus and his disciples, along with his mother, were guests at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, not far from Jesus’ home in Nazareth.

In Jesus’ day, weddings were extended parties, and how the party went was believed to be a sign of how the couple would fare in life. Families would pour their resources into such an event, often straining themselves financially to the breaking point.

At this particular wedding in Cana, something went terribly wrong. At a party like this, the wine should not run out. The wine was there for more than just the pleasure it brought the guests; it was a symbol of the abundant life and ongoing joy the families prayed the couple would experience. Someone in charge of planning the catered part of the event had made a horrible miscalculation, and uncorrected, the embarrassment would have stayed with the couple the rest of their lives.

For reasons unknown to us today, Jesus’ mother knew what was going on behind the scenes of the event. When the wine ran out, she went to her son, who in his response seemed initially annoyed. He had not planned to kick off his ministry as the vintner of Cana.

We learn a couple of things from this exchange and what follows. First, while we call this Jesus’ first public miracle, he likely had been performing miracles privately as a child or young adult among his family. Mother Mary knew her son’s capabilities, and she expected him to do the impossible.

Second, we learn that even if you’re God in human flesh, you ultimately honor Momma by doing what she tells you to do.

To me, the miracle of water turned to wine is beautiful, for Jesus did in miniature what he would one day do for the whole world, taking away shame and replacing it with abundant joy. It is no surprise to me that when Jesus used his last meal with his disciples to explain what he was about to do on the cross, wine once again was in the story, this time as a symbol of his life-giving blood that was about to be shed.

The miracle also is splendidly perplexing for people who want to put Christian faith into some kind of rule-bound box. Yes, Jesus made the kind of wine that can make you drunk, as the text makes clear. Anything joyous God has created can be abused, and frankly, if you cannot use some aspect of God’s creation without abusing it, then you should avoid it. Let’s not be dour, legalistic people, though. The creator of the universe made this very good wine for a reason.

The wine was and is a symbol of the love God pours out on us. Sometimes, it seems as if the wine has run out in our lives; know that Jesus wants to restore our joy and hope.

Whether or not you drink wine, be sure to drink up God’s grace; indeed, become giddy on it, knowing God has rescued this broken party we call life so that it may go on for all eternity.

Don’t Be Shushed

Mark 10:46-52

We’ve all had that experience of someone trying to shush us. A “shush” is more severe than a polite request to hush; behind a shush there is a tone of command, perhaps even an implied threat.

“Shush,” my mother would say when she could see I was about to backtalk her in a big way. The back of her hand would move quickly toward my mouth, close enough for me to feel the breeze but never quite touching me. I was blessed with a mother who never would have hit me in such a way, but in the moment of doubt I experienced, I shushed.

The crowd in our story was doing something similar to blind Bartimaeus, but he was in no way backtalking anyone. Shush, they were saying. There is something important going on here. We’re moving on to big things. Don’t make us come over there and shush you, Bartimaeus.

You have to understand what was happening—revolution was in the air. Jesus was at his peak of popularity. The crowd, ultimately fickle but now cheering him on, followed him, ready to begin the 17-mile hike from Jericho to Jerusalem, where they were sure everything would change. This great prophet would be king, the Romans would be cast out, and the Jews would once again be a great people.

Jesus had been talking of great mysteries, using kingdom language as he spoke. A couple of the disciples were so impressed, they had begun to lobby for cabinet positions in Jesus’ court; who among them would be the greatest?

Jesus had tried to correct this view, in particular among his disciples. He had told them plainly he was going to Jerusalem to die—in hearing that, how did they fail to grasp victory would not be easy? He had told them repeatedly all of this was about the least. In this victory, there would be no sheep left behind.

But there the crowd was, shushing Bartimaeus. All the poor beggar asked was to receive what many in the crowd had sought and received, mercy in one form or another. In his case, he wanted to see again.

To their credit, when the people saw Jesus was interested in Bartimaeus, they stopped shushing him and started encouraging him. That’s the correct behavior for a kingdom march. You look around you. You see who needs to come along, and you pay particular attention to those who want in, regardless of their status.

We’re on our own kingdom march, aren’t we? Some of us look to Jesus and say, “There’s our Lord, there’s our king.” And we follow him.

We know that Jesus ultimately ended up crucified and buried. We also know he rose from that death, and out of that resurrection victory everything did change, in ways far greater than that crowd heading from Jericho to Jerusalem could have imagined.

We march together now toward a time of perfect peace and healing. We march toward the end of the reign of evil and death, replaced by the eternal rule of the one who is right and just.

And thanks in part to Bartimaeus’ story, we know the march is for everyone who wants to join. No one is to be shushed.

Some of you may not be sure you’re wanted along on the march. You’ve lived on the margins for awhile. You don’t quite fit in; you cannot figure out how anyone would ever think of you as “Christian.” Maybe your past sins seem too big. Maybe you think you lack status, job, money, or clothes necessary to fit in.

Don’t be shushed. Christ’s mercy is for you, too.

Some of you are clearly with the crowd, ready to march on. Those of you at my current appointment, Luminary UMC, are the best I have ever seen at welcoming and accepting people of all kinds. I have quickly come to love this church for its openness. But I say all that to lead up to this: Even we can do better.

I’ve been amused the last few months as I’ve watched a couple of people enter our building wearing “do-rags,” those bandannas folded and tied to cover the head. (One was actually an acquaintance of mine.) For some reason, some of you shrink back when a stranger walks in wearing one. I even heard a couple of people whisper hoarsely, “Who’s that?”

Let’s not be shushing people with our words or body language. Each one may be a modern-day Bartimaeus in a bandanna, seeking God’s mercy.

When our march ends, we’re all going to be surprised at the people Jesus reached. And remember, there probably will be people who will be surprised to see you and me there.

Woman with glasses, piercings, headscarf, and cellphone (Spain, 2013)

A Beach Moment

There are stories in the Bible so powerful that I find it daunting to elaborate on them in any way. To do so is like standing in a gallery before a beautiful painting and breaking the holy silence by saying, “Note how the lines merge at this point.”

In this Easter season, I want to share with you such a text. It is, by the way, my favorite story in the Bible, the place I go for comfort. For me, it captures everything being revealed about God from Genesis to Revelation.

And yes, I feel like I’m already over-explaining it.

As a reader, do me a favor. I know we often read blogs as part of our hurried lives, our eyes racing over the words while our e-mail and texts beep for attention. Don’t do that today.

Please, either slow down or come back when you have more time, and carefully read John 21:1-19 the way you would read a really good novel. There are characters in pain in this story; remember, the disciples know Jesus is alive, but they also know they ran and hid when Jesus needed them most. And most of all, there is the resurrected Jesus, bringing healing.


Now that you’ve read it, let me share with you a few of the thoughts this text has given me over the years.

  • Even when faced with miraculous evidence of God’s presence, the best of us, when confronted with our sinful weaknesses, may want to turn back to what we used to be.
  • Because of the resurrection, we are a people of abundance. We simply have to see and accept that abundance.
  • The resurrected Jesus is exalted and glorified, and yet he meets us where we are, with love, grace and forgiveness, even if the sin is abandonment and betrayal. (I wonder, had Judas lived, how would Jesus have offered him forgiveness?)
  • And of course, as we are restored by Jesus, there is a mission—perhaps a difficult one—but a mission that gives us purpose beyond our former lives.

Because of Jesus, we know we worship a God of love, a God who asks only that we return to him by accepting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation. It’s also nice if we respond to the gift as best we can.

God forgive me if I just got in the way of a good story.

Walking with Jesus

Luke 24:13-35

The seven-mile-long walk home to Emmaus from Jerusalem must have seemed daunting for two weary travelers, one known as Cleopas. They had been in the city as it went into an uproar over Jesus of Nazareth, its people finally succumbing to political intrigue and a spasm of emotion that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Just before leaving, they also heard wild stories that only disturbed them more, tales of a tomb flung open, visions of angels, and a dead man walking. Yes, they would travel the seven miles home, but when they got there, could they even sleep? Which would win out, weariness or worry?

A man joined them along the way. We know the story; we know he was Jesus. Why two people who had followed him could not recognize him is not clear. Perhaps it was their grief. Perhaps a resurrected body is different enough that it is not immediately associated with its mortal predecessor. Or perhaps God simply willed that their eyes be veiled for a time to enhance their understanding later.

The man, oddly enough, seemed ignorant of all that had transpired, despite traveling from the same place they had been. They explained what they had seen. He proceeded to make them feel ignorant.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” the man asked. He began to explain the Scriptures to them—he worked from what we would now call the Old Testament, of course—showing them the events of the previous days had to happen.

We don’t know what he specifically cited. Surely he mentioned Genesis 3:15, the condemnation of the serpent for bringing temptation to the garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Also, the promise from God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

They must have discussed Deuteronomy 18:15—”The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”—and how Jesus’ role exceeded even that of a prophet.

And of course, they would have discussed prophesies from Isaiah 9, 11 and 53. It was, after all, a long walk.

They must have been intrigued. And being good, hospitable Jews, the kind of Jews who would not leave a man to travel dangerous roads at night alone, they invited him into their home when they finally reached Emmaus.

The stranger must have seemed pushy when they sat down to share a little bread. He took the bread to bless it, a role usually performed by the host. And when he broke it—Jesus! They knew they had been walking with Jesus! And then he vanished!

A seven-mile-long walk back to Jerusalem should have seemed particularly daunting. They should have been exhausted. They should have been fearful, for it was night, and bad things happen on the road at night.

But they walked back down that road anyway—when you’ve experienced the risen Christ, there is no fear.

I suspect they ran as much of the road as they could. When they paused for breath, did they laugh as they gasped for air? Did they discuss how crazy this all would sound once they reached Jerusalem?

Know that Jesus walks with you. Through the revelation of the Bible we’ve already been given, see Jesus for who he is—experience his presence. Then run and tell others. Living the Christian life can be that simple.

Who Are You?

"John the Baptist," icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

“John the Baptist,” icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Jewish leaders sent messengers to ask John the Baptist a straightforward question: “Who are you?”

Having drawn crowds of Jews with his preaching and his call to repentance, he answered their real, unasked question, Are you the Messiah?, by simply assuring them he was not the savior prophecy had predicted. The messengers pressed John the Baptist, however, finally leading him to quote Scripture as his answer.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Prophet Isaiah said.”

We largely remember John as looking like a wild man, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Set aside to serve God from the moment he was conceived, he usually is depicted in art with uncut hair and beard, roaming the desert wasteland most of his life until he drew near civilization to declare the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry.

To understand John the Baptist, we have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the presence of the Messiah.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate whether they spent much time together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived part or all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he preached a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan river, that great symbol of God’s promises and new beginnings.

It is here we really see John’s humility, rooted in his clear understanding of his role in the universe. John initially resisted Jesus’ request, saying Jesus should baptize him. At Jesus’ prodding, John finally relented and performed the act. Jesus’ servant ministry was launched in humble solidarity with people craving righteousness and holiness in their lives.

As John’s story proceeds alongside Jesus’ story, the ministry of the messenger fades as the ministry of the Messiah burns more brightly. There is no earthly glory for John, no story of victory in this life. Ultimately, he died an ignominious death, his severed head presented to a dancing girl and her wicked mother.

How different John the Baptist’s story seems from ours. And yet, Christians, how similar our calling is to his.

If we are ultimately to emulate Jesus, striving to have the attitude of John the Baptist is a good start. I don’t mean we have to wear itchy clothing and roam the desert eating bugs, or die a martyr. It helps us all greatly, however, if we can keep God’s great plan before us and find our role in it.

John the Baptist existed for one reason, to declare the coming of the messiah. Again, in this Advent season we’re being reminded that we, too, anticipate Christ’s return. The church and its members exist largely to “make straight the way of the Lord,” to call people to repentance so they are ready to meet their savior.

How we do this requires John-like humility and a little artfulness. Humility helps keep us holy; to quote Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Any good work we do can quickly dissolve when mixed with sin. Just think Bill Cosby if you don’t understand what I mean.

Artfulness in relationships and communication comes with prayer and practice. It also helps to trust that God’s Spirit can shape us and others in ways we thought we never could be shaped.

Who are you? Regardless of how you may appear to others, or whether you meet worldly definitions of success, you are a child of God, saved by Christ from eternal death because of God’s love for you. So are all the people you meet. Let them know.

Face to Face

I never cease to be amazed at how poorly Christians handle hurt feelings and perceived slights within the church. Judging from my own experiences over the years and from what I hear from other pastors, it must be a widespread problem.

Churchgoers, consider whether this sounds familiar: Christian A (insert here pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, choir director, the person in the next pew, etc.) offends Christian B. Rather than discussing the situation with Christian A, Christian B grumbles to others.

What we're trying to avoid, with Jesus' help.

What we’re trying to avoid, with Jesus’ help.

Christian B’s confidants then mumble those grumbles to still others. Emotional and spiritual wounds fester, and the Christian love we’re supposed to feel for one another in church fades. Sometimes, factions even form.

It’s particularly disappointing because we have clear guidance from Jesus on the proper handling of even serious conflict among church members.

Jesus’ teaching, found in Matthew 18:15-20, is rooted in a situation where a sinful church member has in some way victimized another church member. And the situation doesn’t have to be as serious as you might think when you hear the word “sin.” It’s easy for us to classify offensive behavior in others as sinful when the words or actions simply stem from mild pride, selfishness or simple thoughtlessness. (Lord knows, those are three areas that get me into trouble.)

Here is Jesus’ recommended strategy:

Step 1: The wounded person should go to the offender and explain the problem. Implicit in this step is that there has been no griping to others about the wound inflicted. This step creates the potential for the problem to be resolved one-on-one, keeping bad feelings and misunderstandings from spreading.

Step 2: If Step 1 doesn’t bring reconciliation, the wounded person should involve one or two others in speaking to the offender. Discretion remains important, however. “One or two” means one or two, not five or fifteen. This step also acts as a corrective to someone who may be overreacting. If the wounded person cannot find one or two people who are willing to say, “Yeah, that sounds like a problem,” then a little reflection on what was said or done may be in order.

Step 3: If Step 2 does not bring the offender around, the wounded person takes the problem before the “whole church.” At this point, I should say that we have left the realm of dealing with simple disagreements or misunderstandings and are now dealing with a very serious situation, one probably involving blatant sin. Most reasonably organized denominations have a procedure for Step 3 and also Step 4, which involves the temporary or permanent removal of an unrepentant offender from the church.

It’s been my experience that when Christians practice this scriptural model in a loving way, situations that have triggered hurt feelings are quickly resolved at Step 1. Mature Christians are horrified to realize they’ve wounded a sister or brother in some way.

I realize it’s not always easy to talk to certain people, particularly if the offended person has a more shy and quiet personality and the offender is louder or more authoritarian. As I think about how accessible I am to others, I try to keep in mind something my wife, Connie, once told me: “You have got to learn that you frighten children and small animals.” And because some people find pastors a little intimidating, I always welcome anyone offended by me to bring someone along for support during the conversation.

Adults in Christian community owe it to each other to first discuss our hurt and confusion with the one who caused it—we’re talking about a behavior that keeps us unified, allowing the Holy Spirit to work among the church more effectively. As Jesus said, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”