PAUL EXPLAINS THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
Romans 6: 1-11
For my birthday in April, my daughter Jenny and son in law Brian got me a $50.00 gift card to Books a Million. Inside the card was this note: “To Dad, one of the only people I know who still likes to browse bookstores!” Sure I shop on line, and yes, I have a Kindle. But I still like books! Maybe some of you still like books and bookstores and libraries too? But what I notice when I go to the religion sections of bookstores stores (and it might surprise you, but I rarely do that), is that all of the confusing titles mix together in the religion section. There is, of course, Christianity, but also every other world religion, not always separated into sections, but mixed together. There are metaphysical books, new age books, Eastern Religion books, psychic books, and more. Often the Christian books I do find on the shelves are rooted in the fundamentalist tradition. As a trained Christian minister I have to weed through all of the distracting and enticing titles from many publishers to find the good writings. So I don’t envy those of you who, as seekers in the faith, get confused about what to buy and what will be helpful to read. Cara, Richard, and I are always ready to be a resource for good commentaries, good writers and good publishers. And the religious books that I am reading over the summer, the ones I listed in our June newsletter, are in our office if you’d like to check them out and borrow them since our church library is not fully functioning now.
These days, those who are from the so-called Baby Boom generation and younger, when surveyed about their religious preference, put down “spiritual.” Fifty years ago people wrote, “Methodist” or “Catholic,” or “Presbyterian,” and twenty years ago many would write “Protestant.” But now more say “spiritual” whatever that means in their heads. The term “spirituality” actually gained popularity in America as far back back in the 1960s, and it has gained followers since then. In the 60s churches failed to say what was distinctive about being Christian; instead they tried to be too many things to too many people, forgetting what was distinctive about what Christ called his disciples to do. The church in the 60s tried to be the YMCA, the community center, the heart of social work, and a hub of social action while losing its biblical rationale to spread the good news and make disciples. Then the downturn of mainline attendance, in part because of fuzzy theology and negative press, contributed to the decline of churches. But churches today are not where they were in the 60s. Churches and church leaders are called to be guides for theology and biblical understanding, examples for living, mentors for young people, and welcoming communities. Some churches have failed in that charge. But today we are returning to a time, not unlike our times today in some ways. The master of interpreting and writing life as a follower of Jesus was the Apostle Paul. He teaches us what is Christian compared to what is not Christian. Paul taught (in the first century) things that we in the twenty-first century need to hear!
First, Paul “chose Christianity” after he met Christ in a vision. He was, by his birth, a Roman citizen. Rome was the cosmopolitan world that covered all of Israel, Asia Minor, Greece, and beyond in those days. Rome taxed, Rome controlled, and Rome allowed a wide variety of beliefs so long as taxes were paid and skirmishes were minimized. Rome, like the United States, was a quite a melting pot of cultures and beliefs. Paul used his Roman citizenship on more than one occasion as his “get out of jail free” card! But Paul was trained as a Jew and rooted in Judaism. He was in the School of a great rabbi named Gamaliel, and so he knew our Old Testament, what he called “Scripture.” He believed in it, believed in God, and fought people and authorized the death of people who deviated from Judaism. In Acts chapters 5-9 Paul, (then called Saul, and we’ll learn about Saul in Vacation Bible School this week!) exhibited some strong, even terrorist like actions, ordering the death of Stephen- a man who was teaching about and following our savior Jesus. Stephen was one of the early Christians that was called a follower of “The Way.” Paul knew Judaism and defended it viciously until he met the risen Christ in a vision on the road outside of Damascus. How the world needs Christ! Jesus converted Saul right then; he later referred to himself as “Paul” according to Acts 13. Jesus “chose” a man who had persecuted Christians to be the main evangelist of the Christian faith! Who but God would choose a Jew to become the first and perhaps the best Christian? Like religion sections of those bookstores, Paul’s world was filled with secular teachings and those of many kinds of religion. But Paul especially knew the religion of the one true God as he fell to his knees and became a Christian. He was well versed in knowing what others believed, and he began stating instead what a Christian believed. He did that in many of his letters, but his finest work was the book we call Romans. It was his defense of what became known as the Christian faith. And we get to read what he wrote. Paul chose Christ; then he spent his life explaining the Christian Faith. Those who browse websites or bookstores would do well to ground themselves in their Bibles; more specifically in their New Testaments, and most specifically in the book of Romans. Notice I did not say in “the gospels;” of course they are important. But they are four witnesses or testimonials of the life and ministry of Jesus, sometimes offering different accounts. Go there later; start with unequivocal Christian beliefs; start with Romans. And one good place to start is Romans chapter 6.
In Romans chapter six, first century persons are helped, but so are twenty-first century persons! Paul is showing how Christianity is different from other beliefs (in our day, different from other forms of spirituality). He starts by acknowledging sin, something that even some modern churches sometimes avoid. Paul then acknowledges the crucifixion of Jesus; some new churches avoid using crosses because those who attend have said they are a “turn-off,” so these churches sell the soul of Christianity on the altar of attendance. Paul acknowledges grace, but only after the acknowledgment of our personal sins. Baptism lets our sins die on the cross of Christ (something else that will be powerfully demonstrated at our Vacation Bible School) and reminds us that just as Jesus arose from death, we can arise from sin and death to “newness of life.” Christianity is about new life, after we remember what and who paid for that new life! This is New Testament Christianity; it cannot be modernized.
Most importantly, Paul makes a distinction about what happens after death. The Greek idea, enveloped by the Roman world of Paul’s day, was the “immortality of the soul.” It stated that a good soul was incased in an evil and carnal body. The body was temporal, and one day would fall away (they said) and the good soul would never die, but will keep living forever in eternity with the gods. That is not Christian. Some Jews believed that life ended at death. That is not Christian either. Some Jews believed that whole people, physical body and all, could be taken up into heaven like God did for Elijah. That is not Christian either! See how confusing our internet or our bookshelves can be to the untrained minds? And eastern religions are proponent of reincarnation. Fine people may believe that, but it is not Christian. The only example of Christian belief is resurrection, and it is outlined here in Romans 6. Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead; he really died, it was no act. And from that death, life arose. (That’s why the Apostle’s Creed affirms that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.”) Jesus’ tomb was empty and people could touch his wounds. He bodily arose from the dead. For all of his followers, when we die our bodies revert back to the dust from which they came, a belief that Jews acknowledged but without resurrection in Ecclesiastes 3:20 “All are from dust; and all turn to dust again.” But because of Christ, says Paul, we will be raised to newness of life, not as souls, but with our spiritual bodies. Later in First Corinthians 15:50, Paul said “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” If you are not grounded in this Christian understanding, do you see how confusing titles on the Internet, or in a library, or in bookstore can be? If you are not anchored in your beliefs, the winds of titles and other teachings can make you drift from the solid rock of Christ! Paul puts it this way in Romans 6: “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his….For if we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him.”
Paul is the brilliant New Testament teacher of the Christian faith. We have no other who is before him except Christ himself. And even Paul expounds further on the idea of Christian resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in the twinkling of the eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound (trumpets were always sounded to make major announcements in biblical times) and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed….Death is swallowed up in victory.”
There are so many philosophies on the Internet, in libraries, and on bookshelves. Ground yourself first in the Christian teachings if you are, or seek to be, a Christian. Then the day of resurrection will be a glorious meeting with your Lord Jesus Christ.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 22, 2014