By Jeff Neuman-Lee
June 2016, Denver Colorado

When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”                           Mark 2:17                                                                              

The basic gospel
God loves the world and each person in it by being with the world in Jesus Christ, both as God with us the particular man Jesus of Nazareth and God with us universally in all places and all times in the Spirit. Human beings have their meaning in life in God through Christ.

I think it’s safe to say that, over the course of the centuries, one issue has taken up more concern with the followers of Jesus Christ than any other: who gets to be among the group who represents Jesus, and who gets to be kept out of the church? It may sound callous, but the answers to those questions are really good questions; they translate to: who are we?  who are the folks who belong to us? Identity is the nature of human groups; in groups there are boundaries and definitions. God loves everyone, but who is among the group that represents Jesus?

How do the followers of Jesus Christ establish the boundaries of their groups—their churches? The norm for the church is Jesus; it is Jesus’ group, Jesus’ church. This church claims that Jesus is their Lord, i.e. the utterly important leader.

Jesus said to his followers, love your enemies thereby establishing a basic, fundamental norm for his group. (Matthew 5:44) Sure, there is more to it, but we can at least say this: to love one’s enemy is without question or qualification core for the group that follows Jesus. Jesus’ fundamental act of God coming into the foreign terrain of creation and the fundamental act of God dying at the hands of and on behalf of creation all so that in those acts creation is with God is the clearest definition of what it is to love your enemies. And then Jesus explicitly tells those who follow him to do likewise, to follow him in his way. In the moment that any church suggests that loving one’s enemies is tangential or less to the good news is, in that moment, not a church of Jesus Christ. 
                This is the basic, simple argument of what the good news is about from the four Gospels. Salvation is living with and following Jesus. If that living with God continues into some cosmic eternal heaven, that future does not change the present joy of being with God through Christ in the power of his resurrection today.

The application of this is not as certain. The norm of loving one’s enemies tends to be an anti-norm: something that, when lived out with people who love people who are not like them—people who are even antagonistic to them— works against severe and tight boundaries; people who love their enemies open their hearts and hands up beyond their own groups, in effect widening the boundaries of their group beyond its own norms, allowing for people who don’t get it, or are just beginning to get it or who even reject the norm. At the same time, loving one’s enemies is a norm that is so abnormal for humans that, if taken seriously, tends towards small, exclusive groups with severe and tight boundaries working to re-inforce among themselves this difficult norm. If this seems like a contradiction, it is. The ethics of Jesus create dynamic tensions which are, in this life, reconcilable only moment to moment and never finally. Those who define the word “peace” as having no dynamic tension fail to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ good news. Life happens in many tensions, all pulling in different directions. Jesus’ admonition to love one’s enemies is an admonition to dive into the fundamental tension of life, to ride the wave of finding the possibilities of love that unite all people.

Over two millennia and even up to today, the larger church, in its desire to be a message of salvation for all, attempts to speak a message that can be heard by those who are unfamiliar with the message; so, some parts of the message that cannot be heard are obviously not heard and, perhaps, are left for later. People hear what they can hear, what they want to hear and what they expect to hear; the church, loving its enemies, patiently waits with these folks, hoping to break that stasis open so that the people’s understanding might be enlarged to receive God’s love. This has meant that the church will always be working to be true to the message. Even if the church contains some who are quite mature in their understanding, it is inconceivable to have a church that is without the dynamic of moving from a less mature to a more mature faith language. You can see this if for no other reason that there are children and it is the nature of children that they must grow up. Children, by their very nature, are fraught with the need to try out and then find their own various ways. But beyond the obvious example of children, many adults by age just don’t grow up, we bring our less mature understandings into adulthood and think that because we are old we are mature. And the story from those who seem to the rest of us to be most mature—whose courage and love for others shows the rest of us the way—is that they continue to be not fully formed; just ask them. No one is perfect. Sometimes better, but never done.

Since all leadership has to deal with these dynamics, all leadership has to be political: a leader speaks to the whole group; yet, at the same time, also to various people with various abilities to see and understand. It is inevitable that divergence of understanding will be politically accommodated by leaders to maintain group integrity. If you don’t think so, if you only think that leaders should always and only speak your language, please, I invite you to grow up. And, remember, not any church leader is fully mature. And, compounding that, in spite of our best intentions, leaders might just miss stuff. And, sometimes leaders don’t act out of their own best intention. Oh, and by the way, with technological and scientific changes, along with some political hocus pocus about corporations and the nature of property as an extension of the self, we are not really, exactly sure what it is to be human; so, who or what are the leaders leading? Things keep changing. As the economy and as technology changes, what it is to be human changes. It is hard to love one’s enemies when one doesn’t even know who one’s self is. Still, in spite of all the “modernizing” of human life, Jesus’ message to love one’s enemies stands.

To love your enemies is at the heart of Jesus’ message and to tear it out makes the message anti-Christ.[1] And, much to the dismay of those who truly need Jesus, with a few notable exceptions, striving to extricate itself from Jesus who loved his enemies is exactly what the church has largely done throughout its history. Except, of course, the more interesting moments when it hasn’t.

The witness of Paul in his letter to the Romans
For much of the church the book of Romans has been pivotal in how the message of Jesus is interpreted. And time and again the church gets it wrong. How can I say this? Because the interpretations of the church tend to self-justify the folks currently in the church, to make the folks in the church the people who are “good” and those folks outside the church the people who are “bad.” And that good/bad dichotomy misses Paul’s message of the dynamic tension of loving one’s enemies and, instead of loving enemies, the church has satisfied itself by creating them.

The book of Romans is the longest systematically written argument of the New Testament if not the whole Bible. Paul’s argument starts after his usual initial greeting and continues as one great thought at least through to the end of chapter eight and really all the way through to the end of chapter fifteen. It is more abstract than other writings of Paul in part, as many reason, because he had never been with these people as he had been with the other addressees of his letters. The letter is often connected with his letter to the Galatians for its message and seen as a refinement of that letter which was written to a church he had started and felt a familial fondness.

The first mistake many commentators make is to split off parts of Romans and look at them as if they were not literally part of his larger argument. All the while claiming to be speaking of the “literal” meaning, Ron Helmuth in The Mennonite magazine[i] simply treats part of chapter one without regard to its setting within Paul’s argument; in so splitting the letter up, Ron projects his own meaning upon Paul’s letter. Helmuth’s aim was to condemn homosexuals and to question why they would even want to be part of the church of Jesus Christ. Helmuth’s point is a great example of how the church attempts to escape loving its enemies by creating external enemies—this time gay people— so that blame might be sloughed onto those others.

Indeed, this is not Paul’s argument. Creating enemies is against everything he is saying. Creating enemies denies the good news of Jesus and it denies the power of his sacrificial death and the power of his resurrection and his call to unity.

What does Paul actually, literally say in Romans?

Here is an outline of Paul’s larger argument.

A.                  Paul greets the Romans and the good news is announced. (1:1 – 17)

B.                  Paul describes the entirety of humanity existing apart from God (1:18 – 3:18)

C.                  Paul announces the good news again, God’s response to humanity apart from God. (3:21 - 26)

D.                  Faith is the necessary step to take to come to God. (3:27 – 4:25)

E.                   Christ has loved us even when we are enemies of God and creates our peace that we now have with God. (5:1 – 5:12)

F.                   Paul meditates on the nature of sin in light of the resurrection. (5:13 – 6:23)

G.                  The law amplifies the power of sin, yet has no power over those who have died in Christ. (7:1 – 25)

H.                  Living in the Spirit followers are the children of God, partakers in the coming kingdom, and will always be with God. (Chapter 8)

I.                     He addresses the meaning of the relationship of the Jews to the rest of humanity in God’s eyes. (Chapters 9-10)

J.                    He deals with behavioral issues for the Romans, which, by the way, underscore the congruence of Paul’s ethic with Jesus’ message of loving enemies. (Chapters 11-15)

K.                   Then there are personal greetings and concluding remarks in the last chapter. (Chapter 16)

It is beyond the scope of this essay to look at all the issues above, let’s look at those found in sections B., C. and E. above.

Paul describes the entirety of humanity existing apart from God (1:18 – 3:18)
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.[ii]

First, an observation: notice that Paul stands his argument upon the remarkable “argument from nature” where God discloses God’s nature to humanity through the natural world. Taken strictly on its own, this claim should be the greatest religious support for the scientific endeavor, because it is there that humanity investigates nature systematically. (Vs 19 & 20) While the problems of science are many, including the inescapable human element of limited and oft mistaken perceptions, assumptions and methods, it remains our best way of describing the material creation. What is pertinent is that what we observe today scientifically in regards sexual behavior and what Paul could observe given his scientific knowledge is different. For Paul, the creation defines gender by what is between one’s legs; for our current understanding, the created stuff going on between the ears are more definitive. Yet, both Paul and today’s science share the core commonality of seeking a best understanding of the facts, acknowledging that the creation is subject to investigation.

Why investigate? For Paul, creation points to God’s very self; for scientists for a variety of rationales, but at least in the absence of God language, it is a tacit nod to the singularity of truth, even if sadly limited to the material realm.

So, would Paul, if he were writing today, condemn LGTB behavior? It is hard to imagine that he could in light of his principle of seeing God’s handiwork in creation.

However, the above is not the most important argument against the use of homosexuality to expel others from the church, in fact, taken by itself, relying as it does on the legal merits of a sort of legal case, this argument perpetuates the destruction of the Gospel that Paul proclaims to the Romans. Let’s return to the passage in Romans 1.
                Then Paul condemns humanity for its idolatry. (Vs 21 – 24) Idolatry erroneously prioritizes our how we should live our lives, it is a very functional concept because we can waste so much life by doing stupid stuff or just partly good stuff. We missed the point! We missed who God is and want to re-shape God in our image. Idolatry supplants God with anything not God. Idolatry stands against the first commandment and the entire sweep of the Bible’s message that there is but One.

 From this he launches into an attack on a group of people distantly named “they.” Paul starts, with effective polemic, by naming a sin that he thinks his audience will agree with, something that will disgust them. In verses 26 and 27 Paul clearly condemns the “they” who engage in homosexual behavior, a behavior based upon obvious, external genitalia and, possibly, the larger context of sex for hire. The potential for how beautifully we humans can be together in community is negated in the twisted, hot sand-blasting lonely winds of the commodification of human life. These are those people who sell themselves, one way or another, and fail to create God’s community.

Paul continues with a list of sins that this “they” engages in, some obviously horrible like murder, God-haters, inventors of evil and ruthless; others not so obviously evil like envy, deceit, craftiness, gossips, etc. Each of these activities in effect miss-identifies God with lessor gods. This miss-identification leads to all evil which is both destructive of our relationship with God and with each other. It ultimately leads to God’s justice. Paul draws his audience in, getting them on his side by talking about these idolaters as “they” . . . 

. . . and then he turns the tables on his audience and reveals that “they” have been “you” all along. He attacks his audience for being judgmental when they do the same things.

2:1 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 

Paul proclaims that all humanity, even his audience the church in Rome (and all other churches looking at his letter over their shoulder) is culpable in the failure to love. We are that ignominious “they.” He extends the concepts towards both those who live under the Jewish law and those who do not. While there is going to be a third category, those who live by the Spirit, he has not gotten there yet. (Chapter 8) Even so, those who live under the Spirit will be people who are part of the first, universal group of everybody is under the power of sin. (7:14-25) He uses Old Testament scripture to undergird the assertion that really was started at chapter one and concludes that section with: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (3:23)

Let’s stop here and reflect just a moment on this question: are we the “they” of Romans 1? Could Paul really be condemning us, the good guys inside the church, as sinners? Even us?

Where Paul talks about the idolatry of humanity (1: 18-32) he lists some things, a list which is obviously incomplete, but a list difficult enough that virtually anyone could find themselves somewhere on that list. For instance, the list includes “gossipers”. Now I personally work at not gossiping; yet, it is not easy to keep words appropriate to where they should be used. And I am sure that when the transcript of my life is read gossip will be found. Tell me, who do you know that has not gossiped? As gossip is a plague on FaceBook, so it is a plague in the church. When I, as a pastor, tell my next door neighbor who is not a member of the church about your colitis, is it gossip? If I tell the church on a Sunday morning while you are in the hospital? Or how about the deacons in a closed door meeting? In each case I can imagine how circumstances would make such communication appropriate and in other circumstances wanton, hurtful gossip. It’s not always easy going in knowing how the communication will be handled. I’ve worked with deacons who were very discrete and others that thought all minutia of any member’s life was fair game and fascinating for the entire church. Who do we throw out of the church? According to Paul’s list, the sin of gossip is on par with sins of sexual indulgence and murder, so, if we are going to throw those folks out, let’s throw gossips out, too. But then, if we go down the list, no one is left. As Gandhi is reported to have said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” But then he’s just in concert with Jesus who said “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7b)

 Here's another one. Paul’s list of idolatries includes “rebels against parents”. Now I suppose that not every child may have rebelled against their parent, maybe you didn’t, yet, in most families there are the rebels and those the get along. Many who rebelled continue because they can only mature away from less mature parents by continuing in “rebellion.” So, from whose perspective do we look and judge this rebellion? The child’s? The parents? What if the child’s rebellion against a mother is necessary to not rebel against the father? To try to simplify this situation is to disallow the individual’s unique situation. It is to condemn through the application of the law, rather than seeing the whole situation through the “Spirit.”

Or Paul’s list includes “uncaring and merciless.” Now at the same time my church was throwing out gay people, the large majority were voting for war in Iraq, some even celebrating that war which— without care and without mercy— murdered and massacred tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destabilized their nation and set the middle east on the course where it sits today, millions of refugees and a murderous cult forming a nation state. Where was the care for others, the mercy for even innocent life in a studied ignorance that would stand around ignoring what we were doing? Where was the weeping and wailing in the streets over these terrorized children of God in our streets, much less our sanctuaries, as we quietly went about funding their demise? Should a church of Jesus Christ allow as a member anyone who voted for George W Bush in 2004?

Here lies the real difficulty of defining your group by another group’s particular sin. Paul is not talking about individual sins, (certainly he is not, as the church is wont to do, lifting one thing out from the list and saying “that’s really the one God’s talkin’ about”) he is talking about the everybody human condition of separation from God. He is using this to set up the solution that God has for bringing God to humanity. When we take any item of the list, however we imagine it to be, and use our imagined form of that sin as a way to exclude others from the community we are assuming to be acting in the place of God. It is idolatry. And that idolatry is exactly what Paul names as the essence of sin in Romans 1.

Paul’s condemnation is universal, that it is used for just a few, say gay people, turns his argument on its head. In so doing, can the church understand the good news which follows? The answer is “no.” God is still powerful to save us in spite of our misunderstanding and misapprehension of who God is and what God has done in Jesus. But just because we are “saved” does not mean that we should not come to the best understanding of the message so that we can be clear with ourselves, each other and the world around us.

Why must the “they” and the “you” be inclusive of the whole human race including the church? First, Paul’s claim that all have fallen short of the glory of God is universal. It applies equally to everyone. It is not helpful to find exceptions in the details, for those exceptions can and have been used against the larger statement. So, if Paul is addressing gentiles’ idolatry and Jews hypocrisy and not the Christians of Rome, then he isn’t talking about me, a Christian today. 

Second, the statement about judging at the beginning of chapter 2 is very close to Jesus’ statement at Matthew 7:1-2 (Mk 4:24, Luke 6:37-42, recalled at James 4:12 and I Corinthians 4:4-5). In Romans chapter 12 it is clear that Paul is familiar with the depth of Jesus’ understanding of love with many references in sync with the Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain. Why wouldn’t this statement fit with Jesus?[2]

Finally, on simple grammatical grounds, the flow of his argument is continuous. It is not a series of independent maxims. If one simply reads from the beginning of the book through chapter 8, one sees a whole, seamless argument.[3] This point is essential to what I am saying. By disconnecting chapter 1 from the rest of Paul’s argument, one loses entirely what Paul is saying and why what he is saying is good news and why a disconnected chapter 1 is anti-Christ. Disconnecting chapter 1 from the rest is just what one has to do to pick out homosexuals for special exception.

How could the members of my church excuse themselves? Well they have plenty of help. I went to my library and looked at what the commentators have said about the “they” of chapter 1 and the “you” of chapter 2. If the commentator claims that either or both the “they” or the “you” is not the church, their effect is to thwart the true meaning of the good news.

·                     The New Jerusalem Study Bible says that the “you” of chapter 2 is the Jews, although it admits that Paul does not directly address Jews until verse 16. [iii]

·                     Martin Luther sees the “they” as the “heathens” and the “you” are the Jews.[iv] “. . . in a certain sense the Jews are even worse than the gentiles.” (His amplification of the excuse.)

·                     Joeseph Fitzmyer sees the “they” as pagan humanity without the gospel and the “you” as Jewish. [v]

·                     For Matthew Black the “they” are the gentiles and then the “you” is both Jews and Gentiles. [vi]

·                     C.E.B. Cranfield [vii]understands that the “they” is all humanity, but then incomprehensively argues that the “you” of the first verses of chapter two must be the Jews.

·                     Paul Achtemeier gets the universality of both the “they” and the “you.” He’s helpful.[viii]

·                     N.T. Wright gets the universality of the “they” and then has some interesting thoughts about how the “you” could be “a conversation between himself [Paul] and imaginary Jewish interlocutors whom he is addressing, for the moment, as if they were pagan moralists.”[ix]

·                     Karl Barth absolutely gets it. “What is true of the generality of men (sic.) is true also of the men of God. As men they do not differ from other men. (i. I). There is no fragment or epoch of history that can be pronounced divine.” [x]

Paul announces the good news again, God’s response to humanity apart from God. (3:21 - 26)

Now perhaps the reader might pause and read Romans 1:18 – 3:31 once again. Consider the argument made above, that basically Paul says that all humanity, including those in the church who follow Christ and have been saved in Christ, are sinners. Then that work of God which saves in spite of the sinful state is indeed the righteousness, the justice, of God, it is the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Under the law we want to define God’s righteousness by God’s insistent adherence to the law. Wrong! God’s righteousness is in Jesus Christ! God’s righteousness is in God’s willingness to love even sinful humanity. Period. The notion that God’s perfection is that God cannot tolerate those who break the law and therefore must kill himself to bring those humans who acknowledge this and surrender themselves into himself misses the entire point of Paul’s gospel. For Paul, the righteousness of God (God’s perfection, God’s justice) is God’s love and therefore God reaches out to sinful humanity.

If we fail to see the universality of Paul’s calling all humanity to face up to its idolatry and then his calling those who imagine that their sins don’t count to their hypocrisy, we give ourselves license to be those things.

Christ has loved us even when we are enemies of God and creates our peace that we now have with God. (5:1 – 5:12)

5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Notice how all of this in salvation is in time, with growth and maturation. We suffer, we endure. We endure, we gain character. With character then there is hope. And hope sees the love of God “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit . . .” In all this time passing there is a change in those who are justified, it’s their salvation which continues in time. We can guess some good guesses as to what Paul means by “salvation,” yet, being too absolute is not helpful because we are all in time, all maturing in our ways. But listening to each other is very helpful.

To me, it seems that Paul is saying that we grow into Christ, become more and more like him. We are not saved by becoming sinless but justified by God’s love through Jesus. Our salvation is in his life which is alive and moving.

Notice how the death of Christ for us is while we are still sinners. We don’t start as unbroken; we start out in our relationship with God as sinners. God brings us to him while we are sinners. We are justified as sinners and there is no immediate change that anyone completely becomes without sin. When can we say that any of us is not a sinner? Isn’t that what Jesus means when he says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”? When he says this, isn’t he saying the word “righteous” in quotes, that it refers to what people (incorrectly) call themselves? Does not Jesus want his followers to see themselves as metaphorically sick sinners and therefore in need of him, his power to bring them to salvation? When would he want us to stop calling ourselves sinners?
                It is again the point: God’s righteousness is not over-coming this or that sort of sin, it is not adherence to God’s law, it is that action that redeems humans in time knowing that we can never be perfect and in our admitting we are imperfect we cling to God. God’s righteousness is when we as limited, imperfect creatures are with our God.

Every group will compromise with God’s law. Every church will sin. Every church will exclude some for whom Jesus died. Leaders need to admit this, it is our failure, our sin. To claim some perfect wisdom to discern who should be saved within the church and who should be excluded from the church is idolatrous.

Leaders should be able to talk with each other about this. Hopefully leaders have some maturity in Christ, hopefully they can look to see from each other’s perspective, to see each other’s ministry and the limitations that are inherent in all ministries that include immature Christians. One group of immature followers may not be able to tolerate some children of God that another ministry is based upon. The church fractures into groups and excludes individuals not from the love of Christ, but from our sin.

God does speak to us through his Word, the Son, Jesus Christ. His scriptures point to Jesus (John 5:39). At the same time this world also points to God’s created truth. Having both points of reference keeps the conversation going. We need to pay attention, to listen, and, in spite of our uneven perceptions, to keep our faith that God is in charge. Specifically, for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, or for that matter heterosexual, we don’t welcome just any and everything, but that which leads to the same sort of love and life that we find in Jesus. If what we observe from nature is that human sexuality is not simply external genitalia but what’s between the ears, then the loving reaction is to receive ourselves, all of us, in that way.

Perhaps we get that one wrong, too. It won’t be the first, it won’t be the last; but it will be another one we offer up in faith to God.

Ultimately, there is but One who is God. Yes, this One is indeed Three. But God’s not us. And this One loves us so much that, in spite of our sin, the One would send the Son to have lived with us, to have died for us and, yes, to continuously live for us and with us.

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”                             Matthew 13:24-30


Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.                                                                              II Corinthians 3:4-6


[1] See my God With Us, The Biblical Message of Jesus updated 2012. It can be found in paper-back or kindle on Amazon. If you happen to have purchased the earlier version from 2009, please upgrade. It was a failed first attempt at self-publishing; send me the bill.

[2] Jesus’ “Judge not” has two qualities notable here: one is that humans just don’t have the capacity to judge each other as judgement is for God alone. The other is that you get what you give out, so if you give judgement you will get it back.

[3] The letter is a harmonious whole. Paul has a large, but congruent parenthesis for chapters 9 – 11, and then concludes the argument with admonitions for a life which would reflect of his theological vision. The last chapter, 16, is contemporary greetings to the followers of Jesus in Rome.

[i] The Mennonite, Mennonite Church USA, For This Reason God Gave Them Up, A Reflection on Romans 1 and Homosexuality, by Ron Helmuth. July 2015 pp 29-31

[ii] All Biblical quotes from New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[iii] The New Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday & Company, inc., New York, pg 1869, note 2 a.

[iv] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theordore Mueller, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1976 pg. 51.

[v] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, New York, pg. 269, 296

[vi] Black, Matthew, Romans, The New Century Bible Commentary,

[vii] Cranfield, C.E.B., The Epsitle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, T&T. Clark Limited, Edinburgh, 1975 pg 104, 136f.

[viii] Achtemeier, Paul, Romans, Interpretation, John Knox Press, 1985, pg 34-60

[ix] N.T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans, New Interpreters Bible, Vol. X, Abington Press, 2002, pg. 438.

[x] Barth, Karl; The Epistle to the Romans, Oxford University Press, 1968, pg. 57.

This piece is revised from an Op-Ed published in the October 2015 Church of the Brethren publication The Messenger.

In a recent issue of The Messenger, Brother Galen Hackman wonders if anyone is concerned or even wonders about the decline in numbers in our church. I assure him that he’s not alone. Since graduating from Bethany in 1979 this was an ongoing concern of mine.  It’s important to know that I didn’t grow up Brethren, I went to Bethany because I liked its emphasis on lived service and devotion to Scripture. I also came from a religiously mixed background which included friends who helped build Willow Creek Church, a very large “mega-church.” It was clear to me then that churches, especially churches that went anti-racist during the civil rights struggle, were in trouble. But the world needed the witness to the love of Christ, why not make it big and beautiful like a Willow Creek? After attending Bethany and having fallen in love with Brethren theology I thought that if people just heard the culturally radical message of Jesus and his love, they would flock to him.
                I thought that if we just started some new churches we could find a pattern that would work. I tried. The one in Chicago didn’t get off the ground. The one in Fremont, California succeeded for several years, there is still a homeless shelter we helped start there, but the church didn’t sustain. The one in Denver is still going, but is small. In larger church settings I’ve done some radical small groups which have been like new churches.
                In each of these settings, with the intention of actually living the gospel, for a time we were the church and we carry that with us, wherever we go. But however nice that sounds, it does not create the institutional church that nurtured me, institutions seemingly needed to carry the message from one generation to another. That takes seminaries and buildings and Sunday Schools, doesn’t it?

Why don’t the Brethren grow? Let me name three reasons.

1.            The gospel which is based in Jesus’ command to love is unpopular in an American world based on violence and material accumulation. You really do have to trust the unseen God if you are going to walk among the Boko Haram without worldly defense. You really do have to trust in the unseen God if you will give up your economic advantage to care for the poor. We Brethren keep coming back to Jesus. No matter how much we try to dumb down our faith to make it palatable for the common American, we have to revert to Jesus, the Lord, who said, “love your enemies.”

2.            But then, if living in the way of Christ is our ideal, we ourselves don’t usually live up to that. We Brethren are so split on how to read our Bibles, how to interpret the Word (and our interpretations usually follow our political inclinations). Our Brethren unity is most commonly found in Brethren heritage. Personally, this doesn’t work for me and has worked less and less over the last several generations of Brethren. Who cares if you went to Manchester? But when we get divisive with each other, the easiest solution is to go to that so-called common heritage. Besides, it was this very heritage that brought forth Anna Mow and Dan West and Stan Noffsinger. Amazing things have been done through these folks and their like.
                But the problem for church growth is obvious, a glue which is found in heritage either has no room for new-comers, or takes a concentrated, exhausting effort for a new-comer to become part of the family, or dumbs itself down and becomes less and less distinguishable from the prevailing culture.  

3.            Thirdly, the world is less and less hospitable to our church life. Generally speaking, humans find scape-goats; it’s just part of what we do. For a good number of Americans “religion” has become one of the scape-goats. (Broadly speaking, a scape-goat is one upon whom the psychic garbage of any group is thrown in an attempt to keep the group in balance. For instance, scape-goating includes all racism. Whenever a group stands together laughing at or deriding another so that they can feel good about themselves, they've scape-goated that other.)  Right now the current generation sees the dangerous consequences of fundamentalism— an edge found in every religion (and population!) — and chooses to smear all religion, the good with the bad, with fundamentalism’s evils. So, younger folks, starting with the baby-boomers but growing with intensity with each ensuing generation, choose to disdain “religion.”
                Combine this with a wealthy economy that has a language of individualism in spite of the evident communitarian nature of our life together and people just are not joining meaningful groups. Many even avoid the commitments of marriage. As the larger culture becomes less practiced in how to be together, our churches reflect that.

As I said, I didn’t grow up Brethren, but have spent my adult life with them. I have met many people who have and continue to give their lives to Jesus in some incredible ways, people I would never set myself beside. Their faith in Christ has been and continues to be simply inspirational. I have found that deep change is not popular change and that the health of society is utterly dependent upon those few who hear the call of Christ and live that deep, spiritual change.

                In my own ministry there has been real “success” by my disregarding that previous need to grow the institutional church. Now when people ask me what my church is about I say something like: “we are a church that doesn’t kill people” . . . they swallow hard and then I say . . . “we work to bring the peace of Jesus for everyone, no matter who they are.” There have been folks who simply reject that nonviolent and inclusive Jesus and walk away and that’s ok by me, God will find other paths for them. And then there are some who hear that message and somehow agree. Somebody else can care for many people using culturally attractive incarnational compromises, the incarnated God certainly loves them, too. I want to be with people who want to learn to love their enemies as Christ loves his enemies. I no longer care how many. 

. . . within the life span of some people alive today . . .
Theory of Change Part I

Some ideas about how a follower of Jesus might attempt to change the world.

by Jeff Neuman-Lee
June 2013 

I've been doing some work with a group in Denver aiming at helping to keep the worst effects of climate change from happening. It's a big problem. How does one, as a follower of Jesus, work for change in this world?
                As I've done my work, what I find is that how the followers of Jesus have done their best work is also the pattern I want to use for my work on such a political issue. I also find that the answers are very important to us at Whittier Community Church  as we work to share the Good News and grow the church.

1. – Put a Human Face On It or Talk to People!

The problem of climate change, just like any human spiritual issue, is enmeshed at the core of American cultural, economic, and political life. As America is a diverse place, this problem is seen by many different people in many different ways. For some it is not a problem; for others it is the problem; and for many it is out of sight, something that someone else will care for.
                Not matter how it is seen as a problem, the call to end the use of fossil fuels is commonly seen as a call to a radically difficult personal transformation, as well as disturbing cultural dislocation. While my friends and I don't see the problem of changing our energy sources as necessarily being so dramatic, we know that the political will in America is currently substantially stuck in those perceptions.
                Not due to the simple technological changes, but rather due to the history that we Americans are so hard to change culturally, the change we call for is perceived to be on the scale of the still unfinished cultural changes away from racism of the 1860's and 1960's. After a couple hundred of years from when the first courageous, far-sighted colonists started that spiritual/ physical/ political work to see all people as equals in dignity, that fight continues.
                The difference is that this change from one source of power to another has a clearly defined physical reality that is not shared by our transformation into a non-racist society; the change seeks would thwart climactic changes which could, within the life-span of people alive today, simply end humanity's ability to function as civilization. We understand that if we do not accomplish our goals in enough time, the discussion stops. Part of our work is to understand what is going on with climate change.  Yes, it is a technical and scientific problem; but even more so, it is also a problem of social perception.

                Looking for inspiration to centuries of followers working to spread the Good News of God's Grace to All and more recently to the LGBT movement, we know that personally coming out, face to face with people who either don’t get it or don’t want to get it, is effective. Those who misperceive an issue, who find their tribal identification by working against others, can change by actually knowing someone who is their perceived enemy. It is not simply the logic of an argument (although that does have to hold water), but the personal connection that gains a hearing. It is being "with" that gains friends.