Paul concludes his magisterial letter to the Romans with a list of commendations and greetings. He begins with the letter carrier, Phoebe. She's a deacon, an officer and patroness of the congregation in a small city near Corinth where Paul lives as he writes. She was with Paul when he wrote the letter and would be the expert interpreter of it if the Roman Christians had any questions.
Then come Priscilla and Aquila, who had labored with Paul in ministry, instructing the talented preacher Apollos, during their days together in Corinth. Paul and the churches founded and nurtured by him owed this woman and her husband a huge debt.
The list is striking because it includes a large number of women and a large number of people with what appear to be common slave names. It illustrates the fulfillment of the promise of Joel, quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost: "I will pour out my Spirit even upon my servants--men and women alike." Paul articulates it in his letter to the Galatians. No longer Jew or Gentiles, slave or free, male and female in Christ. All are true Sons of God's promise to Abraham, who have inherited the Holy Spirit.
Notice that where we might expect Paul to say "male or female" he says "male and female." He breaks the rhythm we might expect to make a reference to the Bible's first chapter: "God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them: male and female he created them." Rather than contrasting male or female, both Genesis and Paul group them, as bearing God's image. All were made to rule together, not some to rule over others.
Perhaps the most striking name in Romans 16 belongs to two Jews, a man and woman, named Andronicus and Junia, who were in prison with Paul. Paul says they became followers of Christ before him, and are highly respected among the apostles. Both in Ephesians and in 1 Corinthians, Paul lists "apostle" as first among the gifts. Paul's faith in Christ and call to apostleship came late, so it isn't surprising these two preceded him.
The Christian movement has often struggled with the apparent importance Paul places on the woman, Junia, in particular. Her place often challenges our cultural, traditional and theological expectations. But there she stands.
To avoid her several failed strategies have been employed: (1) Some went so far as to corrupt the biblical text, insisting she wasn't a woman (Junia), but a man (Junias). (2) Others argued that she wasn't an apostle at all, but only respected by the apostles. But the only reason people corrupted her name in the text was because, as John Chrysostom recognized in the 4th century, the text calls her an apostle. (3) A related move was to say she's only designated because Andronicus, perhaps her husband, was an apostle. Still she's called an apostle and shares her husband's work for Christ. (4) Another proposal is to downgrade "apostle" from its narrow meaning (Paul, and the Twelve) to something like "church founding missionary," a broader meaning. She's still an apostle, sent by Christ, highest in the lift of gifted church offices. In fact, Paul more or less says she was an awesome apostle.
I haven't been able to find refuge in any of the strategies. I can only conclude that the woman Junia was one, great apostle, a leading character in Paul's Roman hall of fame.
There's plenty to get angry about in our world, to be sure. But should Christians ever display anger? Can love be stern? Can we faithfully represent Christ while not getting angry about injustice?
We might wonder when we read a scripture like this: "Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (James 1:20). In my New Living Translation footnotes, it mentions that "human" anger might be more literally specified as "man's anger." We've all seen some female anger, I'm sure. But James may target "male" anger as a case in point. "Righteousness" might be translated "justice."
My mind takes me to the old Westerns I watched as a kid. Most of the saloon brawls and street shoot outs involved men, defending their "honor," with perhaps a few women and children as spectators. Other times, a self-proclaimed posse would hunt down outlaws and lynch them. A better system of justice came when sheriff's detained suspects for courtroom trial before judge and jury. That still might fall short of the justice that God requires, but it offered more time for deliberation and hopefully fairness.
James originally addressed followers of Jesus living under the jurisdiction of ancient Rome. The Romans prided themselves on their legal system. But Roman justice moved too slow for some, and showed too much favoritism for others. The crucifixion of Jesus provides a shocking example of how it failed miserably. So people, then as now, sometimes took matters into their own hands. Indeed, we can describe Palestine as a powder keg in the time of Jesus, that exploded about a generation after his resurrection. The anger of nationalistic patriotism didn't restore the kingdom of God, but brought devastation to Jerusalem and to Galilee.
So perhaps James 1:20 shouldn't be taken as a prohibition of all human anger. Instead, it offers a cautious insight that hot-headed and desperate actions, as commonly expressed, don't get for us what we hope: the joy and peace of God's rule. The scripture immediately previous supports this view: "You must be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to get angry," (James 1:19).
The Bible never tells us to be slow to kidnap, or slow to commit murder. Even if we are slow to sin, we still sin. We can speak without sin, but only if we speak with care. We can get angry without sin, but only if we allow anger to rise and express itself with care. A short fuse usually means trouble. Good listening always has value. But it wouldn't be upright or fair to never speak. It wouldn't be righteous to never get angry either. But what does godly anger look like?
In her book, Angry Like Jesus, Sarah Sumner studies 15 examples from the gospels of when Jesus got angry. Jesus was fully human, so human anger doesn't have to sabotage God's justice, even if it often does. Indeed, Sumner believes that the example of how Jesus expressed anger can spark our moral courage. If we reflect on it, we can learn a kind of anger consistent with healing love and a healthy Christian life.
I hope to tease this out more on Sunday mornings in the weeks and months ahead. But for starters, consider the difference between an anger that trusts God as opposed to one that rails against God. Or the difference between a truthful anger and a self-deceived anger. Or even consider the difference between rebuke and "blame and shame." That's just the tip of the iceberg in discerning godly anger from the more common, self-centered kind.
Most readers seem to prefer the book of Proverbs to Ecclesiastes when it comes to Solomonic wisdom. Proverbs contains innumerable two-line insights on the observable rewards and consequences of wise and foolish behaviors. Follow the practical rules and all will usually go well; ignore them at your peril. "The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the godly will flourish" (Prov. 14:11). So far, so good! Still, we might ask how it is the wicked sometimes get to live in a house when the godly are sometimes relegated to tents!
Ecclesiastes might be described as a lover's quarrel with an overly naive understanding of the Proverbs and their wisdom. The author wishes life were as simple as the Proverbs generalize, and indeed accepts the superiority of godly wisdom to wicked folly. But the writer relentlessly observes limits to the proverbial rules from everyday life: "When you dig a well, you might fall in. When you demolish an old wall you could be bitten by a snake" (Eccles. 10:8). Digging wells is a productive life-giving activity and demolishing tottering walls a thoughtful life-saving safety precaution. So far, so good! But life is complicated, and things can go sideways with projects undertaken with the best intentions. Sometimes we get the opposite of what we might generally expect.
So Ecclesiastes, like Job, keeps us "real" (as they say nowadays) about the claims we might want to make for proverbial wisdom. Moreover, even the conventional Proverbs often teach more complex truths than we sometimes recognize. Indeed, they are called riddles (Prov. 1:6), meant to tease out our careful thinking. They are not just obvious maxims to be carelessly cited, or they may do more harm than good. Proverbs 26:9 warns "A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorny branch brandished by a drunk."
Perhaps to prevent this misuse, Ecclesiastes commonly serves up clever two-liners that sharpen the mind as well as direct the heart. "A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born" (Eccles. 7:1). Few of us would deny the first line. One's reputation reflects the sum total of what he or she does in life, and is certainly more valuable than any material possession, no matter how rare and precious.
The second line may seem more debatable, especially since Ecclesiastes never explicitly recognizes the hope of resurrection. It seems to offer a very pessimistic view of life that culminates in judgment (Eccles. 11:9; see also Hebrews 9:27). And how valuable is a life well-spent if death is the best outcome? We need to dig beneath the surface and see the relationship between the two lines.
A newborn baby has no reputation even if it is given an impressive and hopeful name. That name takes on most of its meaning as the child actually grows and does things in life. Over time that name means more and more, for good or ill. Eventually the significance of the name is full of rich detail and nuance as the person lives a full and complex life. While that name may be wrongly flattered or slandered, nothing can really steal or destroy its meaning, at least so far as God is concerned.
Material possessions are subject to decay or theft. An expensive perfume may lose its savor or become rancid. Even our physical bodies decay and eventually die. That day is a sad day, but is also a day of great significance so far as the process of completing the building of a reputation that God will judge.
As Ecclesiastes reminds us time and time again, to understand the meaning of our life, we need to see the significance of our death. If you agree with the first line in Ecclesiastes 7:1, that your life is more valuable than material things, then you must also agree with the second, that your life has acquired more significance when you die than when you were born.
Really, it isn't that far from a saying of Jesus: "And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?" (Mark 8:36-37).
We humans often show ourselves to be creatures of rhythm and habits. Some habits run amok and become enslaving addictions. Some habits serve us well and become powerful tools for health and growth. It pays to stay aware of our habits, to extinguish those that don't help and cultivate those that do and modify still others.
Habits don't just guide our personal lives, they guide society as well. Football gets scheduled for high schools on Friday nights, for college on Saturdays, and for professionals on Sundays. Exceptions exist, but that's the conventional rhythm.
This morning my email box was filled with "reminders" that today is "Giving Tuesday." That comes on the heels of "Cyber Monday" and "Black Friday" that follows "Thanksgiving." What about Saturday and Sunday? Those belong to football, I guess.
My point is that our world has "secular liturgies" that easily govern our lives. Some prove helpful, some harmful, some delightful and others seem just inane. At the very least we might stay aware of them, and where appropriate substitute rhythms that draw us to Christ. Traditional Christians have found that a season of Advent leading to celebration of the birth of Christ helps them do just that.
The ancient Jewish exile Daniel comes to mind as I consider the rhythms and habits of my life: food and exercise, sleep and service, play and purchasing, solitudes and friendships, study and prayer. Daniel recognized the unusual pressures that Babylonian liturgies placed on his life. He found freedom in sacred habits that cultivated his devotion to the God of Israel. He did this amid the challenges and intrigue of the imperial bureaucracy.
Daniel kept "office hours" with God, even when the empire forbade it (Daniel 6:10-11): "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help."
Few of us would rejoice to hear that we should visit an oral surgeon. My daughter didn't either. But those wisdom teeth needed to go.
I drove her to the clinic when the day came and waited to receive word of a successful procedure. She wouldn't be in any shape to drive herself home!
When she woke up up from the anesthetic she thanked the dentist. She thanked his assistants. She thanked the person who helped her into the wheel chair and pushed her out to the waiting room. She thanked the bookkeeper and receptionist. She thanked me. She thanked strangers in the waiting room and in the outside hallway. She thanked everyone in sight.
We still giggle about it sometimes today, about a decade later. She was of course, helped in her happy, giddy thankfulness by the residual anesthetic that also impaired her judgment for driving. She likely needed some pain medication when that subsided from her system.
On the other hand, gratitude releases chemicals in our brain that correlate with happiness, which easily feeds more gratitude. Mike McHargue in a recent book, Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found it Again through Science, notes that in many respects we are our brains. While ancient people viewed their thoughts and feelings as located in their hearts or guts, neuroscience correlates it with billions of neurons connected by transmitting dendrites and supported by trillions of glial cells, all communicating with the each other and the rest of the body via electrical and chemical signals.
Scripture instructs, "Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). How have you learned to do that? We all need to know our own selves here.
I can mostly speak to what activates my brain when I seek to be grateful, but find it difficult. I might go out of doors, especially when the sun shines. I might get some exercise for my body to free my brain. Sometimes devoting myself to completing a practical project kicks things loose. Or treating myself to engaging a friend or enjoying a simple pleasure like a square of dark chocolate. Taking time to pray or read some from a psalm of thanksgiving can also wake up those instincts. This noon I read and prayed: "You are good and bring forth good; instruct me in your statutes," (Psalm 119:68); and "You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me," (Psalm 71:21).
The adage holds that practice makes permanent. The more we practice thanksgiving, like riding a bike, the easier it comes back to us. We can choose to rewire our brain along those line. The good news of trusting in Jesus Christ, is that we know who to thank!
Wild blackberry bushes sprout up on almost any neglected piece of ground in western Oregon. Left to themselves, they expand into a thicket of briers. One farmer I knew in my childhood would cultivate the wild blackberries that grew in his woods. He knew the varieties and would invite us over to pick, eat and fill our buckets. I love the fruit that grows on the edges. I also once suffered a painful infection when a blackberry thorn worked its ways into my elbow.
Judges 9 chronicles the rise and fall of a thorn bush king named Abimelech, son of Gideon. The name Abimelech means "my father is king." It carries the implication that the son is king too. Gideon had formally refused the kingship after his decisive victory over the Midianites recorded in Judges 7-8. He had offered hopeful words to Israel (Judges 8:23): "I will not rule over you, nor will my son. The LORD will rule over you!" However, Gideon adopted some of the pitfalls common to kings: accumulating wealth, multiplying wives and concubines, and unifying the people around an idolatrous civil religion. While Gideon opposed Baal worship, it isn't surprising that people reverted to outright paganism after his death.
This created a crisis in the succession of leadership. How would Gideon's huge family, his hometown and surrounding areas be governed, with the LORD God of Israel who rescued them now forgotten?
Abimelech tried to resolve the problem through mob populism that murdered 68 of Gideon's 70 sons. Only the youngest brother, Jotham survived. Climbing Mt. Gerizim, the site where the blessings of rule by the LORD had been pronounced (Deuteronomy 11:29), Jotham interpreted events with a parable about the trees choosing a king (Judges 9:7-15). The olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine all had more productive tasks to accomplish than serving as king. That left the thorn bush, Abimelech, as sole contender.
Multiplication of thorns from the ground comes as a consequence of sin. The rule of thorns comes at the expense of shared human dominion over the land (Genesis 3:17-19). The thorn bush can only offer shade, if that, as a benefit of its rule. More commonly, it kindles fire, which not only proves self-destructive but may destroy the surrounding trees. Even mighty cedars of Lebanon are vulnerable to a thorn bush set on fire.
Abimelech proved to be that kind of ruler, not a leader at all, but kindling for a kind of national holocaust Finally, a woman in a tower dropped a millstone on Abimelech's head while he attacked her town. This turned the tide so Israel began to find some relief from the misery his selfish ambition brought.
Ezra Pound is quoted as saying, "One humane family can humanize a whole state into courtesy; one grasping and perverse man can drive a nation to chaos."
Only kingship anointed by God brings blessing. All else is mockery. Ultimately, only the meek kingship of God's anointed one, Jesus, brings lasting, unadulterated blessing. "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace" (Colossians 3:15). I've found Jesus a wonderful ruler.
The Bible begins and ends with meals. It starts with a well-furnished orchard and the eating of forbidden fruit. It concludes with a marriage supper of the Lamb. Countless meals get consumed and enjoyed along the way. Psalm 23 describes one of the most famous, where David's Shepherd God serves as divine host: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows."
The picture is that of a desperate fugitive who comes on a camp in the wilderness. Strangers welcome him into a tent. They've just sat down to eat and invite him to take a seat. He relaxes and takes a deep breath and begins to enjoy. Then his accusing and vengeful pursuers arrive too. They want to ask the host whether he's seen their prey. But entering the tent, they see the man gathered with family around the table. They immediately excuse themselves and withdraw. They know it would be a great act of hostility to the host to trouble a guest at his table.
While eating the forbidden fruit created fugitives, dining with the LORD God of Israel means safety and blessing. Like the time the LORD appeared to Abraham at his tent (Gen. 18:1-15). Three strangers arrive and Abraham prepares a fine feast for them. He offers a little bread to eat, and water to soothe their feet. While they relax with that, Sarah bakes bread and Abraham butchers and grills a calf. It sounds like he also churns up a little cottage cheese. The next thing you know, the LORD God promises Abraham a return visit at a set time, where Abraham and Sarah will celebrate the birth of a son, Isaac. Both visits bring laughter.
In our modern world, we give testimonial dinners to show appreciation for someone. The ratification of treaties and international agreements are accompanied by state dinners. We carry on an ancient custom in so doing. A meal signifies friendship and hospitality. When your son or daughter brings home for dinner someone they have been dating, you know the relationship has moved to a new level. When a child shares a candy bar or part of their lunch with another child, it may seal a friendship.
When the LORD God of Israel ratified the covenant with his people (Exodus 24), he invited 70 or so of Israel's leaders to ascend the mountain and enjoy a feast. Meanwhile Moses and Joshua climbed a bit higher to receive the covenant engraved on tablets of stone. We're told (vv. 10-11) that the 70 "saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank."
We might wonder what they saw while they ate. We might wonder how long the feast lasted. "The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel ... Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights" (vv. 15-18).
What do you see when you come to the communion table of the Lord Jesus, when you come to his covenant meal? What does it mean for you in terms of safety and sanctuary, friendship and blessing, God's promise and God's presence?
Our family went through a difficult time many years ago as my sister-in-law fought cancer, got married, and then died in her early 30s. Not long afterward, another friend, worship leader at our church, went through a similar battle and died young, leaving behind four young children and her husband.
These events among others led me to research and write a master’s thesis: “Moving God’s Heart: Characteristics Which God Desires in the Lives of Petitioners.” That is, my heart was moved to pray, and my mind was moved to better understand my faith in God and the nature of asking, seeking and knocking.
Inscribed in the front of my thesis are the first five verses of Psalm 65:
“Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come. When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions. Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the good of your house, your holy temple.
“By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.”
For America's famous colonial pastor, Jonathan Edwards, these verses were a call to pray and work for revival.
The superscript in your Bible identifies David as author of Psalm 65. The Greek translation of the Psalms, familiar to Jesus and his apostles, adds the interesting note that Jeremiah and Ezekiel sang this song on the sad day as the captives were led to Babylon. This would have been a good four centuries after David wrote the lyrics.
Yet Psalm 65 proves an eminently hopeful song in sad circumstances. In fact the Psalm points forward to a day when people everywhere will thank and worship the God of Israel. We may regard it, as with many Psalms, as “messianic,” pointing forward to Christ’s ultimate triumph.
One day all flesh will praise God for answered prayer. The evil that creates barriers between God and his human creatures will all be wiped away. All that will be left is to celebrate God’s awesome deeds and to enjoy God’s most satisfying hospitality.
The next to last paragraph in my thesis speaks of a fictional, composite character: “Terri has every reason to keep on asking God to heal her. God is able and good. And God has kept all of his promises to her. But she also has reason to recognize that God might take her life sooner than any of us would choose. Her bout with cancer is a significant pointer to where God is leading her. We hope it is not the decisive pointer. But Terri is called, like all faithful Christians, to follow Jesus in identifying and suffering with a world broken by sin. God will answer her desire with a resurrection body that already awaits her. But meanwhile, she is on “special undercover assignment” to serve as a redemptive presence to people like us. At least for now, cancer seems to be part of her necessary tools in accomplishing that purpose. But so is God’s strengthening grace to endure (2 Cor. 12:9).”
“By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.”
My family took lots of road trips when I was a child. To pass the time we'd eat, play games and sing songs. Later in life, when mom and dad would put my sister and me on the jet-plane to go to college, we'd play and listen to 8-Track tapes of the Bill Gaither band, "I'll Fly Away."
Ancient Israel didn't have jets or cars. They mostly traveled by beast or on foot. But they had songs for their travels too. Psalms 120-134 are called Songs of Ascents, and were likely used by pilgrims on the road to the Jerusalem Temple Mount: Psalm 121 begins by reminding the traveler of where they're headed and why (verses 1-2): "I lift up my eyes to the mountains--where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."
We've sometimes begun longer car trips with prayer, or even asked others to pray for "traveling mercies." On one trip we turned back because of heavy snowfall in a mountain pass. On another, floods wiped out a bridge we needed to cross. On another the sky turned pitch black at noon and we were pummeled with hail and blinding rain in a thunderstorm. We also seek to stay awake at the wheel, stay on the road, and avoid the carelessness of other drivers.
Psalm 121 orients the traveler to trust that the Maker of heaven and earth "watches over." The phrase appears five times in verses 3-8: "He will not let your foot slip--he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you--the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm--he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore."
"Watch over" is almost like another name for God!
The August before I began college, I spent three days camping in solitude on the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan's upper peninsula. I had a plastic tarp, a small fire, a sleeping bag, a stenographer's notebook and pen, no food but plenty of fresh water. I also had a small Bible and little else to do but read it, take short walks, pray and write a few letters to mail later. I read the entire books of Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 121 stood out to me. I could sleep alone in the open air, because the Maker of heaven and earth doesn't doze off and watches over me.
Other psalms disorient us with complaints, but they also reorient us toward trust toward the Maker of heaven and earth. The risen Lord Jesus is wakeful and near, watching over us, even in the dark places of our journey. Where are you headed this week, and at what place are you camped?
Pastor Jim Byrne
The faithful presence