Why Rules?

class rules bulletin board
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lindah/113841605/">Linda Hartley</a>

Romans 4:13-25

The promise to Abraham, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come to him or to his descendents because by keeping rules. It came by making a commitment. If inheriting the world were a matter of keeping rules, commitment wouldn’t count for anything. Following rules only brings trouble. But if there are no rules, then you don’t have to worry about breaking them.

So it all depends your commitment. That way the promise is backed by a guarantee available to all Abraham’s children, not just the ones who follow the rules, but also those who make the same commitment Abraham made. And, since the sacred writing says, “I’ve made you the Father of the Nations,” Abraham is the father of us all. We all stand before Abraham’s God who brings revives the dead and makes something out of nothing.

Abraham took it to heart, even when there was no use hoping to be the Father of Nations, because God told him, “You’ll have scads of children.” He didn’t waver from his commitment even though his hundred year old body was as good as dead, and Sarah had never been able to get pregnant. He trusted what God said without flinching. In fact, the more he gave God credit, the deeper his commitment got. He was totally convinced God would do what God said. So, it was his commitment that made him right. And, when scripture says “his commitment made him right,” it wasn’t talking about just him. It was talking about us. If we commit to the proposition that God raised Jesus from the dead, you’ll be right, too. He was killed because we broke the rules, and raised so that we’d be made right.

At first, this all seems very libertarian. No rules, no worries about conforming. But it’s not.

Like any master of any art who can bend and break the rules, what allows them to go beyond the rules is their greater commitment to their art.

There are rules of grammar writers must generally follow to write well. But the masters, Shakespeare, Faulkner, e e cummings, Vonnegut, break the rules because they are committed to the art. They know the rules better than anyone. But they know more than the letter of the rules, they know the spirit of the art about which the rules speak.

Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello, and knows the rules that make the music what it is. But when he plays, it’s his commitment to the music that speaks, not the rules he knows.

So, too, the art of the life well lived. There are lots of rules that have been set out in holy writ. But the life well lived is not about following the rules, it’s about one’s commitment to the art. And, while rules may be helpful, they are not the purpose of the exercise, or the result we are ultimately seeking.

Learn the rules. Know the rules. Follow the rules. But don’t be committed to the rules. Be committed to the art.

Just Do It

child reaching with leaf
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/oksidor/5083846812/">Oleg Sidorenko</a>

Romans 1:15-17

This is why I want so much to tell the Jesus story to you Romans. I’m not bashful about the Jesus story. It’s God’s restoring power given to everyone who embodies it. It came first to the Jews, and now also to everyone else. When people embody the Jesus story God’s justice happens, and still more embody the story. The sacred writings say: “One who is just lives by embodying.”

Let’s dispense with the traditional translation that renders the Greek, pistis with this over-used word, “faith.” Faith, by now, is too bland a rendering. It’s too easily relegated to propositions, pie in the sky, and namby-pamby sentimentality. Paul believed in pie in the sky, of course, but even Paul wanted his new Christians to do something about Jesus. Faith goes beyond thinking in the abstract or working up the proper emotional adjustment.

Let’s recognize that to live by faith means, in essence, to embody the Jesus story in oneself. In other places, Paul talks about “putting on Christ.” This is what he means. Embody it. Live it. Do it in the way those who spoke the truth did it when they said, “Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.”

In this sense, Jesus (and maybe even Paul) isn’t really a religion. Jesus is a way of living well. It’s a way of living that demands justice be done, not just in theory, or on paper, or eventually, but in reality, here and now. Live and do like Jesus, bring his story to life in your own life, and you may soon find the religious people are all against you. Live and do like Jesus, and even if you don’t believe in God, you’ll be closer to living the life you know deep down is yours alone to live.

Don’t let faith be just an idea or a belief. Make it a life. Embody the Jesus story. Do it.

All Are Welcome (Appearances to the Contrary)

mass of diverse people
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/untitlism/22800371/">Fady Habib</a>

Romans 16:25-27

Give God credit for whatever strength you gain from hearing my story about Jesus, which solves the mystery that for ages was an enigma, but is now revealed. Through the writings of the truth-tellers it’s now available to everyone of every ethnicity, as God commands, so everyone can follow in faith. Eternal credit goes to God alone, who is wise, by Jesus! Amen.

It’s no surprise that Paul’s closing lines make it clear that he wants God to get the credit for any good that may come out of his having written it. It’s no surprise, either, that he sees Jesus as the answer to every question. But what’s remarkable is the broad inclusivity of the Jesus story. It’s now available to everyone of every ethnicity.

This is a radical thing to say of a religion, because it means that no one person or group has a corner on the Christian story and what it means. Of course, the church didn’t continue in this radically inclusive way. Only a generation later, two at the most, the ranks of Christianity’s priestly class had developed to be the keepers and mediators of the story. And by the time of Constantine and the creeds, the whole thing went from being a radically democratic movement to being another cog in the machine of the Roman Imperial status quo.

But here it is, in defiance of every ancient and modern attempt to claim the Jesus story as the exclusive intellectual property of a few to use for the maintenance of their own wealth and power or to baptize their own political campaigns.

Let it be said clearly: the story of Jesus is for the benefit of everyone of every ethnicity, so everyone can follow in faith.

Yes, You Can Party with the Heathen

kids together on beach
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/rnugraha/247871593/">Riza Nugraha</a>

Romans 15:7-13

Welcome each other, just as Jesus did right by God when he welcomed you. As I say, Jesus came helping to those who cut their foreskins off in order to prove their faithfulness to ancestral laws, so that the heathen wouldn’t have to do that to be considered faithful, so even the heathen can do right by God. The sacred writings say:

So I will thank you among the heathen,
And sing your name out loud.


Join the celebration with God’s people.


Extol God, all you heathen,
And everyone everywhere extol God.

And Isaiah says,

The root of Jesse’s family tree will come up
And will lead the heathen,
And shall renew their hope.

May the God of hope make your hope abound with joy and peace, and may God’s spirit empower you.

Even the heathen can do right by God!

That’s saying quite a bit, given that the heathen, by definition, don’t believe in God. Still they can do right. By God! And this coming from Paul, no less!

If Paul could recognize that those outside the faith can do right by God, why is it that so many who claim that these words are their words to live by, can’t?

If Paul can recognize that what Jesus did was aimed at welcoming those whose faith was different than his own, why can’t the church?

Going to extremes like cutting your foreskin off to show how faithful you are is no longer necessary. So you’d think that Christians could do as the sacred writings say. Party with the heathen. Invite the heathen to celebrate with the believers. Everyone is welcome. Hope is not limited to a narrow sect.

And regardless of your religious persuasion, may your hope abound with joy and peace.
And may you be empowered.