Monday, July 28, 2014

A Great Chapter

The writers of the Bible did not add verse numbers nor divide their works into chapters. This was done later by others and initially for the purpose of creating a lectionary, or cycle of readings for worship. It began with the Jews during their captivity in Babylon. The temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religion, had been destroyed and as exiles in a foreign land, they couldn't even visit its ruins. So they preserved their faith by focusing on the Torah, God's Law, as presented in the 5 Books of Moses, or, as we refer to them, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Rabbis divided the Penteteuch in 154 sections to be read over the Sabbaths of 3 years. For similar reasons, by the time of the Council of Nicea, Christians had divided the New Testament into paragraphs.

But the present chapters of the Bible are attributed to the remarkable Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was elected during a dispute between King John and Pope Innocent the Third. John declared that anyone who recognized Langston was a public enemy. The Pope put England under an interdict: in effect, an excommunication of the entire country. After 5 years, John relented. Stephen absolved the king--who almost immediately violated his oath to observe the charter of liberties sworn by his ancestor Henry the First. Eventually, under Langton's leadership, a number of barons finally forced the monarch to sign the Magna Carta, much of which comes verbatim from Henry's charter. As for his work within the church, the Constitution of Stephen Langton are still considered binding church law. Somehow during this exciting life, Stephen managed to write commentaries on almost all the books of the Old Testament, to compose Veni Sancte Spiritus, which is used in the Roman Catholic mass of Pentecost and sung even at the ordination of Anglican priests. He also divided the Bible into the chapters we still use today.

One can quibble about the chapter divisions. It's said that Langton worked out the chapters in his Bible as he rode from church to church throughout the kingdom and the joke is that whenever the horse stumbled, he made a mark that became a new chapter. And, yes, in some places Langton seems to have separated a verse or two that rightly belong to the chapter before or after it. But he perfectly framed the climax of Paul's letter to the Romans in marking out chapter 8. Perhaps because it, like the Magna Carta, is a ringing declaration of freedom, in this case, from evil and fear.

In the first half of Romans Paul argues that God's law cannot save us. Its chief function seems to be pointing out the ways we fall short of God's glory. In chapter 7, Paul gives us an agonizing glimpse of the internal conflict of a person trying to live by God's law but hampered by his sinful nature, which acts as a law unto itself. He exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Chapter 8 begins on a similar high note: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” Here is the good news: Jesus has set us free from all those things which seek to enslave us so we can live a life ruled by the Spirit.

The nature of that kind of life is not one of retreating from the world because of the temptations or because of the the dangers of following Jesus. Paul writes, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” In other words we are not slaves but children of God. And we have nothing to fear from the world.

In fact, our current sufferings, properly seen, are but the birth pangs of the new creation God is making. While waiting for the revealing of God's children, the present world groans, as do we. That summary of the first 25 verses of chapter 8 brings us up to today's passage. When we try to pray as we ought, sometimes words fail us. We don't know what to ask for. We don't know the future. We don't always know what is good and what is bad for us. At such times the Spirit of God within us intercedes for us with groans or sighs too deep for words. The Spirit pleads our case on a level beyond words.

If you look in the Book of Common Prayer or Evangelical Lutheran Worship, you will find a whole array of prayers for a wide variety of situations. There are prayers for every stage of life, for many different professions and for a lot of conditions in which we find ourselves. It's great to have a well-thought out and well-phrased prayer at your fingertips. But just because you can't find a prayer that says exactly what you want or can't think of what to say on your own, that doesn't mean that God is unaware of what is going on in your life. Like a loving and attentive father he knows what we desire and more importantly what what we really need. And he does so before we know ourselves.

A human parent who does this is just making predictions based on what a child has done or said in the past. But, as Paul says, he who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit. Here we have 2 assurances. First that God searches our hearts. He knows us better than our human parents do. He knows how and what we think intimately. That can be scary when we when we are thinking of doing wrong. But it can be comforting when we are trying to do right. God knows what is going on in our minds. He knows us for who we are.

He also knows the mind of the Spirit. Since the groaning of the world is associated with the birth pains of the new creation, the groaning of the Spirit within us is, I think, the birth pangs of the new humanity, the new you and me. The new creation must be populated with new people. And that too is the work of the Spirit, taking us as we are, the embryonic forms of what God intends us to be and bringing us to completion, or maturity. So God not only knows us for who we are but also for who we will be.

Therefore God makes all things work together for good for those who love him. Sometimes it's hard to see that. It calls for faith. India-born evangelist Ravi Zachiarias tells the story of a young man who translated for him in Vietnam in 1971. 17 years later Hien Pham called Zachiarias and told him what had happened to him after the fall of Vietnam to the Communists. Accused of helping the Americans, Pham was imprisoned and bombarded with Communist propaganda. He began to doubt his faith.

The nadir of his imprisonment was when Pham was assigned to clean the latrine. His first day he discovered among the used toilet paper a page printed in English. He washed it, hid it on his person and late that night, he pulled it out to read it. It was Romans 8. He read how in all things God works for the good of his people. Pham had been on the verge of renouncing his faith. But this triumphant chapter reignited it. Pham volunteered to clean the latrine every day. And every day he collected another page of the Bible. Some officer intended to desecrate the scriptures but God used it to give hope to to one of his children in dire straits.

And there was more to come. Hien Pham was eventually released. He resolved to escape from Vietnam. He and 53 other people began to secretly construct a boat in which to leave the country. One day 4 Vietcong showed up at his door and, based on rumors, asked if he was planning an escape. Pham denied it and they left. But he felt ashamed for being afraid of them and lying. He promised God that the next time he would tell the truth. But he hoped God wouldn't test that resolve.

Sure enough, the 4 Vietcong returned and asked again. This time Pham admitted that he was going to escape from Vietnam. The Vietcong asked if the could go, too! He agreed. Once they were at sea in the boat, they hit a big storm. It appeared that they would die. But they were saved by the seamanship of the 4 Vietcong. They made it to Thailand and today Hien Pham lives in the U.S. He saw first hand how God made everything come together for the good of his children.

The Apostle Paul was in a shipwreck. He was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead. He was flogged, beaten, and imprisoned. There must have been times when he wondered if God was telling him he was on the wrong path. But he too learned firsthand that while we don't always see God's hand in the events of our lives, he's there, making something wonderful out of whatever is at hand, redeeming even hardship and disaster.

It stands to reason that if God can work through catastrophes and tragedies that they cannot come between us and God. And so Paul, for whom these things were not abstractions but personal experiences, piles them up and finds them less formidable than the love of God in Christ. And certainly this is the experience of believers who have been through the crucible of adversity. Were it not, Christianity would have been crushed during the persecutions of the first 3 centuries. St. Francis would have folded under the illnesses he suffered. St. John of the Cross would have dissolved into despair. Africa would not be the vibrant center of the church right now. Christianity would not be spreading in China despite the government's attempts to control it. Elizabeth Elliott would have taken her infant daughter and fled the amazonian tribe who killed her missionary husband rather than go and live out the gospel among them.

Right now a sure way to write a bestseller is to attack God, especially using the hoary argument that the very existence of evil disproves the existence of God. That's like saying the existence of shadows disproves the existence of light. The interesting thing is that these authors tend to be affluent Westerners. I do not doubt that they feel bad for the suffering of others but they don't seem to listen to those with whom they supposedly empathize. Because the testimony of those who suffer is that faith not only helps them through their ordeals but faith gives meaning to their pain. In effect, the cultured despisers of faith are like those so convinced by aerodynamic theory that bees cannot possibly fly that they refuse to go to the apiary and see that nevertheless they do.

The argument that evil disproves a good God might work if it were not for the fact that at the heart of Christianity is the cross, about as solid an acknowledgment of the reality of evil as one could have. The cross says, “Yes, evil exists and so does God. But evil cannot negate God. And if they cannot coexist forever, it is evil, not God, that is destined for extinction.” Because through the cross God took the worst evil imaginable—the judicially approved murder of his son—and turned it into the greatest boon for humanity. Paul turns again and again to the cross, which was a major obstacle for Jews and Gentiles alike, as proof, not of the triumph of evil but of the triumph of God's love. The apostles died in a variety of grisly ways without fear because they knew that Jesus had beaten death and disaster.

This is not to say that adversity cannot test our faith. But we needn't fail the test. Actively trusting that God is good will not only help you through periods of suffering but will give you a deeper understanding of suffering, of yourself and of the power of God. And often, like our inchoate prayers, this wisdom can elude words. But I have seen the lame and the blind praise God and it humbles me.

In fact, I do not think that I can put it better than Paul. In his soaring conclusion to his most wonderful of chapters, he writes: “What then can we say about such things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who vindicates. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor zenith, nor nadir, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


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