August 7, 2011
Sometimes following the rules is very difficult. A few years ago, I was a volunteer on a Neighborhood Reentry Team. Neighborhood Reentry Teams meet with folks who have been recently incarcerated and assist them in transitioning back into “real life.” This particular team met with offenders once a week to help them keep on track. It was during this experience that I realized that I am not sure I could do what they are expected to do. Every minute of every day was accounted for. They would wake up, get ready for work, take a bus across town to work, at lunch they’d go meet with the parole office and get drug testing. That involved another couple bus trips. Then back to work on the bus. Then meeting with Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Squeeze in a meeting with our team, etc. Some of the complicating factors are that most of the guys we met with were impoverished, uneducated, and lived in group homes. If they didn’t have a job, they had to prove that they were looking for a job. Missing one of the court mandated appointments with employment, parole officers, my team, or with Alcoholics Anonymous could result in a parole violation that would return them to prison. Even if they were following the rules perfectly, a missed bus could land them back in prison. And let’s face it. Being able to follow the rules is not the reason they were incarcerated! And sometimes, all these rules lose sight of the real point. The real point is to integrate these guys back into society so that they can be healthy and functional and crime-free. There is a tension. What rules do we need to create to make sure people are safe and that the offenders are able to adjust to the outside world is in tension with the holistic vision of a healthy and safe environment for all? Unfortunately, rule following rarely leads to the holistic vision. This is reinforced by the 70 to 80 percent recidivism rate. Rule following is difficult.
Paul was caught squarely in the middle of the struggle between folks who wanted to follow established religious laws and those who wanted to be counted as children of God, but were a little terrified of the laws. To follow the religious laws meant that they would have to do things like being circumcised. This is not a happy prospect for a grown man. I was blessed to have a Jewish friend explain to me the religious laws. There is this concept of “building a fence around Torah.” What this means is that there are the religion and purity laws in Torah which are the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Then the rule building comes in. For example, the law may be, “You shall not make an idol.” The rules become, don’t make any representation of God because that might become an idol. And further, don’t write down the holy name, because we might begin to idolize the very name. See how the fence is built? The intent is life giving. The rules can be life giving unless we follow the rules simply because they are the rules.
In Romans 9:30-32, Paul tells us the problem he is trying to solve: Israel, who did strive for righteousness based on the law, did not succeed because they were striving based on works alone, not faith. There was no life. They were following the rules, staying outside the Torah fence, but losing sight of the life-giving aspects that Torah brings to the Jews. Paul then pushes back on the rule-following hard. He proclaims, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
I have to admit that this verse, all by itself, gives me the heebie jeebies. When I was a teenager, I started going to church. I felt the pull of God even as an unchurched youth. Naturally, I went to my best friend’s church. Turns out that church was a Southern Baptist Church. This verse is one of the clobber verses they use when judging if someone is really a Christian or not. In essence, it became a rule. I know several youth who would parrot these words back without any thought. But that was enough for the leaders of that church. Their job was done. However, merely saying the words “Jesus is Lord” and proclaiming that Jesus rose from the dead cannot secure salvation. The book of James tells that even the demons believe. And Matthew tells us, in chapter 7 of his gospel that calling on God’s name will not secure a place in the Kingdom of God. So there is something more to this business of being saved than reciting an ancient confession.
This ancient confession, “confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord,” considered in Paul’s culture, carries some extra meaning. First, this confession uses the word Lord or κύριος in Greek. This word was reserved for three things: (1) the Roman Emperors, (2) Greek Gods, or (3) as a reference to God’s divine name. To associate κύριος with Jesus, meant that if you were Jewish, you trusted Christ as your messiah, if you were a gentile, you ceased worshiping the emperor as κύριος, Lord. It was an acknowledgment that Jesus Christ was uniquely superior to anyone else. It was a public declaration of belief in the martyred and resurrected Jesus Christ. This was a big deal. It was against the law to worship anybody other than the Roman Emperor, the Greek Gods, or God as defined by ancient Judaism. Stepping outside of these bounds could be political and social catastrophe. At a time when the Roman Empire expected unquestioning loyalty, the early Christians were declaring allegiance to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. So first, this confession is an early declaration of identity.
Second, the questions that come to my mind when I read this confession and these verses are what is belief? What is being saved? And the final question…is confession all that is required of us?
So, what does it mean to “believe?” I had to ask myself if this is different than what it means to have “faith?” Or what does it mean to “know?” So of course, I googled it. And wouldn’t you know, there is a website, by Julie Redstone that has some pretty good answers to these questions!
First regarding knowing, Julie Redstone tells us:
To experience something is to know it. …Here is a common example of our knowing something: When the sun shines on our skin we feel warmth. We don’t need anyone else to tell us what we feel. We know that we feel something we call ‘warmth’. In relation to the sun, we have an ease with our knowing since others share our experience and can understand it.
Regarding belief, she tells us:
We believe things with our minds. Beliefs are ideas. They are concepts. They give us a picture of reality that others can agree with or disagree with. Beliefs are thoughts that can be put into words and these words can be communicated to others. Beliefs, however, are not absolute truths. They are opinions about reality, not reality itself.
And regarding faith, she says:
Having faith in something is different than [belief]. Faith, in a spiritual sense, does not have to do with relative truths but with absolute truths – truths that exist for all time…Unlike beliefs which are of the mind, faith is not just of the mind but of the heart as well…Faith combines our heart’s wish and our mind’s belief into an inner affirmation that the possible is real. Faith is the affirmation of this reality.
I think that our biblical translation fails us just a bit here. I looked up the Greek dictionary definition for the word, πιστεύω which is translated belief and it says: “to believe to the extent of complete trust and reliance…to have faith in.” I think Paul might be happier if we chose the word faith rather than belief here. After all, in verse 10, Paul says, “for you believe with the heart.” Belief here is the exact same word used earlier, πιστεύω. Faith. We are to have complete trust and reliance that Jesus is the messiah and that he was raised from the dead. That is what it means to believe. Please note that there is nothing that we can do to create faith. Faith is a complete gift from God; all we have to do is open ourselves.
Having faith, complete trust and reliance, leads to a discussion of what trusting and relying upon Jesus means. For me, it means that I trust in Jesus to guide me. And when I choose a place to identify with, it is Matthew 25:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
This is solid ground for me. Reliable. Trustworthy. It touches my heart and my head and speaks to me of who Jesus is and what I know of God.
Next, what does it mean to be confess and be saved? I find it infinitely fascinating that the same word for saved is related to the word healed. So there is this linking of salvation and healing. What does it mean to be healed? Paul tells us that through confessing that Jesus is Lord, we are saved. Is that really all there is to it? Not quite. When I think of confession, I generally think of a confidential confession to a pastor or priest. Is the only trick to be healed, to being restored to right relationship with God, saying this confession to a trusted pastor? I don’t think so.
I think, though, that the key to deciphering this confession comes in verses 14 and 15.
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
This is a reference to Isaiah 52:7, which reads:
7How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Confession is announcing peace to the world, bringing the good news to the world, announcing salvation to the world. This brings healing to us and to others. It is a confession that God reigns. It is so interesting that Isaiah and Paul reference the beautiful feet. Feet travel. Feet get around. Feet do. Paul and Isaiah emphasize the feet. Why? The feet are the ones sent out into the world and they are beautiful. And that is part of confessing. We don’t keep the good news of healing to ourselves. We share in the responsibility of healing the world and bringing the good news of right relationship with God through Christ.
There are a good many people who are of the opinion that all it takes for salvation is a confession of the creed. But that lacks bringing healing. Remember that church I went to as a teen? As soon as they were assured of my salvation, they offered nothing. I was a teenager (strike one), with no faith support in my home (strike two), and with no development of my faith at church other than attending choir (strike three). Throw in a little ministerial misconduct and I bet you can guess where I was going to church a couple years later! Nowhere. The people of the church did not help me understand what it meant to be in right relationship with Christ. They did not take time to bring healing to a teenage heart. And the worst thing, they threw in obstacles to faith development! In many ways they were good hearted people. I just think they were misguided. Confessing your faith should enable you to become the bearer of peace, good news, and healing. These are all “doing things.” It requires action on our part. First, we have to be in right-relationship with Christ as Lord of our lives and second, we have to work to bring healing to the world. And I think we know that there is a lot of healing that needs to happen.
Paul stresses the importance of going out into the world and bringing healing in the name of Christ Jesus, sharing the message of Christ. Sometimes, people need healing before they can see the beauty of God and other times, seeing the beauty of God leads them to see a healing path. It would be awfully convenient if there was one simple formula, but there isn’t. We must do both…bring healing and share our own faith stories. Sometimes in that order and sometimes, we will be called to share our faith story first. I know that can be scary. But our boots are made for walking.
I wonder what it would be like if our shoes kept a diary? What would that say about us? Would a quick peak into that diary reveal a journey that includes spiritual activities and beautiful feet? Or would our shoe diary reveal feet that were muddy and looking a bit worse-for-the-wear?
Today I passed by a homeless man on the street. I felt so sorry for him, but I didn’t have time to do anything but rush by.
or what if it read…
Today I passed by a homeless man on the street. I felt so sorry for him, but I didn’t have time to do anything but rush by. Today, though, I turned around and went back and gave him my lunch. And tonight, I’m going to make a donation to Peace for the Streets. I know I can’t stop every day, but perhaps I made a difference today.
Today I don’t know how I resisted the urge to gossip about Elaine even though I have heard some appalling news. I don’t know where the strength came from! It must be a God thing. Actually, I should send an encouraging note to Elaine. She must be feeling awful. Maybe I will tell her about the time I felt really lonely and God made a difference in my life.
Perhaps, this week, you will think about keeping a shoe diary. Where are your feet going? Are they looking muddy? Or are they beautiful feet bringing healing and good news to a hurting world.
Shalom and Amen.
 Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (1695). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
 Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament : Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (375). New York: United Bible societies.