Acts 20:1-3 and Romans 1-3

behind!   Should be caught up later today.Read Acts and Romans Passages Here
Okay, bear with me for a second while I repeat a few things “aloud” to help me keep all these events straight in my head…
Paul left Ephesus after a huge riot that was instigated by Demetrius.   Ephesus is on the coast, in the western part of Asia.   Asia is the piece of land that is mostly called Turkey today.   Macedonia is on the opposite side of the Aegean Sea from Ephesus, and Greece is below Macedonia and shares a coastline with the Med.  Syria is in the opposite direction, east and south of this area.   Oh, one more thing…today, Macedonia and Greece are both known as Greece.
I find that a part of my devotions some mornings is simply trying to keep all the names and locations straight in my head.   If you say “Florida” or “San Diego” to me, or even “Mexico City”….I have an image tucked away in my brain for that.   But there isn’t any image for “Ephesus” or “Greece” or “Macedonia”.   It makes it hard to keep them located.   As I read this, I didn’t know that Paul was traveling further away from home, and actually a little closer to Rome on this trip.  That is, until I looked it up.   I am beginning to appreciate the importance of Paul’s ministry outside of Israel a little more, and it’s humbling to see the names of countries that I didn’t have a high opinion of on the list.   Syria is part of my Christian heritage…Antioch is in Syria, and that was Paul’s hometown.    We were first called “Christians” in  Antioch…not Jerusalem.   My eye is always drawn toward Israel, but maybe that has kept me from noticing the value of the spread of the Gospel outside of there.
In these first three chapters of Romans Paul is sharing in brief form the core of the Gospel.   I was going to try and summarize what he says here, but there really isn’t a need.   What Paul says here IS the summary.   I noticed that he begins his letter expressing a desire to visit with the Romans (or should I say 
“the Italians?”).  I noticed the reason for his desire to visit:  He wants to give them a spiritual gift…which he believes that God will do through him as he visits.  And he wants to see how well they are doing, because that will encourage him.    Think about that for a moment:  Paul is confident that he has something valuable to offer to the church, and wants to give it away.   The only thing he wants in return is to rejoice at how well they are doing.   That’s a little different than the world is today, don’t you think?     Most people are envious when they hear how well another church is doing, especially if it’s close to them.    I am no stranger to the feeling of frustration as you hear how well some other ministry is doing, while you are working as hard as you can without noticeable results.
Paul recognized that the spread of the church into Rome was directly related to his missions work…how encouraging that must have been!   To look back over your life and recognize that the spiritual landscape has been improved by God’s work through you has to be a real blessing.
Chapter 1 from verse 18 to the end of the chapter describes what I have come to know as the “downward spiral”.  It begins with denial of the existence of God, or at least denial that he is involved in our lives.  That leads us to relaxed morals, which create consequences that take us even deeper into bad behavior.   There is a second way this happens as well:  We fail to study and learn what is exactly correct, so we end up filling in the blanks with answers we have made up.   I see this a lot today…people will describe their loved ones after death returning as angels, and doing all sorts of things…none of which can be supported in Scripture.   We even make up stories to explain what we see in nature  “thunder is God bowling” or rain is the “angels crying”, you know…crazy stuff like that.    But it makes it easier to explain how the different countries came up with different “gods”, doesn’t it?
The spiral down motivates us to fabricate responses to our human needs and emotions, and because we are drifting away we produce bad responses…which lead us further away.
In Chapter 2 Paul’s attitude seems to change a little.  It sounds like he is a mix of angry and frustrated at the church….and it seems to be because they are hanging onto some bad practices.   Maybe we will learn a little more definitively as we read on what the issue was.   As of today it could be idol worship or sexual immorality.   I’m sure both were pretty common in first century Rome.
I notice that Paul doesn’t pull any punches as he explains how angry God is with sin and rebellious people.   I think we need to hear the truth this way more often…in recent years we have concentrated more on God’s love, compassion and mercy and forgotten to include the reality of God’s judgement.    But it is the reality of judgement that helps to motivate us to remain obedient.    Paul clearly loves the church, and out of love he emphasizes that immorality and idol worship cannot be combined with godliness.    You will either lose one or the other, they cannot coexist.
Paul’s writing can be a little difficult to absorb because he is so intense and so tightly packed with content.   But we see in chapter 3 a powerful explanation of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.  Verse 25 says it so simply “we are made right when we believe that Christ shed his blood for us”.    Isn’t that simple?   What in the world do we make this so difficult?     Paul is expressing love and excitement about the prospect of seeing people who….in later writing, are still hanging onto some idols and may be involved in sexual sin!    I know the standard is Christ, and that a high standard…but that’s the end state, not how we begin.
Perhaps the one thing that Paul really got “right” was his ability to love people in spite of their failings, and to encourage them along the way as they grew into the disciples that he knew they could be.
Perhaps we should all do likewise.