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Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Romans 4:1-5, 13-18, 23-25
What can we gain from our ancestors according to the flesh? Let’s imagine, for a moment, the most we could expect: we receive our genetic disposition, any familial blessings or traumas, from resilience on the one hand to struggling to express emotions on the other. We gain good or bad genes, those that are strong against heart disease but weak to cancer, or vice versa. We can gain our appearances, our mental illnesses, our physical structures, our chronic ailments. There are many things we receive from our ancestors according to the flesh, both good and bad. What we can never hope to gain, however, no matter who we come from, is rightness with God according to our physical ancestors. The old nationalist lie, that with one race, culture, or language group salvation rests, is and always has been a horrendous lie.
Paul wants to make clear his message here, using the example of Abraham, that it is only faith in the work of God and his Grace that makes one righteous, through Christ. His example might have been unexpected to his hearers; the Jews saw in Abraham the one to whom the promise of God, the covenant, was given, and because they descended from him, following the covenant sign given to him, that they were righteous with God. But Paul wants to make clear that they have misunderstood some crucial points. First, the law was not given to Abraham, but to Moses, much later. Abraham could not obey the law, whether in ritual or ethical matters. Second, the covenant with Abraham is the foundational covenant, the promise that conditions and determines all other promises, the one that is prior to all others. And finally, and most crucial, this covenant was and is not based on the ritual practices or ethical behavior of the recipient, Abraham, or us, but is an act of God’s grace that can only be received by faith.
What makes one right with God, Paul says, is not a childhood of ethnic or genetic connection, but faith. Faith in the promise. This faith will result in behavior that is reflective of it, yes, but God’s grace is never conditioned upon that behavior, because then it would not be faith, but Law, and Law can never save by itself. Paul reminds us in vs. 4, where he says, “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due,” that even the good and right things done in life are not things that can be boasted about. Ritual practices like being baptized, coming to church, reading our bibles, are not things we can boast about; neither is giving to the poor person on the street asking for help, or comforting a hurting friend, or being honest at work. We cannot boast in those things because we basically receive our due for them, but that is never and cannot be sufficient to save us from the condition we find ourselves in. Salvation is not a weighing of the “good things” vs. “the bad things” in our lives.
Our sin isn’t weighed with those “good deeds,” and if they were, I am sure we’d be surprised at just how much our selfishness, self-absorption, greed, and resentment would ultimately outweigh the good we do. But it never was about fulfilling the law. It has always been about faith, as Paul shows through Abraham. Faith in God and his promise is what saves, because righteousness offered to humanity is always an act of grace, and never a thing to be earned.
How could we ever hope to attain to the righteousness of the God of all creation, the holy and unreachable one, the one who is above all things and in all things? When we sit and think about it, it is absurd to consider that our meager efforts at being “good” could ever be sufficient. So what is faith, then, this faith that saves us by receiving the grace of God?
Faith is not an empty word or simply the reception of certain doctrines; faith is an action, a thing we in a sense “do,” though it is not a work. I was reminded of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Those were some of my favorite movies growing up, and I was remembering one of my favorite parts, the sequence of booby traps he must pass to get to the holy grail. First there is a trap where one must drop to their knees as a penitent man, lest the massive saws take off their head. The second, there are tiles crossing a chasm. If one steps on the wrong ones, you fall through to your death, but if you step on the letters that spell out the name of God, you can walk across. The last, a step of faith, stepping out into what appears a deep abyss, but there is a hidden path right in front of you. In each case, the point is that it isn’t some human effort or cleverness that wins the day, no law to follow, but to come before God humbly (kneeling), looking to Jesus by whose name we are saved, and finally continuing to step out in faith, despite appearances telling us that it might doom us. These are not works of ritual like circumcision, or works of law like moral rules or dietary guidelines. No, these are actions, but actions of one who has faith, actions of stepping into a new life that God calls us to. Faith, in other words, is an act of submission and surrender to God.
Consider Abraham himself, when called to sacrifice Isaac. He knew that if he killed his son, it would be a reversal of the promise God made to him. Yet, he went all the way up to the point of doing the act, because he believed in the grace and promise of God. Where Abraham believed the promise, “hoping against hope” as Paul puts it, that he would be father of many nations, so we believe that, “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
The promise to Abraham was never just about having many descendants, or a land, or an heir. It was about the heir, Jesus Christ, gaining the whole world, and in him, all of us are inheritors of that promised land, creation itself. Abraham is the father of us all, as the one who was not a Jew but from whom all Jews came, one who was called to obey God and did so, trusting a promise he never saw.
And that is the faith we are called to. Faith to trust God, no matter what appearances tell us. Faith is going to martyrdom, like many early Christians; faith is building a piece of art in a cathedral that no human eye will see, because you are making it for God; faith is continuing the fight for justice, whether in class, race, or whatever, knowing you may not see it in your day, but knowing God will see it; faith is serving the suffering, even if they are unthankful, because you know God has made them in his image and you care more about what he thinks; faith is trusting God through the darkness, the sorrow, the suffering of life, not because you enjoy those things or should, but because you know that his promise is sure, concrete, real, and that it is more sure than any burden in this world you carry. You are Abraham’s child, because you too believe in the promise of God. Continue to believe, and walk in faith, knowing that the God of Abraham is your God, forever and ever. Amen.
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