The 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year B
25 February, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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Lots of people, myself included, have trouble understanding a lot of what St Paul teaches in his letter to the Romans. It’s one of those things that you need to reread several times. It also helps to study those Old Testament passages about Abraham and Moses, faith and law, that Paul keeps referring to. He sets up the faith of Abraham in contrast to the law of Moses, and explains that it’s through faith in Jesus, not strict obedience to the law, that we are saved. But he’s also careful to point out that obedience is a response to faith. I made that sound as confusing as St Paul, didn’t I? So now we need to sort it out.
There’s a chart in the latest issue of Christianity Today (March 2018) that shows the results of a poll of different groups of Americans who were asked whether they believe that they become better in the sight of God through dependence on Jesus or by working harder at avoiding sin. According to the poll about 2/3 of Americans in general believed they could make themselves better. A slight majority of Protestants believe the same thing, as did a larger majority of Catholics polled, whereas a slight majority of evangelicals polled believed it could only happen through faith in Jesus. The headline over the article is “Lord have mercy on 67% of us.”
The idea that we can make ourselves better in the sight of God is actually an ancient heresy called Pelagianism. (Pelagius was the British priest who taught it.) It places a greater emphasis on obeying the rules and doing all the right things than relying on the righteousness of Jesus, which is called moralism. Moralism gives rise to an attitude of self-righteousness and of judging others rather than being faithful, loving and merciful. I’m sure some of us here had an aunt or a cousin from a previous generation who was forever banished by her father for having a baby out of wedlock. We can all be moralistic in particular ways– I know I can for sure! And I think we come by it innocently enough, since having an objective set of rules is essential to a well-ordered society, whether it’s a family, a community or a nation. When somebody breaks the rules, there are consequences. And when a particular rule is seen to be no longer valuable to the majority of society, we may begin to ignore it, and eventually change it.
Well, that’s the dilemma St Paul is addressing in his letter to the Christians in Rome. It’s clear from this letter that Rome was not one of his problem churches. Those were in Corinth and Galatia. So he isn’t writing to rebuke the Romans for listening to bad teaching, or for unjustly mistreating each other, or imposing rules that no longer have any value. He was using his pastoral experience with other churches and his deep theological understanding of the OT to teach the Christians of Rome about how faith and law relate to each other, and how both the faith of Abraham and the law of Moses are fulfilled in Jesus.
In God’s relations with his people, Paul teaches, faith comes first. It doesn’t trump the law, but it does crown it, and temper it with mercy and love. Apart from those, justice will be applied coldly, and often with a measure of cruelty, human nature being what it is, regardless of circumstances. In the days of Abraham there was no divine law. Up to that point the only covenant that God had made was with Noah after the flood, when he promised never to be that destructive again. Abram and Sarai were in their 70’s and childless when God first called them to leave their homeland and travel to a new land where they would put down roots and have lots of descendants. Abram didn’t question or argue with God, he simply believed and obeyed– that’s faith. And even though every so often God would do something, or give them something, that confirmed their faith in him, they would have their doubts.
At one point, for example, because God had promised them children, and because they were getting up in years, they grew impatient and decided to take action themselves in order fulfil the promise. Sarai urged Abram to have a child with her young slave Hagar. So Ishmael was born when Abram was 86, and God rebuked him for his lack of faith in attempting to do things his own way. I’ve done that myself. I didn’t have a baby with my wife’s slave, or anybody I’m not married to. But I have jumped the gun, acting in ways I believed to be right without first praying and considering what might have been the wise or godly thing to do. I know I’m not alone in that, because every time I look at social media I see my brothers and sisters in Christ saying things they shouldn’t be saying in ways they shouldn’t be saying them.
God rebukes Abram, but he doesn’t write him off. Instead, thirteen years later he reaffirms his promise, as we read today: “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant between me and you, and multiply you greatly.” Then God changes his name from Abram, meaning exalted father, to Abraham, father of many. Also, Sarai became Sarah, both of which mean princess, but in two different dialects. That simple change, however, indicates a significant change in status for her as well– “she shall become nations,” God says, “kings of peoples shall come from her.” They will be the ancestors, not just of one nation, Israel, but of all the people God intends to bring out of all the nations on earth into this covenant of faith through the saving work of his Son. All this because of Abraham’s faith, because he believed God, and it was “counted to him as righteousness,” as Paul says (cf Gen 15:6).
But the many nations thing is way down the road. The first stage is to give Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac, whose son Jacob would become the father of twelve sons, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, the great nation God promised to make of Abraham’s family. But it was never to become a great nation by the standards of its time. It’s greatness lay in the fact that it was the site of God’s dwelling on earth, the temple, and that through this chosen nation God would bless the whole world by raising up his own Son from among them.
Meanwhile, because they were as sinful and disobedient as any other nation, God needed to teach them his ways and lead them in his paths so that they would be ready, in the fullness of time, for him to raise up his Son. That’s where the law comes in. Actually, there still wasn’t any divine law for another five hundred years or so, until God raised up Moses to lead his people from Egyptian slavery back to the land God promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. At that time the chosen people had to become reacquainted with their God, whom they had all but forgotten during their enslavement, and God had to reeducate them and purge from their memory the ways of their former masters. So he gave his law through Moses, and gave his people a forty-year crash course in his ways before allowing them into the Promised Land.
Paul says elsewhere that the law served as a schoolmaster (παιδαγωγός) to God’s people from that time until the time of Jesus, “in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24)– in order that pure faith would once again crown the obedience of God’s people. That’s not to say, though, that there was no faith in Israel like the faith of their forefather Abraham. There were plenty of deeply faithful individuals. But from the time of Moses on, Israel wavered in its self-understanding, seeing itself at times as God’s peculiar people and at other times as a political nation like all its neighbors. So the main purpose of the law God gave through Moses was to remind his people who they were, and its strict program of religious observances was designed to keep them from straying too far from him.
But strict rules alone don’t make for a good relationship. That’s what Paul means when he says the law was our schoolmaster. That passage reminds me of my mom’s cousin Agnes. All the people I know who had her said the was the strictest teacher they ever had. There was absolutely no talking and no looking at anybody else except “Miss McIntosh.” And the consequences for disobedience were severe. But all the kids learned their math. One guy told me she was “the best teacher I ever had, but I hated her guts.” That’s not the kind of relationship God was ultimately aiming to have with his people, but in his wisdom he had determined that that was what they needed in that stage of the relationship.
Paul draws quite a stark contrast between law and faith. In Galatians he says that “before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal 3:23)– sort of like detention maybe. But that was part of God’s plan in preparing his people, and the world, for the time when faith would once again crown the law– not do away with the law, as some of those earliest Christians believed, and some still do, and not to be a reward to those who can stick to the letter of the law, as some believe, but to temper the law with mercy and charity.
But ultimately faith isn’t really about the law at all. It’s about believing God, trusting his promises, believing that Jesus is his Son through whom we receive forgiveness for sin simply by asking in sincere repentance, and are reconciled to God by the death of Jesus, and are justified, made righteous, before God by the resurrection of Jesus. Faith, Paul teaches, is the sole ground of our righteous, our being made right with God.
A point of clarification here: Justification is a word the Church uses quite a bit, but lots of Christians aren’t too sure what it means exactly. But it’s very simple– to be justified means that we are made just, righteous, right with God, that we’ve been reconciled to God and restored to a right relationship with him. And in the Christian understanding, this can only happen through Jesus, by allowing his death to cover the penalty for our sin, and by returning to the arms of God through his resurrection. Elsewhere in Romans Paul says that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). It’s that kind of faith that leads to our justification, our righteousness before God, not by anything we could possibly do on our own, but by putting our whole confidence in what Jesus has done for us all.
That’s the same kind of faith that Abraham had. In today’s reading Paul repeats what was said of Abraham in Genesis, that “he believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). And whoever possesses that kind of faith, Paul teaches, is a child of Abraham, not as biological, but as spiritual offspring. So as Paul concludes in today’s reading, just as Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness, so “it will be counted to us who believe in him [= in God] who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
So the bottom line is that it’s not by doing that we’re saved, but by believing. It’s by trusting that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of all creation, and the God and Father of Jesus Christ whom he sent into the world to call all people out of every nation into a saving relationship with himself through the death and resurrection of his Son. And the key to opening that relationship is repentance, of renouncing every sin and every evil thing that separates us from God and that draws us away from the love of God (BCP 302).
That kind of repentance has to be a daily exercise for whoever wants to be in that kind of relationship with God. But the Church also takes us through this season of Lent when we’re meant to pay extra-special attention to it. And Abraham is one of our role models in this exercise. He was righteous before God, but he wasn’t perfect. He doubted, and he sinned many times by trying to do things his own way. But he learned the lessons of those doubts and sins, and his faith grew stronger. “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” The God who can give a baby to a couple in their late 90’s, and who can raise his own Son from the dead, is the God we should learn to trust in the face of all our doubts and fears. In the Name of …
Ian C. Wetmore+