Sermon from week three of my first sermon series! (Audio Here!) Feel free to comment! 3 weeks to go!
This is week three of this sermon series, so maybe it’s time to recap a little (otherwise I might forget what I need to say, or something):
We know that the Good News of Jesus Christ is Good News for everyone. It’s not the good news of Rome, the good news of wealth and power and privilege and preference that comes at the expense of others.
We know that Paul starts to figure this out after a massive conversion when he is put face to face with the risen Christ, the living God, whom he had been persecuting, and who, after striking him blind (though he could see), calls him to view the world in a completely different way.
We also left off saying that God works this way in the world constantly, interacting and breaking up things, disrupting patters, opening people up to new possibilities, new realities, where the Good News is known, and not hidden behind traditionalism.
If God has entered the world, taken on flesh, lived among us, died, resurrected, then now what? This is central to a lot of Paul’s writings. If everything has changed, then how now should these people go on living?
And Paul, perhaps contrary to what we want to believe, turns down olds roads, towards Abraham, the father of the Jewish people (and all the nations, right?) and to, and this will get complicated, the Law.
Hear now our passage from the 4th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans:
4What then are we to say was gained by* Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works:
7 ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’
9 Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ 10How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, 12and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.
13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
There’s this great story (from This American Life, couldn’t you guess?) about a guy who lives in a drawbridge. It’s sort of hard to imagine, but ones day he’s climbing the side of it (don’t ask) and finds an opening, about a square meter, in the side of the bridge. And inside, there’s a 10ft. x 10ft. space. And so, he sets up inside. Over time, he moves in furniture, a bed, a couch, even a TV. He lives in the bridge.
Of course, early on something pretty dramatic happens: the bridge raises. And the entire room is flipped on its side. Everything that he has set up goes flying across the room.
Of course, he doesn’t move out. That would be silly. Instead, he gets some bungies and starts tying stuff down. And over time he gets everything in its place, so that when the bridge starts lifting, everything stays put.
Think about what happens to Paul this way: he’s organized his world, he knows where he belongs, where others belong, what his mission, as a Pharisee is, he’s got everything in his life bungied down, so that when things move, or get strange, or difficult, everything stays in place.
Now, imagine Paul’s on a road to persecute Christians, to cause problems, to work within his well ordered life.
And then God removes the bungies. And everything goes flying everywhere.
This is what happens to Paul’s world. It gets flipped upside down, and the ways in which he kept it all in check have gone away. It’s all been disrupted; it doesn’t make the same kind of sense anymore.
But now that we’ve disrupted everything, now that we’ve been opened by the living God, now what? How do we make sense of it?
And now, we move into a whole different discussion, one which our Thursday morning Bible study can assure you is really complicated. Chapter 4 of the book of Romans launches us into this explanation of the work of Christ in relation to the covenant made between God and Abraham, and in relation to Adam, the first human.
Paul, it would seem, knows his audience pretty well. After all, if you’re talking to a bunch of Israelites, the best way to get their attention would be to use the scripture they all know. And so Paul turns to Abraham. Abraham is the Jewish trump card.
For the Israelites, for Paul, Abraham is where it all begins. Abraham has the encounter with God that starts it all off, that creates the covenant, that comes with the promise that Abraham, who’s a little old at the time, will father many nations.
And the sign of the promise, what God gives to the people both as a representation of the faith of Abraham, and, perhaps to remind the Israelites of their status? The Law. Given in 613 installments, dealing with how to behave as the chosen people. Created to set the people apart. Whenever Israel wanders, someone is called by God to remind the people about the Law, and the people are supposed to remember the who they, as a people, were called to be.
As we talked about last week, over time tradition becomes traditionalism, and the people forget about their original mission, and start following the law without understanding why. And so God breaks things up, he puts a face on the covenant.
But now what? How do we know who we are?
Paul’s points us back to faith. He points us back to the time when Abraham was met by God, was promised he would be the father of Nations. And God did it.
And in Jesus, God does it again.
If everything has changed, if everything is different, if God has come into the world and broken things up, how, then, are the people supposed to act? Welcome to Paul’s problems.
There are Jewish “people of the way,” followers of Christ in just about every congregation Paul writes too. And most seem to say that everyone now needs to follow the Law, even gentiles, and this would be a big deal. Faith in the ancient world is largely hereditary; you don’t convert, though some may try, they still maintain a different identity. So someone may go through the conversion process, take on the law, and all that. And you’re still not really Jewish.
There are a lot of people in the early days arguing that the law must be followed by everyone. And maybe they have a point. How, after all, are the people going to form a new community, one which stands apart, which represents the work of God on earth? Because that was the original intent of the Law.
If everything has changed, how are the people to go on living? Because if everything has changed, nothing can be the same.
Paul turns to faith.
Faith that God has entered our world, has taken on Flesh, has embodied the Law. Jesus Christ has come, fully human and fully divine, has lived, has died and has been resurrected. Has conquered death. Has conquered sin.
Paul turns to faith. Because if all of this has happened, if followers of the way believe that God has entered our world, then they wont be able to live the same.
It’s like John Newton, original author of the Hymn Amazing Grace, who had been a slave trader and at some point encountered the living Christ and no longer could live the same. He didn’t just stop being a slave trader; he became an abolitionist. He started living as though he’d encounter God in the world.
Or Mother Theresa, who, when asked how she continued on in such horrid conditions among lepers and orphans replied that she looked at each individual who came to her as though she was looking at the face of God.
Or Archbishop Oscar Romero, who served in El Salvador in the 80’s during their countries civil war. He was originally selected as Archbishop because he didn’t wanted to challenge the status quo, because he wanted to keep things the same and those in power liked that. But after hearing of a close friend dying in a massacre during a mass, he changed. And Romero could no longer live the same. The rest of his life, ended short, was lived speaking out against the violence in his country, speaking out against the army, encouraging soldiers to stop fighting in an unjust war.
Paul turns to faith. Once you’ve witnessed the risen Christ, you can no longer live the same.
We are left now as Christians, as believers, to ask how things have changed because of our relationship with Jesus.
How are you going to live differently? How are we, as a church, going to live differently? How are we going to be, as Paul says, “a law unto ourselves?”
How we live as a community, how we practice love, and acceptance, and compassion, and hospitality makes us who we are. This is our Law: that God first loved us, that God welcomed us, that God so love the world that God sent God’s only son.”
How, now, are we going to live differently?