Some of you might recognize the name Richard Rohr. Father Rohr is a well-known author, speaker and Franciscan priest. Our friend, George, told us that he attended a workshop by Father Rohr, and after his talk a woman stood and asked: “Father, I am a devout Catholic and I hope someday with God’s grace that I will attain Heaven. But it would really help me if I had some idea of what Heaven is like. I know that it is more than pearly gates and angels singing. Can you describe Heaven for me?”
Father Rohr responded, “That is a difficult question. There really isn’t much of anything in our tradition that describes heaven.” But then he stopped and said, “No, there is one thing. There is one thing that is very clear in our tradition about heaven. Heaven is not about you. In heaven, God’s power and glory are so clear that each of us are taken up into God’s love.”
I think that might sum up Paul’s teaching in this fourth chapter of Romans. It’s not about us. It’s not even about Abraham. It’s about God.
I don’t blame you if you lost track of Paul’s argument–it seems as clear as mud on the first read. Paul’s was not 21st century thoughts. This chapter requires us to slow down a little and unpack Paul’s words. I am so glad that we are taking ten weeks to study and preach through Romans. We need to dig deeper to understand what Paul was saying to the churches and we’ll see why this letter became scripture for the Christian church because of its usefulness in nurturing faith among the people.
Paul used a person very familiar to his listeners: Father Abraham.
For Paul, Abraham’s faith was central to his understanding about the extravagance of God’s grace to all people-to the Jews first, and also to the Gentiles. The faith of Abraham, Paul argued, was key to the much larger narrative about God as Promise-giver and Promise-keeper.
For Paul, Abraham was the ancestor of all of us who trust God; his faith was counted to him as righteousness.
Righteousness however for first century hearers didn’t have the same meaning as our 21st century Western ears. In the book of James it says, “Abraham was a friend of God.” I like that. Righteousness meant being in right relationship or having a friendship with God.
For Paul, Abraham was not the icon of goodness or a moral paragon. Abraham had faith even before God called for circumcision. Abraham had faith before the Law of Moses was given.
In Genesis 12:1, the pivotal story of God’s promise, God broke into Abraham’s life with a new word; the Lord said to the 75 year-old Abraham and Sarah, “Go, get going!” The Hebrew imperative is: “Lekh Lekha.” “Leave from the land of your birth, from your people, from your own home, to a new land I will show you. I have made a new plan that includes the blessing of all humankind. You and Sarah will be the father and mother of all people.”
Through Abraham and Sarah’s act of stepping off their premises to trusting in God’s Promise, we are given a model of faithfulness.
For the early Jews in the church, Paul’s teaching about Abraham’s righteousness through faith for both Jews and Gentiles required his listeners to put on new ears to hear, a new lens to see, a new mind to understand his re-interpretation of the story of God’s promise.
For centuries, Christians have had make room for and to incorporate new evidence, new thinking, new understanding of the world into their understanding of God.
There was quite a buzz this past week over the discovery and unveiling of a 2″x 3″ papyrus fragment from a Christian community from the 4th century. From many scholars’ perspectives, at this point, the papyrus appears to be an authentic piece of writing. The fragment has only a few lines written in Coptic. The stir is around a few words: “Jesus said to them, My wife….” Two power-packed words: “My wife.”
Does this idea that Jesus might have been married shake up the church’s theology? Will this change our view of Jesus, our Christology? Our view of the church, our ecclesiology? When in fact did the belief about Jesus’ marital status become doctrine?
Scholars and clergy are going to have to wrestle with this new fragment of information whether they decide it’s valid or not. Some, I guarantee, will find this more challenging than will others.
I suggest that Paul’s argument for the Jews to understand Abraham’s righteousness, not based on his circumcision nor his obedience to the law but solely on his faith and trust in God, was a radical new theological paradigm.
Needless to say, Paul’s Jewish colleagues were not thrilled to make or embrace this theological shift.
For Paul, Abraham was an exemplar of faith–but not based on his moral goodness.
Abe didn’t earn favor with God because he believed hard enough.
Abraham didn’t find favor with God because he behaved well-only 10 verses into the story we find Abram lying about his beautiful wife, Sarah, being his sister and handing her over to the Egyptian Pharaoh in order to save his own skin.
He didn’t earn righteousness for never struggling with God-remember the whole situation with Hagar, his concubine, and their son, Ishmael? Abe was ready to let Hagar and her child die in the desert. Abraham was the first deadbeat dad, ignoring his responsibility to his child.
Abraham wasn’t counted as righteous submissively obeying every commandment God gave him either. Remember, Abraham argued God down to prevent God from wiping out all the people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham convinced God to save some of his kinfolk.
Just like most of the people God chooses to befriend, Abraham was a complex person, and not always a model of good behavior.
I think the Scriptures are pretty clear that to be a friend of God’s you have to have be comfortable with holy foolishness. It seems like it’s often the outsider who has the courage to follow God. Maybe it’s because those who live closer to the margins have less to lose. They haven’t accumulated a barn full of stuff or have good reputations to compromise.
In Hebrews chapter 11 we find a long list of God’s friends who throughout Israel’s history emulated faith-not to be equated with perfect behavior: Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, David, Cain, Abel, and many, many more.
If you wonder why we teach our children these ancient stories about those people or if you question what on earth they have to do with the so-called “real world,” we answer: we tell them in order that children will learn about their authentic, earthy, little bit crazy ancestors of faith: those who had courage-who had heart-who took risks. The ancestors of faith who desired with their hearts, minds and souls to be faithful to Abraham’s God —in whom they had more faith than in themselves.
Most importantly, God had faith in them.
Righteousness had nothing to do with their abilities to believe hard enough or be good enough. And it doesn’t for us either.
We cannot reduce the Bible to a book of nice stories about good people in order to make us nice people too. Children see right through that. If we reduce the Scriptures to a book about “moral living” we will no longer be astounded by the stories it tells us about a Living God who is involved with the messiness and confusion of our lives.
Being a good person is not the goal of the Christian life.
If it’s just about being good then we are just white washing the outside, not deepening the inside life of faith. If we think that righteousness is based on moral uprightness, the temptation will be to allow others to think we ourselves never do wrong, we never struggle with our faith, we never really mess up. Worse yet, we might start believing it ourselves.
Some Christians get so overwhelmed trying hard to be virtuous that they give up faith altogether. As Martin Luther said: It’s better to trust God and sin boldly.
What was the faith of Abraham that Paul deemed as friendship with God?
First, it was a faith with heart. The words courage and belief both have heart at their roots. Courage (cour=heart) to believe, (credo) “to set our hearts” in God.
Second, the faith of Abraham rested upon God who opened up the world wider and larger than he could think or even imagine. The Gentiles, the sick, the lame, the prisoner, outcast-all of us-are included in the circle of grace God’s draws around the firmament. Why? Because it’s not about us! It’s about God who called all things into existence.
I know that all of you are good people. I know we are trying hard to do the right things, to live the right way. Many of you have been overachievers. But some of us haven’t always behaved as well as we intended– for whatever reason– and we regret decisions we’ve made along the way.
The bold and crazy message of Paul is that through Jesus, we can accept that we are accepted. Not based on our what we’ve done right or wrong, but on God’s grace shown in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ righteousness is reckoned to us as righteousness.
I imagine that Paul’s message was a surprise to both the Jews and the Gentiles. It’s a mystery why it is so hard for us to accept the good news.
Does our friendship with God mean that the Law no longer matters and that our behavior then does not matter to God? By no means! Paul says in chapter 5. But I’ll leave that for John’s sermon next week.
Friends, accept that you were accepted before you even knew you were accepted.
Because the Good News is about God. It really is.
Thanks be to God.
[The Shofar was sounded by member Ahren Stock; Dr. Timothy Beal read from the Hebrew liturgy.]