Sunday, March 16, 2014

Second Sunday of Lent

Romans 4
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.”[c] He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

If we had to compile a list of the most cringe-worthy moments in political history, I might begin with the Shamrock Summit.

For those of you fortunate enough to be born after 1985, and do not carry the burden of this painful episode in Canada-U.S. relations, let me recap: President Reagan and Prime Minister Mulroney met in Quebec City, on St. Patrick’s Day, and capped off a lovely day together by singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” It was the late and great Eric Kierans who said "The general impression you get, is that our prime minister invited his boss home for dinner."

The counter-point, I think, would have to be President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Ireland, a visit that the late President described as the ‘best four days of this life.’ There, in his ancestral home in County Wexford he stepped in to sing with a boy’s choir singing a local ballad, leaving even cynical journalists in tears. Five months later he would travel to Dallas.

There seems to be something unique about Irish ancestry, something beyond the green beer and the notion that ‘everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.’ Part of the appeal is emotional, I think, with a sense of longing rooting in mass migration, the sense of connection that exists for the nearly 100 million people outside of Ireland that trace their roots back to this small country.

If we had to compile another list then, this time a list of Ireland’s greatest exports, we could certainly begin with people (5m descendants in Canada alone), we should probably add stout, and round out our list with the gift of faith. For just as St. Patrick left his home to take Christianity to the Irish, 150 years later Irish missionaries took Christianity to Britain, Europe, and to the edge of Asia.

Some say it was the simplicity of their message, presented in a way that was easily understood by the common people, while others argue it was the Celtic flavour of the message, less confrontational than Latin Christianity. Still others argue it was the example these missionaries set: walking rather than riding, looking for signs in the local context, and demonstrating a willingness to get their hands dirty, literally building a church for Christ.

Most of all, they demonstrated great faith. As the first mass missionary enterprize after St. Paul, they pointed to the hope of the Christian message, and the relevance of the message to the people they met. And they did this in the face of a well-established pagan religion: so well established that half the days on our week are named for these gods. Again, they had faith, and the so they persisted.

St. Paul, of course, provides a compelling example. Writing to the churches, he presents his argument for faith with an eye to the local religious context, with some simplicity, and is only confrontational on rare occasions. Romans 4 is a case in point:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Here the missionary Paul is confronting a local argument about Christian identity. The church in Rome has a strong sense of itself, perhaps a common trait belonging to anything founded near the centre of power. And they were conflicted: the church began in the synagogues, but was soon attracting non-Jews in great numbers. And this opened questions that required the wisdom of Paul.

Did you need to be Jewish first in order to become a follower of Jesus? Jesus followed the law, or at least his version of the law, and therefore one could conclude that converts of Christianity ought to follow the law too. And what about circumcision, the rite that indicated this conversion? Would gentiles need to be circumcised in order to join what still seemed a sub-section of the Jewish religion?

The answer, according to Paul, rests with Abraham. And to begin, he quotes Genesis 15.6: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham didn’t follow the law because the law didn’t exist, at least not in the Charlton Heston form that would come much later. Abraham was pre-law, and was therefore deemed faithful by following God alone.

Paul, then, is taking the community back to first principles. The faith of Abraham wasn’t based on earning anything or achieving anything: it rested solely on the relationship between a gracious God and a person of faith. And faith in this sense is not a set of rules to follow, but a hope to maintain, a promise to cherish.

And it existed in the face of overwhelming odds. Abraham and Sarah were alone as heirs to this promise, a promise that they would be the father and mother of a great nation, more than the stars in the night sky. And old age and seeming barrenness were against them, along with all the uncertainties of life in general. But God made a promise and Abraham believed, and that—for Paul—is the most compelling example of faith.

The simplicity of this message would also capture Luther and the rest of the reformers, understanding that Abraham is ‘justified’ (regarded as righteous) because of his trust in God. In other words, he is justified by faith, as we too are justified by faith alone, never earning God’s favour, but receiving God’s favour as a free gift. Our choice, like Abraham, is whether we take up this free gift.

And so, back to Paul: “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

And here we see a contemporary implication of this passage, beyond the identity of the early church and the work of the reformers. There has been careful attention paid in recent years to the common Abrahamic roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All esteem Abraham as a founder, as the true example of faith in one God, and the root that ought to bring us closer.

The letter to the Romans was written when Christianity had yet to fully emerge from Judaism, and some 700 years before Mohammed, but Paul’s point still stands: “The promise comes by faith...and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring.” Jews, Christians and Muslims.

We live in a time when extremists from all the great religions try to distort the peace and common connections that exist. And it falls to us, as moderates, to embrace people of goodwill in all the religions, but Islam in particular. We are no longer medieval competitors on the edge of empire, but co-religionists, with Abraham as our father in faith.

When Patrick went to Ireland he took with him the simple yet profound message that no longer would they need to sacrifice their own children to appease angry gods, and that the son of the one true God had died once and for all. Patrick’s followers left Ireland and took the message that no longer would a good death belong to those who died in combat—that the passage to the next life is not guarded by the fates.

No, they said, life is a gift from God, and a life of faith is a life lived with God, and it’s about as simple as that. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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