The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

“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. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 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, as 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.”[1]

Paul lays out a brief that is clear and easy to understand. Paul writes Romans (his only letter to people he had not met previously) putting forward the case that faith is the only legitimate access to God. Paul is doing theology. He is making the distinction between all other standards, avenues or qualifications for a relationship with God, and faith. He claims that it is faith and faith alone- not ancestry, good looks, natural brilliance or Pharisaic observance- that brings a human being into closer relationship with God. Faith alone. Hearing Paul’s assertive “Roman voice,” we better understand why Dr. Luther loved Paul so much. 

Paul does not engage the simplest, utterly self-evident argument: when Abraham made covenant with God, there were no Jews and there were no written Hebrew scriptures (we’re not entirely certain that, among the Semitic languages, Hebrew had even fully coalesced). There was not yet any community of faith that operated as a context for Abraham’s relationship with God. When Abraham’s relationship with God began, Abraham’s son Isaac had not been born,[1] and so of course neither had his grandson Jacob/Israel. Pharaoh Ramses II, the Red Sea, the Exodus and Moses, who would receive the Ten Commandments, were still well into the future. 

Paul instead engages the theological argument. Paul wants to describe the features, the goods of the relationship- the particular features of the relationship that give evidence of how we know what we know about any relationship. We do this with our friends, our partners, our families- we check to see what it is that binds us together. We certainly do this as we assess our relationship with God, and so does Paul. The goods of Abraham’s relationship with God as Paul sees them are God’s faithfulness and Abraham’s trust. When we look at faith and faith alone as the beginning of relationship with God, we see what Abraham sees; Abraham sees God’s faithfulness and Abraham feels the impulse of his own trust in the promises God makes. How would you describe your relationship with God? What are the features, the goods of the relationship? 

For example, if God is a scorekeeper, we delude ourselves into racking-up “good-points” against an inevitable tally of errors, hoping to lose by a narrower margin. We spend a lifetime playing defense against God. If God is a cosmic sugar daddy, the Cross is nonsense. We spend a lifetime as barely faithful, vacuous airheads, believing that ‘all dogs go to Heaven’...our choices being without consequence because we’re just so doggoned nice…making God a thin veil- nothing more really than a reflection of our ego-driven unfettered personal autonomy. If God is angry, it doesn’t make much difference anyway, and we live our lives trying to keep our heads down, staying well out of His way. We spend a lifetime avoiding God. If God is a borderline personality, we feel Him draw us close, only to distance us and control us by keeping us off balance.  We spend a lifetime protecting ourselves from a capricious, unstable, dangerous God. 

Any of this look/sound/feel familiar? The greatest step of faith is the first one- the step that believes there is a God with whom it is possible to have a relationship. Once that step is made, the rest is the unfolding of the features, the goods, of your relationship with God.  

Paul encourages the Roman church to understand that it is a community of faithful people that God is building one faithful heart at a time. We are the Church. No question. The Church is a community of faith. No question. In Romans 4, Paul points to Abraham and demonstrates that the community of faith, the Church, springs from the faith of individual people before that faith ever grows by the nurture of the community. The Church grows “soul by soul, and silently, (and) her shining bounds increase.”[2] 

It is undeniably true that the Church is a community where our faith can be awakened, and strengthened, and grown. No one could legitimately state otherwise. It also is undeniably true that the faith of the Church lives only as vibrantly as the faith of her individual members. There is a lovely, essential symbiosis between the believer and the Church; it is the faith of the believer that sustains the Church which in turn sustains the faith of the believer. We are given to each other as the Church to support and encourage one another to “grow up into the full stature of Christ.”[3] 

Lent invites us to examine our relationship with God, and the faith that gives that relationship roots. Lent invites us as well to steep and deepen in covenant with God, just as Abraham did- by faith. 

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, Lent II 2017

[1] Romans 4:13-17  NRSV

[1]…a critical issue in the conversations between Abraham and God…

[2] Cecil Spring-Rice. Urbs Dei. 1908

[3] Ephesians 4:13  NRSV