Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills; •
from where is my help to come?
2 My help comes from the Lord, •
the maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not suffer your foot to stumble; •
he who watches over you will not sleep.
4 Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel •
shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord himself watches over you; •
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,
6 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, •
neither the moon by night.
7 The Lord shall keep you from all evil; •
it is he who shall keep your soul.
8 The Lord shall keep watch over your going out
and your coming in, •
from this time forth for evermore.
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
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.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
Sermon on Second Sunday of Lent
Last week we were asked by Paul to consider the nature of our sinfulness, our participation in the deliberate act of disobedience concerning the fruit of the tree at the centre of the Garden of Eden, that tree which I take to be the centre of our lives as homo sapiens – that is the knowledge of good and evil. I think that we need to take responsibility for what we do, and I think we should not blame it on the serpent any more.
Today, Paul is again speaking of our essential nature, isn’t he? He is talking about our lives as incarnate beings. Paul goes on about the flesh, and justification. I think this is another approach he is taking toward understanding human sinfulness. I think Paul wants to address our very real selves, our everyday selves, in order to make sense of the events of life. I think he is talking about what is most real in our own lives – in other words, righteousness.
Paul is talking of how well we feel about ourselves on one level, isn’t he? “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” We feel good when we try to evaluate ourselves, don’t we? We say to ourselves, ‘all is well with the world and everything we have is due to being worthy of it.’ But is that really the case? Am I really as good as I think I am? Have I deluded myself all these years? – When I look at myself honestly, I must say with that other fellow, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?”
All that I have done is nothing in comparison with the gift of life that I have been given. I have been thrown into the midst of the world in which I move and have my being, but honestly, I do not deserve it, I am not worthy, I am not righteous in and of myself. Nothing I have done measures up against that greatest of gifts which I enjoy – my life. In this instance, I must say that I am like the fellow whom Paul describes in our passage, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” My trust is in the giver of this great gift of life. My trust is thankfulness at heart, thankfulness with regard to the whole of what I experience.
For my justification that I am here, I must turn to that something beyond myself. I must trust in that gift given to me, and so I must trust the giver of that gift. This is a very different kettle of fish to being self-justified on the basis of “the great I am” that I consider myself to be ordinarily, in the everyday course of events. Normally, I have pride in myself. In the everyday course of things, I am self-confident in a proud way, proud of my self and me alone, standing head and shoulders above everything around me.
Paul, however, tells us this cannot stand up to any scrutiny. He is on the whole very much like the existentialists who have described humanity as thrown into the world to live life to the max. Where they diverge is on the whole point of life. Existentialism in the more extreme expression sees life as absurdity. Paul on the other hand, sees life as the wherein we thank and praise God for his goodness to each one of us individually. Paul exhorts us to faith in the giver of this gift – that we should not see ourselves as justified … “just because”. Paul sees our justification in that grateful acceptance of that gift, in faithfulness – in trust. That is the sort of life the rulers of this world do not accept, nor have they ever considered that trusting innocence of the garden of Eden.
This certainly is not the case in our ordinary, everyday lives, is it? If it were, wouldn’t we live so very differently? We would probably treat others with respect, rather than the disdain we ordinarily employ. Wouldn’t we come close to a brotherly or sisterly love for everyone?
Paul talks about those who have this faith in a very peculiar way, that all of those people before the Law was revealed to them, were reckoned righteous before the Lord. So I have to ask this question, ‘How can these so-called ‘ungodly’ be faithful?” Abraham was reckoned righteous because he trusted in the Lord to the point of that great sacrifice.
Why is Paul aligning the ungodly up over against people we would say are examples of justification whose works ultimately conform to the Law? All the people who keep the Law, in Paul’s view, are worthy of being esteemed as examples of faithfulness. However, he reconsiders this evaluation as a whole. I think he approaches the question in a completely different way once he had that experience on the road – I think he finally asks, “Why are the people who have inherited the law the only people whom God would esteem?”
Speaking as a resident alien in this country like Abraham and Lot were in that country to which they decaped, I think Paul is asking a question greater than legality, and about how we fit in with everyone and everything around us. Paul is asking strangers in strange lands to describe what they experience. “For the promise … did not come to …[anyone]… 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…”
Why do we rely on the Law when it brings all love to naught, when the Law brings wrath? Surely relying on the letter of the Law is not the way to treat the stranger in our midst. But that is the danger of our present course in these difficult times.
A school-friend describes how he wears a safety pin in his lapel, as a sign to any minority, that they are safe with him. Do we signify anything like this at all here in this country? Even the Church falls short, doesn’t it? – and I am not talking about gross acts of immorality. There are little things that reveal our temerity with regard the Good in our lives. But right now I propose discerning our failure in care is something for Lenten reflection and re–formation.
Our fundamental human nature is to care for the other. However, it is also our fundamental human nature to reach beyond our grasp, hoping ever to accomplish that great task of loving the other.
I suppose, if we keep love in mind as the essence of human life, as the essence of Jesus Christ’s life with us, we can understand why Paul speaks of the incarnate sinner in his letter to the Romans.