12Now 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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I 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.
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
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.
13For 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.
16For 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.
I'm convinced that every industry in the world has its own
jargon… stuff that gets talked about by people in the
know… if you know what they're talking about, it makes sense.
If you don't it makes a lot less sense. I like to think of myself as
a pretty intelligent person but when it comes to jargon, I get lost
just like everyone else… My brother works with
computers… I'm not exactly sure what he does… I think
it's part programming and part testing hardware to make sure that it
does what it says it does… but every time he starts to tell me
about it, I get lost within a few moments of when the conversation
starts… It's not that I don't have the wherewithal to
understand it… I don't think it's because that the concepts are
necessarily above my head… I guess they might be, I don't
really know because I don't know the language. I don't know the lingo
so it makes it hard to even know what it is that I don't know. And
it's not only high tech fields where jargon gets used… when I
started building houses back in Washington state, at any given time
there would be five or six different kinds of nails in the
truck… each one had a particular purpose and each one was
called something different… I was new in the construction
field; I didn't know their purpose and I didn't know their names and
when I first started it frustrated me to no end to be sent out to the
truck three times before getting the right nails… and it was
all because I didn't know the language, I didn't know the jargon.
I've even heard people here at church make jokes about church jargon
sometimes… how often during the announcement time do I mention
the clipboard will be in the narthex after the service… and
just out of curiosity do you ever hear the word
anywhere except church? That's jargon… (Alec says it's church
crowded noisy hallway. But all of these things mean
something to people who are in the know and a part of understanding it
is knowing the language.
Our New Testament Lesson today from Paul's letter to the Romans is chock full of theological jargon. We have a total of ten verses that bring up nine theologically loaded words… things like justification, faith, and law, things like grace and trust and righteousness, things like belief and gifts and works… It's all in there, a veritable smorgasbord of theological jargon and if we want to understand what Paul is saying, it might help to get some perspective on the language that he uses.
And the first thing I want to point out is that English is a funky language… any of you who have ever taught English or tried to learn it know that… and the people who translated this passage from Greek had to deal with it too. Now I just got done saying that there are nine theologically loaded words in our passage and in English that's true… but in Greek, there are four.
There's one Greek word that's translated into English as: believed, faith and trust… depending on if the verb form of the word is used or the noun form of the word is used…
There's another Greek word that is translated justified when the verb form is used and righteous when the noun form is used…
There's one Greek word that is exactly the same word… in verse 4 it's translated as gift and in verse 16 it's translated as grace.
And then there's one word that's translated both in the verbal form
and the noun form as the English word
And what Paul wants to do with this particular passage is to make sure that people understand the relationship between these four concepts. Righteousness and justification: (remember they're the same word) they were primarily about people being in right relationship with God and with one another. The works Paul was talking about weren't just any of the things that people did, they were two specific things… circumcision which was the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham, and following the law which was the sign of the covenant God made with Moses. This whole passage really is about whether or not you need to toe the line of tradition in order to be a welcomed part of the Christian community. There were many who said that you did… But not Paul.
You see Paul wanted to get back to the Old Testament understanding of
the word that's translated as belief, faith, and trust. In the Old
Testament that word always represented a person's reaction to God's
primary action in their life. The example he gives is Abraham…
God acted by giving Abraham a call and a promise, and what made
Abraham who he was, the father of many nations, the father of all of
us according to Paul… was his response to God's call and trust
in God's promise. But by the time Paul was writing his letter to the
Romans, the understanding of that word, the one that's translated as
belief, faith and trust had shifted a little bit in the Jewish
tradition… faithfulness had acquired the character of obedience
to the Law, which means that it had moved away from a direct response
to the experience of God. And Paul said a definite
No to that.
Verse 14… if it's the adherents of the law who are to be the
heirs of the promise, faith (as response to God's primary action) is
null -because you don't need the experience of God to follow a set of
rules… You don't need the experience of God to try to earn
Laird Stuart, who's the interim president of the seminary I went to,
wrote about this passage in a commentary. He says that
emphasis in the church is on what we are to do for God, what we need
to accomplish for God and provide for God, for God's church and for
God's kingdom. We never explicitly say we are obligated to do all
this before we can bask in God's love and favor but the impression is
created. (and I'll admit… there are probably some times
when I'm guilty of that.) And the problem is only made worse because
it's the exact same message that we receive from the dominant
culture… work for what you want to get… if you've gotten
somewhere it's because you've earned it and if you want to get
anywhere the way to do it is to work your tail off.
But that other Greek word the one that's translated as justified or righteousness, that one that's about being in right relationship with God and with other people, Paul said that doesn't happen by works, it doesn't happen by toeing the line of tradition or anything else we might do to try to earn our position… it happens by trust, faith, belief… by responding to God's primary action; which has to rest on grace, the gift of God's love, not deserved, not earned, but definitely offered, to each of us.
I love the way that Eugene Peterson translated today's passage.
2If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we're given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. 3 What we read in Scripture is,Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.4If you're a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don't call your wages a gift. 5 But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it's something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. [it's] Sheer gift.
13That famous promise God gave Abraham—that he and his children would possess the earth—was not given because of something Abraham did or would do. It was based on God's decision to put everything together for him, which Abraham then entered when he believed. 14If those who get what God gives them only get it by doing everything they are told to do and filling out all the right forms properly signed, that eliminates personal trust completely and turns the promise into an iron-clad contract! That's not a holy promise; that's a business deal.
15A contract drawn up by a hard-nosed lawyer and with plenty of fine print only makes sure that you will never be able to collect. But if there is no contract in the first place, simply a promise—and God's promise at that—you can't break it. 16This is why the fulfillment of God's promise depends entirely on trusting God and his way, and then simply embracing him and what he does. God's promise arrives as pure gift. That's the only way everyone can be sure to get in on it, those who keep the religious traditions and those who have never heard of them. For Abraham is father of us all. He is not our racial father—that's reading the story backward. He is our faith father. 17We call Abrahamfathernot because he got God's attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody.
Just like the story we were given in the scripture isn't an Abraham story, it's a God story; our lives can also be God stories because the same paths to right relationship are given to us as well. God reaches out to us and God loves us and God did it before we ever could have thought about what we might do in return… It's because of that love that we're able to love… It's because of God's action that we're able to do any good in the world… and it's important to keep those things in perspective. We are certainly invited to respond out of belief, faith, trust… that's the call of the Christian life. But God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you have or haven't done. It's good news, Thanks be to God. Amen.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2011.
© 2011 Daniel Holland