March 5, 2023
Which Came First – Faith or Grace?
I have probably said before that I often find Paul’s theological arguments a little tedious. He is so tied to his first century Jewish and Roman world and his arguments are sometimes so arcane that he loses me. He is, of course, an intense and dedicated defender of the Christian faith. No one did more to start churches and spread the faith in the first century than he did. Of course, it wasn’t always so. At first, he was adamantly set on stamping out Christianity. He was a part of the stoning of Stephen, just a couple of years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Then went on ardently seeking to arrest and try converts to Christianity for fraudulent religious claims and apostasy. He was one of those people who are strident in their opinions and gung-ho in putting them forward. Always 100% sure of his convictions. –If you wanted to have a friendly low-key family get together, he might be the uncle you would want to leave off the guest list. But surely, those are the qualities of a mover and shaker in any age. Elon Musk, I’m told, isn’t that easy to work with or for either.
Paul’s discussion of the meaning of God’s embrace of Abram fits into that category of intense and sometimes confusing arguments. But I sense here that it is because the issue is so personal to him. He sees his own journey as coming through those same doors. “Saved by Grace” is clearly his own calling card. He understands that though he was emphatic in his religious fervor before his conversion, he was, nevertheless, on the wrong road. –He still honors Judaism and believes his ancestors are God’s chosen people but believes God has worked out a way to bless all the earth through this one Jesus. He believes wholeheartedly that this is where Judaism was supposed to go.
As a rabbi and Pharisee trained in the religious traditions of Israel, Paul came to this insight not because of his intense study or brilliance, but because he had this dramatic and mystical experience with the Risen Christ. –In other words, it came through God’s grace not through work he did striving for insight or through being so dutiful in following the Law that he achieved it on his own. God, he understands, simply broke through to him in the person of Christ in a way he couldn’t avoid. The transforming nature of Christ’s appearance to him while he was on a journey to arrest Christ followers was a gift. And it made him rethink everything. He could take no credit. He simply thanked God.
That’s how he now saw it was with Abraham. Abram experienced God’s mysterious call and trusted. That trust was counted as righteousness. Even before Abram did anything, God called him righteous. –That’s how ‘trusting Jesus’ works to put us in a right relationship with God Paul said. It wasn’t about following the commandments for Abram. The Commandments hadn’t been written yet. The call of Abram, Abraham’s name before his covenant with God, is one of the crucial events of the Old Testament. Even NT authors name Abraham as a hero second to only Moses. He is one of the most often mentioned O.T. characters in other parts of scripture. Still today the religious significance of this biblical figure for all Middle Eastern cultures cannot be ignored.
Abraham’s “belief” in God was not just a belief that God existed, or even belief that God was speaking to him –it was a trust in God’s goodness and trust in his relationship with God. But beyond that, Abraham’s trust in God was the beginning of an ongoing sense of communion with God. –Abraham was not righteous because he was perfectly good, Paul would remind us. – In fact, in the story we see that he is not perfect. –He is, after all, prepared to give his wife Sara away, to a powerful ruler rather than risk his own life., –And he has a son, Ishmael, with his wife’s servant girl because they have both given up on God’s promise for them to have a son. Then he summarily sends the child and his mother away later. These are hardly the actions of a saint –and we certainly would not call them heroic!
Despite his lapses, Abraham goes as God calls him to go — trusting that God has a purpose and a plan for him.
Abraham, like many of the great saints of the faith, did not sweep his doubts and insecurities under the rug. He did not pretend with himself or with God. So called “Blind faith” was not his forte. In fact one might say his lapses in judgment were precisely moments when his doubts overcame his faith,—when his trust in God, was overridden momentarily by his anxiety or his uncertainty. His doubts were always cropping up front and center!
–Don’t most of us go through life that way? –Sometimes saying: “Hey God I know we’re supposed to have faith, –but what about this— What about my kid’s problems, or what about this pink slip, –at my age where am I going to get another job? Divorce?? –This wasn’t in the script I agreed to. — Are you serious God, about being with me? –About caring?
Faith, as trust, the way Paul sees it evidenced in Abraham, is not this little commodity we buy once and then carry it around in our pocket the rest of our lives. Faith must be purchased daily, –with our questioning, our doubts, our letting go and our holding again. The Abraham story ought to make clear that “Faith” is not about a set of verbal statements we make, as some people want to interpret John 3:16 (which was, by the way our Gospel lesson for today). It is much more complicated than that.
It is no wonder Abraham becomes the godfather of three of the world’s major religions, –He’s so much like us in his attempts to follow God’s call… so much like us in his halting attempts to trust God in the midst of life’s struggles that it is easy to see ourselves in him. Ultimately God shepherds him through his journey and we see him persevere in his faith.
In a similar way the grace of God stands before us Paul says, and our faith/trust is a response to that grace.
Today we come to the communion table. It is the table of God’s grace made evident in Jesus. We invite to come and take the elements of Grace God has provided. -All are welcome!