Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 8, 2020
Romans 4:1-5,13-17 Commentary
When I was a teenager, we liked to sing a song that also had motions. With arms and legs flailing, we’d sing something like: “Father Abraham/ Had many sons;/ Many sons had Father Abraham;/ And I am one of them,/ And so are you,/ So let’s all praise the Lord.”
Now once you got past the song’s suggestion that men and women are Abraham’s “sons,” this is actually pretty good theology. Aren’t Sarah and he, according to an expert like Paul, the parents of “us all” (16)? We are, by God’s amazing grace, their “offspring.”
Yet as Fleming Rutledge, to whom I owe some ideas for this Commentary, notes, Abraham’s relationship to Christian Jews as well as Gentiles was, in some ways at the heart of the early church’s struggle to define itself. The Galatian Jewish Christians especially seemed to wonder if Jews were Abraham’s only descendants. Were Gentiles, as a result, perpetual second-class citizens in God’s kingdom?
Or, some wondered, were Jewish Christians Abraham’s descendants by some criterion other than race? If so, just how were they Abraham’s “offspring?” In other words, who was excluded and who was included in God’s family?
This is more than just an ancient question for early Jewish Christians. Questions of exclusion and inclusion have profound implications for the modern church as well. In fact, they’re among the modern Christian Church’s most divisive issues. Some congregations and denominations are embroiled in controversies about whether and how to include, for example, people of diverse sexual orientations.
Yet only sinless Jesus was capable of unconditional acceptance. He was, after all, Immanuel, God with us. Even Abraham, after all, the original included person, had, according to verse 2, nothing, including, perhaps, acceptance, to boast about.
Of course, we sometimes think of Abraham as a model of faith. “Trust God’s promises,” we tell each other, “just like Abraham did.” Yet his faith was, at best, uneven, swinging wildly from godly trust to downright disobedience.
Think about it: middle-aged Sarah is so beautiful that her husband worries people will kill him just to get to her if they know he’s her husband. So Abraham claims she’s his sister so he can dangle her in front of the mighty Pharaoh.
Sarah, however, proves to also be deeply flawed. When it seems she won’t be able to parent any children of her own, she gives her maid to Abraham. She may be hoping that at least Abraham will be able to have a son that way.
However, Sarah eventually becomes incredibly jealous of mother Hagar. So she demands that Abraham throw both her son and her out into the desert where they’ll die. This leaves weak Abraham caught between two powerful women.
If, in other words, Abram and Sarah were God’s “employees,” God might be obligated to “pay” them. But God wouldn’t have had to pay them very much because they weren’t particularly “workers.” Anything God, in fact, gave Abram and Sarah was a “gift” (4).
So in verses 2 and 4 Paul can assert, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God … ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ … to the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Abraham was, in other words, among God’s first justified sinners. He was among the first “ungodly” people whom God’s Spirit shaped into godliness. So God didn’t accept Abraham because he was such a faithful person. Instead God graciously saved this naturally unacceptable, ungodly man for God’s own sake.
We sometimes say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” By that we mean that children often resemble our parents in several ways. That resemblance may, in fact, even last thousands of years. After all, both those who proclaim Romans 4 and those who hear us resemble father Abraham and mother Sarah in, among other things, our uneven obedience.
Yet God doesn’t judge God’s adopted sons and daughters by the quality of our obedience, or, for that matter, our journeys of faith, habits of praying and going to church, or by any other good work. No, God justifies and remakes us, like Abraham and Sarah, only because of God’s great grace to us in Jesus Christ.
So our sinfulness won’t let any denominations accept everyone whom God sends. Nor can any church come up with a plan that will please all of God and Abraham’s sons (and daughters!). Yet we don’t become completely discouraged.
We remember that in order to appeal to everyone, God began with just one person, Abraham. In order to bring all the rulers of the earth under God’s reign, God chose to begin with one mother of nations. In order to include all of God’s people, Jesus began with just twelve disciples.
Ever since then, small groups of Christians have been a sign of God’s plans and purposes for our world. So churches reach out to people who aren’t like us. God’s adopted sons and daughters do everything we can to welcome both Christians and non-Christians. We too are, after all, little outposts of God’s reign, signs of God’s gracious determination to reclaim the whole world.
Of course, we’re naturally tempted to claim that we alone are signs of God’s purposes for our world. God’s dearly beloved people find it easy to brag that we have, for instance, the best understanding of God’s ways and work in our world.
It’s also easy to be self-righteous about our obedience and ourselves. It’s tempting to forget that everything we’ve been, are and ever will be is due to the amazing grace of our God in Jesus Christ.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Will Campbell was a remarkable Christian activist and theologian. He was also one of the few people who were able to maintain friendships with both members and victims of the Ku Klux Klan. As a result, Campbell was able to be deeply involved in the trial of Sam Bowers, the former Imperial Wizard of the Klan whom authorities tried for the murder of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer.
For most of the trial he sat with Dahmer’s family. Periodically, however, Campbell went and sat with Bowers, whom he’d known for forty years. Dahmer’s family is large and loving. Sam Bower is now virtually all alone in the world.
After the trial was over, a reporter from the New York Times asked Will Campbell, “Why do you seem to be on both sides?” Will answered, nearly as memorably as profanely, “Because I’m a ‘@#*% Christian.”
In commenting on that, Fleming Rutledge says all sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah are all, in a real sense, “blankety-blank Christians.” God’s chosen people are, after all, by nature under the power of sin. We deserve to go to hell. But by becoming a curse for us, Christ freed us from the power of sin.
As a result, God doesn’t just credit our faith to us as righteousness. God doesn’t, in other words, merely accept believing Christians. God also longs to remake even people like Sam Bowers … as well as those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. God is determined to raise the dead like us to life and to call into existence things that don’t yet exist, such as, by nature, faith.
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