Few things seem more deeply lodged within the human heart than the longing to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Few people articulated that longing more poignantly than the Irish poet John O’Donohue. In his book Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (Harper Perennial, 2000) he wrote, “The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives …
“There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded … When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity.”
And yet as Maria Popova, a commentator on O’Donohue’s works writes in The Marginalian, “Although we long for integration, we are fundamentally fragmentary. The dynamic interaction between these two poles, O’Donohue argues, is a central animating force of the human experience.”
It is striking to note just how much familial imagery Paul uses in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In making those references, Romans 4 offers a sense of belonging for which all people naturally long and is far more inclusive than the sense of belonging that we generally feel.
Preachers might let the Spirit guide their hearers and them in an exploration of belonging by first assessing the various things to which we belong. Many of us in one sense or another belong to a church community. Most of us also belong to a family, whether our family of origin or our immediate family.
But, of course, even the groups or organizations of which people are a part don’t always engender a sense of belonging. Members of our churches and families may feel marginalized if not excluded from them. Others don’t feel completely at home within those entities to which we at least ostensibly belong.
The biblical scholar Lucy Lind Hogan notes that Paul sends his letter to the Romans to not one, but a number of churches that were scattered throughout the city. Not all of his readers, in other words, belonged to the same church. So they were a diverse group of people who likely didn’t always agree with each other.
Yet in Romans 4:1 the apostle refers to Abraham as “our forefather” (ton propatora hemon). The patriarch is what he calls “our ancestor” (NRSV) or as The Message paraphrases verse 1, “our first father in the faith.” This assertion, however, quickly raises the question of Abraham’s descendants’ identity. Just who may call him our ancestor?
Nearly every commentator points to the difficulty of translating Romans 4:1. The NIV translates it as Abraham “discovered” something about the role faith and law play in receiving God’s salvation. The biblical scholars Richard Hays and N.T. Wright suggest that Paul instead means, “Is Abraham found [to be] our ancestor according to the flesh?” In other words, do only people who are Jewish belong to Abraham’s family?
Paul, as he sometimes does, waits to answer that foundational question. He first addresses the nature of the patriarch’s relationship to God. Twice (3, 5) the apostle insists that Abraham’s faith in God rather than his obedience was “credited to him as righteousness.”
When the Spirit finally inspires Paul to answer the question about the makeup of faithful Abraham’s family, it reflects an immensely inclusive understanding of it. The first hint at that inclusivity comes already in verse 1 when Paul calls Abraham “our forefather.” Since both Gentiles and Jews made up Rome’s church to which the apostle writes, he’s at least strongly suggesting that both Jewish and Gentile Christians are Abraham’s “offspring.”
The ramifications of that assertion are breathtaking. Jesus’ friends’ whole persons don’t just belong to Christ and Christ’s Church. We also, in a real sense, belong to our fellow Christians. Jesus’ followers belong to other Christians from Chile north to Canada, and from Iceland east to the United States. We belong to Christians who call themselves Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. In other words, in a world and culture in which alienation and isolation are so prominent, God’s adopted sons and daughters belong. We are, by God’s amazing grace, Abraham’s offspring.
How, then, can others who long to belong become part of that worldwide family? It doesn’t happen, insists Paul in verse 2, by doing good works. People don’t even join Abraham’s family by becoming circumcised (11). In verse 13 Paul claims that we become members of that family by the “faith” (pisteos) that receives God’s amazing grace.
But, of course, just as our longing to belong is deeply embedded in our hearts, so also is the longing to exclude deeply lodged in the hearts of Jesus’ friends whom the Spirit is still transforming. It’s very tempting for Christians to use perceptions of the nature of genuine faith to establish boundaries between members of Abraham’s family and those who merely claim to be members.
I’m always struck how quickly those who would establish standards for true faith seem to forget that Abraham’s faith that received God’s grace was inconsistent at best. Abraham’s wife Sarah was so beautiful that he fretted that men would kill him so that they could marry her. So Abraham claimed she was his sister so that he could dangle her in front of the Pharaoh. He did something similar with Abimelech, the king of Gerar. Both stories help reveal Abraham’s struggle to fully believe God’s promises. That’s among the reasons why to say that his faith saved him, or that anyone’s faith saves anyone in arrogant nonsense. It’s more accurate to say that our faith is merely the gift God grants us so that we may merely receive the gift that is God’s gracious promises.
Yet God’s dearly beloved people don’t just belong to faithful but flawed Abraham’s family by the faith that receives God’s grace. We’re also with Father Abraham the heirs of a grand inheritance. God had, of course, promised to give Abraham a number of descendants whose numbers would rival the number of stars in the sky. God also promised the patriarch all of the land that lay between the Euphrates River and Mediterranean Sea.
Yet as the biblical scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk notes, God promises Abraham’s descendants an even grander inheritance. It’s not just a patch of ground in the Middle East. Abraham and his descendants inheritance is the whole world (cosmos) or even creation. Kirk says, “The breadth of God’s promised gift corresponds to the breadth of God’s redemptive work: the whole world is on offer for Abraham’s descendants.”
As the biblical scholar Orrey McFarland writes about this text, “Just as there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in being under sin, God’s promise of righteousness is available to all by faith. One need not be deserving, be the right kind of person, or have the right kind of credentials. God has been and is still one who justifies the ungodly, loves sinners, and raises the dead”.
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In her book, Not Ashamed of the Gospel (Eerdmans, 2007), Fleming Rutledge tells a story about a Christian activist and theologian named Will Campbell. He was 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 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 Will Campbell sat with Dahmer’s family. Periodically, however, he also sat with Bowers, whom he’d known for forty years. There was far more space near Dahmer’s large and loving family. Campbell found much more room near Sam Bower who was virtually all alone in the world.
After the trial was over, a reporter from the New York Times asked 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 members of Abraham’s family are all, in a real sense, “blankety-blank Christians.” We are, after all, by nature under the power of sin. Abraham’s sons and daughters 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, in other words, determined to raise dead people like preachers and the people who hear us to life.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 5, 2023
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 Commentary