Lent 2 • 12 March 2017

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Rev. Chris Udy

Do you have to be a Christian
to get to heaven?
Do you have to keep the commandments
to be Christian?
Do you have to be a good person
to be loved by God?

Those are questions
guaranteed to set off religious arguments,
and most of us probably have
answers to each one -
some of which we think
are the ‘official line’ of the Church,
and some of which we think
are probably a bit heretical.
And if we changed the terms in the questions
just a little,
we’d find them in being passionately discussed
by people who follow every religion -
and in every one there’d be people
who thought they were following the official line -
the true and pure religion -
and others who had quibbles and questions.

Usually we think that religious truth
comes in a kind of package:
and you have to take the lot to get the prize.
Not only do you have to accept
that God is both three and one;
and that Jesus is fully human and entirely divine–
as the creed in our baptism service affirms;
but in some churches you also have to believe
that the Holy Spirit only reveals his presence
when people speak in tongues
and that only men can be ministers.
Most religious traditions also seem to suggest
that their religious truth is inflexible and indivisible
because it comes from a sacred source -
from a book, or sometimes a person,
that is the ultimate and infallible Word of God.
Most religious traditions also seem to say -
in one way or the other -
that the final test of religious purity
is obedience:
obedience to God,
who speaks through the sacred source,
which is only properly and safely understood
by the priests and teachers of the tradition.

Now, as a teacher of the Christian tradition
I quite like the idea of obedience
as the essence of Christian religion -
for everyone else, of course, except for me -
but the problem is that my sacred source -
the Bible, and ultimately Jesus - doesn’t agree.
Jesus and the Bible say
that the essence of Christian religion is faith -
not obedience, but faith.
Faith holds the key to life,
and faith is not the product
of some package of beliefs, or of fearful obedience -
it’s a living relationship of trust with God.

Today we read from Paul’s letter
to the Christian community in Rome.
This is a very important letter -
one of the greatest treasures of the Christian tradition -
because in it Paul wrote down
the heart of his faith,
the fruit of a lifetime of thinking and teaching.
We think Paul wrote it from Corinth,
around about the year AD57,
and it’s quite different from the rest of Paul’s letters
because it was written to a community
Paul had never visited before;
so Paul was writing to a group of Christians
where he had no personal authority.
Peter is meant to be the Apostle
who planted the Church in Rome,
but there’s no evidence
that Peter arrived in Rome before Paul,
and Paul doesn’t mention Peter in his letter,
which would be a bit rude
if Peter was already there.
But we know that the Church in Rome
was already both large and lively,
because in AD49 -
so about 10 years before Paul wrote his letter
the Emperor Claudius expelled
all the leading Jews from Rome
because they were “constantly rioting
at the instigation of Chrestus”.
Many historians think that those riots
were what happened
when Jewish Christians arrived in Rome
claiming that Jesus was the Messiah -
in Latin - “Christus” -
and it was only after Claudius died in AD 54
that Jews and Christians
were allowed to live openly in Rome once more.
Three years later, then,
Paul was writing his letter
to a community of Christians
who had probably been involved
in those fights within the Jewish community
and who were also divided among themselves,
because it looks like most of the Christians in Rome -
certainly the ones
who’d been able to stay in Rome
when the Jewish leaders were expelled -
most of the Christians,
and the established leaders -
the most confident Christians in Rome
were no longer Jewish, but gentiles.

In Rome the tide had turned,
and the Christian movement was now Gentile -
mainly Greek and Roman.
So where before
Paul had been defending gentile believers
and arguing for their inclusion in the Churches,
now he was concerned for Jewish Christians
and Jewish people generally,
appealing for them to be welcomed
and treated with respect.

And to do that
he looked for something
that would bring together
not only Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians,
but also Jewish people
who were not part of the Christian community -
and he found that point of connection in Abraham.
Paul writes “What can we say about Abraham then,
our ancestor according to the flesh?
What was his experience?
If he was put right with God
by the things he did (so - by obedience)
then he would have something to boast about -
but not in God’s sight.
The scripture says
‘Abraham believed God,
because of his faith
God accepted him as righteous.’”

Abraham was anything but perfect.
He did a number of things
we’d look at with horror.
Twice he passed his wife Sarah off as his sister,
first when the Egyptian Pharaoh
took an interest in her, (Gen 12:15),
and then when Abimelech, the king of Gerar (Gen 20:2)
did the same thing.
Later he sent his son Ishmael
off into the desert to die
because Sarah was jealous
of Ishmael’s mother Hagar (Gen 21:14),
and then he took his other son Isaac up a mountain
with every intention
of offering him as a sacrifice (Gen 22).
Abraham was cowardly, a liar, and an opportunist;
he argued with God, laughed at God’s promises,
and pointedly disobeyed God’s instructions;
and those flaws and problems
are exactly the things
that make him a model of ordinary humanity.
He was also the one God chose
both to bless and to become a blessing,
not only to his own people -
Isaac and Jacob, who became Israel,
and to Israel’s 12 sons and their descendants -
so not only to Jewish people,
but to those who would be adopted
into Abraham’s family through Jesus –
including, today, Jessica, Harry and Heidi -
and to Muslim people through Ishmael,
and ultimately to all the people of the earth
simply through his humanity.
The promise God gave Abraham
was that he would be blessed
and become a blessing
to all the nations of the earth, (Gen. 22:18),
and in Paul’s eyes,
Abraham’s blessing is that he becomes
the model for a relationship with God
that is older and deeper
than the divisions of family, race and religion.

Abraham, according to Paul,
was “reckoned as righteous” -
“put right with God”, some Bibles say -
although that’s not a good translation.
It was God who reckoned him righteous -
God loved and accepted and chose him
long before he did any of the things
we consider good religion.
Long, long before Jesus was born;
long before the name of God
was declared in the burning bush
or the Law was given through Moses;
even before Abraham was circumcised -
the sign of Jewish obedience -
before any of those things were in play, Paul writes,
Abraham was reckoned as righteous.
He was accepted by God -
loved by God,
claimed and blessed by God.
This man who argued with God,
complained to God,
disobeyed and disappointed God,
did things that would later be described
as sin and condemned in the Law,
was also the one who was chosen
to be blessed and become a blessing
to every family on earth –
including Jessica and James, and Harry and Heidi,
and all of us.
And the reason, Paul writes,
that Abraham is our father in the faith -
the reason he is our model and example
of ordinary faithful humanity -
is because, Paul says, he believed God.
Not “he believed
in God”,
or “he believed
this about God”,
but he believed God.

What makes Abraham our model for faith
isn’t a package of ideas
that we need to get our heads around,
or a set of rules we need to obey,
it’s a relationship -
a living, open, growing and changing relationship.
Abraham is our example in faith
because he argued with God;
he is our model
because he debated and challenged
and even laughed at God -
because all of those things
are part of a real relationship.
Abraham believed God -
and in the Bible,
‘believed’ means almost exactly the same as ‘trusted’.
Abraham believed God -
and that relationship came before circumcision,
before the Law and the commandments,
even before Jesus, and Paul’s letter to the Romans,
and all the rest of the Bible.
It came long long long before
we started constructing creeds
and measuring our claims of truth against them.

Before crusades and jihad
and fundamentalist violence of all kinds,
Abraham believed God,
Abraham trusted God,
and that, for God, Paul writes,
is the same as righteous perfection.

Paul went on in his letter
to recognise that there is a place for law -
that we all need rules to order our lives
and to protect the peace and justice of our community -
but what comes first,
and what we need to return to
when rules fail us - as they often do and always will -
the key to life, and the source of healing,
is faith - belief - trust.

The challenge of Christian life
is not in understanding complicated ideas
or doing difficult and unpleasant things;
ideas and actions are important,
but what makes an action or idea powerful,
or life-giving, or healing,
is the relationship behind them.
Trust is the first and most important thing
a baby must achieve
to live and thrive and grow,
and for the rest of our lives we struggle
to build relationships of trust
in which we learn to love,
and come to strength and wisdom.
A relationship of trust
includes argument and challenge
and disagreement and laughter -
because relationships of trust are open:
they live, and grow;
they adapt and change;
they don’t lock us down as adults
to ideas and actions that might have made sense
when we were very young;
they let us mature;
they respect our gifts and freedom;
they encourage us
to be the best we can be.

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome
has been the source of inspiration and liberation
for many generations of God’s people.
It was the seed of the Reformation,
when Martin Luther found in it
the courage to challenge
the corruption and oppression of the Church
500 years ago in October this year;
300 years ago it was the spark
that warmed the heart of John Wesley
whose movement was the salvation
of working people across the English-speaking world,
and 100 years ago next year,
it was reading the letter to the Romans
that led Karl Barth
to redefine the way biblical scholars and theologians
think about the presence and mission of God today.
Sadly, Karl Barth’s name isn’t very well known,
but it’s his work that released the Bible
from medieval interpretation
and re-established the conversation -
the dialogue, the open exchange -
between faith and science and the life of the world today.

In Lent we take on disciplines
to enrich and revive our faith.
We open ourselves to new ideas and possibilities -
we take up the pilgrimage – the journey – of faith,
just as Abraham did when he left Ur;
just as Paul did on the Damascus road.
We look deeper into the life of the Spirit;
we let go of habits that no longer work -
habits of action and mind
that are holding us back
from being the people we’re meant to be.
And the only way we can do that -
the only way we can let go,
and stand up,
and grow in wisdom and truth,
is to have faith - to trust:
first, and crucially, to trust God -
and then to trust the people God gives us
as partners and companions,
and friends and mentors and teachers.

So - if you’ve never done it before -
and also if you’ve done it many, many times,
today you’re invited to believe;
to have faith;
to put your trust in God
and open your heart and spirit and mind
to God’s healing and God’s freedom.