Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor
Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18, Psalm 32, Romans 4:1-13
In the name of God, creating ,redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
Our New Testament reading, this evening, is taken from the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul, writing in his letter to the Church in Rome, addresses the issue of faith and righteousness before God to a group of Christians who are both Gentiles and Jews. Disagreements had arisen about how those who were Gentile Christians treated those who were Jewish Christians in Rome. Paul is concerned with one key issue in this letter. That issue is the God’s plan of salvation is for everyone – God’s love and forgiveness and redemption are for all. It is therefore of vital importance that Jews and Gentiles living together in the love of Christ, respect one another and accept each other’s differences. As Paul writes in another letter, that to the community in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
The reading from the Letter to the Romans that we heard this evening focuses on the first thirteen verses of chapter 4. It is not easy to be thrown into the middle of a letter in this way, but we will do our best to follow Paul’s argument. A well read Jew, Paul quotes from the scriptures often to build his case. The passage from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter contains quotations, not only from our Old Testament reading from chapter 15 of Genesis, but also from this the psalm sung by our choir, Psalm 32. It is clear that the compilers of the lectionary, from which our readings come, intend us to look at the connections between all three readings, to see in fact how Paul is using the story of Abraham told in Genesis, and the thoughts of the psalmist found in Psalm 32, to help build the argument in his letter.
We will firstly consider the importance of the story of Abraham as the foundational example of one who God called and who responded with faith. Abraham is our father in faith. It is the importance of a response of faith that Paul focuses on in this chapter. On three occasions in the passage from Paul’s letter that we heard tonight the same phrase is used – in verse three we hear, “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’” Paul is quoting Genesis; in fact Paul is quoting the sixth verse of Genesis chapter 15, which occurred in our reading from the book Genesis tonight. In verse five of his letter, Paul writes, “Faith is reckoned as righteousness” and a little later in verse nine, Paul writes ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ Faith is reckoned as righteousness. Paul writes this over and over again. But what does this mean? Righteousness is about being right before God, living as God would have us live, living in the right way. And what Paul is saying repeatedly is that this living well before God comes through our faith, not so much in what we do, in our “works”. Living well is about living faithfully, believing in God, trusting God to guide our lives.
And Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, is the one who is looked upon, the one who is remembered, as the great example of one who had faith, who trusted God. And for the purpose of Paul’s argument in this letter, what matters, also, is that Abraham acted in faith before he was circumcised, before he was made a member of the Israelite people. This is the point Paul is making in verses ten to twelve of the snippet of this letter that we read tonight. So Abraham, in a sense represents all people, Jew and Gentile. And what matters is his faith.
The passage of Abraham’s story that we heard read tonight is from Genesis chapter 15 when the covenant with Abraham and God is made. The story of Abraham commences, though, in chapter 12 of Genesis. It is in that chapter that we see Abraham’s great act of faith.
Now 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. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I 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.’*
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him …(Genesis 12:1-4)
Abram, as he was called before God made a covenant with him, left country and kindred and father’s house. In our time and place, it is almost impossible to appreciate the strangeness and significance of Abram’s response. A person’s identity was entirely found in their country and their kindred and their father’s house. Abraham is giving up his identity and placing his whole self in God’s hands when he goes as the Lord tells him. This is indeed a profound act of faith.
And, as I noted before, what matters for Paul in this most significant example of a faithful person is that this act of faith happens at the very beginning of the story of Abraham, before Abraham is circumcised, before he is made a Jew. And so our father in faith represents both Jew and Gentile. Therefore, says Paul, Jew and Gentile must respect and honour one another in the faith of Christ.
Let us now turn to this evening’s psalm, Psalm 32.Paul refers to this psalm in verses six, seven and eight of the part of this letter on which we are focussing tonight:
David – by whom Paul means the one who wrote the psalms – David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works: [Paul then quotes the first two verses of this evening’s psalm]
‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’
Paul is quoting Psalm 32 to remind us that God’s forgiveness is a gift and only a gift. We do not earn God’s forgiveness through our good works, through the way we behave. God forgives us freely and generously. All we need to do is have faith as Abraham had faith. All from God is gift. And that gift is gift for all.
In many ways it is a strange thing to focus in on thirteen verses of a letter written long ago in culture that is very different from our own. But that is the word of God we have been given to reflect upon and the final part of our reflection must be to wonder what Paul’s passionate and finely argued letter has to say to us in our time and place. And perhaps to imagine one we respect in our life of faith writing to us and quoting from scriptures and psalms or even novels and poetry to help us understand one key point.
What matters is faith.
God loves us and forgives and heals us all. And all we have to do is believe, difficult as, at times, that may be. What Paul is concerned about is how we treat each other. And what we need to do for one another is to know that God’s forgiveness and love and healing is offered to all of us, however different from one another we may be.
What matters singly and only is faith. What matters is that we encourage one another is the difficult and beautiful life of faith in God.