The Family of Abraham, The Family of God (2nd Lent A)
The Family of Abraham, The Family of God
2nd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
March 8, 2020
Romans 4:1-17 (CEB)
1 So what are we going to say? Are we going to find that Abraham is our ancestor on the basis of genealogy? 2 Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. 3 What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.[a] 4 Workers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. 5 But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous. [[6 In the same way, David also pronounces a blessing on the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from actions:
7 Happy are those whose actions outside the Law are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. 8 Happy are those whose sin isn’t counted against them by the Lord.[b] 9 Is this state of happiness only for the circumcised or is it also for those who aren’t circumcised? We say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 So how was it credited? When he was circumcised, or when he wasn’t circumcised? In fact, it was credited while he still wasn’t circumcised, not after he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that comes from the faith he had while he still wasn’t circumcised. It happened this way so that Abraham could be the ancestor of all those people who aren’t circumcised, who have faith in God, and so are counted as righteous. 12 He could also be the ancestor of those circumcised people, who aren’t only circumcised but who also walk in the path of faith, like our ancestor Abraham did while he wasn’t circumcised.]] 13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled.15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. 16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations.[c] So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence.
Have you ever been lied to? Have you ever known somebody who promised you something and didn’t follow through with it? Who made an agreement and then seemed to change the terms?
This is the core of what St. Paul is trying to explain to his readers: God is not like that. God is faithful and reliable. God doesn’t change. Our perception of God might change, but God doesn’t go back on God’s promises.
Many Jews who heard the Good News of Jesus were concerned that the Church was
expanding to include Gentiles. Gentiles are any people group who are not Jews, that is, people who do not follow God’s Law as it’s found in the Bible. “The Law” refers to the first 5 books of the Bible (the OT): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Four out of the five (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) contain the commandments given by God to Israel through Moses after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. These rules for community life applied to Israel and to all Jewish people. But most Gentile Christians don’t follow all of these laws today (including us). We consider the Law to be Scripture and truly inspired by God, but we don’t think we need to obey it all equally.
This remains a point of contention between Christians and Jews even today. They ask how we can call their Law “scripture” if we don’t practice it. They accuse Gentile Christians of misrepresenting the God of Israel by following the rabbi Jesus, who they consider left-wing, dangerous, and heretical.
Paul is a Jewish Christian who argues that it’s okay to be a Gentile Christian, and not to obey the Law. He is fighting with his own people for greater inclusion in the family of God. He views Jesus as opening the doors of the Jewish faith to the rest of the nations and peoples of the world. The Gospel, he argues, is able to cross cultures and the Law given in the Bible is really an expression of the God-given culture of the people of Israel, not a requirement for the whole human race.
Here’s the difference: Jews (and indeed many confused Christians) believed that you became righteous and acceptable before God through obeying the Law. If you did the right thing, you would be right before God. Paul says, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). He looks at the whole of Scripture and sees that Israel has never been able to obey the law perfectly. It’s not in human nature anymore to avoid sin forever. We are fallen and unable to be perfect.
So God makes us righteous by grace, as a free gift of forgiveness, not because we earned it. God created another avenue through Jesus. If we have faith in God and share the faith of Jesus, then God can make us righteous through his perfect life. Righteousness doesn’t come through the Law but through the faithfulness of Jesus and the gracious gift of God. Jesus lived a perfect life, so all we have to do is trust in him to guide us, not conform to all the rules and stipulations of the Law.
But if Paul is right, this raises a big question. If Righteousness comes from faith in God through Jesus, and not through our own moral actions, then was God lying when God gave the Law? How can God make a covenant with Moses and ask Israel to follow the biblical Law, and on the other hand make a New Covenant through Jesus that does not require people to live by the same Law? Is God inconsistent? Is God a liar? Was God trying to trick us with a broken system, giving us impossible goals? Is God actually untrustworthy? Did God go back on God’s word?
Paul says that the key lies in earlier biblical history. Before God made a covenant with Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai, God made an older covenant with Abraham. Abraham lived centuries before Moses and his story is told in Genesis. The book of Genesis serves as a family history of Israel and a preface to the Law that comes in the next four books.
God declared that Abraham was righteous even though he never followed the Law because the Law didn’t exist yet. God made Abraham righteous not through his own actions, but through his faith in the living God. So if Gentile Christians share that faith in God, revealed to us in Jesus, then we share in the faith of Abraham. We are part of the extended spiritual family of Abraham, even if we’re not part of the blood family of Abraham (like Jewish people are). We enter the family of God through a faith more like Abraham’s than like Moses’ or Ruth’s or David’s. St. Paul says it like this:
“That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us” (Rom 4:16).
Paul is saying that God has always been like this. God has always valued genuine faith and trust because God has always known that human beings are imperfect and disobedient. The Law is meant to guide and direct us, to form a particular community of believers called Israel. But, even when we fail to obey it, God looks for the genuine faith of Abraham, and the perfect faith of Jesus within us. God is able to forgive sins, all the ways we fall short of good and right behavior, as long as we trust in God’s goodness to us.
Just as God was faithful to Abraham before the Law, God is faithful to us when we disobey the commands of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus welcomes us into the spiritual family of Abraham and thus into the family of God.
For the last few months, our choir has led us in a song at The Peace called “The Family of God”. We don’t usually print the lyrics to this piece, but I want to highlight the refrain for us because it speaks to the truth that Paul is teaching us in this passage from Romans. You might consider this the easy-to-remember “Good News of the Week”:
I'm so glad I'm a part / Of the family of God- / I've been washed in the fountain, / Cleansed by His blood! / Joint heirs with Jesus / As we travel this sod, / For I'm part of the family, / The family of God.
We are part of the family of God by grace. We are named righteous despite our sins and failures, just like Abraham. So we look to Abraham and others like him to show us the way. He didn’t live a perfect life, far from it. But he trusted God enough to follow God’s call to leave his homeland and start a new life and begin a large family that would become the chosen people of Israel. Likewise, we don’t need to get everything right. If we live by faith, trusting in God to direct our paths, then God will be gracious to us. We have the gift of righteousness and holiness through the blood of Jesus. I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God. Amen!
Sarah Henrich, "Commentary on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17," Working Preacher, Published 17 February 2008, Accessed 3 March 2020, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4403.