March 22, 2014

Abram’s Promise—and Ours


The lessons appointed for this day can be found at this link.

Text: Romans 5:31: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.”

Last week the theme was temptation; this week the theme is promise. If last week we were confronted with the real and continuing presence of evil in the human condition, this week we are given enduring stories of promises made, and promises kept.

It may well be that the reading from the Hebrew scriptures appointed for the second Sunday in Lent in the first year of the lectionary holds the all-time record for shortest reading ever. It is just three and a half verses, just eighty-seven words, and many of them short.

But don’t let the brevity of this reading fool you. You might well say that these few verses are the foundation upon which the whole story of the people of Israel is built. In this little portion lies the sum and substance of the promise to Abram—God’s end of the deal made in the covenant. We all remember that the profound significance of this promise is marked in the change of Abram’s name to Abraham, a name that is translated by the scholars as “ancestor of a multitude.”

The apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome about as long after Abram lived as we are today after Paul lived. Paul is trying to parse meaning of God’s covenant relationship with Abram, and through Abram with the Jewish people—Paul’s own people, and the people to whom many of the early Christians in Rome belonged as well. He is navigating a conversation within that church between people who came from a Jewish background and people who did not.

The result of all this is what scholars widely regard as the single most significant piece of writing Paul ever did—and that is saying something, because Paul wrote a lot, probably more than we know. And it is even possible to argue that the Epistle to the Romans is the single most important text of Christian doctrine in the whole Bible—especially when you think that the gospels are records of the life of Jesus, but not really statements of Christian belief.

We could at this juncture leap off into a conversation about how Paul manages to address both communities in the church of Rome, and to assure them both that the promise once made to Abram
still has effect and that it now has been extended to encompass all people in an even more profound promise—the promise of salvation through Christ. And for very good reasons that is the way this text has been preached for a long, long time.

But I want to pose a different question. I wonder how it is Paul would write to us. Because I am persuaded that we live with the same question today that the first Christians in Rome wrestled with: Does God still offer us a promise? Is there something else on the other side of this covenant that we have made?

Our covenant is not a covenant of blood, but of water. It is not a covenant of the temple sacrifices, but of our joining with Christ in his death through the waters of Baptism, so that we may share as well in his resurrection. That is the essence of the covenant we have.

And just like the covenant made with Abram, ours is one of both ends and means. For Abram, the end was the creation of a great nation, the assurance of survival; the means was keeping the covenant code, to live within the lines of the commandments and the laws given in the Torah.

We have ends and means as well. In the new Covenant the end is salvation; it is the claim articulated first by Paul as the idea that we will stand before God on the day of judgment justified not by any work of ours, but by our faith in Christ as the person who has accomplished reconciliation with God. The end of our covenant is justification, and with it, salvation.

We get a means toward this end, too. The means toward this end is grace. We receive grace so that we will be able to live in ways consistent with our covenant, just as the people in Abram’s covenant received laws in order to live in ways consistent with theirs. Grace is the means by which we receive the end of salvation. We have received that idea in a formulation familiar to Lutherans, and which in some essential way animates the Anglican doctrine of how salvation works: Justification by grace through faith.

I am skipping a lot of steps here, because I do not want to impose on you a seminar on different theological approaches to the question of salvation. I simply want to tamp down enough ground in order to have a place to put this question: What assurance do we have that this promise still works for us?

We know what the promise to Abram was, and we know what the promise to those early Christians was, and in the first two readings we heard this morning those promises are neatly summarized. My question is, what is the assurance we have of the promises made to us?

To say it in different words, where in the messy world around us do we find any assurances of grace? It almost seems as though the evidence piles up every day that God has abandoned us; or maybe more accurately, that for very good reasons God has stopped having faith in us.

Might prevails over right; violence still has power over innocent people; children are born into circumstances of poverty and hopelessness; sin is still with us, and we see it at a social scale.

If grace is the means to our end of salvation, we seem to be running pretty low on the means. How do we know we won’t run out?

God’s promise to Abram is one that Abram has to take on faith. He will never see the promised multitudes, the nation of God’s people that will arise from his own tiny and vulnerable family. He lives faithfully by the terms of the covenant God makes with him believing that the promise will be fulfilled. He avails himself of the means because he believes, in a world of uncertainty, treachery, and the persistence of evil, it is the best thing he could possibly place his trust in.

The promise to us is the same. We have to take it on faith, and live by the terms of the covenant God has offered to us. Grace is the means we are given; not law, not commandments, but grace, what Fred Buechner has called that “crucial eccentricity” of the Christian faith. We can’t earn it; we can’t buy it; we can’t get any more of it for trying harder; it is simply given to us, and if we will just pay attention we will see that it has been given to us in great abundance.

And here is the assurance of that: We have grace ahead of us because we have change behind us. We have grace ahead of us because if we look back over the long, long road we have traveled all the way from the manger in Bethlehem down to our own moment, we see that despite all the sorrow and despite all the madness, the arc of history really does bend toward justice. It really does bend toward reconciliation. It really does bend toward peace.

We can know that we have grace ahead of us because we can see that we have change behind us. That is God’s promise to us, and as with Father Abram, God will be faithful in the promises made to us through the merits of Jesus. Amen.