March 19, 2017

The Work of Trust


Text: Romans 4:5: “ one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

Just so there is no confusion, I’ll say at the outset that the title of this sermon is also the theme. Trust takes work. If you’ve ever been in any kind of human relationship, you already have the only and best evidence of that assertion. Trust takes work, and sometimes a lot of work, work that may often make you wonder whether you are investing wisely.

That’s the first thing to know. The second thing to know, or maybe instead to think about for a minute, is how little we think of our relationship with God in those same terms. Every coin in your pocket says “In God we Trust,” but I wonder what it really means to you to say that you trust God. Do you? How much work do you put into the trust you invest in God? What, exactly, do you trust God to do? What do you count on God for?

The verses we heard from Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome this morning are so tightly wound and complicated that it’s probably enough for this sermon just to try to loosen the knot and pull it apart a little. But to do that we need to suffer first through a history lesson. Just a little one.

Think about this. All of the drama that we read about the life and ministry of Jesus every Sunday, all of the stories and miracles and sayings and all the rest that add up in the end to the Christian faith, all of it took place a long, long way away from the place that everybody in those days thought was the center of the universe—the city of Rome.

It would be as though the whole story of what hundreds of years from now people will look back on and think of as the story of America were happening right now in a suburb of Denver. Denver is a nice place, mind you, but it’s not Washington, and it’s not New York, and it’s not what we might even think of as a first-tier city in what is the great republic of the United States. Denver is just about 1,432 miles in a straight line from Washington, and that is pretty much exactly the same distance been Jerusalem and Rome.

But of course there was a community of Jewish people in Rome. They had been there a long time; people from all over the empire moved toward the great city of Rome, and there were communities there from virtually every ethnic group that made up the empire.

Even in that great mix of humanity, however, the Jews were a very distinct people. They proclaimed that there was only one supreme and unified god—not a universe of gods with one as the sort of prime minister, the first among equals among a bunch of gods. They refused to make sacrifices in the temples for the many Roman gods, as pretty much everyone else did. Sometimes, depending on the mood of the Emperor or the fortunes of the Roman army out there fighting another battle on the fringes of the empire, the civil powers would grow impatient with this refusal of the Jewish people to do what all other good citizens and subjects of the empire were expected to do to keep the gods happy.

Very early after the events of the crucifixion and the resurrection, a group within the Jewish community of Rome took on the identity and the confession of Christ as the promised messiah. We know that the message of the gospel came to them somehow, but we don’t know how; we only know that it didn’t come from Paul, because he never speaks to them as a church that he started, as he does with the churches in Corinth and Galatia and Ephesus and Thessalonica.

Now, here’s something else to ponder. The scholars tell us that Paul’s letter to the Christian church in Rome was probably written about 56 or 57. But just a few years before, in the year 49, the emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jews, and probably all the Jewish Christians as well, out of Rome entirely.

The great New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, who died just this past Christmas Eve at the age of 96, speculated that the reason Claudius didn’t distinguish between the two camps in the Jewish community was that they were fighting among themselves so bitterly about whether Jesus was or was not the messiah. For a Roman emperor, that sort of thing just spelled trouble.

Not until Claudius died, five years later, were the Jews and the Jewish Christians allowed back into Rome. And when they came back, when those Jewish Christians came back into their churches that had been carrying on just fine without them for five years, they fell into bitter disagreements. The Christians who had never been Jewish and weren’t part of Jewish tradition rejected the idea that they had to become Jews in order to be Christians. They didn’t agree that they had to follow the same dietary laws. The men especially weren’t that wild about some of the rules. And none of them knew when they might all be deported again.

That’s the unhappy, unsettled, uncertain community that Paul is writing to. And as he writes them he’s trying to answer a very hard question: What’s the relationship between the promise God made to the Jewish people and the belief that in Christ God has extended the possibility of salvation to everybody?

To say it in different words, does everyone have to take the work of the laws and the rules that were so central to the covenant to be part of the Christian community?

What Paul does with this question is really important for understanding how our faith began in the first place. Because what he does is to reframe the terms of the question. He points out that God didn’t choose Abraham because of Abraham’s excellent skills at following rules. He didn’t choose Abraham because Abraham had a c.v. with an extensive record of studying law.

God chose Abraham because Abraham was already faithful. Paul traces it back not to Abraham’s observance of the covenant, but to the person Abraham was before the covenant. Abraham trusted God before God had ever given Abraham a set of expectations and rules.

Sure enough, once God chose Abraham and gave him the terms of their new relationship, Abraham carried them out faithfully—even when it meant leading his precious only child up a mountain to be sacrificed.

The point is that Abraham had invested more in his relationship with God than just mindlessly following a list of rules. Abraham trusted God, trusted that God loved him and looked upon him and paid attention to his life and his well-being. The work that Abraham does in following the rules he’s given, all of that is just an expression of the trust he already has. He’s not adding to his own righteousness through those acts. That already came from the trust he showed in God.

So where does that leave us? Where does that leave the half of the church in Rome that we belong to—the half that was never Jewish? Can we be part of this story, does the new covenant apply to us, if we don’t first take on all of the terms of old one?

The answer Paul gives us is the answer that any good rabbi would give us; it’s more of a question than an answer. The question is, are you like Abraham? Do you trust God? Do you have faith that God is acting in your life? How much does that matter to you? Sort of? A little? Is it kind of a nice aspect of your personality?

Abraham believed that everything in the rest of his life depended first on that trust he placed in God.

I’m not talking about the kind of trust that means you’d trust God to give you back the nickel if you bring back the bottle. I’m talking about the kind of trust you put into the carabiner that you trusted enough to spend ten bucks on, and is now the one thing between you and the rocks five hundred feet below you.

That’s the kind of trust Abraham had in God. He trusted God with his whole life, his well-being in this world and his eternal life in the spirit. He led a life shaped by his belief that that life depended completely and totally on a gracious, loving, merciful, protecting, involved God.

That doesn’t mean it was always easy. That doesn’t mean Abraham somehow got evidence or proof that we aren’t being given. It means that the very first work Abraham ever did was the work of investing himself fully in that trust. And because he did so even in the absence of evidence, what we call that is—faith. Faith.

Faith is not the result. You don’t come to church to get faith. Faith is what we invest in trusting God, in making a sacrifice of time, and thought, and focus, and reflection.

We children of the Reformation, we are raised know the difference between faith and works—between the idea that we can earn our way into heaven with our effort and the idea that our way into heaven relies ultimately on our faith.

But if we never get very far past that Sunday School lesson we don’t get our hands dirty with a very real truth: Faith is work. Faith is not just something that is going to be given to you, or delivered to your house by an Amazon drone. I’m not going to be able to give you faith with anything I ever say up here. You’re not even going to get faith in exchange for coming to church. There’s no easy transaction here.

Faith is on you. It’s on each of us. It’s our work. We don’t come here to pick up our weekly dose of faith at the dispensary window; we come here to be encouraged, to be supported, to be guided, to be helped in the work we have to do—the work that is up to us.

If you’ve been hoping that someone would show up to help you find faith, well, here is the secret of Lent—we are the people we’ve been waiting for.

Our faith is directly proportional to the work we’re willing to invest in trusting God. It’s that simple. If you don’t think there’s much at stake in your relationship with God, chances are you won’t spend a lot of time or effort thinking about it—much less in prayer, which is the first and most important way we make that investment.

It is probably not much of an accident that the folks in this world who genuinely and deeply believe that pretty much everything is at stake in their relationship with God are the folks who have very little in the measures of this world—the poor, the lonely, the ostracized, the marginalized, the people for whom even the most basic level of dignity is an impossible reach. It’s not that they’re foolish; it’s not that they have nothing better. No, it’s that they’ve realized that the world is quick to let us down, and they have the great gift of not having a lot of things, a lot of stuff, a lot of reputation and expectations and dignity to deceive them with distractions. The difference between their circumstances and ours is not that they’re hanging on a rope above the rocks and we’re not. The difference is that they know it—and we often don’t.

You don’t have to give up everything you have to become that faithful. But we do have to start taking seriously something that is true whether we like it, or know it, or not: We depend on God. We won’t get out of this life without God, and when we do get out of this life it is to God that we are going. Invest your trust in that. It won’t let you down.