Sunday, February 28, 2021

Sermon: "Recipe for Repentance: Trust”, Romans 4:13-25 (February 28, 2021)

(This is the second sermon in our Lenten series, "Recipe for Repentance". Last week's sermon can be found here, and the Ash Wednesday message can be found here.)


Paul’s letters aren’t always what you might call “user-friendly.” Many of us avoid reading them because they’re so complex and dense. Even the most devout among us, those who’ve successfully endured Leviticus’ litany of laws and stayed awake through the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, find themselves thwarted by Paul’s rhetoric. His arguments are so sophisticated and his language so theologically technical that it really can’t just be read; it must be studied and absorbed in order to be truly appreciated. And who has time for that, right?

But at the end of the day, Paul’s primary concern is something that we can all relate to: family. Picture your average family tree. It begins with one set of ancestors and it fans out methodically from there. Great-great-great grandma and grandpa raise several children; each of them raises their own children; *they* each raise children of their own, and so on, until you reach the present generation. The tree that began with two people now has hundreds of branches, all related to one another, largely through their genes.

This is generally how Jewish people in Paul’s day understood their faith: it was a family that began with Abraham and Sarah, but instead of being connected by genes passed from parent to child, this Jewish family was connected by the Torah, the Law, passed down from generation to generation. It was this obedience to the law that made them Jewish, and therefore recipients of the divine promises made to Abraham back in Genesis.

Paul is attempting to change this understanding of God’s family—in his view, to correct it. He claims it wasn’t Abraham’s adherence to the law that made him righteous before God; the branches of his family tree weren’t connected by the obedience of his descendants. Rather, Paul argues, it was Abraham’s *trust* in God that made him “right” with the divine. He concludes that therefore, one becomes part of the Abrahamic family by sharing that same trusting faith. So actually, God’s family tree doesn’t flow in a clear and orderly manner from Abraham and Sarah to Isaac and Rebecca to Jacob and Rachel on through today, based on the transmission of the Law. No; because it’s based in faith, God’s family tree is more of a chaotic mess with branches joining out of nowhere and crisscrossing every which way, more resembling an actual tree than a neatly organized, two-dimensional family tree.

According to Paul, the divine family connection isn’t passed down through specific traditions and behaviors (which are taught) but through an attitude of faithful trust in God—which certainly CAN be passed from generation to generation, it but can also come seemingly out of nowhere. This doesn’t mean that obedience to God’s laws is unimportant, of course, just that it’s not the gauge of family membership. When God promises Abraham that he’ll be the “father of nations”, God doesn’t mean that Abraham’s literal biological family will take over the world as a result of their obedience to Torah, but that all of the world would come to be part of the family through the faith that he demonstrates. And that, insists Paul, is exactly the way God has ALWAYS intended it to be.

Now, there are some serious implications to this theological revelation. In his letters, Paul repeatedly reminds the early Church that if membership in the family doesn’t hinge upon rigid obedience to the law, then that means that Gentiles can’t be excluded on the basis of its rituals and traditions. That’s why he’s often called “the apostle to the Gentiles.” But the implications go even farther than that. If God declares that faith is the true mark of a “descendant of Abraham”, rather than adherence to the Torah, then there’s no reason for God to remove anyone from the family tree unless they themselves decide to leave. Once you’re in, YOU’RE IN. Nothing that can “trigger” your exclusion except your own choice.

That’s what Paul means by saying, “When there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law.”[1] As a lifelong Pharisee, Paul certainly doesn’t believe that the law is dispensable. What he means is that the law doesn’t exist *as a condition of righteousness,* as a requirement for relationship with God. Therefore, disobedience doesn’t automatically lead to expulsion from the family and having your name violently purged from the family tree. As the New Century Version of the Bible puts it, “’God accepted Abraham’s faith, and that faith made him right with God.’ Those words…were written not only for Abraham, but also for us.”[2] Our faith in the Lord is what makes US “righteous”—not our spiritual perfection, but our trust. Thanks be to God!

Now, God may not purge us from the family tree as a result of our actions, but that doesn’t mean that branches never fall off of it. Our sin, which Psalm 51 reminds us is “ever before [us]”, continually drives a wedge between humanity and the divine, separating God’s children from God. We essentially prune *ourselves* from the family tree with our transgressions. It’s not that God has declared us unworthy because of our actions; it’s that we’ve chosen to act in a way that rejects everything that God’s family is (as in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son). Even though we may still have faith, we may still trust God, we may still have a place in the family tree, the natural consequence of our sinful actions is that we’re cut off from its life-giving roots.

Whether our transgressions are deliberate or inadvertent, it can sometimes feel impossible to reclaim our spot in Abraham’s family tree once we’ve been severed from it. Regardless of God’s policies, surely the damage we’ve done is irreversible! But trust is not only the thing that grafts us to the family tree in the first place; it’s what reconnects us when we’ve broken off. Trust is a necessary part of repentance and reconciliation: we can only come before God without fear because of our trust in God’s promise of reconciliation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The act of repentance requires trust that our remorse and penitence is sufficient for God. It requires trust that God is faithful in offering forgiveness. It requires trust that, no matter our sins, no break is too severe to prevent us from being re-grafted onto Abraham’s family tree. If we didn’t trust that God can do these things, what would be the point of repenting, anyway?

Now, this is where belief and trust diverge. You may not BELIEVE that you’re forgivable and loveable. You can believe—truly, completely, 100% believe—that it’s impossible for you to make things right with God. But if you TRUST God, you don’t need to believe these things…because what you think really doesn’t matter in this context. Abraham truly, completely, 100% believed that it was impossible for him and Sarah to have a child in their old age (because technically speaking, it was). He truly, completely, 100% believed that “[their bodies] were as good as dead.” But at the same time that he truly, completely, 100% believed these things, he also truly, completely, 100% trusted God. “He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised,”[3] logic, biology, and Abraham’s own beliefs aside. His trust allowed him to keep looking forward even in the face of sheer impossibility. And if Abraham could trust God to accomplish the literally impossible task of nonagenarian reproduction, surely we can trust God to welcome us back into the family no matter how badly we’ve messed up.

Paul’s message is one of radical inclusion. Abraham’s family tree, he insists, isn’t built on behavior, genes, or human preferences. It’s built entirely upon God’s choice to accept our faith as an offering of love. And so, all who come to the Lord in trust and repentance are embraced and made heirs to God’s covenant with Abraham: the free gift of God’s grace and the promise of many descendants. Not descendants related by DNA, but by the faith that connects each one of us to the great cloud of witnesses and to God.

Think of what this means: YOUR faith, imperfect as it is, will be what brings the world into God’s Kingdom. YOUR faith will be what makes family out of strangers and reconciliation out of estrangement. YOUR faith will be what keeps Abraham’s family tree growing out and out and out, to all corners of the world. YOURS. You will be the forebear of entire nations of Christians through your faith. This may seem strange, maybe even impossible; you may feel like your faith is too flawed to accomplish all this. But if God has promised it, so it shall be. We just have to allow the family tree to grow according to God’s standards rather than our own, welcoming all who come in faith as true siblings in Christ…that, and to trust God as much as Abraham did. Amen.


[1] 4 Romans 4:15b, CEB.
[2] Romans 4:22-24a, NCV.
[3] Romans 4:21, CEB.

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