January 11, 2021

January 11, 2021

January 11, 2021

Romans 4:1-12 (Common English Bible)
Rev. Brandon Berg
First United Methodist Church Bristol
Clinch Mountain District

 

Romans 4: 1-12

Abraham’s faith was credited as righteousness

4 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.

Devotion

So what are we going to say? Are we going to find that Abraham is our ancestor on the basis of genealogy? Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Workers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous. In the same way, David also pronounces a blessing on the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from actions:

Happy are those whose actions outside the Law are forgiven,

        and whose sins are covered.

Happy are those whose sin isn’t counted against them by the Lord.

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.” 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. 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. 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.

This is Paul. Paul is a Jew. He tells us so, and so does Luke when he narrates Paul’s story in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul is a bigwig among Jews, actually. He’s particularly well-read and deeply immersed in Jewish faith and tradition.

Because he is so well-read, and because he is respected enough in the world outside of Judea to be a citizen of Rome, I expect him to be a fairly balanced, understanding, nuanced sort of guy. That’s why a passage like this one really throws me for a loop.

Paul is writing to Rome. Not to everyone in Rome, mind you, but to the church in Rome, such as it may have been by this point. Even if that Roman church is full of Jewish followers of the way — you know, people who had been dispersed probably generations ago in one of the exiles — these are still folks who are immersed in Roman culture, in high society, in high-speed and high-stakes politics. It is not just full of Jews, though. Paul himself made sure that the good news of Jesus Christ was spreading to communities all around the known world, and loads of those heathen gentiles were responding with enthusiasm that took those churchy old Jews wholly by surprise.

That’s the context in which I’m reading these words Paul is writing, and realizing that these letters are typically read aloud to the church. So I’m hearing Paul talk out loud about faith, and about Abraham, when suddenly he dives into the physical characteristic that differentiates Jews from Gentiles.

Circumcision.

This subject isn’t something I bring up from the pulpit. Frankly, I don’t even want to talk about it in front of my kids. Maybe when they’re grown up and moved out I’ll bring it up just to make people squirm in their seats.

I expect that is exactly what the church in Rome is doing. You don’t talk about stuff like this in polite company. You sure don’t read “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” (two different words in the Greek) over and over in public.

Sometimes, though, we have to talk about the things that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to get these things out in the open and talk about them, hash through them, listen to someone else’s perspective with openness and generosity. The churches forming in the world outside of Judea are full of a mix of people:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

With that kind of diversity, folks have got to learn to live with their differences. Some things are going to make folks uncomfortable. Some things are going to feel wrong that other folks feel are perfectly fine. That’s a source of contention in the early church that Paul points out more than once, and his typical advice to those early communities is to not get hung up on that stuff, but to focus on the faith we all share.

If we can find a solid foundation in our faith together, we will be in a much healthier place to talk about the differences between us. “Talk about,” in this context, implies conversation that respects the voice and experience of someone who says what I am not saying. I’m pretty sure that’s no easier and no harder now than it was in the first century. I’m pretty sure the topics initiate as much squirming in seats now as they did in the first century.

Be in ministry together anyway.

Faith is what brings us together. When nothing else might, faith gives us a common foundation. Faith can make us, diverse as we are, one holy Body of Christ.