Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Covenantal Membership

Romans 4:13-25, Lent 2 B, March 1, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Last Sunday, I mentioned a few symbols of covenants - a friendship anklet, a wedding ring, and a dog tag. These are symbols of personal, intimate relationships I have and the promises that I have made with these people and my dog. 

This week, we hear of Abraham and the covenant that God made with him. The story that we hear from Genesis shows the personal, intimate relationship that Abraham has with God. Once again, God makes these outrageous promises to Abraham. Without question, Abraham believes God. 

Even though he is almost 100 years old and even though Sarah is long past menopause, Abraham trusts God to give them a child. Abraham somehow understands that God can do the impossible.
For Abraham, those symbols of covenant are good illustrations. But then Paul takes this story and expands it beyond the first person to the entire peoples. No longer does Abraham alone experience God’s covenant. Like Abraham, we also have an intimate, personal relationship with God. 

We also have a powerful, corporate relationship with God. God’s covenant is not with us as individuals but as a people. God’s covenant started with Abraham but then extended to all his descendants - to the Jews, to the Muslims, and to us Christians as well.

So, instead of looking at these symbols of personal relationships, I wonder, what are symbols of membership? What do we receive when we join a club or group?

Just looking through my wallet, I found many symbols of membership. There is Portico, who manages my retirement fund. There is my driver’s license, proving that I am a legal citizen of Iowa. There is the card signed by Bishop Burk certifying that I am an ordained pastor. And of course my library card. These and many other cards in my wallet show what groups I belong to. I am sure each of your wallets reveals a lot about who you are.

Some other symbols of membership are more fun. I may only wear my Wartburg College Alumni Association pin when I go to Homecoming, but I often proudly wear clothing emblazoned with Wartburg’s name and logo. I love my alma mater and share it all the time.

Now here’s an interesting symbol of membership: This long pin represents the eleven years that I attended Sunday School at my home congregation. Each year on Mother’s Day, the Sunday School teachers would hand out these pins to children who attended most of the classes during the year. For eleven years, I proudly went before the congregation and received the next piece to add to my pin. This is a symbol of how I spent my formative years learning about God and growing my faith.

I think that Paul would find it odd that we have tokens like this that represent achievements of faith. This pin may be a symbol of faithful membership, but for Paul, faith is the symbol. In the glossary for our Romans Bible Study, N. T. Wright explains, “This faith is, for Paul, the solitary badge of membership in God’s people in Christ, marking them out in a way that Torah, and the works it prescribes, can never do.” (Paul for Everyone, Romans, Part 1 p. 167)

The way Paul describes it, the first century Jews thought that they were better than the Gentiles because they had laws directly from God. The problem was that they were terrible at following those laws. If God’s loving kindness was only given when people kept the law, then the Jews would have been out of luck. And we would fare no better. 

So, Paul tells us that God freely gives us grace, not because we follow the law but because we believe. Here I think we often misinterpret Paul. For most of us, “believe” means “an intellectual assertion that certain pieces of information are factually true.” This is such a small part of what it means to believe!

In the Old Testament, there is no word for “believe” like this. Instead, the word is amen, meaning trust. God makes these outrageous promises to Abraham, and his response is famous. Traditionally, it is translated, “[Abraham] believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6 NRSV) We interpret this to mean that Abraham accepted the Lord’s promise as true, and the Lord found this acceptance to be good. 

This is ok, but the actual meaning goes deeper. Listen to this translation: “[Abraham] put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.” (Gen. 15:6 Good News Bible) Here God is approving of Abraham himself, not his faith. 

N. T. Wright wonders, “ Do we share Abraham’s faith? Do we look in love, gratitude and trust to the creator God who promises impossible things and brings them to pass? Have we learned to celebrate this God, and to live as one family with all those who share this faith and hope?” (Romans Part 1, p. 80)

For Abraham, faith does not equal belief. Faith does mean trust. You see, belief can happen outside of a relationship. 

I believe that stupid dress is white and gold, no matter if the internet tells me that it really is blue and black. But I trust that Portico is carefully managing my retirement fund until I need it. 

If faith was based on rational thought, then we all would fail. Yet faith is based on trust. I trust that God will keep all of the promises recorded in scripture, especially the one he made with Abraham. I trust God to care for my soul and for yours as well. 

I trust God because I believe what is recorded in scripture. I trust God because I have a relationship with God. I trust God because we have a relationship together with God. I experience God working through all of you. 

Each week, we confess our faith using either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. We believe all of the statements of faith listed in those ancient documents. It can be easy to say these words whether we believe them or not. I pray that you do truly believe what is recorded there, and that you do so because you first have a trusting relationship with God. 

May you believe that Jesus did die on the cross for our sins, and may you trust the Lord to accomplish all that is necessary because of it. May you trust God to give you new life and give it abundantly. May you trust God so deeply that you cannot keep your faith to yourself. Amen. 

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