“The Journey of Love”
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (NRSV)
Paul often rubs me the wrong way. I’ve said that before, but in my mind, the Apostle often comes across as if he’s trying to win an argument rather than to share a timeless mystery. Now, to be fair, in the first century, before the Church had been domesticated by empires and had become indebted to kings and armies, teachers like Paul faced hostile opposition. They had to be bold and on-purpose when sharing the gospel. Still, when I read some of Paul’s convoluted arguments, I recoil, kind of like I did in my high school physics class—something I flunked with such efficiency as to make failure look, well, effortless.
Now, I have learned that when reading Paul, it helps to step back, as when viewing a pointillist or impressionist painting in which the individual dots or brush strokes are most significant in relationship to the rest of the dots and brush strokes. Paul is using all those rhetorical twists and turns to say that God deals with humankind on the basis of the unconditional love called grace. Grace is hard for human beings, though. It’s just too gracious, especially when we stand so close to the canvass that all we can see is the flaws in ourselves and others.
When I stand back from Paul’s letters, I begin to see his fundamental awareness that to profess faith in Jesus and then to qualify grace leads us to a destructive legalism. And legalism often renders a person sanctimoniously fearful of an angry God. Legalistic religion gives power to a few people who set standards by which each dot or brush stroke must earnits place in the painting.
When one’s belonging in God must be deserved, grace no longer refers to God’s radical gift of love. It refers to God withholding vengeance. And we become responsible for suppressing divine retribution by regurgitating pious formulas. Let’s be honest, though; if we have to activate God’s redeeming love—even if by “accepting” it—we are saved by our works, not by God’s grace.
Now, Paul knows his audience. The Romans argue and debate, and Paul speaks that language. So, he uses complicated dialectic to engage his readers, and to into invite them into a faith that has more in common with an artistic process than with constructing a winning argument. He invites them into a story—the story of Abraham.
Abraham’s story was ancient even in the first century, so Paul uses it like the ancients used it—as a spiritual portrait, a mural, a gift of grace. Paul wants his readers to enter and experience the story the same way Abraham begins his journey—by faith.
“Go,” God tells Abram, “from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” (From Genesis 12:1-4)
When Paul speaks of “faith…reckoned as righteousness,” he’s not referring to a characteristic of law-abiding citizens. He’s talking about the spiritual gift of trust, a gift that cannot be earned, but does have to be learned, lived into, practiced. Paul is writing to Roman Christians, and he’s trying to motivate and empower them to share the story with other Romans. He wants them to say to their neighbors, Come, read this story. Enter it. Experience it. Trust it. There’s new life in it!
Paul shares his own story, too. Always a man of religious fervor, Paul’s passion had been as a sadistic legalist who persecuted Christians as an act of piety. On his way to Damascus to do just that, Paul gets knocked to the ground, blinded, and compelled to trust what he cannot see or prove. And in Damascus, where Paul had expected to act on religious certainty, resentment, and fear, God calls him to a new journey of faith, hope, and love.
Echoing Paul’s appeal to story, the writer of Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Then, using a kind of litany, he recalls the ancient, archetypal stories.
“By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household…
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance…
“By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau.
“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God…
“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land…” (Selected verses from Hebrews 11)
These stories story us toward an identity, righteousness, and faith that formulas and arguments cannot convey.
During officer training, the most interesting discussions we have usually occur during our review of Church history. What makes us Christian is not nearly so much the doctrines we profess, but the story we share. That story goes all the way back to Abraham. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim that story. And while we each take different trajectories, we all have to name and confess the errors and brutalities that our stories have committed and continue to commit in the name of God. Sadly, most errors and brutalities occur when we try to make righteousness a matter of principle and process—that is, a matter of law rather than of love-actioned faith.
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus says, “‘…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and…soul, and…mind…And ‘…love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt. 22:36-40)
Paul says the same thing to the Romans: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder…steal…[or] covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love” says Paul, “is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)
Neither righteousness nor love can be proved through debate. They’re not academic courses for us to pass or fail. Because love and righteousness are about relationship, God stories us toward and into the journey of grace.
While much of the Church has acquiesced to the graceless dictates of human empire, Christian discipleship is incompatible with imperial religion. Collusion with Caesar’s calculated vengeance and violence is not an option for followers of Jesus. Living by grace, or as one person in our Sunday school class said, “becoming the grace of God,” dares us to commit ourselves to the unsentimental, action-oriented love that overcomes fear, that defies every power that sows division, and that follows God’s creative hope in and for the world.
As dots or brush strokes on God’s great canvas of Creation, we are, together, Christ’s body. Through us, even today, God continues to call humankind to the transcendent journey of grace along which righteousness is our garment. Holiness is our breath. Love is our song. And justice is our footprint.