“Faith – Our Divine DNA”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
2/28/21 – Second Sunday of Lent
13-14 The ancient promise made to Abraham and his descendants, that they should eventually possess the world, was given not because of any achievements made through obedience to the Law, but because of the righteousness which had its root in faith. For if, after all, they who pin their faith to keeping the Law were to inherit God’s world, it would make nonsense of faith in God himself, and destroy the whole point of the promise.
15 For we have already noted that the Law can produce no promise, only the threat of wrath to come. And, indeed if there were no Law the question of sin would not arise.
16-17 The whole thing, then, is a matter of faith on [our] part and generosity on God’s. He gives the security of his own promise to all [people] who can be called “children of Abraham”, i.e. both those who have lived in faith by the Law, and those who have exhibited a faith like that of Abraham. To whichever group we belong, Abraham is in a real sense our father, as the scripture says: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’. This faith is valid because of the existence of God himself, who can make the dead live, and speak his Word to those who are yet unborn.
18 Abraham, when hope was dead within him, went on hoping in faith, believing that he would become “the father of many nations”. He relied on the word of God which definitely referred to ‘your descendants’. (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
Embattled and still in its infancy, the church in Rome must wrestle with one persistent, fundamental question: Who are we? And in a world marinating in anxiety, the early church, that wrestling is intense, passionate, and often violent. In determining its identity, the community has to decide how men and women relate; how leaders are chosen and empowered; how strangers are treated; and how those who threaten the community will be stopped, and either rehabilitated or punished. Like any other emerging community, the church must also decide how they will remember and interpret the past. What stories and whose stories will be told? How will prominent individuals and defining events be taught and remembered?
It seems to me that this very question holds a central place in our own nation’s current struggle with race. When a long-oppressed community begins to claim the beauty of its full humanity, and the power of its identity and history, those who have held influence over them and over the writing of history will, almost inevitably, feel threatened. And in a nation which has claimed spiritual/religious language as foundational, that struggle is as deeply theological as it is social, political, and economic.
The councils that wrote the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds may have been shaping Christian theology, but they did so as much for political stability as for theological orthodoxy. At the direction of the emperor, they were deciding how, for the sake of the empire, to remember, interpret, and appropriate the enigma of Jesus, who, apparently, was not going away.
Setting up and maintaining the early Christian community became a kind of a cultural genome project. It sought to determine how the new community would be inseminated with the theological, political, social, and economic attributes of Jesus.
Forgive the somewhat graphic nature of that image, but we’re talking about personal and communal identity at the level of DNA. Who are we? And whose are we?
Every culture does this, and a vivid example from American culture is the story of George Washington confessing to his father that he cut down the cherry tree. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was in college before I learned who Parson Weems was, and how he fabricated and propagated that outright lie in order to teach children the virtues of telling the truth. Metaphors are inherent in religious language, but it’s always appropriate for a community to ask if it has strayed into the tactics of outright falsehoods.
Jesus leads his followers across the brand-new Red Sea called Resurrection. On the other side, people like Peter and Paul lead that same community into the wilderness of a brand-new spiritual and cultural identity. In doing so, they help to shape the community’s memory of not only the recent stories of Jesus, but the ancient stories of their faith. Paul pays particular attention to Abraham. And Abraham’s story, says Paul, is all about the fundamental characteristic of faith.
According to Paul, faith is the divine DNA that defines us. And by faith Paul means more than “believing in” God. He means trusting the God in whom we claim to believe, and he means loving that God by loving our neighbors with steadfast and non-sentimental resolve.
In making his point, Paul encourages the new faith community to alter its thousand-year-old understanding of the law, and, thus, of themselves. Honestly, though, I think Paul would say that he’s not really changing anything. He’s restoring the community to its deepest and truest self. That’s why he uses Abraham rather than Moses as the standard.
To restore the people to their chromosomal faith, Paul scrapes away at all the legalism that has become a kind of fungus on their spiritual practices. Within the community, score-keeping has obscured and distorted their God-imaged character of servant-hearted trust and love.
In an effort to pry the law from the people’s dying fingers, Paul says, “The Law can produce no promise, only the threat of wrath to come…The whole thing, then, is a matter of faith on [our] part and generosity on God’s…[And] faith is valid because of the existence of God…who can make the dead live…Abraham, when hope was dead within him, went on hoping in faith.”
Because the community’s identity hinges on their faith in and loyalty to God above all else, Paul demotes the law, and holds it in service to faith.
Having said that, let’s also acknowledge that every religion creates structures of theology and governance. We do that because all communities need structure to thrive. Even the laws of nature affirm this. Where would we be, for example, if gravity were not a dependable law? What if we had to live with the anxiety of coming untethered from the earth without warning, and floating away until gravity kicked in again, and yanked us back to earth with a splat?
I think Paul understands all of this. Still, when inserting himself into Rome’s struggle with who belongs and who doesn’t, the apostle makes the point that when Jesus-followers live as if the law represents our fundamental DNA, we inevitably do more to destroy the beauty and the wholeness of God’s Creation than we do to give thanks for it, and to steward it, and to share it. Wherever people seek to trust God and love neighbor, there is the community of faith. And if people can’t find that community in the Church, or in a congregation, they’ll leave it and create that community for themselves elsewhere. And who can blame them?
Jesus himself systematically dismantles the DNA of law-based religion. He openly flouts the law when he heals and picks grain on the Sabbath, when he fraternizes with Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers. Five times in Matthew’s sermon on the mount, Jesus launches into a teaching on some holy law saying, “You have heard it said,” then he turns it inside out saying, “but I say to you.”
Jesus’ very life is the giving of a new law: The law of grace, the law by which we live in and proclaim the kingdom of God.
Paul is doing the same thing. In Romans 13 he writes these earth-shaking words: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder…[or] steal…[or] covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)
Here’s the catch: The law of love cannot be followed by mere obedience. It takes practice and hard work. To abide by a law that says things like “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” requires the steel-toed boots of trust and the leather gloves of agape love made real by Resurrection. To abide by the law of grace is to embark on a journey. It is to go when God says, “Go,” even when a cost-benefit analysis proves the risk unjustified.
That is the journey of faith, the journey on which we rediscover our true, God-imaged selves and the eternal community of God’s kingdom of grace.