Sermon for April 7, 2019
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7,15-16/Romans 4:13-25
Title: “The Paradox of Faith”
There is one thing that can be said about the Apostle Paul without fear of contradiction. Every word he spoke or wrote was in furtherance of one agenda, that agenda being reconsideration of the Jewish faith in light of God’s new revelation in Jesus Christ. The reconsideration took many forms, but focused most explicitly on distinguishing righteousness under the law from righteousness conferred by faith.
Did one’s obedience under the religious laws equate to righteousness in the eyes of God? Paul, in no uncertain terms, declared “no,” thereby establishing a breach with his fellow Jews whom, Paul charged, exploited the law for selfish, self-justifying ends.
Heirs of Abraham, and thus insiders with God, the Jews could boast that God had made them stewards of his law, stewards, whom they believed, preserved the freedom to interpret and apply the law at their discretion. Wholly rejecting that argument, Paul made Abraham his case in point, declaring in the opening verse of the lesson I just read, “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendents through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
The Jews as stewards of the law could not, by Paul’s reasoning, make proprietary claims to the promises of God. Before the law stood, Paul declared, Abraham’s faith stood. Not by works of the law, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
As an example of faithfulness before God Abraham may have shone up extremely well, yet we do well to assess the whole resume of that paragon of religious virtue. Doing so we find that immediately after receiving his call from God, a call in which God promised to make him a great nation, “blessing those who blessed him, and cursing those who cursed him,” Abraham was faced with a challenge. Forced to leave the land he occupied because of famine, Abraham shows up in Egypt. An alien and potentially dangerous place, Abraham fearing for his life, instructed his wife Sara to say she was his sister rather than his wife, fearing that an Egyptian suitor might kill him to claim her.
Abraham might well have deserved the accolades Paul showered upon him, but even the faith to which this father of the Jews laid claim was flawed. Overcome with fear, he lied to get himself out of a jam, this despite the fact that God promised that he would live to see his heirs carry his name into history.
Abraham it turns out was just another flawed human being whose faith was anything but airtight. For most of us faith turns out to be a fragile thing that often withers in the face of challenges. It is not the strong foundation the believer desires it to be.
There is a stubborn paradox surrounding the faith. Faith is the answer to life’s fundamental questions but we can’t really work our way to the answer through any sort of program or discipline through which we might, finally, absolutely, possess it. It is allusive to the grasp.
When I took freshman algebra in high school I was very surprised to learn that if I wanted a correct answer to any of the problems in my book, all I had to do was turn to the back of the book where the answers were recorded. I was not the brightest kid to enroll for the class by any means, but even I knew that the teacher wouldn’t accept my correct answer unless I correctly negotiated each of the steps that led to it. What is possible in mathematics, however, is not possible in the faith. We can’t simply reason our way to an answer to life’s persisting questions.
Paul charged the Jews with being blind to that reality. Taking great pride in their grasp of the law, an effort that for them converted to righteousness, the Jew stood aloof from those who failed to attain their standing.
Law can be taught, and the Jew with whom Paul debated was a dedicated student of the law. Now faith, on the other hand, is a different story. Faith cannot be taught. You can teach Christian doctrine. The scriptures can be taught. You cannot teach faith.
Some of you have heard the great cellist Yo Yo Ma in concert. YoYo May is a student of his craft. He studied and practiced very hard to get to where he is. He is a dedicated performer. There are others, however, who have been equally dedicated, and who are equally experienced in the craft of playing, but these are people whose names have never appeared at the top of a recital program.
You can teach the cello, but you can’t teach the gift that YoYo Ma has. Likewise, you can know your Bible inside out and grasp the fine points of theology, but faith is not perfected through practice, no, not even by the virtuoso.
Faith is a paradox. It is visible in action, but the motivation that inspires that action is purely personal. There is not some generic thing called faith, instead there is the faith of Abraham, of Paul, of Jesus. There is your faith and my faith. Faith is the individualized response that our experience of God calls forth. Yet the stories of how Abraham and Paul did their faith offers important clues to how we might do ours.
There may be no classes we can take that will earn us a diploma in faith, but Paul could use the experiences of Abraham to help the congregation in Rome gain a better understanding of what faith looks like. “Hoping against hope [Paul writes] [Abraham] believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’ according to what God said.” At his age too old to father a child, Abraham nonetheless had faith that God would be good to his word that he would be the father of nations.
There being no curriculum for faith in existence, Paul could say, “see, here is what faith looks like in action.” It is by observing faith in action that people like you and I gain a grasp, however imperfect, of its substance.
The hurricane that struck New Orleans gave me a front row viewing stand to watch religious faith in action. I cannot begin to describe the generous spirit that I saw on display by the volunteers that came through that city. Mobilized by their faith they came by the hundreds, demonstrating that Christ’s call to servanthood would not go unheeded. Theirs was a visible manifestation of the gospel of Christ. Those of us blessed by their efforts were an audience to faith in action.
There is no curriculum for faith. There is no curriculum adequate to encompass the manifold ways in which God grasps the human heart. That said, God wants to insure each and every one of us that he has provided us with the potential, our faith, to grasp the grace in which our lives are enfolded.
Yet if faith is the means by which the fullness of God’s grace is communicated, why then does God appear sometimes to skimp on the materials you and I might use to establish a sound and lasting faith? It is hardly sufficient for us to read stories of faith, or watch others put their faith in action. It is one thing to observe, it is quite another to possess, especially when the personal setbacks and tragedies we experience in life undermines the faith to which we lay claim.
It is difficult for many of us to align what we know of God, with a tragedy that exposes nothing quite so clearly as the apparent absence of God. Exhortations from the pulpit to have faith, and trust that God will put things right, are not helpful, they are even a source of resentment. But what would be helpful?
We might start by stating one point that cannot be stressed enough. God is never absent. Our God is committed to us totally in all seasons of life. But that begs the question, why does a loving God not do more to protect us from the anguish ridden experiences of life?
The best and most perceptive members of the church have never been able to adequately explain to our satisfaction how a God who loved creation into existence, could be so heedless of the welfare of the suffering. Don’t expect the likes of me to resolve that mystery this morning. What I as your pastor can do, however, is, to the best of my ability, address these questions out of the tradition in which you and I stand.
Faith is put to the test. But the faith to which any of us lay claim is not our exclusive property, it is the faith of the church, and as the church we are in the same business as the Apostle Paul was. Like Paul, we are the recipients of the testimony of our forebears describing their encounters with God. We participate in the traditions they have established for celebrating their relationship with God. We take what we have received, add what we can, and pass it on to those who will follow us.
Paul found experiences of the past a reliable guide to the present and the future. When Paul addressed the Romans on the issue of faith and the law as he did in our morning’s lesson he reached back and buttressed the argument he wished to make out of the tradition in which he and the Jews in the Roman congregation stood. He used Abraham as a model, a paradigm, for what his audience might attain if they applied the lesson of Abraham. This was no step by step “faith for dummies” approach to the faith, instead Paul offered Abraham as a case study in faith from which he drew lessons appropriate to the audience he was addressing.
Faith cannot be taught, rather it is nurtured in a supportive environment like this one where the scriptures are read, prayers and fellowship is offered, the Lord’s Supper shared, and meaningful service opportunities are provided. The church is not the only venue where this occurs, it may not even be the best venue, but there can be no doubt that this is the place where we are most intentional about learning the faith and passing it on to future generations.
Crisis challenges the faith of many of us, and whether you are satisfied or not with the church’s response to your particular spiritual and emotional needs, know that the God who in Jesus Christ founded the church has not forgotten us, and it is, yes, our faith in that reality that keeps us coming back here Sunday after Sunday.
There is a stubborn paradox surrounding the faith. Faith is the answer but we can’t really work our way to the answer through to any sort of program or discipline through which we might possess it. It is allusive to the grasp.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul treats that paradox he writes following, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, [and than he adds] and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The grace of God is freely and universally dispensed, but how is it apprehended? It is apprehended through faith, and faith is a gift. But what sort of gift is it? That is the question we are left to ponder. How is it my gift, your gift?
Faith is certainly an individual endowment, but it is one the church is privileged to preserve on behalf of the individual believer in whatever state that individual believer’s faith happens to be. Your faith may have offered you little consolation in times of trial and testing, but the good news is that the everlasting arms are never withdrawn. This fellowship, Jesus Christ’s church, the repository of the tradition upon which our faith is grounded, prays with you and for you, God’s own hand is extended through the body, and each of us is part of that body.
Paradox, the faith may be a paradox, but the paradox readily dissolves when God’s hand touches a life, and God’s house offers the very best place to be touched. May God’s name be praised!
Lord, you remain faithful even as we struggle to discern where we fit in your plan. Yet our very struggle is itself pleasing in your sight for it demonstrates that we take you seriously, that our relationship with you, however limited, is sufficiently valued by us to motive us to gather here. Lord, we have allocated but a short time today to build on our relationship with you, but we know that such limits as we impose are meaningless in your sight. The hand you extend to us is not shortened merely because we fail to reach for it.
We pray your blessing on those who struggle with illness or infirmity today. Even as we have lifted up prayers for those who are near to us, we know that many feel isolated and alone. Living with no emotional support to sustain them, these are people who yearn for an encouraging word, a helping hand. Lord, you call us to care for each other, may we not forsake that calling, but instead reach out as circumstances avail themselves.
Lord, we pray for all of those who are at work today to address the challenges that face us globally. We thank you for public health officials who are a work to eradicate disease. We thank you for those who are working to insure that the world’s most vulnerable citizens have adequate food and fresh water. We thank you for those who are at work to protect our waterways and oceans from contaminants. We give thanks, O Lord, for climate scientists whose research is mobilizing the public to take seriously the threat of global warming. O God, we thank you for the dedicated women and men in all fields who are at work to secure the planet’s future.
We pray your blessing on those who live in harms way today; for those assigned to peacekeeping missions, for those who live under the threat of terrorist’s acts, for those who expose themselves to violence in the course of reporting the news and for those who at the risk of their lives carry the gospel into inhospitable regions.
Lord Jesus Christ, head of the church, we pray for strength and courage to follow the agenda you have set. May your word inspire us to undertake new forms of servanthood with renewed veal to serve.
God of grace, hear these prayers, and all unspoken prayers offered in your name this day. May Jesus pray in us and through us..