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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/04/2012

My first question concerning the reading from Romans today is just what stories about Abraham had Paul heard?  In these verses he identifies Abraham as a model of unwavering faith in the promise God had made to him about having children despite the fact that he was old and his wife Sarah was old, despite the fact that up until that point Sarah had failed to conceive, she was barren which was about the worst thing a woman could be in that society.  But Paul says Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered all this; “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God.” 

“Really?” you might want to say to Paul.  Abraham didn’t weaken in faith nor did he waver concerning the promise?  Twice he exposes Sarah to danger telling her to lie about being his wife, “Tell ‘em you’re my sister,” he says which, among other things, would open her to possible rape by strangers, all of this deception in order to protect Abraham’s own well being.  That doesn’t sound like he had much faith in God’s promise or protection; sounds like he thought he’d better take things into his own hands. 

He and Sarah become so convinced that Sarah will never conceive that Abraham turns to Hagar, one of his servant girls, who does produce a son for him.  Again, not much faith in God to accomplish what he said he would; again Abraham taking things into his own hands.  In the verse immediately following today’s first reading Abraham falls on his face and laughs at the impossibility of what God has promised.  Yet Paul says that he didn’t weaken in faith, nor did he waver.  Just what was Paul thinking?

The letters of the New Testament, whether it’s those written by Paul or those written by someone else provide us with windows into what was going on in the earliest Christian communities.  Most notably the letters let us in on the kinds of questions and issues that came up in those communities, questions and issues that shaped who they became and how they operated.  The letters give us a peek into history but it’s not just history; some of their questions echo quite loudly into our own time.

The main question Paul was getting at in this part of the letter to the Romans was who is legitimately a part of the Christian community; mainly do you have to observe the laws of Judaism to be included.  It’s a little hard for us to relate to the specifics of this issue but keep in mind that this was  the biggest issue in the early church and there were strong feelings on both sides of it.  Paul addresses this in several of his letters but Romans is different from the others in that Paul had never been to Rome, he hadn’t been involved in starting a church there so he doesn’t know them and they don’t know him.  Part of the thinking around Romans is that Paul wrote it more or less as a fundraising letter.  He was planning a trip to Spain (not for a vacation on the beaches of the Mediterranean, but to continue his work of spreading the gospel) but he needed money to get there and he was hoping the Romans could help him out.  To get their support he needed to convince them that he was on their side, that he recognized them as full partners in the Christian community even though they were not abiding by the laws of Judaism.

To make his point that these non-observant Roman Christians were OK in his book, he connects them to Abraham, the father figure for Jewish people.  He connects them to Abraham by making the controversial conclusion that Abraham was righteous because of his faith and trust in the promises of God, not because of his obedience to the rituals of Jewish law that were so important to a lot of people.  Paul says it’s Abraham’s faith that seals the deal; it’s his faith that makes him righteous and that then opens the doors for everyone who might otherwise be considered outsiders; everyone, including the Romans.

To help make his point though, Paul portrays Abraham as being unwavering in that faith even though the evidence seems to call that into question.  Did he purposely omit the details of Abraham’s missteps simply to help make his point, knowing that his audience in Rome wouldn’t know the story, or did he really see Abraham’s faith as unwavering despite the missteps?    Again, the main question on Paul’s mind was the who’s in and who’s out question, but, whether intentionally or unintentionally he also raises questions about faith that I think are interesting for us.  Just what is unwavering faith?

Abraham is not the only model of faith we get today; there’s also Peter and, like Abraham, Peter’s record relative to his faith is somewhat spotty.  He’s right there as Jesus’ right hand man in many of the gospel stories and he plays a significant role in the post-Easter development of the church, but in today’s reading, he is the recipient of the harshest words Jesus ever spoke to anyone, “Get behind me Satan!” this after Peter questions Jesus when he announces that he is to suffer and die.

In different ways, both Abraham and Peter have the same problem.  Both of them are stuck in the unimaginative reality of their world.  Neither of them can envision the future including anything that isn’t based on what has happened in the past; and who can blame them?  It’s just good common sense.  Who can blame Abraham for wondering about the promise that the Lord had made to him?  Based on a long, childless life with Sarah, it didn’t seem very likely that things would change.  It didn’t seem likely that he would have one child, much less offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky.

With Peter the situation is a little different.  He was convinced that Jesus was on the path to power and glory and he no doubt expected that he would share in that power and glory.  He’d also been around long enough to know how you achieved power and glory.  He knew how the world worked.  So when Jesus said that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected and be killed” that didn’t compute with Peter’s knowledge of how things worked.  What Jesus was saying sounded like humiliation and defeat, not power and glory.  Again, it’s just common sense and Peter thought he’d better pass that along to Jesus.

But…for both Abraham and Peter, their commitment to follow was essentially unwavering; even at their worst, they were both still around.  Theirs was not a bland, blind faith, it was a lively, active, thoughtful faith.  It was an honest faith, in which, no matter what, they continued to follow. 

I don’t know if that’s what Paul meant when he praised Abraham for his unwavering faith.  It may be that he was intentionally overlooking a few things for the sake of his argument; but I don’t think it’s completely off the wall to think that Abraham’s checkered history didn’t represent a lack of faith as far as Paul was concerned.  We’ve come to think that bland, blind, unquestioning faith is the goal, but the way faith is portrayed in the Bible is often quite different from that.

Paul would have been familiar with the probing, questioning nature of some of the Psalms, today’s Psalm 22 being one example.  We only get the end of it today, but this is the Maundy Thursday “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” psalm that Jesus quotes from the Good Friday cross.  It ends with the reassurance and praise of today’s verses but the psalmist has to work through a few things to get there.  In that tradition though, the working through process was not considered disrespectful or irreverent, it was just part of an honest, faithful engagement with God. 

So it may be that Paul wasn’t bothered by Abraham laughing at the promises of God or by his efforts to take things into his own hands; he may have just seen that as Abraham working through things.  Jesus’ rebuke of Peter may have had little to do with Peter’s faith, more to do with Jesus himself trying to resist the temptation to stray from the path set out for him.  His temptation didn’t end in last week’s wilderness.

I do think it’s significant though that for both Abraham and Peter, the obstacles they deal with are largely a result of their inability to imagine possibilities that run counter to the prevailing wisdom and logic of their world.  That hasn’t changed; it’s as relevant today as it ever was, maybe even more relevant.  Faith is about the ability to imagine hope that goes beyond the bounds of human wisdom and logic.  As people of faith, we dare to imagine the truth that the many voices and stories and characters of the Bible reveal to us.

The repentance of Lent is a reminder that we don’t always do it very well.  We keep telling the stories of people like Abraham and Peter because they’re our stories, we can relate because their contradictions are our contradictions.  And like them, we continue to follow with what Paul might call unwavering faith as we witness to the hope that is in us, the hope that we know is true, when we dare to imagine it.  

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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