Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 3/1/2015

In a lot of ways, today’s second lesson gives us Paul at his best and Paul at his worst. The presenting issue has to do with the question of whether Christianity was strictly an offshoot of Judaism meaning that in order to be Christian you had to first accept the religious laws and customs and practices of Judaism, or was Christianity more inclusive so that so called pagans or Gentiles were welcome as they were. This was one of the big issues at the time and in the letter to the Romans you get some of Paul’s insights on this, insights based on his interpretation of scripture, as he comes down on the side of including the Gentiles; that’s Paul at his best.

On the other hand this is Paul at his worst because the writing is pretty complicated, not easy to follow (as is often the case with Paul) and on top of that what you get in today’s reading starts in the middle of his argument so it’s kind of like walking into a room where an animated conversation has been going on for some time and being late, you’ve missed a lot. That’s often a problem when we encounter Paul in the Sunday readings and it’s one of the reasons I’ve tended to avoid them as preaching texts; we usually get short portions of longer discussions so it’s not always easy to figure out or explain the context.

Underlying everything that Paul wrote in all of his letters though, was his conviction that Jesus represented the fulfillment of Old Testament covenant promises. He didn’t see Christianity as a departure from Judaism, but rather as its fulfillment. He believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection constituted a new way to interpret the promises that had been made to the legendary ancestors of the faith; ancestors like Abraham.

Because of that, it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul would make a connection with Abraham in his thinking about who Jesus was and what he meant and that’s what we get in today’s reading. Paul knew the tradition and Abraham was a big part of it so in this case Paul uses Abraham as an example of faith as he presents his argument concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles.

Abraham as a model of faith; faith is a good thing to think about during Lent. We are called to self-reflection concerning our relationship with God and thinking about our relationship with God is likely to include thoughts about faith. In thinking about faith though, for most of us, our default definition is that faith is the opposite of doubt so a faithful person is one who doesn’t doubt and growing in faith then means striving to eliminate doubt. If you’ve been around you’ve heard from me and others that faith defined as the opposite of doubt is not the best way to think about it, but I still think that understanding is so ingrained in us that lack of doubt continues to be the first place our mind goes when thinking about faith.

In Paul’s use of Abraham as a model of faith though, faith and doubt as opposites is not exactly what we get, nor is it what we get in the other lessons today as I think all of them could be useful in a discussion about faith. But starting with Abraham: Paul identifies Abraham as a model of faith based on his trust in God’s promises about land and offspring despite the fact that those promises flew in the face of all external evidence, external evidence centered on the fact that Abraham was an old man and Sarah was well past child bearing years plus the fact that up until that point, the two of them had been unsuccessful in having children. Sarah was said to be barren which was about the worst thing a woman could be called in that culture as their role was to produce babies, especially boys.

The way the story is told in Genesis, today’s reading is actually the third time God made the promise of land and children to Abraham. Twenty four years had passed since the first promise was made and there was still no evidence of them having one child never mind being the parents of a nation and while they did initially step out in faith, leaving home and heading for an unknown land that the Lord would show them, that wasn’t the whole story. In his telling of it Paul says that “No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God being fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised,” but Paul overlooks a few details.

Most notably he overlooks the birth of Ishmael. After so many years of nothing neither Abraham nor Sarah were exactly convinced that God could do what he promised so figuring that Sarah was a lost cause as far as bearing children, at Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham turned to her Egyptian slave girl Hagar and produced a child with her. Does that represent a lack of faith on Abraham’s part, or does a journey of faith sometimes include those times when we’re uncertain and wrestle with God a little bit? Does faith include those times when we still trust, but conclude that maybe God needs our help?

Or what about today’s Psalm, a portion of Psalm 22. What we get today are the final verses of the Psalm but remember this is the Maundy Thursday stripping the altar Psalm, the one that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” words we hear again from Jesus on Good Friday. Separated from that context, the verses of the Psalm that we get today certainly seem to be an example of faith, offering praise to God from all the ends of the earth. Whatever trouble there was has passed and the world is back in proper alignment.

But, does “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” when the world is out of alignment represent a lack of faith? At those moments, saying nothing to God would represent a lack of faith, the feeling that God can’t do anything about it. A cry of lament though says that this relationship isn’t over. It says to God, “You made promises and I still expect you to keep them, I trust that you will keep them!” It’s an expression of faith, an expectation that God can and will do something about the situation. What it represents is an honest faith that dares to boldly confront God.

Today’s gospel sets up Peter as one who is lacking in faith. It immediately follows the verse where Peter makes the good confession identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Following that though, as Jesus talks about being killed, Peter rebukes him for saying such awful things, only to in turn be rebuked by Jesus in about the harshest terms Jesus ever used, “Get behind me Satan!”

Was Peter’s rebuke of Jesus a lack of faith? It was a lack of understanding but understanding and faith are not the same thing. Peter trusted in Jesus so in that sense he had faith similar to that of Abraham, but a crucified Messiah didn’t make sense to him, it wasn’t what the tradition had taught about who the Messiah would be, it certainly wasn’t what Peter had in mind for Jesus; but is that a lack of faith?

Then there’s Paul; I started with him today and I’ll end with him because he represents another interesting example of faith. Of course he was faithful, we might think, but remember, from a Jewish perspective he would not have been considered faithful, breaking as he did from the accepted traditions and understandings of Judaism. But because of the revelation of Jesus he had experienced on the road to Damascus, Paul began a process of reinterpretation of his Jewish tradition and especially the scripture that supported the tradition. In light of Jesus, Paul reinterpreted the Hebrew Bible.

Was he being unfaithful to his tradition? Only if one considers their tradition and their religion to be closed, having nothing new to say. If the tradition is open and alive though, as Paul apparently concluded it was, new possibilities exist, new interpretations and understandings can emerge including ones that might challenge what has long been accepted. Paul becomes an example of faith as a journey, a journey that certainly took him in directions he never would have anticipated.

Challenging what has long been accepted does tend to create conflict. Paul experienced it and such conflict has continued through the years and into our time because of the perception that challenge represents unfaithfulness. However, as can be seen from lessons like these today, faith is more complicated than that because whatever it is, it’s not simply blind acceptance; it does often include questions and challenges and reinterpretations and yes, doubt. The characters in today’s lessons illustrate that because they are all examples of faith that isn’t blind acceptance.

An honest journey of faith can get complicated and it’s not the same for everyone. Maybe though, as today’s lessons show, maybe it’s at those moments of complication that faith is most alive and on the move.

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
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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