01 March 2015, Lent 2
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
Romans 4. 13-end; Mark 8. 31-end
Winston Churchill, Oswald Mosley, and Aneurin Bevin all did it; more recently Shaun Woodward and Clare Short. All of them ‘crossed the floor of the House’; that is to say they changed their party allegiance while sitting in the House of Commons, and literally walked across to the other side to take their place on the benches opposite their former party. One politician who made this journey described how he became an object of loathing to his erstwhile colleagues and an object of suspicion to his new ones. An uncomfortable position to be in. How much more uncomfortable must Paul have felt in the febrile and religiously charged atmosphere of first century Judaea! Following his life-changing experience on the road to Damascus, this once zealous Pharisee and persecutor of Christians became the driving force behind Christianity’s peaceful expansion beyond its Jewish origins. Not for nothing is Paul, who lived and died a Jew, known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, or non-Jews. Unsurprisingly, though, his conversion was initially viewed with some suspicion by Christians: Luke describes how Paul’s initial attempt to join the disciples in Jerusalem was met with fear and disbelief. It was over a decade before he undertook his first missionary journey, and reading between the lines we can infer that his relationship with the Christian community in Jerusalem was never entirely comfortable: this predominantly Jewish group of disciples were unsure about his enthusiasm for taking the Good News of Jesus Christ to the non-Jewish peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Paul made it his life’s work to proclaim that God’s promises, fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, were for Jew and Gentile alike. His letters to the fledgling churches beyond Judea, many of which he founded, show him deploying a range of arguments to support this central and abiding theological conviction. But it is in his letter to the Christians at Rome – a church he did not found – that Paul comes closest to a systematic account of what he believes. The passage from Romans that we have heard this morning forms part of that account.
It’s not entirely helpful that today’s reading begins part way through Paul’s argument: it’s rather like going to a book club where your fellow members are discussing a novel you’ve only read the ending of. But the single most important thing to grasp about this passage is that Paul has been using the life and times of the great Old Testament patriarch Abraham to advance his argument that Jesus Christ has forever dismantled the barrier between Jew and Gentile. Implicit to the thread of this argument is that Jewish history begins with Abraham. Although the people of ancient Israel looked to Moses as the one to whom the roots of their faith could be traced, it was to the story of Abraham that they turned in order to trace the beginnings of their relationship with God. This relationship was based on God’s promise to Abraham that was entirely independent of God’s written law: that wouldn’t come until Moses’ encounter with God on the holy mountain, hundreds of years later. Paul puts it like this at the beginning of today’s reading: 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.
Paul’s argument in today’s reading amounts to this: yes, Abraham believed God’s promise and so his faith was accepted by God as righteous; yes, because God’s promise to Abraham preceded the Jewish Law, Abraham is, spiritually speaking at least, an ancestor for Jew and Gentile alike; yes, we are all therefore inheritors of God’s promise; and yes, we should have before us the example of Abraham when reflecting on our own situation. But for Paul and for us God’s promises to Abraham and to his descendants are only understandable when seen in the light of Jesus Christ. They are promises that are made real for us in Jesus – in his life, in the suffering and death that he predicts in this morning’s Gospel, and in his resurrection that we will celebrate at the end of Lent. Jesus has closed the gap between us and God, allowing us to see that what God promised to Abraham is fulfilled in him. Through our faith in Jesus Christ we will, to paraphrase Paul, be reckoned righteous before God.
But being reckoned righteous is one thing. How do we then respond? How do we make our faith living and active? Abraham has featured prominently in today’s reading and in my sermon. Here’s a story about him that might help us to think about those questions. Before God commanded Abraham to leave his country, the patriarch could be likened to a jar of exquisite perfume which was tightly sealed and kept in a remote corner. The superb aroma could not escape and no one could have any benefit from it. But if the jar were to be uncorked and moved about from room to room then its precious fragrance could be distributed all around. So God said to Abraham, “Abraham, you perform many good deeds and you have taught some of your neighbours the truth about the one God, but the effect is very limited and the world outside knows nothing about you or your faith. Therefore I want you to move about in the world so that your teaching and example can spread and my name will be great in my world.”
How far do we allow the aroma of our faith in Jesus Christ to spread? How much does the world outside Bolton Priory know about us, about what we believe? Let’s uncork our perfume bottles and see what happens….