Second Sunday in Lent
March 12 2017
Genesis 12.1-4a; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Adam and Eve in the garden. Cain killing Abel. Noah and the flood. The tower of Babel.
The stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis paint a picture of a world gone astray, of humanity off the rails – a world in many ways very like our own.
And then, in chapter 12, Genesis begins the story of how God is putting this world to rights. God chooses Abram, soon to be renamed Abraham, and promises that in him and his family all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
How this is to work is spelt out six chapters later, in the context of the outcry that has come to God about Sodom – a city that was a byword for wickedness. In Genesis 18, the Lord asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
We are called to do what is just and right. But we can do this, it turns out, only if we are born afresh, only if we are born of the Spirit.
Jews and Muslims read the story of Abraham differently; but for us who are Christians, the story of Abraham reaches its climax in Jesus of Nazareth and continues in the Christian church. To be children of Abraham, for John and for Paul, is to be part of a family re-centred and redefined around Jesus Christ.
This is what Paul is arguing in Romans 4, in a passage so obscure that most English versions and commentaries mistranslate the first sentence.
As we heard, the New Revised Standard Version – the latest revision of the King James Bible – translates: “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?” The New International Version asks, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”
It’s not always about us; but sometimes it is.
Richard Hays and Tom Wright argue convincingly that Paul’s question here is not about Abraham but about us, and they translate it thus: “What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” “Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?” Or, to put it plainly, is Abraham our father because we are Jews?
In the letter to the Romans, as in his letter to the Galatians, Paul is arguing against other Christians who hold that it’s not enough for gentile Christians to believe in Jesus Christ: They must also become Jews, and the males among them must be circumcised.
No! says Paul: In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile. We are all one by faith in him.
For those with whom Paul is arguing, the children of Abraham are marked out by observance of the Jewish law, the Torah. For Paul, the children of Abraham are marked out by faith. Anyone, Jew or gentile, who comes to believe that Jesus is Lord is part of Abraham’s family. Nothing more is needed.
And if all we need is faith, Paul argues, faith is all that Abraham needed also. In his long-winded, rather rabbinic way, he is saying what the letter to the Hebrews says in the sentence in our call to worship: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”
So Paul argues, at the end of this obscure passage: The promise did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law, the Torah, but through faith. It depends on faith and is guaranteed to all the children of Abraham – not only to the adherents of the Jewish law but also to those who share his faith without being Jewish – for he is the father of us all.
When God called Abraham to get up and go, he unsettled him. When Paul re-centres the family of Abraham on Jesus the Messiah, he unsettles his fellow Jewish Christians and, if we are awake, he unsettles us. In two ways: by insisting that the family of Abraham now is Jewish and gentile, without discrimination; and by insisting that the inheritance of Abraham is now the whole world and no longer just one piece of turf in what today we call the Middle East.
This is a doubly dramatic redefinition of the children of Abraham and, as is obvious, it doubly complicates our conversations with our Jewish friends and neighbours.
All our readings this morning are about Abraham. In the case of Genesis and Romans, this is explicit. It is less obvious in the case of John; but here too the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus is about what it means to belong to Abraham’s family and to God’s.
For Nicodemus the Pharisee, to be a child of Abraham is to be Jewish and, indeed, to be the right kind of Jew – the Pharisaic kind. You are born into the family of Abraham, and then you must live up to that. No! says Jesus, you must be born all over again, you must be born from above. You must be born afresh into the family of his own followers – otherwise you can’t see what God is up to now or become part of it.
And so they go back and forth.
In the book of Numbers, the fourth book in the Torah, we read how the Israelites, during their long wandering in the wilderness, grumbled against God and against Moses. As a punishment for their grumbling, they were bitten by poisonous snakes, and many of them died. They ask Moses to pray God to take the serpents away. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, so that everyone who is bitten may look at it and live.
Even more, says our Gospel reading, must Jesus of Nazareth be lifted up on a cross, so that everyone who looks on him and believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
The cross uplifted on Calvary hill is a sign planted in the middle of history. It shows us what it means for us to be children of Abraham, and children of God. It says: Believe and live.
Let me close with a point that neither Paul nor John discusses.
Frank Peters, who will be 90 this year, has devoted a lifetime to the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Among his many books, perhaps the best introduction to his thought is one that bears the same title as this sermon – Children of Abraham – but with the subtitle Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
This begs the question: Can we really speak of Jews, Muslims and Christians as all of us children of Abraham? Is this not to take liberal tolerance a large step too far?
As Christians, we are bound to insist on the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth. It is this, after all, that makes us Christians. But it would be a mistake, I suggest, to turn this into a new sectarianism. We are not bound to insist on our own exclusivity. We are not bound to say that we are children of Abraham only if we become Christians. To say this, indeed, is to fall into the same trap that Paul so strongly argues against: the promises of God are for all, but only if we become Jews; we are children of Abraham only if we become Jews.
Wiser, I think, to say: Let a hundred flowers blossom.
Let Christians, and Muslims, and Jews all claim, in our different ways, to be children of Abraham. The wind of the Spirit blows this way and that, and we are known by our fruits.
The practical question for us is this: Do we show evidence in our lives of having been born afresh of water and the Spirit? Are we getting on with being the children of Abraham we now are? Are we in practice, in the lives we live, the words we speak, and the deeds we do, a blessing to others – or are we a curse?
The God of Abraham praise (CH4 162)
I to the hills will lift mine eyes (Psalm 121, CH4 81)
Womb of life and source of being (CH4 118)
I come with joy, a child of God (CH4 656)
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart (CH4 465)
FE Peters, Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Princeton University Press, 2004)
NT Wright, The Letter to the Romans, The New Interpreter’s Bible X (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 2002)
NT Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays, Year A (London: SPCK, 2001)
Tom Wright, John for Everyone I (London: SPCK, 2002)
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans I (London: SPCK, 2004)