Theme: Justification by Faith
Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
I wonder how many of you keep being pestered by those phone calls and emails informing you that you are one of the lucky winners of a jackpot or a cruse or PPI insurance payout and all you need to do is dial a certain number… Of course there will be a catch.
Descartes “hermeneutic of suspicion” is still alive and well in our day: doubt everything, trust no one. Most of us have the common sense to know that you don’t get something for nothing in this life. At the very least you have to have entered a competition or bought the insurance!
Yet our readings for today, tell us that with God it is different. With God we do get something for nothing. We don’t have to earn our reward. In fact, we can’t earn it. Salvation is a free gift. These readings are quite refreshing during Lent, when we are wearing sac cloth and ashes (well liturgically at least) and in danger of thinking we may earn ourselves a better place in the kingdom through our increased piety. Wrong.
First of all we can learn a lesson from Abraham. Christians can be inclined to think that salvation by faith didn’t come into the equation until after Christ. However, the story of Abraham is one of incredible faith. God’s promise is a gesture of well being for which there is as yet no visible evidence. As God speaks, Abraham is transformed into a daring hoper. He trusts the speaker. He believes the speech. It is no longer possible for Abraham to live in despair because of Sarah’s barrenness or in pride as though he could create his own future.
Abraham sets off from his homeland, as commanded. He does not hesitate. He trusts immediately and completely. This is “faith”. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” In other words, he was put right with God. How did Abraham come to be regarded as righteous? He believed God. His righteousness depends upon faith and not upon his fulfilling of the law.
And so, Abraham is the father of all who share in his faith. Abraham is the prototype of the believer. He is not so much a physical ancestor as he is the ancestor of all who believe. But even greater than this, Paul speaks of Abraham as trusting God “who justifies the ungodly.” This suggests that God’s action on Abraham’s behalf is God’s free and gracious act. Abraham cannot earn righteousness, either through deeds or through believing, for righteousness comes purely as a gift. Thus, Abraham is not only the prototype of believers, but, the prototype of all human beings.
As “a leader of the Jews”, Nicodemus is also a representative figure. But one who illustrates a very different attitude to Abraham. He begins his encounter with Jesus by making an assertion, as religious teachers normally did, and ends by asking a question evoking a comment from Jesus. In the previous chapter, the scene has been set with the statement that a faith based upon the miracles Jesus performs is inadequate. That is just shallow belief. Nicodemus embodies that perspective. He puts the issue of faith the wrong way. Something more than a fascination with signs is needed.
The dialogue is built on a series of word plays or double entendres: “from above” and “anew”; “wind” and “Spirit”; “lift up” and “crucify”. Jesus declares, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. Salvation takes another miracle, an act of God, an action from above. Nicodemus, being very literally minded, can’t grasp the concept of “from above”. Nicodemus’s problem is that he lives in a one-dimensional world, a world of “flesh”. The term “flesh” signifies human existence lived in terms of its own power, immune to the renewing power of God. What is lacking is the divine Spirit. The term “Spirit” denotes an entirely different world, where the blowing of the divine breeze brings a new creation. Flesh cannot give birth to Spirit. Nicodemus cannot move from his one-dimensional world to this mysterious world of the Spirit apart from an action from above. The dynamic of the Spirit thoroughly eludes him.
The passage concludes by speaking of faith again. Faith that is much different from mere amazement at miracles, much more than rational conclusions drawn from irrefutable evidence. It is commitment to the one whose death reveals the things of heaven. It is an embracing of the mysterious newness of God. It is an openness to the uncontrollable Spirit of God. It takes risks. As God had invited Abraham to embark on an adventure of trust, Jesus invites Nicodemus to be open to the rush of God’s Spirit in such a manner that his very being is renewed. It is the same invitation that is issued to all people in every age.
God has left us a voicemail - one about a free offer. Do we return the call, or do we remain sceptical about whether the God’s free gift is genuine. Worldly promotions and scammers may intend to trick and deceive but God doesn’t. We can trust him. God’s gracious acts have no reason other than God’s own good pleasure. The more we commit ourselves to Christ, the more the riches of his grace will grow in us. The good deeds that we do are the outworking of God’s grace – our response to his loving action, rather than the other way around. They are not what we do to merit his favour. Faith comes first. May God increase our faith, so that the spiritual reality becomes part of our earthly reality.
In this season of Lent, especially, this entails waiting upon God, clearing away the clutter to attend to him, making space for the Spirit to make his presence known.
A prayer to conclude:
Lord God, from whom we come
in whom we are enfolded and to whom we shall return,
Bless us in our pilgrimage through this life;
with the power of the Father protecting
the love of Jesus indwelling
and the light of the Spirit guiding
until we come to our ending in life and love eternal.
Rev Lisa Cornwell