We started our Lenten journey with a word from Paul about sin. Is it a nature problem or nurture problem? St. Augustine voted for nature, while John Locke advocated for nurture. As for me, I tend to go with Locke, but whichever way we go, sin is a problem. The way toward the healing of sin’s impact begins with the confession of sin.
This week we take a step back the chapter 4 in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where the faith of Abraham enters the conversation. According to Genesis and Paul, Abraham believed God’s promise that the nations would be blessed through his descendants, and God credited this as righteousness. Therefore, Abraham was justified before God by faith and not by works. In Paul’s mind, the same is true for everyone who shares in the faith of Abraham.
When we read Scripture, it’s good to remember that we live in a very different context than the biblical authors, including Paul. That means Paul may have a different set of concerns than we do. So, when he wrote this letter, he had in mind the relationship that existed between the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians who composed that church. One of his biggest concerns had to do with the role of circumcision in the life of the church. I don’t think circumcision is a big issue for us when it comes to deciding who is in the community and who isn’t. So, what word might Paul have for us today?
In this chapter, Paul draws from the story of how God covenanted with Abraham by promising to make Abraham the ancestor of many nations. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations. All he had to do was pack up his family and head out on a journey to an unknown land. This story begins in Genesis 12 with the call of Abraham and ends in Genesis 25 with Abraham’s burial by his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. In between these two events are many twists and turns. Abraham will face many challenges and tests. Despite these challenges, including the fact that when God made this promise, he and Sarah, didn’t have any children, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. Nevertheless, Abraham believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Eventually, Abraham would have several sons, including Ishmael, the son he had with Hagar, and then Isaac, whom he had with Sarah. While I’m not sure Abraham completely understood what God had in mind when he first heard the promise of God, and he sometimes took matters into his own hands, ultimately he believed that God would be true to this promise.
When we read Romans 4, we hear Paul teaching us that Abraham is our ancestor, whether we’ve been circumcised or not. While we didn’t read verses 11 and 12 of Romans 4, in those two verses Paul insists that Abraham is the ancestor of the circumcised and the uncircumcised. He is our ancestor through faith. That is, justification is a gift that we receive by following Abraham’s example of believing God’s promises. By believing, we get to participate in the blessings that come through Abraham’s children. That is because, Abraham is, according to Paul, the “father of us all.”
Over the years I’ve become increasingly interested in Abraham’s story. That interest is largely rooted in my participation in interfaith work. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all claim descent from Abraham. Jews and Christians trace our lineage through Isaac, while Muslims trace their lineage back through Ishmael. Both are sons of Abraham, and both received promises that they would be the ancestors of nations. Not only that, but Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage in his genealogy back to Abraham, not to Adam, as Luke did. In Matthew’s understanding of things, Jesus is the promised seed of Abraham, through whom the nations will be blessed.
Here in Romans 4, Paul tells us that everyone who shares the faith of Abraham is his child, “for he is the father of us all.” so, whether we trace our genealogies back to Abraham in the flesh or in the Spirit, in Christ, we are his descendants. Paul underscores this claim in his Galatian letter, where he writes that “if you are Christ’s, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29 CEB). That means the promises of God that were given to Abraham apply to us as well as to his descendants according to the flesh if we receive them by faith.
Although I was exposed to interfaith conversations earlier in my ministry, it’s really only been in the past two decades that I’ve truly begun to understand what Paul was getting at in bringing Abraham into the conversation. When we moved to Santa Barbara, I got involved in the local clergy group, which included a rabbi. Before long I met a few other local rabbis. Then, shortly before 9-11, I had my first real encounter with Muslims. The son of one of our church members had converted to Islam years before I arrived. Then, when he came out for his mother’s funeral, he took me to my first Friday prayers at the local mosque. This was also around the time that I met the local Imam while making a call at the hospital. Then after 9-11, I got to know the Imam much better. It was during one of those conversations that Brett met the Imam and began to develop an interest in Islam and other faith traditions. I quickly discovered that Muslims are people too. It’s easy to be frightened by people you don’t know, which is why many anti-Muslim groups warn against getting to know Muslims. You don’t want to be lulled to sleep to the dangers posed by your Muslim neighbors. As for me, it’s way too late. I’ve developed too many friendships with Muslims. Yes, I’ve been corrupted! I hope you will be corrupted as well!
So, how might we experience the promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants? If we follow Abraham’s example, then we should consider his entire story. Abraham isn’t a perfect example, but as Elliott Rabin points out “one invariable quality is his uprightness, an unwavering concern toward others, no matter whether they are family or stranger, a related characteristic is his forthrightness, his unstinting sense of right in words and deeds” (Rabin, The Biblical Hero, p. 130). That doesn’t mean Abraham didn’t have his faults. After all, he tried to pass off Sarah as his sister to protect himself. He agreed to send away Hagar and Ishmael, to keep Sarah happy. Fortunately, God took care of them. I’m not sure what to make of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Nevertheless, Abraham stayed true to his calling, even when he wasn’t sure how it would play out.
Each of us has the opportunity to embrace God’s promise to Abraham. In our day, I think this will involve reaching out beyond our traditional religious lines. This shouldn’t be a problem for us here at Central Woodward. We have a history of involvement in interfaith efforts. I can’t think of a better example of this than our hosting Iftar dinners during Ramadan. It’s one thing to learn about other religions. It’s another thing to get to know people and even become good friends with people whose religious backgrounds are different from our own.
I’ve been blessed since moving to Troy because my circle of interfaith friendships has expanded in ways I never would have expected. Before coming here I had good friends who were Jewish. I even worked for the Anti-Defamation League for a year, leading the local “No Place for Hate” project. I give thanks for my friendship with Rabbi Arthur, with whom I collaborated on several projects. If you go into my office and look above the door, you will find a fabric scroll that says “You are a Blessing.” That was given to me at my installation as pastor of the church in Lompoc by my friend Rabbi Arthur, whose wife created it. I treasure it as a reminder of my calling as a pastor, as a Christian, and as a human being, who is called to be a blessing in the spirit of Abraham.
While my years in Santa Barbara were enriched by my interfaith experiences, they’ve been enriched even more in the years I’ve been here at Central Woodward. I’ve developed even deeper friendships with Muslims, but not only that my interfaith circle of friends has expanded well beyond the “Abrahamic traditions” to include Hindus, like my good friend Padma, as well as Sikhs, Buddhists, and more.
Together we can be a blessing to a world that lives in fear and anxiety, a world where hate and anger keep trying to prevail. If we’re to be that blessing, then we’ll need to go into the world in humility, trusting in the grace of God, and walking by faith. This will be “reckoned to us as righteousness.”