We start this week with another reading from the book of Joel. Not the Biblical prophet Joel, but Joel Osteen. The book is Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.
In today’s reading, Joel gets theological. He writes, “Maybe you’ve been waiting on God to make a move, but God is waiting on you to stretch your faith. He wants you to be the one to set a new standard. Don’t pass down an attitude of failure and defeat to the next generation. If you’re not experiencing God’s abundant life, if all you’re facing is failure, let me challenge you to just believe more. God works by faith. You must believe first, and then you’ll receive.”
Picture a basement in a home in 1st century Rome. There are a few dozen people huddled together when someone walks in with a letter in hand. It’s from the Apostle Paul, and it’s a long one (so is this sermon, by the way).
Paul writes to a mixed audience. Many of them are Jews, like Paul, but many are Gentiles. In fact, more and more Gentiles are interested in the Gospel every day. Picture them huddled together, Jews and Gentiles together, close enough to give each other the flu. The fact that they’re all in the same room is shocking. It’s revolutionary. Actually, it’s sacrilegious, at least for the Jews.
See, the Jews have always been a set apart, holy people, countercultural followers of a different way of being in the world with different customs, a different language, and different laws given to them by God so that they would reflect God in the world–specifically the One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God’s promise to that first one, Abraham, was that he’d be the father of a great nation, and through his descendants, God would bless all the nations and that would make him the father of many nations.
Well now, it had happened. Through one of Abraham’s descendents, a Jew, this covenant had come to pass. In his death and resurrection Christ had reconciled all peoples together, blessing and adopting all nations into the people of God. And not just any God, but specifically the God of the Jews: of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, effectively making them all Jews through adoption.
“So,” thought the Jewish Christians, “all that’s left now is the process of assimilating all these Gentiles. They need to become Jews! Time for some good ole’ Judeo-Christian Education. Once they have some good Sunday Schooling in the Law and customs of Moses, and once the men have all been circumcised, then ‘Boom’ we’ll all be one in Christ Jesus.”
“Um… What?” Ask the Gentiles in the room. “What was that last part? That little bit at the end?”
“Oh, the circumcision thing? Well, to be a Jew is to be a child of Abraham, the father of all Jews (with Sarah having played an indisposable role, of course). And just as Abraham had done, to be a Jew is to follow the commands of God, to adhere to the commandments of the Law, to keep the covenant God made with Abraham which was ratified in the act of circumcision.
“So,” reasoned the early Jewish Christians in the room, “if through Christ, you Gentiles have been adopted into this family, then the next step is to make you official. So which of you Gentiles is ready to get ratified?”
To which Paul writes, “Stop! Wait! That’s not the point!”
Today’s reading is from the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter but his argument started 3 chapters earlier when he effectively said to the Jewish Christians “It is clear that you still think your righteousness is based on your keeping the Law of Moses. You still think you’re right-ness with God, your righteousness, comes through your obedience to God. Well, I have news for you. You fail.”
“Whoever you are there in Rome, I can tell you, even never having visited Rome to meet you, no matter how holy a Jew you think you are, I can tell you right now, you’re a failure.
“Even if you can prove to me that you have kept every law of Moses, as soon as you claim to be holier than the next guy, you have disqualified yourself because the only way to know you’re holier than the next guy is to judge yourself against them and in judging others you have brought that same judgment upon yourself!”
Paul summarises the first few chapters of his argument, in these words which you may have heard it before: “All have sinned, and fallen short of the Glory of God. All have failed. There is no one righteous. Not even one.”
What Paul writes to this huddled Roman church is groundbreaking, it’s revolutionary. Honestly, it’s sacrilegious. But that doesn’t stop him. No, for Paul, this is everything.
“Consider Abraham,” he says, “our Ancestor according to the flesh, the father of all Jews, consider this question: When did Abraham become a Jew?”
See, at the beginning of Abraham’s story, Abraham is a pagan, a wandering Aramean, a rando human whom God elected, picked out, chose, saying “Abraham, I will make you the father of many nations, your descendants will outnumber the stars. Leave your family and go to the place I will show you, to the land I will give you.”
Well, first off, Abraham goes, but he doesn’t leave his family. He brings his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot along. So much for following God’s commands to the letter… He’s already a failure.
Nevertheless, God makes this promise again to Abraham, saying, “I will make you the father of many nations,” and then, says Genesis, “Abraham believes, and God reckons him as righteous, credits him with righteousness.”
Abraham’s trust of God grows then to the point that when God commands and institutes the practice of circumcision, Abraham follows through. Why he obeys that command and not the first one I’ll never know, but he does.
“So, consider Abraham,” Paul says, “our Ancestor according to the flesh, the father of all Jews. Consider this question, when did he become a Jew? Was it at the time of his circumcision? Was it through his adherence to God’s commands? He wasn’t all that great at that before or after the circumcision. And neither was his wife. And neither was their son, or their grandson. In fact, if you follow the generations, generation after generation, none of them are particularly good at obeying the commands of God.
“They might all be Jews outwardly, and you might be too, but if you’re not a Jew in every way, in every law, then what good is the outward sign? If you don’t obey every law, you’re liable for all of it, and you’re effectively not even a Jew.” With those words Paul questions Abraham’s Jewishness and therefore all Jews’ Jewishness. Any Jewish Christian listener who wasn’t offended already, they are now. This is groundbreaking, revolutionary, and sacrilegious.
The same question can be posed today, you know? I could ask the same question. What makes a Christian a Christian? People love to quote the song, “they will know we are Christians by our love,” and that may be true, but is that really what makes us Christian? And if so, how’s that going for us? Do we really want to stake our identity as Christians on our own behavior? Scan back over the centuries of Christianity. Sure there are some bright spots, but are we known for our love? Recent research says we’re actually mostly known for being hypocritical, judgmental, and anti-gay.
When Jesus is asked what it is to be righteous, to be right with God, Jesus quotes the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
What Paul says to the church in Rome and to us is, as long as that is the measure of righteousness, as long as love of God and love of neighbor is the pass/fail test for us to be made right with God, then none of us is a true Jew or a true Christian. We’re all failures. None of us is righteous. Not even one.
So, if that doesn’t work, again, Paul poses the question, “If it wasn’t Abraham’s works or obedience, if it wasn’t his circumcision in Genesis 17 that made him right with God, what was it? When did he become a Jew?”
Paul’s answer is, it happened two chapters earlier, in Genesis 15, when God took Abraham outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then the Lord said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned him, credited it to him, as righteousness.” When did Abragham become a Jew? The moment he heard the Word of the Lord and believed it. This blessing, this covenant, this promise, the Lord just gave it to him, for free, and he believed.
Paul writes, “For 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. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For this reason, it depends not on works but on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.”
Paul is saying to the Jewish Christians in Rome, “Abraham didn’t become a Jew by following God’s command. Abraham isn’t a Jew because he was circumcised and neither are you! It was never anything Abraham did that made him right with God. He became a Jew because God called him a Jew. Righteousness was his by faith when he believed!”
So maybe Joel was right after all, “God works by faith.” Maybe, “You must believe first, and then you’ll receive.”
But that part there? That last part? That’s actually just another recipe for failure. That’s where Christians fail because it just makes belief, faith, the new circumcision.
The church was given the good news of the free gift of God’s grace through faith, but we couldn’t leave it at that. We couldn’t accept a free gift given once for all. So what did we do? We turned right around and made faith back into a work. We took Paul’s words “for this reason, it depends on faith,” and transformed the free gift of grace back into a wage that is due us for the work of faith.
We’ve taken Paul’s words, “for this reason, it depends on faith” and taken it to mean it depens on us when what Paul is actually saying is it has never depended on us. It has always, only, depended on God, specifically the Word of God.
When did Abraham become a Jew? When he heard the Word of the lord. It was God’s word that made him righteous. He was right with God because God said he was right with God. All Abraham did was believe what God had already said.
And that’s why we baptize babies. We do it so it’s clear that before God we are all infants, unable to behave well, or believe. Unable to save ourselves.
And it’s why we baptize people with intellectual disabilities too! We do it because before God we all lack the ability to do or believe our way to righteousness. Before God, we’re all disabled.
And it’s why we don’t require you to be re-baptized after you’ve had a crisis of faith or moral failure, because your baptism was never about you believing your way to success or salvation, it was about you being claimed by God’s righteous Word.
In fact, belief or faith is not the new circumcision. Baptism is, because like Paul says, it is an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible gracious act of God in which God has already claimed you through the power of his Word.
Hear the Good News.That Word of God written in the scriptures, proclaimed from generation to generation, and made flesh in Jesus Christ, this Word of God has spoken. And it has the power to call sinners righteous, fill failures with faith, give life to the dead, and call into existence things that do not exist.
The Gospel is not “first you must believe, then you’ll receive.” The Gospel is that in Christ, the Word of God incarnate, you have already received. God has spoken. Repent and believe this Gospel.