What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
I want to begin today by thanking those who came along to the Council meeting last Tuesday night to support me.
For those who don’t know, I had the privilege a few days ago to address our local Council concerning the global ‘boycotts, divestment and sanctions’ campaign against the Israeli government, aimed at bringing an end to the Palestinian occupation. And I appreciated the support, as I was honestly quite scared about the whole thing!
I know that people I mentioned this to could not understand why I would be nervous. After all, I am no stranger to public speaking. But, as I pointed out to those who I managed to befuddle, I am used to speaking in a context where no one shouts at me while I’m in action (normally), and more pertinently, I’m used to speaking in a context where afterwards nobody labels me as being racist or anti-Semitic!
I admit that this is my Achilles’ heel. I’ve been called a lot of things over the years, and most of these are like water off a duck’s back. Call me stupid or naïve (and I’ve had a lot of that) and it doesn’t bother me too much, but when people publicly call me a racist I do find this deeply offensive, and I feel in my gut a temptation to hit them. And though I generally manage to resist that temptation (as I did the last time this happened, about two weeks ago) I do fear that if I ever do wind up in gaol, it will be because someone has slagged me down as an anti-Semite and I’ve replied with my signature left hook to the jaw.
And maybe you think that’s just a strange quirk about me, and maybe it is, but I am conscious of the fact that I stand in a long line of Christian people who have been very sensitive about issues of racism.
Indeed, I’ve just finished ploughing through an excellent biography on Dietrich Bonheoffer (the great German pastor and theologian) who stated publicly, at the very beginning of the rise of National Socialism in his country, that “the church that does not stand with the Jews is not the church of Jesus Christ!” Mind you, I don’t know if he was ever tempted to hit people who disagreed with him, but I am sure that I would not have lasted long in his context as a passive observer.
And the point that needs to be made is that this powerful stand against racism goes right back to the very beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel, as indeed it is to be found at the heart of our reading today from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where St Paul talks about ‘justification by faith’.
Of course the ostensive point of conflict in the letter that we read today is over the issue of circumcision, and whether new believers (male believers, at any rate) need to be circumcised before becoming full members of the community of faith. And yet behind that specific issue was the real issue – one of ethnicity and inclusiveness. Specifically the issue was whether Jews (the community of the circumcised) and people of other nations (the uncircumcised) could really ever live and work and worship together as sisters and brothers – an issue that is as relevant to us today as it was 2,000 years ago.
And St Paul contrasts Abraham, who he says was a man of faith long before he was circumcised, with his opponents (who claim to be Abraham’s descendants) but who refuse to take anybody’s faith seriously unless they are circumcised.
And I appreciate that some people may be surprised to realise that behind St Paul’s great discussions on faith vs. works was a simple pastoral issue of racial equality (most especially those whose reading of these passages is heavily influenced by the way in which Martin Luther later used such verses). Even so, what surprises me more is the fact that St Paul, in his attempts to respond to the racial issue he was dealing with, focused his reflections (here, as elsewhere) on Abraham!
For I can tell you that if I were St Paul, scouring the Scriptures for passages that address the issue of racial equality, the stories of Abraham would not have been my first port of call!
I think I would probably have started with the creation narratives – stories that (I think we would all agree) point to the fundamental equality of all people. And if I had wanted to spend more time in Genesis I think I would have focused on the Tower of Babel story, where racial division is clearly viewed as a curse, and I would have talked about the way in which Christ can reverse that curse!
I think from there I might have skipped straight to the prophet Jonah, the preacher who had to learn of God’s love for the Ninnevites – a race of people that would have been as hated by many of St Paul’s hearers as they were by Jonah’s – or I might have latched on to some of those other golden passages found in the various prophetic works that speak of God’s love for the foreign nations.
I’m pretty sure I would not, at any rate, have thought of focusing on Abraham, and I note that not one of the preachers of racial equality that I know of – persons who have used the Bible as their source of inspiration and authority in fighting against racism – have ever latched on to the example of Abraham either (so far as I know)!
If you’ve listened to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (and I think I’ve listened to all of them) I think you will find that not one of them mentions Abraham. There are plenty of mentions of Moses, the mountain-top and the Promised Land, but none of Abraham, so far as I can remember!
So what was going through St Paul’s mind such that he centred almost all of his arguments about racial inclusiveness on the example of Abraham, for I’m pretty sure that his own conversion to a belief in racial equality had not come about as a result of his reading of the Abrahamic narratives?
The only conclusion I can come to is that St Paul, in arguing for racial inclusiveness in the church, wanted to make clear to his readers that this was not a peripheral issue, but one that was entirely central to that most fundamental of all theological issues – namely, that of how God relates to us and how we relate to God!
For it was St Paul’s understanding that the relationship between God and the human person is one that was based on faith and not on works, which means that the relationship with God itself is at the centre of human life and not the law, and that compliance with the written law, if it happens at all, flows naturally out of the primary relationship.
In reality this is how all good relationships work.
If you are married to someone, your marriage relationship will inevitably have certain rules and prohibitions associated with it, regarding such things as faithfulness and not beating up on each other. However, if your marriage is strong you shouldn’t need to be reminded of the rules. Conversely, if the only reason you are not sleeping around and beating up on each other is because there are rules against such things, this is likely a sign that the marriage is in trouble.
There are laws similarly associated with parenting. You have to feed and clothe your children, for instance. It’s the law! But I trust that none of us only feed and clothe our children because we fear being law-breakers.
The illustration is absurd, of course, but no more absurd than the way any number of religious people carry on, believing that they are going to build a positive relationship for themselves with God through focusing on keeping to all the laws.
This does not make laws irrelevant, of course, and St Paul did not think circumcision to be irrelevant either – not when it was performed as a natural outworking of a genuine relationship with the Almighty.
It’s a bit like the ring you wear when you’re married (though less obvious to the public of course). Even so, if I might continue with the wedding-ring analogy, the ring is a sign of the marriage. It does not constitute the marriage, and so it’s quite possible to wear such a ring even if you’re not married, and of course it’s quite possible to have a strong marriage and no ring.
And this is pretty much what Paul discovered about the non-Jewish Christians. The relationship with God was there – that was obvious for all to see – and yet there was no ring (in this case, circumcision), and so St Paul realised pretty quickly that there didn’t need to be.
A ring makes sense as a symbol of a marriage, just as circumcision makes sense as a sign of your membership of the covenant people of God. Even so, such signs are not necessary, and certainly having the sign doesn’t make the relationship a reality.
It is the relationship with God that has to be at the centre of everything, Paul believed, and not your relationship with the law of God. It was a relationship of trust (or ‘faith’) that mattered, and Paul gets his theology here directly from Jesus.
As we saw when we pushed our way through the Sermon on the Mount, religion that focuses solely on law is open to abuse and sophistry of all kinds, and it really misses the mark because it focuses on developing a relationship between you and the code instead of a relationship with God Himself.
“Seek first the Kingdom of God”, Jesus said, and everything else will fall into place. ‘Work on building your relationship with God through faith in Christ’ St Paul would say and, again, everything else will work itself out. It’s the relationship that comes first!
I mentioned that I’ve just finished a solid biography on the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer, and I was astonished to find there that apparently it was exactly this same issue that Bonheoffer saw as being at the heart of the failure of the German church to oppose Hitler!
Bonheoffer watched his contemporaries get into intricate moral arguments about the proper relationship between church and state, all the time somehow over-looking the ever-more obvious violence and anti-Semitism of the Nazi war-machine! They were obsessed with intellectual arguments about morality, but were failing to live out the love of God in the world in which they lived!
For the person who is animated by the Spirit of Christ – whose life is centred on a relationship of love with God through trust in Christ – there can be no compartmentalising of our lives such that certain areas are zoned off from God. Neither can there be any distinction between the sacred and the secular parts of life, but rather ‘Christ is all and in all’!
Of course it’s easy to pass judgement on the Christians of Nazi Germany, but we should first remind ourselves, at least, that this understanding of faith or, rather, this understanding that true religion is all a matter of faith is something unique to the New Testament. This is not the religion of the Jews of Jesus’ day any more than it is the religion of Islam.
I heard an excellent academic point out recently that while we talk of people of different ‘faiths’ this language might really be the last vestiges of colonial imperialism! For ‘faith’ is not a central concept to most religions. In the case of Islam, for instance, ‘submission’ would be a far more central concept.
t is the followers of Jesus that believe that it’s all about faith, for it is the followers of Jesus who have come to understand that we don’t have to relate to God through the written law, but rather that it should work the other way around – that our relationship with the law is determined by our relationship with God. We do not relate to God through the law but rather we relate to the law through God, who loves us and gave Himself for us in Christ.
Is this important? Yes, it is! Does this change everything? Yes, it does! Can we go on making distinctions between people of different races and classes when we are living out a relationship of love with God through trust in Christ? No, we cannot, any more than we can sit idly by and watch our Palestinian sisters and brothers suffer at the hands of their occupiers.
For when the love of Christ controls us everything changes! Money and power no longer matter to us. Racism and injustice anger and frustrate us. And so we gird up our loins and prepare to follow in the path of Abraham – the father of faith – who likewise trusted God, and whose faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 6, 2011.