- September 24, 2017
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for September 24, 2017 (Proper 20 REV, Year A)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Romans 4:1-13; Psalm 105…; Matthew 20:1-16
Title: Abraham believed God
“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).
My friends, what does it mean to actually believe God? What happens when a person begins to trust in what God says?
Here in the fourth chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, we get to the core of his theological argument. We find the core nugget of his thought and what he wants to tell us.
Now what path does Paul take to make this argument?
He goes back to his foundations, to the source of his Truth. Paul takes out the blueprints of the divine revelation in order to discover clues that make sense of what has happened.
But first, a little refresher on Paul’s experience is in order. Remember that Paul is an observant Jew, raised and trained in his tradition. He is quite proud of it and he was a zealous defender of his tradition against those who appeared to be twisting and changing it in the name of this Messiah named Jesus.
And he was defending it like this until – one day – this One named Jesus stopped him, and spoke to him, and changed his life forever!
Paul did not go looking for this experience of the Lord Jesus. It came to him out-of-the-blue, as we would say.
He could not deny it, or pretend that it did NOT actually happen. And as he joined with others who had also been touched by this living Messiah, he discovered that Gentiles had been having this very same kind of experience! Of this very same Jewish Messiah!
What did this mean? What was God doing? Was God throwing out all that had happened in the past, with their ancestors, and starting all over again?
Well, the answer is, NO. But are you aware that it took Paul years to figure this all out? YEARS!
In another letter, he explains that he took off 3 years and went to Arabia and to Syria to figure all of this out.
He was quite confused. He knew all about the Torah and the Prophets. AND he knew what he had experienced with Jesus the Messiah. But how was he to integrate these together? To make sense of it all?
Abraham. It’s all about Abraham.
It seems that Paul went back and took time to study the Torah again, but this time with new eyes – through the lens of a new experience.
And he found the missing clue to unlock the puzzle in Abraham.
It’s like living in a house for years and thinking that you know it like the back of your hand, until one day you discover a secret passage that goes to an entirely separate entrance which you never knew was there! All of these years, and you never saw it!
Thankfully, the previous owners left the original blueprints. So you go and open them up. And there it is – right in the original plans. You can see it! Another entrance into your house. It was not a mistake or an afterthought. It was part of the original design!
This is what Paul does. He pulls out the original blueprints and looks them over again. And there it is! Right in front of him. Another entrance! And it was all part of the original design.
You see, God came to the ancient patriarch Abraham and made a covenant with him BEFORE the Torah was given at Sinai and BEFORE the sign of circumcision.
The only thing that set Abraham apart was that he believed in God, he trusted in what God said. Abraham did nothing by himself to earn this covenant. It was bestowed on him as a sheer gift of divine grace. And Abraham received this gift by faith.
Now, the gift to Abraham was that he would be the father of many nations. Not one nation, but many nations!
In case you don’t know, the word for nations in Hebrew is goyim. And in case you don’t know Hebrew, the word goyim means Gentiles.
So here it is in plain black-and-white. Genesis states that Abraham would be the father of many Gentiles.
HERE was the answer to the question that had so haunted and troubled the apostle Paul: who are the true descendants of Abraham? How can Gentiles be part of God’s covenant community?
The answer? By trusting in God’s promise in the same way as Abraham. ***
Now, you know that we are studying Romans in this season because this was the primary inspiration for Martin Luther and his frustration with the Vatican.
The fascinating thing is that Luther used this very same text about Abraham to answer his own haunting and troubling question. Except his question was entirely different than Paul’s!
Paul’s question? How can Gentiles be part of God’s covenant community?
The answer? By sharing the faith of Abraham.
Now what was Luther’s question? How can sinful human beings be acceptable in the sight of our holy God?
The answer? By sharing the faith of Abraham.
Amazingly, both Paul and Luther used the same story to answer entirely different questions!
You see, Luther drew a parallel between the Law of Moses and the Canon Law of Rome, and between the mark of circumcision and the mark of baptism.
In the simple trust of Abraham, before the law, before circumcision, Luther found a path to spiritual freedom that was open to all people – without any requirements to do anything at all!
Not given as wages due to a worker, but as the gift of God – sheer grace.
By the way, this is exactly the same point intended by our parable from Matthew’s Gospel. It is a story of grace and generosity.
It is NOT a perfect parallel, but you can say that Abraham is the worker who went out early in the morning to work in the vineyard of God. And he went out to work because he trusted the word of the landowner that a good reward awaited him.
When you are a day laborer like this, there is no guarantee that the boss will not make up some excuse and refuse to pay you at the end of the day. And you have no power, no leverage to demand payment. An agreement is made, usually a handshake, and you just have to trust in the boss’ word. There is no local union official who will step in and fight on your behalf. You are on your own.
This is the world of labor which was common to Jesus and his contemporaries. They knew how this worked.
Abraham was invited to work first, then David and his descendants, then the prophets, then the apostles, and finally, at the very end of the day, the Gentiles – the Greeks – were invited to work in the vineyard of God and to receive the same reward – the very same membership in the covenant with God.
My friends, this is why you and I are here today. We are latecomers to the party! But we’ve been called and hired to go work in the vineyard.
Not because we earned it. Not because we deserved it. The call is a gift of grace alone.
But the consequence of that call is clear. There is no more excuse for us to stand around idle when there is so much to be done!
So what does it mean when we actually believe God? What happens when we begin to trust in what God says?
Then we go to work in God’s vineyard! We do the works of God. NOT to try and earn something, but because we trust in the promise of God and we are part of the mission of God.
“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). And then he obeyed the voice of God.
So here is the question for us: will we trust the promise of God enough to get up and go to work in the vineyard? To get our hands dirty by joining the mission of God?
It’s hard work, there is no doubt about it. But this is what it means to be people of the covenant, people who follow the way of Abraham, trusting God even when it seems crazy to do so.
We trust in the One who called us, who brought us into the covenant, and who has sent us out to work in the vineyard, to bear the fruit of God’s love and mercy and faithfulness.
May it always be so among us. Amen.