Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Faith first!

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, March 16 at St. Augustine's Church, Wiesbaden
Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17, Psalm 121

Perhaps it is because it was traditional to give up meat for Lent that the Church gives us such meaty readings to hear and reflect on? In today’s extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans for example we were introduced to that great Reformation topic: faith vs. works. What makes us righteous before God, our faith or our good works? Paul’s answer is clear, and Martin Luther loved him for it: Faith – “To one who without works trusts (God) such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

Unfortunately the example Paul chooses, the story we also heard this morning of how God commands Abraham to leave his home and promises to bless him and make of him a great nation, is not so clear cut. Sure, God’s promise comes first – God doesn’t say “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you … and then we’ll talk again and I might have something special for you.” And Abraham certainly shows great faith, great trust in just doing what God commands without knowing where he is going or where this great nation God promises him is going to come from – he’s already 75 years old!. But works still play a role, for as a result of his faith in God and God’s promise he does as commanded, and goes to Canaan. Faith comes first, but faith is followed by ‘good works’ as both a sign, and expression of faith.

Anyway, what Paul is trying to do in his letter to the Romans is not to make a complicated theological point, but to expand God’s Covenant. He wants to lower the bar and remove restrictions so as to welcome all people in. The works that he is arguing so strongly against are the cultic, ritual, and dietary rules of the Law. Paul is fighting the so-called Judaizers, those who insisted that someone must first become a Jew, including being circumcised, before becoming a Christian. In fact that’s what verses 6-12, the section that has been cut out of the reading, if you’ll excuse the pun, is all about: circumcision.

No, Paul says, you don’t have to be or become a Jew, look at Abraham. He was right with God through his faith, not by circumcision and not through dependence on the Law, which didn’t exist at that time, but by virtue of God’s promise. All it takes to become a Christian is faith, faith in one God and trust in God’s promise of new life through God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on to redefine the membership of Abraham’s family. God’s promise and covenant are guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, but they are no longer just his descendants according to the flesh, no longer just those who adhere too bthe Law, but also “those who share the faith of Abraham.” (Romans 4:16) Anyone can become a Christian; membership in this new covenant people is open to all regardless of nation, gender, economic status, political beliefs, and whom we love. The sole requirement is to believe in God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17) That is in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, after first sending him to offer us new life, a new creation, and a new birth.

Although the author of the Gospel according to John uses different words, we find the same questions and ideas in today’s gospel. What sets us right with God? What makes us Christians? For a start Nicodemus clearly has the right idea about works when he says, “for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2) Jesus’ works, his miracles, are signs of a deep faith and of God’s presence in him. That is their value and meaning.  

As an aside, having a conversation with Jesus does not seem to be very easy, does it? You never get a straight answer. Here Jesus’ reply, “very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (John 3:3) does not seem to have a lot to do with Nicodemus’ statement about signs and clearly throws him off track. This happens quite often. Later in John’s Gospel (12:20-23) the disciples Philip and Andrew go to Jesus to tell him that some Greeks have asked to see Jesus ….. and “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” That was probably not quite the reply they were expecting. And Jesus often also responds to a question either with a question of his own or with a parable. This is because Jesus does not just want us to do as we are told, to obey a commandment without thinking. He wants us to understand, to think things through, and to do good deeds out of our inner conviction – out of our faith.

So what does Jesus mean when he tells Nicodemus that no one can see or enter the kingdom of God without being born from above or to use another translation born again? This second birth is one we choose, this rebirth stands for the conscious choice of faith in what is above – God – and in the one who has descended from above, from heaven – the Son of Man.  When John has Jesus emphasize that this new birth is of the Spirit, not of the flesh, it is his way of saying that what counts is the new spiritual rebirth, not the natural birth into a particular tribe or nation. Just like Paul the point he is making is that anyone can join the kingdom of God, not just Jews. Like the wind, the Spirit blows where it chooses. In fact in Hebrew it’s the same word. The Spirit is always on the move and knows no human restrictions.

The idea of being born again reminds me of Jimmy Carter, the 39th US president between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Especially in Europe people made fun of him both as a peanut farmer and because he was a born again Christian. Looking at his record both as a president, and even more so afterwards with his engagement for global health as well as for peace and reconciliation, I see in him an example for someone who has done very good works and deeds out of a deep and sincere faith. 

Good works flow, or even overflow, from faith. If we believe in a God of love, then the love of the other is the only possible expression of that faith.  If we believe in a God who heals and brings new life, then we will strive to heal and renew the world and everyone in it. If we believe in a God who offers unlimited and unconditional forgiveness, then we will want to forgive those who have hurt us. And if we believe that Jesus was sent not to judge or “condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him," (John 3:17) then we cannot avoid wanting to pass on and proclaim that Good News to the world.

We see this reflected in our service of rebirth, the service through which all Christians are born again of water and Spirit – our Baptism. The first public questions concern our faith, when we, or our parents and godparents on our behalf, were asked: 

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?[1]

Then and only then – and after the congregation reaffirms their faith using the words of the Apostle’s Creed – come the questions concerning the good works that are an expression and a sign of this faith.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?[2]

Good works are not then a condition for becoming a Christian, nor do we have to belong to a particular nation or group, nor do we have to worship God in any particular way, however much we may like the way we worship! Faith is the sole condition and our good works are a sign of that faith and commitment. Next week you will all receive a letter from me, the senior warden and the treasurer asking you to consider making a financial pledge to this particular part of God’s Church. As we will say in the letter, a pledge is a sign of commitment: of your commitment to God’s church in this place and to the work for God that your pledge makes possible. We want the church of St. Augustine of Canterbury to be a strong witness to God’s love in Wiesbaden by continuing to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”

[1] BCP, 302
[2] BCP, 305

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