March 1, 2015

Those Who Share the Faith of Abraham

Passage: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
Service Type:

For this reason it depends 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

On January 7 (2015), as the news of the shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France were unfolding, The Moderator of The United Church of Canada posted and offered a prayer for all those affected by these events. It was a thoughtful prayer. It began with this sentence: “Gracious God, by the light of faith, lead us to seek comfort, compassion, and peace, in the face of escalating violence around the world.”

Some in the United Church took offence to the Moderator’s initiative. Rev. Gretta Vosper, who considers herself to be an atheist, wrote an open letter objecting that “it (the prayer) underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris.” The belief that she objected to was a belief “in the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined”. Religious beliefs were the problem, according to Vosper, and so she urged the Moderator “to lead our church toward freedom from such idolatrous belief.” “We must boldly stand with those who would clear the public sphere from the prejudices of religious belief”, concluded Vosper, “even as we defend the rights of individuals to hold whatever beliefs allow them to sleep at night.”

We hear similar sentiments expressed by those who describe the problem as those who hold religious views deemed extreme. Religion is fine as long as it is tame, private, kept to the side.

Is religion the problem? To some degree, I can understand those who say so. I can see that murderous acts perpetrated in the name of God could lead people to conclude that religion is a problem. In some measure, the Apostle Paul thinks religion problematic; before his experience of meeting our Lord on the Damascus road he was intent on killing people in the name of religious beliefs. After this encounter with Jesus, Paul would confess that he rejoices in suffering for the sake of the gospel (Colossians 1:24), which he did on many occasions and was finally martyred by Nero for his faith.

The gospel makes a distinction between religion and faith. Religion is seen as humanity’s attempt to make oneself acceptable to God. In our text Paul contrasts faith with a religious system constructed on adherence to the law—even though this law was given by God. Faith, as Paul illustrates, is the experience of believing God; religion was the attempt to achieve right standing with God by adherence to a code. Faith, grace, promise—these are correlates; earning, adherence to the law as code, are not related to the promise of God.
Paul speaks of the Gentile believers in the church as “those who share the faith of Abraham.” I invite you to reflect with me about faith—faith exemplified in Abraham, the same faith that Paul says believers in Christ share. Faith that is not religion where religion is understood as that human attempt to circumscribe God and make the human the author of the goal of the religious quest. (i.e. I can achieve right standing before God by following this code or set of values.)

It is often noted that the three monotheistic religions of the world—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all point to Abraham as the person with whom it all began. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage to Abraham to make the point that Jesus was “the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17) Jesus speaks with great regard for Abraham. In one confrontation Jesus’ enemies were claiming Abraham as their father while at the same time seeking an opportunity to kill Jesus. “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.” (John 8:39-30) When Zacchaeus the tax collector expressed his faith in Jesus announcing that he would pay back anyone he had cheated Jesus connects his faith to Abraham. “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9) So what is it about the faith of Abraham that we ought to note?

1. As we explore the faith of Abraham we see that faith is a kind of knowing. “Hoping against hope,” wrote the Apostle Paul of Abraham’s faith, “he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’” (Romans 4:18) Another way to say this is, “Against all hope, Abraham believed.” Now if you were Abraham’s friend in these days prior to Isaac’s birth Abraham’s hope for an heir would look more like madness to you. Abraham is 99 years of age and Sarah is 90. A friend would more likely that suggest he should get some counselling. You are not likely going to say, “I’ll believe with you. Sure, God spoke to you and you and Sarah will have a child.”

We read today of when God reiterated his promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child and their descendants numerous. As noted, Abraham is 99 years of age and Sarah is 90. God had made the promise earlier in their lives but waits, as it were, until it is for sure a physical impossible for a child to be conceived. This is what Paul gets at when he speaks of “hope against hope”; Abraham’s body was as good as dead. Yet Abraham was fully convinced that “that God was able to do what he had promised.” Do you not think that folks around Abraham would consider such faith a little nuts?

Soren Kierkegaard a profound thinker and a Christian underscores this theme in his book Fear and Trembling about Abraham and faith. He wrote that “Abraham believed and did not doubt, he believed the preposterous.” (Trans., Walter Lowrie, Princeton Press, 1974, p. 35) Kierkegaard is reflecting on the story of the sacrifice of Isaac (the binding of Isaac) (Genesis 22). In that event Abraham is faced with the absurdity of God’ promise and God’s command. God’s promise is that Abraham will have descendants as profuse as sand on the seashore, but God’s command is that Abraham slay Isaac, the one through whom the promise is to be filled. To embrace both promise and command is to embrace an absurdity; human rationality cannot penetrate the paradoxical simultaneity of God’s promise and God’s command. Abraham believes God trusting God to resolve it in a manner he cannot foresee or anticipate.

Is there not a similar absurdity that gives rise to Peter taking Jesus aside to correct him about his predictions of suffering? “Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” How can a dead messiah possibly bring in the Kingdom of God? Peter and the other disciples wonder. This makes no sense to Peter. Suffering and messianic expectations do not belong together. He takes Jesus aside ostensibly to correct Jesus’ bizarre view of the messianic role.

Is Jesus not also staggering under the weight of absurdity in the garden of Gethsemane as he prays? We have these pristine pictures of Jesus quietly praying by a flat rock as a light from heaven glows on his face. The gospels tell us that the pain was so great he staggered and fell and writhed. How is it simultaneously possible that his death will mean life? We easily grasp a story of strength whose form is strength—but a strength whose form is weakness? Such is the offense of the cross of Jesus Christ. That God is acting most powerfully precisely when he is on the cross helpless and bleeding and dying.

To the world outside of faith looking on, Abraham appears absurd. Believing God for the impossible. But for Abraham faith makes perfect sense. Faith is a kind of knowing. He knows that God has addressed him and is confident in him. It is the same for the believer is Jesus Christ. The notion that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is for the forgiveness of my sin sounds absurd to the person outside of faith. But for the believer who has encountered Jesus Christ, she knows herself forgiven because she knows him.

Let me put it this way. Faith is bigger than our ability to think about faith; far more profound than our ability to describe it. The reason is because we can never circumscribe God with our thinking or cognition. Faith isn’t a set of beliefs you tuck in your pocket as if now you have the understanding that puts him under your control. The Bible isn’t a manual for an appliance. This is never to say that thinking is unimportant: correct doctrine has an important place in faith life. But we can never circumscribe God with even the most precise theological affirmation.

Every inquirer into faith is confronted by faith’s absurdity; at this point she must either retreat from it back into a non-paradoxical existence where all is explained; of everything controlled and in its place; of power equalling power; of hope tangible not madness and so on. At some point you have to make the leap and believe in Jesus—make that commitment that no intellectual understanding of the issues will obviate. To trust him that sin and evil were resolved at the cross. To believe the absurd—“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The tragedy of the church is we try to “de-paradox” the paradox. We try to make the gospel “reasonable” to the world; i.e., as the best way to make meaning out of life or the most strategic way of getting the best life has to offer or the superior ethical way to live. Instead of declaring that only in laying down our life do we find it.

It is faith that renders the truths of the cross of Christ intelligible. Faith isn’t a collection of correct propositions about God that we possess that we now in turn go out to correct the world. Such a notion has led the church to persecute people. The believer knows himself to be like the lost sheep whom the shepherd has brought home. Our responsibility is to bear witness to our Saviour’s love who is ever seeking to bring other wanders home as well.

2. Faith is encounter with God. Encounter with a person is the nature of the faith’s knowing.

The knowing of encounter is different from knowing of scientific enquiry. In the knowing of encounter the person is involved; it the knowing of scientific enquiry the personal importance of the enquirer is set aside. It is of no importance to scientific knowledge if the scientist is sad or happy. A scientist working on the properties of rubber is concerned with rubber; it is the object, not himself, that is at issue. But when it comes to encounter I am involved. Consider it from the perspective of friendship. You can learn a lot of facts about a person—height, weight, eye colour, name, occupation and on and on but that does not render that person your friend. Friendship is a different kind of knowing. To be sure you can know similar facts but the difference is you are involved personally. The knowing of friendship involves you being a friend.

The knowledge of encounter means that I risk myself in the encounter. If I am going to have a person as a friend I have to risk myself to be a friend which means I am changed in the encounter. Abraham knows it is God who has spoken, and he knows what has been said; otherwise he would not have acted as he did. He was changed in the encounter. We tend to think that the knowing of faith is uncertain because it is unprovable and the knowing of science definitive. But consider how the science of today gives way to better scientific understanding tomorrow. Yet Abraham’s encounter with God was a certainty he knew.

To know Jesus Christ is to be transformed by the encounter in a way that one can never be transformed by the intellectual apprehension of a doctrine, a merely cerebral matter. The reason is the way you are involved in encounter—all of you. Think about marriage for a moment. Reading books about marriage may give you lots of information but this will never render you married. You have to take the plunge with someone and you are changed in the process. (This may be why men stumble thinking better understanding of women will make for marital bliss). Jesus Christ invites us to take the plunge of faith with him.

I want to be clear that in saying that faith is the knowing of encounter with God is not to say that thinking is unimportant—faith calls us to love God with our minds, after all. But faith is more than mere cerebral activity. Neither is to say that doctrine is unimportant. It too has its place but faith cannot be contained in doctrinal affirmation alone. It must look odd to someone outside faith observing a group of Christians standing together saying the Apostles’ Creed. But in the midst of the recitation I experience much more than words on the screen. I find myself somehow engulfed in the certainty of his presence. At the communion service and I see the cup raised—this is the new covenant in my blood—I find myself drawn into encounter. It is the testimony of countless believers.

One last point about the faith of Abraham. There is no test that can be applied in advance to prove the authenticity of the divine summons; it is known only in carrying out the summons. It has to be lived. The gospels witness over and over that God summons us to this faith encounter with Jesus Christ. It begins by trusting as much of myself as I know of myself to him. As Paul pointed out, right standing with God (righteousness) will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.