Lent 2: 25 February Romans 4:13-25
This passage forms part of Paul's effort to persuade those who will hear his letter in Rome, that the approach he has been taking in preaching the gospel makes sense. More than that, he wants to show that it makes sense in terms of the ancient revered tradition of Israel. Paul sees himself as very much belonging to Israel and to Israel's God. Others however had suggested that he had watered down scripture's demands and in the process betrayed his heritage - and worse, God! Paul's greatest opponents, at least in his letters, are fellow Christians who think he has stepped beyond the bounds of what is acceptable.
Sometimes Paul's responses to such issues are turbulent and angry - although always thoughtful. In Romans we find Paul more calm than usual and also more systematic. He has to defend himself against the charge that his success in winning non-Jews, Gentiles, to the faith, is based on making it far too easy. At issue is the divine law, set out in scripture. For those with an unquestioning devotion to the scripture as absolute authority there can be no questioning of what it says. If there is to be discussion, it must be about how it is applied, not whether it is applied.
Christianity (or at least large parts of it) had already somewhat compromised that stance by giving up the demand that Gentiles be circumcised, as Genesis 17 requires. This appears to have been justified by claims of divine authority. Acts tells us stories of divine interventions. Both Paul and Acts confirm independently that it was broadly agreed. For others this was a fatal error. They insisted that those who turned to Jesus the Messiah, should commit themselves to total obedience to Israel's God. They saw the compromise on circumcision as a cheapening of God's word.
The trouble was that Paul had gone a good deal further and was therefore opposed by many other groups of Christians as well, not just those who favoured circumcision. Apart from requiring ethical behaviour from Gentile converts, which Paul argues for by appealing to Christ and the Spirit rather than the Law, Paul declares that they (and even Jews!) are now free from the Law. They are neither saved by adherence to the Law nor do they remain saved by such adherence. What inaugurates and sustains their wholeness is a relationship based on faith. That faith entails both some cognitive belief and a commitment to faithfulness in an ongoing relationship which includes becoming involved in the life and work of God in the world. It is not something abstract, but a way of being, which will make itself evident in the way people live their lives.
How can Paul justify such a stance as not running contrary to the biblical heritage? It depends on how you approach scripture. Paul's opponents took what we today would recognise as a fundamentalist stance. If you take that stance, then Paul's opponents are surely right. Paul, however, takes a more differentiated stance towards scripture in which he argues for some things being more important in scripture than others and that these may be, in certain circumstances, discarded. In Galatians he argues that Abraham achieved a right relationship with God before there was the Law as we know it. In Romans he also appeals to Abraham, but focuses primarily on the fact that the scripture describes the basis of Abraham's relationship with God as faith. He suggests that faith has always been the primary basis of a relationship with God.
This makes it possible for Paul to put both Jews and non-Jews on the same level. Ultimately what matters for both is this faith. In our passage he links it to belief that God can do what seems impossible. In Abraham's case it was about whether his aged wife could become pregnant. In the case of Gentiles it is whether people who are not part of Israel can be elevated to become God's people. In the case of Jesus it is whether a dead Jesus can be raised to life. In the case of creation it is whether something can be created out of nothing. By linking all these together as he does in our passage Paul is making the claim that the basis of faith is the belief that God can do the seemingly impossible. God the creator makes all these things possible. In relation to the issue at hand for Paul: God can elevate Gentiles to become the people of God - as long as they have this kind of faith. It is a way of speaking of God's love. God can love the seemingly unlovable and love them back to life.
For Paul this was the point of Jesus' coming. He understands Jesus' death as representative of all humanity. He entered the death into which he sees all humanity condemned by its sinfulness and then rose from the dead. His resurrection becomes equally representative of what can be true for all who 'take on board' what God has declared in the story of Jesus. Now there can be absolutely no discrimination on the basis of race and religious tradition. All human beings need to enter a relationship of faith with God and all can; and all can continue in that relationship. This is universally true. So, argues Paul, we shouldn't think of Abraham primarily in terms of being the patriarch of Israel, but rather as the model and mentor of all who believe, whether they belong to Israel or not.
This still leaves some loose ends. Does this leave any place for the Law? Does being a Jew now count for nothing? Elsewhere in Romans Paul argues that for all intents and purposes what the Law legitimately sought to achieve can be achieved in this new relationship because its fruit is love and love is the fulfilling of the Law and goes way beyond it. Paul can only argue this by taking only those aspects of the Law into account which he values; he is happy to set the rest aside. He also asserts that the new equality should not be seen as denying Israel's identity, perhaps even a future role for it in history, but it is all subordinate to the new universal covenant faith.
Similar struggles emerge today when people ponder whether there can be such faith in God without the culturally specific reference to Christianity. Paul was not facing that question here (although Luke's figure of Paul begins to address it at Athens in Acts). Pushing for a less culturally specific basis for ultimate values does open new possibilities. For some it is as simple as: without my label on the banana, it remains no banana! Sometimes the drive for inclusivity can be at the cost of compromising key values. Would we want to unite on the basis of anything less than respect for human dignity? What is it we acknowledge in Christ which remains 'non-negotiable'? Is any of that so culturally specific as to exclude others? Paul's issues are very much alive today.
Gospel: Lent 2: 25 February Mark 8:31-38
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