Sunday 8 June 2008

Grace & Faith

1. Born in Africa, Munster by the grace of God!

This was the slogan on the T-shirt worn by a young Ghanaian Munster supporter in Cardiff when they played and beat Toulouse in the Heineken cup there recently. It made me laugh, but it also got me thinking about the grace of God.

In today’s epistle reading (Romans 4:13-25), St Paul argues that God’s promise to human beings, that we will be justified through Jesus’s death and resurrection, depends only on God’s grace and the faith in God it evokes in us, and not on our vain human attempts to follow God’s law, in other words our trying to be good. And to make his point Paul uses the old familiar Israelite story of how God blessed Abraham and his wife Sarah (Genesis 12:1-9), promising to them ‘I will make of you a great nation’.

It is rather difficult stuff; at least I find it so. And Christians have often bitterly disputed the relationship between God’s grace, God’s law and our faith in God. It was a central theme of the Reformation, and still causes disputes to this day. So I think it might be useful to try and tease out Paul’s argument about grace, law and faith.

2. First let us refresh our memories about the story of Abraham and Sarah

It is indeed a very old story. It is really the foundation myth of the people of Israel. Most cultures have foundation myths of some kind. We do too: the ancient Irish claimed descent from Milesius King of Spain as the mythical founder of Celtic Ireland through his sons who invaded and dispossessed the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through an O’Brien ancestor I can claim descent from Milesius through Brian Boru. Most of you probably can too, however dodgy the genealogy is!

In the small part of the story we heard today, God tells Abraham ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.’ Abraham obeys, and when he gets to the land of Canaan, God tells him ‘To your offspring I will give this land.

You may have noticed that in the passage Abraham was called Abram and his wife Sarah, Sarai – God renamed them later on, when he made a covenant with Abraham, renewing his promise and establishing male circumcision of Abraham and his descendents as a sign of it.

Later on we learn that Sarah, who was Abraham’s half-sister by a different mother, couldn’t conceive. Perhaps their consanguinity had something to do with it. So how is Abraham to have children and fulfil God’s promise? Sarah sees a way: she persuades Abraham to take her slave-girl Hagar as a surrogate mother, and Hagar gives birth to a boy called Ishmael, when Abraham is 86 – Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arab people in both Jewish and Islamic tradition.

But, we are told, this is not how God intended to keep his promise to Abraham. God tells Abraham that the promise will be kept through Sarah. Through all this long saga - there’s much more of it than I’ve covered, it’s well worth going back to Genesis and reading the whole story – Abraham never gives up his faith that God will fulfil his promises, and at long last Sarah conceives and gives birth, when he is 99 and she is 90. Sarah expresses her delight in beautiful words, saying ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’ Her son Isaac is the father of Jacob, also called Israel, and the ancestor of the Jewish people.

Now I can’t for one minute believe that Sarah was really 90 when she gave birth to Isaac. But then I don’t think we should treat the story as if it were history: we have to accept it for what it is, a myth. Myths usually contain a nugget of truth. The nugget of truth within the myth is surely that the Israelites looked back to founders who were not particularly good people, but who cultivated a strong relationship with a God who promised them so much, and who believed whole heartedly that God’s promises would be kept.

3. Now let us examine Paul’s argument

Firstly Paul argues that the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendents the Jews in the old story can have had absolutely nothing to do with obeying God’s law – the Jewish law. After all, the law was given to the Israelites by Moses, long after Abraham’s time. For Abraham there was no law, so there could be no violation of the law, and no wrath, no punishment for breaking it.

Religious Jews were asking then, as religious people still do, How can we enter into the right relationship with God in order to inherit God’s promise? Their answer was that we can do this by earning merit in the sight of God by obeying God’s law, in other words by being good people, by doing good works. It is all up to us – God will only fulfil his promise if we merit it. Paul saw with great clarity that this could not be true: no one could fully keep the law, so if God’s promise depends on keeping the law, the promise can never be fulfilled.

So on what did the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham depend? Paul’s answer is that it depended on Abraham’s faith, on his unshakeable belief and trust that God would fulfil his promise. Abraham continued to believe in God’s promise, even when he grew old, and even when Sarah was clearly unable to have children. His faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’; that is it was his faith that put him in a right relationship with God.

There are two Greek words for a promise. Huposcheisis is a promise on condition: if you do this, I will do that. Paul uses the other, Epaggelia, which is an unconditional promise out of the goodness of ones heart, such as a father or mother might use when promising to love their children no matter what they do. Fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham was not earned by his good works, it was given freely by God’s grace, it was unmerited. All Abraham had to do was believe it.

And finally Paul argues that this applies to us as Christians, in just the same way as it did for Abraham. If we only have faith in the God who raises Jesus from the dead, he will reckon us to be righteous. We will be justified by God’s grace through Jesus’s death and resurrection. We will find ourselves in a right relationship with God, and we too will experience God fulfilling his promise, just as Abraham did.

That is what the grace of God means: it is the favour that God has showered on all of us human kind without our doing anything to earn it – the wonder of creation, our loving relationships, our capacity for happiness, our very lives – and our salvation, in the sense that God has shown us how to recover from our innate propensity to sin, to receive forgiveness. The Greek word translated as grace is charis (χαρις), which literally means "that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness".

4. Another way to look at all this perhaps is through the prism of psychology.

When I was a child, I was just as naughty as every other little boy. I was wilful, I often did not do as I was told, and could be quite nasty, particularly to my baby brother when he annoyed me. But rather than expecting more of me than I was capable of, and punishing me unmercifully when I did not live up to their hopes, my parents always cherished me. They let me know they were sad when I was bad, but they also let me know that I could rely on their loving me whatever I did. Their unconditional love showed me how to love back, and as I grew up, I learned from their example how to distinguish right from wrong.

Perhaps this is the way that God works with us. God does not expect more of us than we are capable of. He does not punish us unmercifully when we break his law and do not behave as we should. Rather he promises us unconditional love, which we experience as God’s grace. And when we respond in faith, and learn from his example, we become more like the people he wants us to be. God’s kingdom comes that little bit closer.

5. So let us pray that we may respond in faith to God’s grace, let us pray that we may receive the fullness of his promise, and let us pray that we may be led by it to understand and obey his loving law.

And if you’re a Munster supporter, and their victory affords you joy, pleasure and delight, you can reckon it as yet another manifestation of God’s overwhelming grace!

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