Monday, November 12, 2007

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve

There is something about the words “home” and “family” that strike a wistful chord in us. In the best sense “family” and “home” are synonymous with a relationship based on love. One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, expressed it in his poem "The Death of a Hired Hand." In the poem, an old farm worker named Silas comes back to a farm he keeps leaving for the promise of a better offer. He is estranged from his natural family and seems more trouble than he’s worth at times. The husband doesn’t want to take him in, but the wife is heart broken at Silas’ condition. She tells her husband that Silas has come home to die. The dialogue picks up here:

“Home,” he mocked gently.
........................................“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
........................................“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

For Paul, family is something you somehow haven’t to deserve. In fact, Paul argues it can’t be deserved. He has argued from Romans 1-3 that mankind has fallen and broken. Humanity is out of synch with God. When humanity fell and broke, it broke the world, too. He points out everyone is in the same boat no matter how good or how bad they are. Even the best among us are failures. Even the best will disappoint.

Paul maintains a tension between Jew and Gentile in this discussion. The Jews were God’s chosen people—and somehow God is doing something through the Jews to bring even the Gentiles to him. God intended Jew and Gentile to be in the same family. But to be in the same family the Jew felt the Gentile had to become Jewish—embrace circumcision and the Law of Moses. Paul says, “No” our relationship with God is not based on ethnicity nor the Law but upon Jesus’ sacrifice both for Jew and Gentile. God is not just the God of Jews and naturalized citizens. He is the God of Gentiles too.

Paul talks about family in chapter four. He says:

“What shall we say, then? Have we discovered Abraham is our father in a physical way? After all, if Abraham was considered ‘set-right-with-God’ on the basis of works, he has some reason to brag—but not in front of God! What does the scripture say? ‘Abraham trusted God and it was calculated[2] in his favor as being-right-with-God.’ Now when a person works, his wages are not calculated on the basis of a gift, but on the basis of earnings. But if someone doesn’t work but trusts in God who proclaims the ungodly as being-right-with-God, that person’s trust is calculated on the side of covenant justice [3].”
In other words: Are we part of Israel, part of Abraham’s family because we’re Jewish or naturalized Jews? Is Abraham only father to one nation who is defined by obedience to the Law of Moses? Was Abraham in relationship with God because of his works? Or did he enter into relationship with God by trust? Relationship with God—being a child of Abraham—is a gift given by God; not something someone earns. Paul continues that

Even David says the same thing about those who are blessed—those whom God calculates as set-right-with-God without earning it. David said:

‘Blessed are those whose lawbreaking is forgiven
and whose sins have been wiped off the board.
Blessed is the person to whom the Lord will not calculate sin.’

In verses 9-17 Paul argues from the basis of Genesis 15. God made a promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations—and Abraham trusted in God. He believed God would accomplish what he said. God then made a covenant—an agreement with Abraham based on Abraham’s trust in God. All of this happened before God established circumcision as a sign of the agreement! It wouldn’t be until much later God would command Abraham to be circumcised. Abraham didn’t observe the Law of Moses or observe circumcision to enter into an agreement with God. He trusted.

The Jewish Christians who read this text would remember the story. There is much more to this story other than the fact that Abraham was not circumcised. In Genesis 15 God makes the promise, Abraham trusts God, and then God tells Abraham to do something really strange: take a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a young pigeon. Kill them and cut them in two. Leave the birds whole. Lay the pieces parallel on the ground to each other. A deep darkness descended and a smoking firepot and flaming torch moved between the split carcasses. This was an ancient treaty. If Abraham and another human were to make an agreement, a covenant between each other they would walk between the pieces together. The symbolism was: “If I break my part of the bargain may I be torn apart like these animals!”
[4] But notice this: Abraham does not walk between the pieces—only a manifestation of God! This agreement is not based on Abraham’s goodness, his smartness, his ethnicity or his works! The agreement is based on the generosity and faithfulness of God. It is all the grace of God!

Paul drives home his point that in this moment of grace God makes a promise to Abraham and reiterates it in Genesis 17—“You will be the father of many nations.” Paul is telling us the promise is not that Abraham will be the father of one or two nations by physical means. Rather on the basis of grace and trust Abraham will be the father of all who trust in God. Not just Jews who trust in God’s work through the Messiah—but Gentiles as well. Abraham is not our father in a physical sense. He is the father of all who trust in the Messiah!

The most exciting part of this text is the end of the chapter. Beginning in verse 18:

When there was nothing left to hope for, Abraham still hoped and believed that he would become the father of many nations, as he had been told: “This is how many descendants you will have.” Abraham did not weaken in his trust as he regarded his own body which was as good as dead at 100 years old and Sarah as barren. He did not waver in a lack of trust when face to face with God’s promise. Instead he gave glory to God, being fully convinced God had the power to do what he had promised. That is why it was calculated to him in terms of being-right-with-God.
Notice the parallels with the brokenness of mankind in chapter 1 of Romans: fallen man did not trust God as Life-Creator—but Abraham trusted God could give life to dead things! Fallen humanity saw God’s power but did not worship him—Abraham recognized God’s power and trusted he would use it. Fallen humanity, rather than giving glory to God, worshipped created things—Abraham gave glory to God and worshipped him. Fallen humanity dishonored their own bodies eventually turning to each other in same-sex relationships; Abraham and Sarah through their trust in God were able to bear a child as God designed sexual beings to be able to do—so they honored God with their bodies.

Do you know what Paul is saying here? He is saying God, through Abraham’s trust, was reversing the curse of Adam! He is using Abraham and the future promise to undo the Fall. His life of trust is a microcosm of how God will renew the world. Even the promise of a land is subsumed in the promise of the entire creation—the world—being renewed!

But here is the best part of all: this wasn’t written just for Abraham! It was written for us as well! We too can receive the forgiveness of sin! Our trust in God can be calculated as being-right-with-God! The words of David apply to us: Blessed is the person whose lawbreaking is forgiven—whose sins are wiped clean! The promise of new creation is ours as well. And how does God accomplish this? This was the justice from God apart from the law we read about last week—that Jesus took our punishment on himself. Paul comes back to this theme now: “It will be calculated to us too when we believe in the one who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, the one who was handed over because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification.”

God has adopted us into a family of grace and graciousness. We may have felt like a wandering, tired, old farm worker—rejected by his natural family and feeling worthless. But God through Jesus has given us—and anyone else who will trust in him—a home. Not a place where they have to take you in when you have to go there—but something you somehow haven’t had to deserve.

May you learn to trust in God completely—enough to throw your entire life in his hands. May you recognize the Creator longs to create new life in you. May you understand the blessedness of being made right with God. And may you come home: may you embrace the family of God not as a place you have to go but as something you somehow haven’t had to deserve.
[1] Robert Frost, “Death of a Hired Hand,” The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1969) p 36.
[2] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone—Romans: Part One (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984) p 64. I owe Wright a debt of gratitude for his use of the phrase “calculated in his favor” in this text. I also appreciate his translation of Romans 4:1, “What shall we say, then? Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?”
[3] Wright.
[4] Note Jeremiah 34:18 – “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”
[5] Wright, p 76.

No comments: