This is an edited manuscript of my sermon for March 1 2015. It’s based on Romans 4:13-25. Here in the letter to the Romans Paul opens the door for Gentiles in the. Actually, a good portion of this letter deals with how on earth Jews and Gentiles can exist in the same body. Jews grew up with the Jewish Laws and customs, and Gentiles mostly grew up as polytheists with customs which were seriously offensive to Jews. The early Church wrestled mightily about what to do with Gentile converts. The easiest thing to do with them would have been to demand these Gentile believers all become Jewish 1. After all, Jesus is Jewish, and he is the Jewish Messiah. It would have made perfect sense to make the Gentiles join the Jewish people. At least, the portion of the Jewish people who believed Jesus was the Messiah.
Yet, this was not how the Church resolved the issue, and for good reason. You see, as the evangelists went out and preached the good news of Jesus, they discovered something remarkable. They found out God is the one who determines the boundaries of the Kingdom. Now, we might say that’s a “well, duh” revelation. After all, the Jews had be called the people of God for centuries, and celebrated that it was God who created that relationship. For Jews it was the default understanding to say God set up the boundaries of the Kingdom. That’s not very shocking.
What was shocking to those early evangelists was how God appeared to be redrawing the lines. Gentiles were receiving the same gift of the Spirit as Jews, as well as the same manifestations of Jesus’ presence and eternal life, without ever being circumcised themselves or being told to follow the Jewish Law. And so those evangelists, including both the Apostles Paul and Peter, concluded that if God was doing such a thing then the boundaries of he Kingdom had to be wider than than they originally thought.
This is what Paul means by saying God called “those who are not” as though they “they are.” These Gentile believers, who had never kept the Law and came from some truly detestable practices, mattered to God even if they weren’t Jewish.
This was something all our early brothers and sisters recognized, but it still didn’t deal with the question, “How are these two incredibly different groups ever going to function as one?” In order to wrestle with this question Paul brilliantly muses on the nature of salvation itself.
He does this by going all the way back to the beginning of “God’s people” – all the way back to Abraham. Before Abraham received the command to circumcise his son (and also his household), and long before the idea of the Mosaic Law was ever given to the Israelites, Abraham was declared righteous. That is, he was declared to be in a “right relationship” with God.
It’s important to Paul that Abraham was declared righteous before both circumcision and the Law because, to him, it reveals how the Law was never the way God saved. Paul believes the Law is good, without a doubt, but it was not able to bring people into a saving relationship with God. It was not able to make people righteous.
If that’s the case then what is righteousness? Paul thinks it’s incredibly simple, and he again uses Abraham to make his point. To Paul, righteousness is believing in the God who promises. Abraham was an old man, and his wife was barren, when he received the promise he would be the father of “many nations.” And yet, he believed anyway. Did he have some hiccups along the way to that promise being fulfilled? Absolutely, but he never wavered that God would keep that promise.
This definition of righteousness solved the “Gentile issue,” because it meant both Jews and Gentiles were saved the same way. Yes their customs might be different, and there would be interpersonal issues which would constantly needed to be dealt with 2, but salvation came to both Jews and Gentiles by believing in the one who made a promise. Specifically, the promise of the one who raised Jesus from the dead. What promise is that? It’s the promise that in Christ is found eternal life, and a Kingdom without end. It’s the promise that in Christ the broken can be made whole, the hurting can be comforted, and the grieving can find joy. It’s the promise that we’ve been given a mission, and the presence of the Spirit to remind us we have not been abandoned.
The question with which we need to wrestle is, “Do we believe the one who made these promises?” As usual, I pose this question not just for each of us as individuals but to us all collectively as a congregation. Is Central Baptist, according to the definition of Paul, “righteous?” Do we believe God?
Sometimes it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? When “organized religion” is publicly mocked, friends pass away, and our children stay away it can be difficult to hang on to Jesus’ promise. When brothers and sisters in Christ tell smaller churches like ours how we are “too burdened with overhead” or “don’t offer the types of things a large church offers” it’s easy to become disillusioned and think that we really “are not” – that we simply don’t matter.
I want to assure us all, and I need this reassurance as much as anyone, we do matter. We matter not because we are awesome or because of how much this area needs Central Baptist Church. We matter because God says we are. We have gifts to offer the world. We have a joyous fellowship to share with our neighbors. We have a savior who promised never to leave us, and he hasn’t. We have these things because God has promised them to us in Jesus Christ. Let’s believe in the one who made these promises, and live in the righteousness which is credited to us. Amen.