Sunday, August 17, 2014

Does Faith Make a Difference?

Does Faith Make a Difference?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 17, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 4: 13-25

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16 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 (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. [1]

We've heard passages like this from the Bible all the time, and they talk about faith, salvation through faith, we as the children of Abraham, get to share in the relationship with God he did, and his righteousness that God gave him through his faith. We get to in the same way believe in Jesus Christ and have his righteousness reckoned to us. We've heard it all before and it is the central teaching of Paul's letter to the Romans. But what is faith? And how does faith work? What is it all about? What difference does it make? In light of our lives, our world, all the problems that we seem to face, how does faith play a role in all of this?  Does faith make a difference in the way that we live our lives? What is this teaching from Paul in our context? What is it in light of the world we live in and its problems? What is this teaching in light of what I preached about last week, and the divisions in the church? Is there any relationship between Paul's letter to the Romans and us? These are the questions I seek to look towards and examine this morning. . . and from my study this week I have found that they really are important for us because like it says in the Book of Ecclesiastes, as we've been studying in Sunday School, "There just is nothing new under the sun." His times are our times are all times because human nature doesn't change.
To understand this Letter, the most important thing is context. It is important to see how Paul crafts his arguments, and there is danger in taking one piece of the letter, one paragraph, one verse and have it stand on its own because it is argument, and an argument has shape, and has movements, and often Paul, in his Letter to the Romans is positing two different viewpoints in juxtaposition against each other, only to refute both with a third way. I want to show you that this piece on faith is exactly that, Paul's proscribed third way. He is going to bring up the problems in the world, show the most natural solution, the one that we as humans are initially drawn to, then he is going to challenge it, show that it is lacking, which could make then all the problems seem to be hopeless, only to then offer the true solution.
I teach writing, I went to Hampden-Sydney College, a school renown for its rhetoric program, where we were all taught and tested for being able to craft arguments, and understand arguments, to know our minds, and to be able to argue a point, to get the point across and drive it home. I know good rhetoric when I see it, and Paul's arguments are well crafted. . . but again seeing the nuance, and how it works, you can easily see how someone reading a section in a vacuum could miss much. Context is important in Bible study, and that is often forgotten, and to our peril really. For instance, a book like Job has vast sections where the characters are offering their opinions on why Job is suffering, but they are all wrong. Take one of those out of context and call it gospel truth, and you could run into problems, people have.
So let me show you what I mean here in Paul's letter to the Romans. His first movement surrounds showing the problems of the world. He is going to show a complex problem, both the disease and the symptoms, the cause and the effects. It's there in the first chapter, after the initial greetings, starting in verse 18, (subtitled in my Bible as The Guilt of Humankind):
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

There it is root cause right, knowledge of God in things around us, no excuse, but were not thankful, and wanted to change things, they were fools, but claimed to be wise, and began to love their own creation instead of God's, they begin to love things. . . he keeps going from there it all stems:

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. [2]

Harsh words, bleak outlook. . . hate, division, envy, murder, strife, covetousness, malice, rebellion towards parents, heartless. . . he lists many, and we could look at our world and see all of these things surrounding us today. We see greed and corruption, and hatred, murder, all of it. . . all of it. We could focus on any one of Paul's claims and fight against it, rail against it, crusade against it, because it is all there and is all perfectly identifiable. There, it's all laid out plain. . . people have gone astray from God, and have fallen into violence, hatred, debauchery, and the like, we need to do whatever we can to return them to God. We think that we can get them to God by combating each one of the evils. . . fighting against each one. . . curing people of their sin. Churches have been seeking to do this forever, and it usually doesn't work, but the Bible says it, it lays it out right here, and if you were to focus just on these verses, you would have Biblical backing to just go out and crusade against the world and its sin. . . but Paul goes on.
In the very next verse, his tune changes, and he tempers it. He challenges the crusade against sin. Check it out the next chapter verse 1 and following. . .
2 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

Uh oh, same things. . . but I don't murder, I'm not debaucherous, I . . .  
2 You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3 Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

It is interesting that he says storing up wrath. . . do you ever feel that way, that wrath? Have you ever seen people who were on a crusade against sin, not be angry? or afraid? usually talking about a slippery slope, and how to hold on. . . that is a place of fear. . . and I've said so often that fear is the opposite of love. It renders love often quite impossible. We get blinded by our crusade, we miss the plank in our own eye. . . it's there. It's human nature. Hey I do it too. We all do.
I've seen it just this week. I've seen it with the riots out in Missouri. I've seen it on all sides of the political debate. You can see it on any internet comment board and facebook post that has to do with an political issue. I've seen it in the aftermath of people commenting and arguing over the causes of the death of Robin Williams and whether depression is a disease and whether suicide is a choice. I've even seen it on something that seems so good and noble, like the Ice bucket challenge. . . in a week's time something fun and valuable, bringing awareness, and funds to ALS is already turning towards division and ugliness. People using it to get at someone. . . really. Come on. It's all around us. . . it's human nature, and we all are a part of it, we might just find that we take different aspects, affecting us in different ways, but we all seem to wear the stain.
So  here Paul has shown a problem, thrown cold water on the solution. . . saying wait a second, before you go out and attack the symptoms, you need to realize that it's a disease and it has also infected you. . . so what now Paul is it hopeless? What are we to do?
6 For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7 to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. [3]

In other words, if you are seeking justice. . . realize that God is just, He defines just, He is not partial, and He is in control, and the distinctions  you make He doesn't make. He sees it all, them and you. . . and repays according to his deeds. Uh oh. . . that's not good. Think of the journey that Paul has led us on so far. Sin in the world = destruction. . . then  you think you should go out and defeat sin, but he tells you that you have sin in you too, so basically. . . sin = destruction and you = sin. . . Paul goes on to quote the Psalm from our Old Testament lesson. . . not even one. . . because then we = destruction. . . all the confidence we had built up is gone, what are we to do? It reminds me of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan has him living in the city of destruction and he feels that he can't leave because of the burden on his back. Trapped. . . but there is a way out.
Paul is seeking to show a different way than the laws that have brought us to this place of destruction. . . a different and new Jesus paradigm, that he himself is fresh to, having before been a Pharisee himself, even the context within Paul himself is important, because he is human like us, and has found himself in this same place of destruction. . . so he looks backward into history before the law, to the first, the father of us all, the first person that God chose to relate to and make covenant with, in the beginning of it all, Abraham. . . He looks at Abraham and he sees a relationship with God, God making a promise, man believing the promise and God fulfilling the promise, despite all obstacles and doubt and circumstances, God promises and Abraham has faith, and God keeps those promises.
Paul makes the argument that this is what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. It is a new place, a new station, a new world paradigm, a complete shift in thinking. God is, has promised us marvelous things, and why should we doubt that they could come to be? Why would we doubt, though sin is ravaging our world. . . we need not fight against sin and crusade, but rather trust God, believe in him, knowing that God is just. It provides a perspective outside of the weeds of Paul's fist argument, the world and all of its problems. . . It provides a look at ourselves and how we are a part of those problems, and seeks to remind us of the beginning, God's power, that reconnection that we had missed, the one that simply believes and gives thanks.
Is it possible? Sure, what difference does faith make? All the difference in the world. . . all else is a downward spiral. . . all else is sinking sand. . . all else is human shortsighted solutions. . . leading to more unintended problems, making the problems of the world worse and worse, rather than better as we intended, no the only way to stop the cycle is to get out of it, doing so with faith, and remembering the simple power of a thankful, loving heart.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 4:13-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 1:18-32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 2:1-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.