Monday, November 21, 2016

Making the Cut: Romans 4:9-12

I had a seminary professor who one day spoke to us about an experience he had in a small town where he served a small, Lutheran congregation.  Right across the street from his church was another small, Lutheran congregation.  By this time, each congregation was in the same synod.  My professor thought it was pretty stupid that these two little congregations remained separate especially since they worshiped with the same hymnals; at the same time; with the same liturgy; and were with the same denomination.

One day, my professor asked one of the matriarchs of his congregation, “Why don’t we try to work to become one congregation?”

The matriarch looked at him and said, “Oh, pastor, that will never work out.  We use cards to register for communion.  They tell their pastor directly.”

That, my friends, is worthy of a major face palm!!  Some of the boundaries that we draw to distinguish ourselves from others are truly stupid.

Now, before I go too further, I want to make something very clear, this is not a sermon about bashing boundaries.  There are some well intentioned pastors, professors, and Christians who proclaim that Christianity is all about destroying the boundaries that exist between each other.  They say, “Jesus was a boundary breaker, and we should be too.”  As respectfully as possible, I would like to say that these folks are absolutely, completely, totally, wrong.  Christianity is not about abolishing boundaries.  Jesus did not come to eradicate them.  He came to redraw them.

God knows we need boundaries.  Boundaries help us know what is right and what is wrong.  “Do not steal” sets up a boundary between what you do not have and what someone else has and says, “Don’t take stuff that doesn’t belong to you.”  A marriage is a boundary that is formed between a couple and the rest of humanity that says, “We have committed to one another in a special relationship–no one else is allowed this intimacy.”  Property lines are drawn and sometimes solidified with fences to show–this belongs to one person and that belongs to another.

When it comes to the human aspect of boundaries, they help us know where one person stops and another person starts.  Boundaries say, “This is me.  This is not me.”  They give us a sense of identity, and they differentiate us from the environment and other creatures.  Boundaries help us distinguish ourselves from other animals.  What is the difference between us and apes?  What is the difference between us and chimpanzees?  What is the difference between us and stubborn, hard headed mules?  A few of you are looking around and saying, “Not much.  Not much at all.”

To eradicate all boundaries would leave us with a sense of chaos.  If everything is permitted, you have anarchy, and eventually, the law of the jungle will prevail.  The biggest and strongest will rule over everyone else, and everyone else would have to survive by hook, crook or subservience.  We need boundaries, but we must be careful with those boundaries.

If we draw the boundaries incorrectly or if the boundaries have no wiggle room or play, there can be drastic consequences.  For instance, we have a boundary called the speed limit.  Not too many really pay attention to it, but it is a boundary none-the-less.  If your child has an accident and you need to get them to the hospital as quickly as possible, is it okay to break the speed limit?  Most judges would be lenient because they realize that there are some circumstances where boundaries need to be a little flexible.  If boundaries are drawn incorrectly, conflict ensues.  Property owners go to court.  Nations go to war.  People resort to harsh words or even fists.  Boundaries must be drawn sometimes with the utmost of care.

As we work through the book of Romans we have come to a place where Paul is indeed carefully re-drawing the boundaries of what it means to be a child of Abraham and a part of the family of God.  To recap where we have gone so far, Paul began his letter by showing how all have failed to live up to the expectation of God.  All have missed the mark tremendously and are deserving of God’s wrath.  Yet, instead of unleashing His wrath against us, God worked a mighty act through His Son, Jesus Christ who became a sacrifice of atonement for all sin.  We have been made right with God not by any action of our own but through sheer grace–a gift of God’s gracious giving.  And we receive this righteousness–this being made right–when we trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own.  As Paul says, it is “effective through faith.”

Paul now has to deal with several issues in light of God’s action through Jesus Christ.  The first is: if we are saved by grace and not by any work of the Law, does that mean that the law is meaningless?  Paul quickly answers: NO, but H-E-double hockey sticks NO!  We uphold the Law.  Paul will get into this later in the book of Romans and explain what this means.  There are still boundaries, but they have drastically shifted.

Last week, Paul worked through one of those shifts digging into the history of Judaism.  He showed how Abraham was not justified or made right with God through his following of the Law.  Abraham, according to Genesis 15 verse 6 was justified when he trusted that God’s promises would come true.  This was before the giving of the Law.  Now, Paul will show how the boundary regarding circumcision has been redrawn.

Let’s take a look at the text: 9 Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ 10How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. Again, Paul digs through the scriptural history to prove his point.  Revisiting Genesis chapter 15 verse 6, Paul asks, “When did God say Abraham was made right?  Was it before or after Abraham was circumcised.”  The Jewish rabbis generally agreed that Abraham was circumcised 29 years after the events of Genesis 15:6.  Hence, it logically follows that it was not the circumcision that made Abraham right with God; it was not the circumcision that made Abraham the founder of the Jewish nation; it was Abraham’s trust in God.  Period.  If it was the only the circumcision that counted, well, then Abraham spent 29 years outside of the covenant with God.  Abraham spent 29 years without God’s blessing and promise.  Abraham spent 29 years as just Abraham and not the patriarch of the Jewish people.  No respected rabbi would dare to suggest that.  None at all.  So, Paul has this logic all sewed up.  Abraham was made a part of God’s family before he was circumcised not after.  So, what does circumcision mean, then?

Verse 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, 12and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.  Paul says that circumcision is a SIGN and a SEAL.  It is a sign that Abraham has put his trust in God–it is a response; an indelible mark that shows unequivocally that he is a Jew–a child of God.  It is also a seal of that same covenant.  It is a stamp over a signature that cannot be removed permanently holding that signature in place.  It is not a saving action.  It is a physical reminder of the promises that are made.  It is like a wedding ring.  The ring does not bind a couple together.  Their promises do.

And Paul wants to emphasize this because it has some important implications.  First off, since Abraham entered into the covenant and became the first of God’s family through the promise–and not through circumcision, then he can be seen as the father of the Gentiles who become Christians.  They are uncircumcised yet made right with God just as Abraham was uncircumcised when he was first made right with God.  Secondly, because Abraham was the first of the circumcised, he is also the father of all Jewish people.  It is extremely important for Paul to show this because Paul unequivocally wants to show that God was faithful in His promise to Abraham.  God indeed has ensured that Abraham’s descendants can be counted in the number of stars in the sky and grains of sand in the sea.  The boundary has been redrawn to do this.  The boundary of who is allowed into God’s family is not whether or not the follow the Law.  Paul’s answer is no one does, and all would be excluded.  Paul also now says that the boundary as to whether or not someone is in God’s family is also not circumcision lest some don’t quite make the cut.  (Thank you for your recognition of the brilliance of that pun.)

The boundary is whether or not a person trusts in Jesus Christ.  The boundary is whether or not someone trusts in Jesus’ redeeming action instead of their own actions.  The boundary is whether or not someone trusts in Jesus’ death and resurrection instead of any physical trait they have.  Trust in Jesus equals admission into the family of God.  Faith in Jesus Christ makes you a child of Abraham.  That’s it.  Period.  End of story.

What does this mean?

In today’s terms, the message is stark because there are those who still try to draw the boundaries hard and fast in other terms.  How so?  Tell me if you have heard these things or something like them:

You can’t be a Christian and vote for Donald Trump.
You can’t be a Christian and vote for Hillary Clinton.
You can’t be a Christian and vote Democrat.
You can’t be a Christian and vote Republican.
You can’t be a Christian and drink alcohol.
You can’t be a Christian and be homosexual.
You can’t be a Christian and support our military.

Oh, I could go on and list many, many more–including the fact that there are some Christians who believe that only their particular denomination is the family of God.  There’s an old joke about a guy who dies and goes to heaven.  St. Peter meets him at the gate and starts showing him around.  Peter says, “Well, I noticed that you didn’t attend any particular church, so I am going to show you around up here and let you see all the different denominations.  After looking them over, you can decide which one you want to hang out with.  St. Peter points out the Lutherans, and they are all drinking beer and dancing having a great time.  The guy looks at them and thinks, “Well, that looks like fun.”  Next, Peter points out the Baptists many of whom are drinking beer and dancing for the first time while shouting out Amen! with great frequency.  The guy, thinks, “Well that’s cool too.”  And so Peter goes about continuing to point out each group.  Finally, Peter comes to a big wall.  The guy asks, “What’s up with the wall?”  Peter replies, “Shh.  Keep your voice down.  That’s the Missouri Synod.  They think they’re the only ones up here.”

These boundaries are not the correct boundaries.  It is in our nature to draw them and say who is in and who is out.  But we must remember something–God’s boundaries are the most important boundaries, and He has gone to great lengths to admit as many people into His family as possible.  He has gone through great pains and sufferings to welcome as many to the table as He possibly can.  He has done this because He loves the world and the people in it.  He does not want to see them perish.  We know this because Jesus unequivocally said, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

And that God justified the ungodly.  That God justified you and I when we were ungodly.  God justified us when we were most to be pitied.  And so we seek to proclaim that justification to others.  We seek to help them trust in Jesus and His action.  For God wants all to be in His family.  All.  We do not seek to condemn people for their differences–for their different boundaries.  We seek to help them to see how God has rewritten them to make a place for them.  After all, God has redrawn the boundaries, for you.  Amen.

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