Knowing that Abraham was justified by grace and not works of the law should warn the community of faith against any works righteousness but just as importantly remind it that Abraham is the father of all of us.
A couple of years ago I was a guest preacher in a church in the San Francisco area. My last name is unusual, and after the service someone asked, “Are? What kind of name is Are?” My grandfather sometimes told us stories of our family origin, but these stories were fiction. I said, “I don’t know.” He asked, “Is it Norwegian?” It has to be something, but I didn’t have any reason to believe it was Norwegian. “I think it’s Norwegian,” he said, “Do you think it’s Norwegian?” I still didn’t know, but I could tell he was hoping it was Norwegian. He added: “I’m also Norwegian, I think it’s Norwegian, I really do.” I said, “You know, I think it might be Norwegian.” He seemed pleased.
It is strange what connects us to one another. He appeared to claim more connection in imagining we both had a drop or two of Norwegian blood than he claimed knowing we were Presbyterians. That seems odd to me. I think it would seem odd to Paul as well. Paul says that Abraham is the “father of all of us” (4:16). The important point Paul wishes to make is that Abraham’s family is not established according to the flesh, but based on trust in God’s promises.
The NRSV translates 4:1 as What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? In this translations, Abraham as our ancestor according to the flesh appears to be the given. But some scholars translate 4:1 differently. Beverly Gaventa states: “4:1 actually consists of two questions, and the second clearly expects a negative answer: ‘What shall we say? Is Abraham our ancestor according to the flesh?’”(Texts for Preaching: Year A) The significance of this translation, in N.T. Wright’s view, is as follows:
It introduces the chapter Paul is writing, as opposed to the one that many think he should have written; in other words, a chapter about the scope and nature of Abraham’s family, rather than a chapter about “justification by faith” as a doctrine about how people become Christians. (The Letter to the Romans, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (2002)
Abraham is not only an example that it is faith and not works of the law that illuminates the gift of God’s righteousness, but because this gift is given to the circumcised and the uncircumcised, then Abraham is the father of us all. The issue in Rome that concerns Paul is not simply legalistic reduction of Torah, but rather a misguided use of piety as a means to divide the people of God. Jewish and Gentile Christians, regardless of their differences in piety and culture, are still the children of Abraham and both are part of God’s plan of salvation. This Abrahamic faith is not an intellectual assent; it is trust that God will be faithful to God’s promise. And this God, who “calls into existence things that do not exist,” (v.17) creates a community of Jew and Gentile, people of different culture and piety, and claims them as family. Such righteousness of God claimed in faith shapes our commitment to one another.
In James Hirsch’s “Two Souls Indivisible” (2004) he tells the story of Lieutenant Porter Halyburton and Major Fred Cherry. They were both captured in Vietnam and were placed in a cell together. Halyburton was a white man from Davidson, N.C. Cherry was a descendant of Virginia slaves. It was 1965. Placing them in a cell together was intended as a form of humiliation. At first it was. Conversation between them came slowly; trust even slower. But things changed. Hirsch writes
Many of the POWs had to cross racial, cultural, or social boundaries to exist in such close confines. But Halyburton and Cherry did more than coexist—they rescued each other. Each man credits the other with saving his life. … In doing so, they forged a brotherhood that no enemy could shatter.
Finding a human connection that cannot be shattered is fairly rare in this world. But such connections may be a source of rescue for a fragile and fragmented people. Hirsch writes:
They had been forced to live in a very different world than they had ever known. That world was harsh, but it also had a kind of pureness and clarity of purpose. … and traditional sources of tension – race, service, rank, family background – were replaced by the bonds of compassion and sacrifice. (p. 142)
What would the church look like if we recognized that justification by grace through faith was not only a word against works righteousness, but a call to live in a world with clarity of purpose; a clarity of purpose that allows traditional sources of tension to be replaced with bonds of compassion and sacrifice. This purpose does not exist because we think alike, or vote alike, or have the same music in worship, but because we recognize one another as part of the same family.
THOMAS L. ARE JR. is pastor of Village Church, Prairie Village, Kan.
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