February 28, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
What do you think of when you hear the word, “lawless”?
It doesn’t sound good. It’s a word often used to describe individuals who dangerously refuse to abide by the laws that protect our lives and property and it’s also commonly used to describe those parts of human exploration and expansion when settlers and explorers traveled far beyond the boundaries of their settlements and “civilization.” Once at sea, Captain Bligh and other unscrupulous, unkind, or evil ship captains were a law unto themselves and could do, and did, horrifying things to their crew with impunity. And although there were technically laws, as settlers in the United States expanded westward past the Appalachian Mountains, into the Louisiana purchase, and toward California and the west coast, they would often find themselves hundreds of miles from the nearest agents of law enforcement. Often the only law that they had was found at the end of a gun. And curiously, there is a similar conversation in the news today as the United States government, and Elon Musk of SpaceX are having a disagreement about what laws might apply, or not apply, to a new settlement on Mars. What laws apply in a place without laws or without law enforcement?
And, although it isn’t exactly the same, a similar discussion can be found in the pages of scripture as Jesus, the Disciples, and the writers of the New Testament discuss exactly what laws apply to them. We begin in Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 when Abram, having already followed God for many years, and had gone wherever God had told him to go, receives a promise from God.
17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
God promises Abram that if he walks with God faithfully, and is blameless, then he will make a covenant with Abram and grow his family. It is worth noting that “blameless” is the word that was used to describe Noah and does not imply human perfection but simply living a godly life in contrast to the prevailing culture. And, in exchange, God promises to make an enduring contract with Abram, Sarai, and their descendants. As a reflection of that promise, God changes Abram’s name (Abram means “father”) to Abraham (which means “father of nations) and Sarai to Sarah. Both Sarai and Sarah can be translated as “princess” but the change to Sarah, in the original language, adds emphasis to being the mother of nations.
But then in Mark 8:31-38, as Jesus tries to tell his disciples that he will be rejected, killed, buried in, and rise from the dead, those same disciples break one of the rules that God had given to Abraham.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
The death of Jesus was not what Peter wanted or expected and he tried to tell Jesus that this was not the right way to become the king of Israel. But Jesus pushes back, rebukes Peter and says that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves to do it. What Jesus is saying is that to follow him, we must be like Abraham and Noah, we must live godly lives, and that means following God wherever God is going, and not going wherever we want to go, and hoping that God will follow us.
But with this connection to Abraham’s promise in mind, we also remember that Jesus, his disciples, and his followers, were often accused of breaking the laws of Moses. And, even more curious, was how that same discussion applied when people from other nations and cultures began to follow Jesus. How does the law of Moses apply to people who aren’t the descendants of Abraham, or citizens of Israel, or who aren’t even Jewish? At first, some people said that to become a follower of Jesus, it was first necessary to become Jewish, but Paul had met with the disciples in Jerusalem and they had agreed that being Jewish wasn’t necessary, that Gentiles could become Jesus’ followers, and that it wasn’t necessary for Gentiles to follow all the Jewish dietary restrictions and other purity codes spelled out in the law. So, if that was true, then what did it mean to be blameless or to live a godly life?
And that is exactly what Paul explains to the church in Rome as we read Romans 4:13-25:
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
Paul’s point is that God’s promise to Abraham came long before the ten commandments or the law of Moses and as such, the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants had nothing to do with any kind of strict obedience to the law or to the many rules that the rabbis had developed from it. Instead, God’s contract with Abraham only had two rules, 1) follow God faithfully, and 2) live a godly life. For that reason, Paul says, the key for us Gentiles, is that the promise of God comes to us through faith and grace. We are a part of God’s promise to Abraham because we have the same faith in God that Abraham did and that is why, Paul says, that Abraham was able to become the father of many nations and not simply to the descendants of the one nation, Israel. Abraham had such faith that even though he was 99 years old, and his wife was twice the age of being tool old to have children, he never stopped trusting that God would keep his promise. Even though Abraham was not a perfect, and did not live a perfect life, God credited righteousness to Abraham’s account because of his faithfulness and, in the same way, those of us who believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have righteousness credited to us even though we, like Abraham, are unable to live a perfect and sinless life. Jesus was crucified for our sins and for our imperfections and was raised from the dead so that we could be justified, rescued, and stand before God.
And so, while the laws of Moses to not apply to us, we are not “lawless disciples.” This is not the Wild West where there is no law, or where we take the law into our own hands. Instead, we answer to a higher, and an older law. We are the children of Abraham, adopted and grafted in through God’s promise of faith in, and through, his son Jesus Christ. We may not be perfect, but because of our faith in Jesus Christ we have received the grace of God… and are forgiven.
Let us commit ourselves to keeping our promise to God, just as Abraham did, by following Jesus faithfully and living a godly and obedient life.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/BjNsrjc2xVQ
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.