What Faith Isn’t

What Faith Isn’t

March 05, 2023*

(2nd Sunday of Lent)

By Pastor John Partridge

Genesis 12:1-4a                     John 3:1-17                Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Often when we are explaining what things are, and how they work, we pause from our explanations of what they are to spend some time explaining what they aren’t.  This was important when the Covid-19 vaccines began to come out because many people heard the word “vaccine” and their thoughts connected to the polio vaccines that we received as children.  Those vaccines essentially made us “immune” to polio… or so we thought.  But the fact is that those vaccines made us immune because all of us had them, and because each vaccine, and each disease, performs differently in the human body. And so, we had to take the time to explain what vaccines are, and what they are not so that our understanding could align with the reality that the Covid vaccine is a lot more like our annual flu shot than it is to our once or twice in a lifetime polio vaccination.

With that in mind, when I read our lectionary selections for today, it occurred to me that, for as often as we spend time in church explaining what faith is, sometimes it is useful for us to talk about what faith isn’t, and that’s exactly what we find in some of today’s scriptures.  We begin this morning in Genesis 12:1-4a, where we hear God call Abram to leave his home, his family, his people, and his nation, and go to a place that God won’t even name.

12:1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

God calls Abram from his home in the nation of Ur, to leave everything that he knows and just… go.  It’s a bit like the call from American history to just “Go West.”  God does not name a destination but promises to bless Abram and his descendants.  That’s it.  Just a promise.  And with that promise, Abram believes, Abram trusts, and Abram goes.

And as we will shortly see, as gentiles, that story is at the root of our eventual adoption into God’s family.

But first, we move on to John 3:1-17, where we find Jesus meeting with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and a powerful member of the Sanhedrin.

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[plural, as in “y’all”] must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still, you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

As a Pharisee, we know that Nicodemus was a devout man of faith who dedicated his life to doing what was right in the eyes of God.  But because he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, we also know that he was politically connected, respected, and well-known in the community.  Nicodemus says that he and the other leaders knew that Jesus must have been sent by God, because without God he would be unable to do the things that he had been doing.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that the reason that he can do the things that he does, is because the he has received the Spirit of God and, more importantly, everyone who believes will receive the Spirit of God and will have eternal life.

And, once again, Jesus’ statement that “everyone” who believes may have eternal life, is of vital  importance to us as gentiles.

When Paul was called by God to minister to the Gentiles across the Roman world, there was debate as to whether this was even possible.  For Jews who had been raised on the teaching that they were loved by God because of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, it was difficult to understand how gentiles could be a part of God’s plan.  And so, Paul spent much of his time explaining how that could happen, and a part of that explanation included a definition of what faith in God is, as well as what faith in God isn’t.  We find one of those explanations in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, in Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 where he connects the dots from today’s scriptures saying…

4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

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.

Paul starts, as we did, with the story of Abraham.  When God called Abram, only one thing connected him to the promise of God.  There was, at that time, no covenant with God and Abraham had not yet done anything worth rewarding.  Remember that we said that with God’s promise, Abram believes, Abram trusts, and Abram goes.  The only thing that Abram had was faith.  But nonetheless, scripture records that God credited Abram with righteousness.  

That tells us something about what faith is not.  Faith is not connected to the works that we do for God or in God’s name.  Abraham was credited with righteousness before he could do anything.  And, if Abram received the promise of God through faith, and not through the Law of Moses, which obviously came much later, then God’s grace is not hereditary and is not inherited, such that it cannot be passed from one generation to another.  Paul argues that there is no such thing as inheriting the faith of your parents or your grandparents and that applied to Jews in the first century just as it does for Christians in the twenty-first century.  We do not, and cannot, claim that we are saved because we were born into a Christian family.

Abram received the promise of God because he had… faith.  He was, to borrow a more modern expression, saved by faith.  Jesus said that everyone who believes may have eternal life.  We are not saved by the things that we do, we are not saved by works.  We are not saved by anything that was done by our ancestors, by our grandparents, or by our parents.  Our salvation and rescue are not hereditary and cannot be inherited or passed down from one generation to another.

We are saved by our faith.  We are saved by faith… alone… by grace… alone.

Just as it was for Abraham, by faith, and because of our faith, we are adopted by God into his family and into his church.

And it is for that reason that Paul can say that by grace we are, even as gentiles, the children of Abraham.

And that is why Jesus said that everyone who believes may have eternal life.

May.  Not will.  May.  May have eternal life.  What about you?  Do you believe?

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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.  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com .  All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.comThe “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

Family vs. Citizenship

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Family vs. Citizenship

March 13, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18                     Luke 13:31-35             Philippians 3:17 – 4:1

What would you do if you won a prize that you couldn’t use?

A graduating high school senior would not be impressed with winning a burial plot or custom casket from the funeral home.  Someone who can’t swim and is afraid of the water probably wouldn’t be too impressed if you told them that they won a new bass boat.  And someone who can no longer drive, doesn’t stray far from home, and whom most of us would think of as being a shut-in, would not be terribly excited about winning a cruise or an adventure vacation package to go hiking in Grand Teton National Park.  It is just that sort of… lack of enthusiasm that God receives when he tells an elderly Abram, who was already ninety-nine years old, that he would be given a “great reward.”  We begin our scripture lesson this morning with that story from Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 where we hear this:

15:1 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inheritmy estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so, a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspringbe.”

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadiof Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God offers Abram the grand prize to beat all grand prizes and Abram’s response is, “meh”, or “so what?” because he’s already written his will and knows that his entire estate will be inherited by one of his favorite, and most trusted, servants.  Abram has no children and no family other than his faithful wife.  And, since he left his ancestral home decades before, he doesn’t even have any nieces or nephews or extended family that he cared to name in his will.  To Abram, at the age of 99, it’s too late.  He doesn’t need any more money, or power, or fame, or anything else than he already has and he has no heirs to whom to leave it.  But God knows that and includes a bonus in the grand prize that Abram didn’t expect.  God includes an heir, a son, born in his old age, as a part of the prize package.  And, just to reassure Abram that this is the real deal, God signs a covenant contract with animals slaughtered in a particular way, that was a well-known system of signing treaties between lords and vassals in Abram’s time, and one that Abram would certainly have known and understood.  In in his contract with Abram, God not only promises gifts to Abram’s yet unborn son, but also to his heirs many generations into the future.  God’s promise extended beyond Abram, to all of Abram’s family and the nation that would one day descend from them.  But was God’s promise limited to people who were genetically connected to Abram?

Well, many of those people certainly thought so.  And it may well be that attitude that we see in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in Luke 13:31-35.  Here the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod may want to kill Jesus because he thinks that he is the resurrected John the Baptist, but also because the Pharisees just want Jesus to go away.

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

So, yes, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to go away, but they had also heard that Herod was afraid that Jesus was able to do miracles because he was John the Baptist, whom Herod had beheaded, who had been raised from the dead.  And in this, although it is certainly self-serving on the part of the Pharisees, there may also an element of “Us vs. Them.”  Jesus and the Pharisees, even though they often were at odds with one another, were on the same “side.”  Since they were all Jews, they were all descendants of Abraham, they were all from the people of Israel, they were from the same family, and at some level, for many of them, Herod was the outsider and the enemy. 

Over the hundreds of years between Abraham and Jesus, the people of Israel often came to see their nationality and their citizenship as being inextricably connected to, and intermingled with, their ideas of family.  This was a thing that started early, and God often gave Israel instructions to push back against that idea by commanding them to treat foreigners the same as everyone else under the law and to treat them decently as human beings and as people of faith.  It was necessary for God to do that because people so intermixed the ideas of family and citizenship that they discriminated against anyone who wasn’t born into the right family tree.

God never said that his Abram’s blessing meant that God would not bless people outside of Abram’s family and God often had to remind his people of that but, with the coming of Jesus, and after Jesus’ resurrection, that familial, genetic understanding was explicitly, and openly confronted by the followers of Jesus.  And that’s what we see in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi in Philippians 3:17 – 4:1 where he writes these words:

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Much like the world we live in, Paul’s world was a confusing and frightening place.  People who claimed to represent Jesus did things, and taught things, that were not in line with the teachings of scripture or those of Jesus.  And there were also people inside and outside of the church whose primary motivation was to enrich themselves rather than to advance the cause of the kingdom of God.  And so, Paul encourages everyone to follow his example and to choose good role models that live and teach in the same selfless way that the disciples, Paul, and his other ministry partners did.  He admits that there are people who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” but he reminds the church that our true citizenship is not to be found in our families, not in the nation in which we live (although that is not to be ignored), but in heaven.  We look forward to the return of Jesus Christ and our final transformation into the bodies of our eternal form.

Abram knew that God’s grand prize didn’t have much value if he didn’t have anyone with whom to share it and God knew that too, so he made a covenant with Abram to pass that blessing on to the future generations of his offspring.  The mistake that many of his descendants made was to assume that God’s promise was inherited to Abram’s genetic offspring and not the descendants that inherited his faith.  God regularly reminded his people that they needed to welcome the stranger, to welcome the foreigner, to treat foreigners the same under the law as they treated the citizens of their own nation and members of their own family.  And the coming of Jesus, and then the ministry of Paul, broadened that understanding even further.  Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus becomes a member of Abraham’s family and we all inherit the blessings of God and an eternity in God’s house as co-heirs, brothers, and sisters of Jesus Christ. 

But Abram saw that his inheritance lost its value if he didn’t have anyone with whom to share it and the same is true for us.  We have been given a great inheritance that includes the blessings of God, a transformed eternal body, citizenship in the kingdom of God, and an eternal home in God’s house.  But as good as that is, its value fades if we have no one with whom to share it.  Our calling is to stand firm in our faith, to pattern our lives after Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and the best role models that we can find, so that we can live our lives as ambassadors of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, and so that we can share what we have with our family, our friends, our nation, and the world.

Because Abram knew that the greatest value of God’s gift wasn’t in having it, but in sharing it.

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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.com .  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.