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.
2 “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.
3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
4 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. 2 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.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “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!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[plural, as in “y’all”] must be born again.’ 8 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.”
9 “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? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 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.™