Romans 4.1-5, 13-17
IT ALL BEGAN so simply. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go.’” “So Abram went.” He set out “not knowing where he was going”, as someone much later put it (Hebrews 11.8). It was a decision that would eventually involve an awful lot of people, including those who perished in Auschwitz, those who went to work in New York’s twin towers on 11 September 2001, and those in soft raiment who plan to get their own way at Lambeth.
Steps of faith can always be refused, and Abraham could have stayed put. His journey into the unknown was a free choice, not a forced march. He was, of course, offered an incentive — the promise that, in him, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Those of “the Abrahamic faiths” — Jews, Muslims, Christians — believe that, despite history’s testimony to the contrary, despite the Holocaust, despite the falling towers, despite religious bloodshed and bickering, that promise still stands. We hold to the universal hope that, because Abraham trusted and obeyed, all our families will be blessed.
So, this Sunday, “we look to the rock whence we are hewn” (Isaiah 51.1). We look to Abraham because, says Paul, he teaches us to trust. Our New Testament lection has just two brief snippets from Paul’s extended argument about the relationship of faith to works, of grace to law, of hope to experience.
Unfortunately, bits of string do not let us follow the thread. We need to read the whole chapter, if only to register that Paul lived on the same planet as we do. Paul saw that acting in faith sometimes means doing things that, to anyone in their right mind, must seem daft. He recognised that Christian hope is always a “hoping against hope”.
The example Paul gives is that of Abraham’s confidence that his wife Sarah would bear a child, although both of them were extremely old. We could multiply many examples of our own about how facts bid to destroy faith, and about how the way things are mocks the Christian vision of what will be.
In our own time, Richard Dawkins and others have mounted fierce attacks on belief in God. Christian apologists have responded with powerful arguments for the reasonableness of Christian theism. Such apologists and their paperbacks come to our rescue when we are lost for what to say, but they risk falling out of step with St Paul.
Paul liked a good argument as much as the next man, but, at the same time, he cheerfully concedes the dottiness — the sheer “folly”, as he calls it — of what Christians preach and believe. Indeed, he glories in it. Look at Abraham, he says. Better still, look at the cross (1 Corinthians 1.18-2.16).
Nicodemus, who liked an argument, endeavoured to start one with Jesus. Much is made of the fact that he came to Jesus “by night”. Perhaps he did not wish to be seen in this controversial figure’s company. Perhaps that “by night” is intended to symbolise the spiritual darkness in which, for our Gospel writer, Nicodemus languished. Some brave commentators suggest that John was simply recording an inconsequential historical detail. After all, the heat of the day is not the best time for theological discussion.
In the drama of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus is on stage only briefly. He says his few lines, and then he is gone. The relationship being dramatised is less that of two characters — although there is no reason to suppose that someone called Jesus did not meet someone called Nicodemus — than that of two communities.
The dialogue we overhear is between the young Christian Church and the synagogue from which it is now emerging. The injunction is in the plural. “You — all of you — must be born again.” It is addressed not so much to Nicodemus as to the congregation he represents.
Does the Fourth Gospel teach that Christianity fulfils — and so takes over from — Judaism? So it has often been understood. The consequences of that interpretation are a matter of history, the terrible chronicle that makes our hope of what was promised to Abraham so hard to hold on to. But, whether or not that reading of his Gospel is true to the thought of John, it cannot be the last word in the continuing conversation between Jew and Christian.
Heythrop College is one of the places that has done much in our own day to counter the claim — as arrogant as it is naïve, as offensive as it is dangerous — that Christianity supersedes Judaism. Fr John McDade, Principal of Heythrop College, has recently written: “Old Law, New Law and Grace are not separable, but dynamically contained one in another. . . A simple linear supersessionism in which Christianity replaces Judaism,” he bluntly maintains, “is impossible.” And he adds: “Nothing of Torah is lost.”
“You must be born again.” Perhaps those words were once said to the synagogue. What is for sure is that they are now said to the Church.
Text of readings
1The LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
4So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
1What are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’). Abraham believed in the presence of the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
1There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’