A couple of years back, the family and I were holidaying in Kent. It was a late in the year holiday so lots of places to visit were cheap, including a deal on the Channel Tunnel. We thought we`d hit the jackpot - a car-full could get a day-return for £20 from Dover to Calais (it was only when we noticed that the ferries were offering the same deal for a £1 we realised that we`d been ripped off!). Still, we`d heard about the tunnel and it seemed an exciting thing to do.
Some of you may know, I`m not a good traveller. Motion-sickness has plagued me all my life. Unless I can develop strategies to overcome it, it can make a journey very difficult, even more so when I`m a passenger rather than a driver. So here was the first problem - I was going into an unusual situation - one I`d never entered before, and to make it even more troublesome, I was going to be a passenger rather than a driver.
About the tunnel - I hope I don`t put you off, but - it was purgatory. You drive your car into a train, and then the train takes you to France and after about 30mins you drive off into a foreign country. You may think that was easy - only thirty minutes - but during that time all sorts of things happened in my imagination - floods, breakdowns, terrorists, the car breaking down... Carol and Jack enjoyed it immensely - they walked up and down the carriage chatting to people, and even made contact with some URC folks from the midlands who they had met by chance. Me? I sat in the car holding the steering wheel with white knuckles as the inevitable motion-sickness began to take over.
Now don`t share with me about your cure for travel-sickness - I tell you, I`ve tried it. Don`t tell me the ferry`s better - I know it is (you can be sick over the side!) Don`t tell me that some people go backwards and forward through the channel tunnel each day, and also that it is a monument to engineering skill - I know! Make your own mind up about the channel tunnel - don`t be influenced by me - but my opinion is if the cost of going means the tunnel, then France is greatly overpriced.
I share this story not to gain sympathy, but as an illustration of what we must all go through when we encounter something new. For most of the time, novelty is limited to armchair adventures viewing the television - very rarely do we physically encounter something new, unknown, and perhaps worrying or frightening. For most of us there is a creeping paralysis called `old hat` because we`ve been there, we`ve done that, and we have the T-shirt to prove it. To encounter something new is unusual.
There is a cost and benefit ratio - the equation is a constant factor. If we do such-and-such then the costs will be..... and the benefits will be.....
Our Old Testament Bible-story takes us into such a cost benefit equation. It took Abram into new and unfamiliar territory - both geographically, economically and spiritually. He had a channel-tunnel-encounter multiplied by many factors. We all know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible - a surprising number of people also suspect it was the first to be written; but really, it is a patchwork of stories from different places and times woven together by a skilful editor. (For the oldest pieces of writing in the Bible you need to look amongst the Psalms.) Genesis begins (as we may know) with two versions of the creation story, telling us more about who we are and why we are on earth, than quantum physics and the big bang. We learn from these stories that we are responsible for what we do, and for the care of our world.
It has been mischeiviously said that there are two parts of the Bible - the first few chapters of Genesis, and the rest (of the Bible).... meaning that the first few pages tell us about our condition as humans and the remainder of the book describes how we can extricate ourselves from that situation.
There`s a lot of sense in such a view - the story of Creation and Fall is a powerful one, but we need to be careful not to overlook what else happens in the Genesis saga. It continues with the epics of the Patriarchs: Abram (who became Abraham), Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
In a time of migration of peoples in the middle-east about 4,000 years ago, Terah travelled west with his son Abram, Abram's wife Sarai and his grandson Lot from Ur. They went to the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Terah and his family settled there for a time in a place called `Haran` where Terah dies, and Abram becomes the head of the house.
Abram, now centre-stage, makes a pact with God. If Abram will leave behind his land and family and his pagan past, and live in, `the land I will show you` he will be honoured.
Here it comes - the cost-benefit.....
Abram was being asked to give up a life which was semi-nomadic - almost a hunter/gatherer North American Indian kind of life - and move towards the more settled life of agriculture. There were many benefits associated with the nomadic life, and much the same could be said of the settled life of a farmer. But the rub was, Abram knew one life but not the other - would the cost of a change bring benefits?
This wouldn`t be the only thing on his mind. He would need to leave his tribe and whole way of living - perhaps risking the loss of loved ones in the process. What would the benefits be?
God would honour him in seven ways: Make from him `a great nation`, Favour him, Make his name renowned Give him economic good fortune Show favour to those who showed him favour & exclude those who show him disrespect And, as other peoples come to trust in God, they will find themselves similarly blessed. The deal was no more than this sevenfold blessing... A flimsy thing to persuade you to leave it all behind you and set up anew.
Abram - as history reveals - made a brave response. I don`t know what kind of a man he really was, but if he had refused to enter into an agreement with God we would have heard no more of him. He strikes me as a man of integrity and nobility, a reflective man; and also a decisive and active man of passion and heroism.
Psalm 121 - which we sang part of - gives us a hint of the kind of turmoil Abram must have endured as he followed through the consequences of his decision. This was not a time of confident monotheism - of belief in the one and only God - you picked your god to suit your circumstances. Had Abram chosen the right god?
The pilgrim in the Psalm asks this kind of question as he journeys through hilly country where pagan gods were thought to hold power. The writer of the Psalm begins to answer his own question with a bold affirmation that his help is from The God, the creator of everything - the God of all gods.
The belief in Yahweh - the God of all things is an important discovery which the people God called into being made in the fulness of time. The reward of such faith is something like God`s agreement with Abram - God`s blessing on the pilgrim going a lonely and frightening way - God is `your shade` - he protects you from sunstroke and from the moons rays (in those days, thought to be harmful). God protects the faithful from all evil, throughout their lives.
Romans is the first epistle in the New Testament, though like Genesis on the Old Testament, it`s not the first to be written. The book was probably written around 57 AD - so it`s roughly dated at the same time as Mark`s Gospel, and was completed when Paul neared the end of his third missionary journey. It`s unusual in that it was written to a church that Paul had not visited.
The church in Rome had in its membership Jews who had become Christians and Gentiles who had no real background in Judaism - so there were tensions (a bit like Congregationalists and Presbyterians pretending that there is no difference between them and trying to make a new United Reformed Church. But enough of stoicism!)
Paul`s theme in many ways is alarming in its simplicity - there`s the same clarity of the charge which was made on Abram all those years ago. Paul brings the basic good news of Christ, bringing salvation for all people.
He says that people can get right with God through faith - that you didn`t need all that `law` stuff. He takes Abraham as an example; asking, what can be concluded about faith in relation to law by examining Abraham's life?
Judaism often made the claim that Abraham `kept the Law` before it was given - that he was godly because his `works` were in line with the Law. They may have been so, but Paul argues that Genesis records Abraham's faith as being the pivotal factor in the receiving of his blessing. Paul concludes that God `justifies the ungodly` - in other words that those who have not known God through Law and Prophet can still be reconciled with God through Christ.
He illustrates the position of a worker - `wages` are expected: But a person who trusts - with no certainty of reward - counts with God. The worker clearly represents the Jews who had rejected Jesus - and in effect the suggestion is that their special religious status with God had been abdicated in favour of the followers of Jesus. Paul interprets Psalm 32 and Genesis as showing that those who trust in God obtain God`s favour, whether they are keepers of the Law or trusters in God. He then argues that, because Abraham trusted in God's pact before he was circumcised - the symbol of Judaism - Abraham's faith and not his keeping of the Law was what counted for him with God.
This made Abraham ancestor of all who trust in God, both Jews and non-Jews - a comforting message of reconciliation for a church which was divided. The promise that Abraham would be father of many nations came as a result of his faith and not his law-keeping. If the only way of achieving union with God is through keeping the Law, faith would irrelevant and the promise to Abraham nonsense.
It`s at times like this that the philosopher in me begins to take charge of the situation - Yes these words are fine and they seem to make sense. But in truth, nailing Paul down on this is a bit like knitting with smoke. It seems, at the beginning, to be a really good argument - it makes sense and we can all nod in agreement... Abraham was right with God because he was faithful. If he had followed the law instead of being faithful then ultimately Judaism would be superior to Christianity (and because we are Christians rather than Jews that would never do would it....!)
No. I`m clearly missing a rung on the ladder here.....
A voice from the back row of the mind demands - but what`s wrong with the Law? It keeps us from being beastly to one another - it civilises us. And, anyway we all thought that God gave Moses the Law on tablets of stone (the other week in the readings). Did God change his mind.....? Doesn`t he want us to keep taking the tablets....?
I mentioned earlier about the book of Genesis and how simple it is to be blinded by the colossal message of the first three chapters. But the key to understanding Paul in his conversation with a multi-cultural Roman Church is probably to take the sunglasses off for moment. The story of the Creation and Fall not only charges humanity with responsibility for itself, but also helps people appreciate their condition of being both in the image of God and also creatures who regularly fail to live up to that inspirational understanding. It`s the possibility of being on the one hand unable and on the other hand desirous of keeping the law of God that personal sin becomes a practical inevitability. Now, we`re not just talking parking-tickets here - we`re talking about the things like faithfulness, joy, self-control, love peace, kindness, goodness, and all the other fruits of God`s Spirit active upon us. The breaking of the law, in religious terms, refers to our failure to acknowledge and live-out those god-like qualities for the whole of our days. And none of us are innocent - for we have all failed to live in the image of God for the whole of our lives.
What the law does is..... Yes, it keeps good order and stops us being beastly (and when we are beastly it reprimands us) - but its influence is much more powerful than that.
The Law is another Genesis-Fall-Story: It reminds us of the predicament we are in of being both in the image of God and failing to actualise that nature in our day to day lives.
God's response to such failure is punishment. The punishment is a breakdown of human relationships with God - the law brings wrath. But for those living by faith, says Paul, violation of the Law is irrelevant. So a right relationship with God depends on faith, and rests on God's promise of grace, God`s gift of love - made not only to Jews but also to all those who trust in God, `of many nations`.
God spoke these words to Abraham, says Paul. God gives spiritual life to the unbeliever; he restored Isaac's life when he was as good as dead; he brought a son into existence to Abraham and Sarah, in their old age. They were fully convinced that God could do it. If we trust in God and have faith in the power of Christ's resurrection, our trust will count with God too.
So now we turn to matters which go further than having the courage to go on day-trips to France through a tunnel - though I freely admit that I found the experience scary.
In our lives there have been and will be many of the unknowns - many challenges. A good number of us will literally be forced to up-and-move away from our friends and family for all sorts of reasons. Of the future, some things we can be fairly confident about, and others we will have the barest inkling - some will be familiar, other things will be frighteningly different.
At a meeting recently held at one of our churches we explored the changes which had occurred in our lives, and put them into the `expected` and `unexpected` category. Most of us had more in the `unexpected` list than the other. The message from thousands of years ago, if we take Abram and Paul to heart, is that it is faithfulness which will equip us for these challenges.
It even goes further. I get the distinct feeling that if in life`s hot-air balloon we are called to jettison bags of sand - then the one called faithfulness should be amongst the last bags to go.
One of the morning liturgies of the Iona community includes this deliciously subversive prayer...
You did not say you were the answer; You said you were the way. You did not ask us to succeed; You asked us to be faithful. You did not promise us paradise tomorrow; You said you would be with us to the end of the world.
For our ultimate destiny we need to keep faith with the who God is with us all the way.....
Do not be afraid (of what is to come) I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name You are mine.