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Faith that knows no bounds

Bishop Kelvin Wright hears the rush of the Holy Spirit as each of this week's readings joins Jesus and Nicodemus to speak on the power of faith.

Bishop Kelvin Wright   |  13 Mar 2017

Sunday March 12, 2017: Lent 2

Theme

Faith without bounds, faith as the basis of our relationship with God

Sentence  

Lord be gracious to us; we long for you.Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress (Isaiah 33:2)

Collect

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Readings

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Matthew 17:1-9 or John 3:1-17

Commentary

This Sunday’s readings encompass some pivotal scriptural passages, dealing with faith as the basis of our relationship with God.

We have for aeons argued out the role of grace and works: that is, do we earn God’s favour by doing things that are pleasing to God? Or is God’s favour bestowed on us freely regardless of our actions? — in which case what we do, for good or ill, does not seem to matter very much in the long run.

This dilemma is directly addressed by Paul in Romans because arguments over the role of “grace” and “works” as the means of entering the presence of God seems to have greatly occupied the Roman church, and been, in part at least, the reason Paul wrote to them.

Romans 4

Paul uses as an exemplar of the problem in the ancestor Abraham: a man of faith and a man whose deeds gave rise to the nation of Israel.

The Israelites could trace their ancestry back through the genealogies of the First Testament to Abraham and to Abraham’s decision to leave Haran, the land of his birth and continue the journey his father had started, that is, from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan.

The Israelites could trace a physical descent to Abraham and to his actions.

Paul tells them that there was something prior to the action, namely, Abraham’s decision to have faith in – in other words to TRUST – God. This act of trust gave rise to the journey and, therefore, it is the act of faith which shows Abraham’s relationship with God, rather than the journey which is its consequence.

Paul says that if we understand this, we can see that the true heirs of Abraham are not those whose good fortune is that they happen to have been born as a consequence of Abraham’s actions, but are, rather, those who share his trust in God.

Genesis 12: 1-4a

The first reading gives us the background to this trust argument.

Abram was son to his father, Terah, and born in the land of Haran.

Many years earlier, in his home town of Ur, Terah had heard the call of God to travel West to Canaan, but halfway there he had become distracted and settled in Haran, where life was apparently kind to him.

He was blesssed with a large family and great wealth. At about 75 years of age, after a pleasant life in this waypoint, Abram received a call from God to finish the mission entrusted to his father.

Abram obeyed, and the rest is, as they say, history. Abram is promised God’s blessing, and told that this blessing will rest on those who bless him.

In other words, this blessing is promised to those who, in response to their perceptions of God’s call, allow their faith to be manifest in action.

In contradiction to Paul’s reading of the text in Romans 4, some sections of the church have interpreted Genesis 12:3 as a mandate to support the modern state of Israel, despite whatever injustices it may commit.

In making this interpretation they have fallen into the trap Paul warned us of in Romans 4 — of identifying too strongly with the consequences of faith rather than the faith itself.

John 3:1-17

Those who interpret the right of Abraham as the earthly right of Israel are not alone, and that is the basis of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, symbolising his personal movement from the darkness of ignorance into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus is impressed by Jesus’ miracles, that is, by the outward working of Jesus’ trust in God. Jesus quickly points Nicodemus away from these consequences of faith and towards the inner spiritual power which is their source. But Nicodemus is baffled.

He bogs himself down in a literal interpretation of the metaphor Jesus is using, that is, of birth, to describe this deep spiritual reality. Jesus’ response is not to reply in kind, but to heap more metaphors on poor old Nicodemus: the Spirit is like water and it is like wind.

He also uses an example from Israel’s history of the snake lifted in the wilderness. You will remember that when the people of Israel were afflicted with snakes Moses made a symbol of their affliction, a bronze snake, and if the people looked at this symbol they were saved from the snakes.

In 2 Kings 18 we learn that King Hezekaiah of Judah destroyed this bronze snake because it had become an object of worship; in other words, the reality that the snake symbolised had been lost, and the mere physical reality of it had become an end in itself.

Jesus says that as, in ancient times, this symbol of suffering was lifted up, and brought healing, so he will be lifted up, in order that an even greater healing may be effected. Jesus calls our attention away from the trappings of faith to the reality of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 121

This week's psalm reinforces this dynamic of distinguishing the faith from action or symbols of faith.

The high places in Israel were where the old pagan Gods were said to dwell, and where their shrines were built. To counter this tendency, or perhaps as an expression of it, the temple was also placed on the highest point of Jerusalem.

The psalmist tells us that there is a deeper reality. Indeed there is a power, but we need not ascend to it for it will come to us. The saving power of God comes despite the vagaries of misfortune to which we are prone, and does not depend on particular times and places.

We, all of us, like to make things concrete and graspable and controllable. We like to order matters of faith as we like to order everything else. Paul, and Jesus, and the Psalmist and the writer of Genesis all tell us that it is not so simple. We are called to a faith which is deeper, and wilder and more beautiful than any of our attempts to contain it.

The Rt Rev Kelvin Wright is Bishop of Dunedin.

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