The New Testament reading this week is from Romans 4. (p.s. If you’ve been a Presbyterian too long like me and Romans has lost some of its vim and vigor for you, try Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. It’s one of the most gorgeous books ever written.)
“For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due” (4:3-4)
Abraham worked. He left everything. But he also was a big coward and a liar and he was one of the most royally messed up people in scripture. And one of the most loved by God. Why? Because God loved him as a gift. Which is called grace.
Paul continues: “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David…” (4:5)
Abraham had works. David had works. Abraham left Ur and David danced almost naked for joy. We all have works. We are proud of something, our little garden and compost or home or grand career or great mind or that paper we once wrote or what we gave to the poor that time. We all say, “God, look what I’ve sacrificed for you. Look what I’ve given up. See how I’ve loved. See how much more I have given than that person over there.” But that is not the place where the gift is. We must trust “without works.” Our works must be nothing to us.
Because we have also been adulterers and liars and cowards. The gift (grace) is where we trust that God makes the cowards and the liars and the messed up ones holy and righteous and clean. As we trudge through the slow days on the way to Good Friday we practice fasts, but really, we practice fasting from our goodness. We give up our daily dance of perfection, of appearance, and of self-loathing for our constant failure to appear perfect. The scales must be clawed off (cf. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.) They must be clawed off every day. When the scriptures say that his mercies are new every morning, it means that we need mercy new every morning (Lam 3:23).
“For 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. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void” (4:13-14)
This gift does not pass on automatically through blood or tradition or the best rule-following. It is given new each day from the hands of a person, from Jesus.
“For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants… (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:16-17).
So it depends on faith, so that the promise (God’s love) may rest on grace. The grace that does not leave us to ourselves. That does not leave our identity, our legacy, our perfection to our frantic striving but bestows on us from heaven the worth we could never patch together through all our days of dishes and laundry and working behind computers with crazy people or tying little shoelaces or however we pass our days and hours.
So God’s favor remains a gift, remains grace (charis). So that we remain joyful (chara). So that every day we can let God claw off our impenetrable scales and call us again into life, and so that every day we can again give thanks (eucharisteo) for the gift.