Abraham and Peter: Contrasting Stories of Faith

Sermon delivered on Lent 2B, Sunday, March 1, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

During this young Lenten season we have looked at what we mean by Good News, the story of what God has done for us that has changed our world forever. We have seen that the gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News precisely because in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has acted decisively to defeat evil, sin, and death and has launched the beginning of his promised new world, a world free from all vestiges of evil—this despite the formidable resistance of the dark powers and principalities and their human agents. But we have also seen that to really believe God has done this requires faith because while evil has been defeated and judged on the cross, it is not yet fully vanquished from God’s good creation. Neither is death vanquished despite the reality of the resurrection. It is this notion of having faith that I want us to explore briefly this morning. Specifically, what does faith have to do with us who try to observe a holy Lent?

In our OT lesson, we read the story of God renewing his covenant with Abram. This is the beginning of the gospel, of course, because it was through Abraham and his descendants, culminating with Jesus, that God promised to restore his good but corrupted world. As Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, God’s promise to Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the world came through the righteousness of faith. But what did Paul mean by that?

It is easy for us to gloss over the story of God’s covenant with Abram and the latter’s faith if we are not careful. In Genesis 12.1-3 we see God making his covenant with Abram when Abram was 75 years old. God told Abram that he would make him into a great nation through which God would bless the entire world. Abram apparently believed God’s promise because he left his home country and traveled to Canaan as God commanded. But the years passed by and nothing happened. While Abram did indeed prosper as God promised, the promised offspring did not appear. And in Genesis 16.1-16 we learn that 14 long years had passed and the promise remained unfulfilled, so that Abram and Sarai took matters into their own hands. Sarai gave Abram her slave-girl, Hagar, and from that intercourse Ishmael was born. Problem is, Ishmael was not the promised offspring! 

So where’s the faith of Abram that Paul praises? On the one hand, we can really empathize with Abram. God promised him offspring and 14 years had passed. We want to dismiss this fact but the story forbids it. Think about it. Fourteen years had gone by! Think of the times you have waited for a promise to be fulfilled or when you are suffering. Fourteen days or even 14 minutes can seem like an eternity! In the meantime, Abram and Sarai were not getting any younger. He was 86 when Ishmael was born and she was 76, well past her child-bearing years. Who can blame them for what they did? But on the other hand, where is the trust, the faith in God, that Paul said Abraham had? Sounds more like myopic human behavior!

This brings us back to our OT lesson today. Another 11 years had passed and still no child that God promised Abram and Sarai. Abram was now 99 and Sarai was 89. Who in their right mind would ever dream of being able to have children at that age? But here is God again, promising Abram that he would be exceedingly numerous and that through his descendants (but not through Ishmael), Abram would inherit the entire world! And as if to seal the deal, God renamed both Abram and Sarai to better reflect that fact. It is almost as if God were making the conditions so crazy impossible that there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind who was responsible for making the promise come true when it happened.

Curiously the lectionary ends at verse 16 and we miss Abraham’s reaction to all this. Reading the next several verses gives us the answer, however. Abraham fell on his face and laughed (the author leaves us to wonder if Abraham was laughing in disbelief or because he finally realized God was going to deliver on his promises), asking himself if a child could be born to a man who was 100 and a woman who was 90. Again, who can blame Abraham for his response? After all, 25 years had passed since God first promised him offspring. Twenty-five years! That is a quarter of a century! Who could blame Abraham if he were to have told God to take his promise and shove it? Look here, God. I’ve been waiting on your promise for 25 years now. I’m 100 and my wife is 90. Given these metrics, there is no way you can deliver on your promise, dude. Now go away and stop bugging me. Sadly there are those today who react like this to perceived unfulfilled promises of God and/or unanswered prayer.

But Abraham didn’t do that. We know this because he proceeded to circumcise himself and all the males in his household as God commanded him to do. Despite his doubts and fears, despite the unbelievably long period of time that had passed (at least in human terms), Abraham still believed the promise of God. He had seen God’s blessing in his own life and through his life, God’s blessing of others, just as God had originally promised. As Paul tells us, hoping against hope, i.e., hoping against impossible odds, Abraham believed because he ultimately believed that God really is a God who calls things into existence that don’t exist and gives life to the dead. And God didn’t disappoint. God took two bodies that were good as dead, at least in terms of reproductive capacity, and brought forth new life, just as God promised. Whatever Abraham’s faith was or wasn’t in this story, as  Genesis 22.1-19 reminds us, Abraham’s faith in God had fully matured when God asked him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, the promised one.

Here is an example of faith on the ground we need to pay attention to because it smacks of the challenges we all face when it comes to putting our faith in God in the midst of a world that is good but still not devoid of evil. We dare not read stories like this with 20-20 hindsight and say to ourselves and others, “Oh well. That was Abraham and things were different for him. He was special.” Abraham may have been special in that he was called to be part of God’s Good News, but so are we! And he was no more immune to the uncertainties of life than we are. The saga of Isaac’s birth proves that without a doubt.

No, we are seeing the faith lived out that Paul praised. It is not a faith in this or that promise as much as it is an active and personal trust in God who does indeed call into existence things that do not exist and gives life to the dead, i.e., who does the impossible with no trouble at all (cf. Genesis 18.14). Just as Abraham looked at God’s promises and realized that God would give life where there was none, we Christians must look at Jesus’ death and resurrection and believe we are seeing God’s promise to rescue his broken and hurting world and us fulfilled, but in a way we didn’t expect or thought possible. After all, who ever heard of a rescue plan that involves God suffering and dying? Do you have this kind of faith, a faith that is rooted in the unshakable belief that God is indeed true to his word and who has done the impossible for us, even if you don’t fully understand it? I’m not talking about a blind faith. I’m talking about a faith that is based on the evidence of God’s active involvement in the life of his world and people.

Turning now to Peter, we see a stark contrast to Abraham. To be sure, one day Peter would have the faith of Abraham, but he certainly didn’t have it in today’s gospel lesson. Peter had gone from hero to goat in under 60 seconds. He had just confessed Jesus to be the promised Messiah, God’s anointed whom many in Israel hoped would usher in God’s kingdom and end their exile forever. And as Jesus reminded Peter, he hadn’t come by this realization on his own accord. It was revealed to him by the Father (Matthew 16.17). So far so good.

But now that the cat was out of the bag, Jesus began to teach his disciples something new and dark that they consistently struggled with and failed to understand. Jesus told them he was indeed the Messiah, but not the kind of Messiah they had in mind. He wasn’t coming as a mighty warrior to liberate God’s captive people and usher in the kingdom of God. Jesus was coming to rescue them (and through them the world) by suffering and dying for them. Human sin had alienated us from God and made a mess of his good world. So sin and the evil behind it had to be dealt with decisively, once and for all. And the only way to do this was to let the powers do their worst to Jesus, which they did by nailing him to a cross. But in doing so, the powers discovered they were the ones who were judged and condemned, along with our own sin, so that God could rescue us and his good world. This wasn’t exactly in anybody’s playbook and Peter reacted in a predictably strong way. He rebuked Jesus for his wrong-headed thinking, presumably out of love for Jesus and presumably because Peter felt the need to try to save Jesus from himself. Whoever heard of winning by losing? Everybody knows that is just crazy stupid! And besides, Jesus, if you really are the Messiah, I sure hope there will be a place of honor for me when you bring in the kingdom (wink, wink).

We get this at a visceral level because Peter’s reaction makes sense to us. The notion that God’s kingdom comes through the Messiah’s suffering and death (as well as our own) still isn’t in our playbook. Like Peter, we’d much rather rely on our human perspective rather than trying to see it (as best we can) from God’s perspective. But when we do, like Peter, we had better be prepared to hear the same response from Jesus that he heard: Get away from me, Satan! It wasn’t as if Peter had become satanically possessed or anything like that. Rather, the voice Jesus heard in Peter’s was the voice of Satan, who had tempted Jesus in the wilderness to shy away from the cross and choose a path to rescue Israel and the world that would surely fail because it did not come from God. You see, Peter did not have the faith of Abraham. He didn’t believe that God really is the God who calls into existence things that don’t exist and gives life to the dead. Peter was looking at things from a broken and limited human perspective and couldn’t (at that point) bring himself to trust the path God had chosen to rescue his world.

So what does this have to do with Lent with its emphasis on confession, repentance, and self-denial? Jesus tells us. He tells us he must suffer and die a horrible death so that God’s promise to rescue his world and us from evil, sin, and death will be accomplished. But there’s more. Jesus tells us that we too are part of the plan, that we too must follow him in his kingdom work of suffering and dying. He warns us that if we are not willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him, we cannot hope to inherit eternal life. Apparently our own self-denial, our own suffering for Jesus’ sake, our own proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection to a world fundamentally opposed to Jesus is also part of how Jesus’ victory on the cross gets implemented, strange and frightening as that might seem to us. This means that we have to take a cold, hard look at ourselves and work on putting to death all that is hostile toward God and his good purposes. And please, as we engage in this difficult work of dying and self-denial, do not mistake this as an invitation to self-loathing. We are made in God’s image and not everything in us needs to die. Hearing Jesus’ call to deny ourselves and take up our cross as a command to hate ourselves makes a mockery out of God’s words to us that we heard last week at Jesus’ baptism: You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased. We must always remember that we are indeed God’s beloved in Christ. Otherwise there would have been no cross. But there still is stuff in us that rightly needs to die.

This means, for example, that we have to leave behind our petty and pedantic ways. It means we have to stop acting like God owes us something (or anything for that matter) so that we throw a hissy-fit when things don’t go the way we want or expect. It means we have to stop thinking we are smarter than God. It means we have to stop being indifferent to the plight of the poor and needy or to any kind of injustice we encounter in our lives. It means we have to be willing to forgive others when there is absolutely no reason to do so. It means we have to love people enough to stop supporting lifestyles that will surely lead to their destruction, starting by looking at our own lifestyles. It means we must love people enough to boldly and fearlessly proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and risen to a skeptical and hostile world because we know that it is only in and through Jesus that folks can have any real hope at all, now and for the future.

And you know what? If we don’t really believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God has defeated evil, reconciled us to himself, and delivered us from death, there is no way we will engage in this extremely difficult work of dying to self and carrying our cross with the Spirit’s help. If we don’t really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, we are still living in our sins and fears and don’t have any kind of real future hope because we have put our trust in a farce and a lie (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.12-19). This is what the enemies of the cross scream at us every day. This is what our common sense screams at us regularly! It’s all a lie! You can’t win by losing! The path to glory is not through suffering and death but by other means that we devise and which make sense to us. These voices scream at us because they don’t know (or are hostile to) the God who calls into existence things that do not exist and gives life to the dead.

But we do know this Lord, thanks be to God! And so we take time, especially during Lent, to imitate him and follow his path of suffering, self-denial, and death because we realize they are the path to our glory and the means by which our future is secured. This is not some kind of program of self-help or works-righteousness. It is about a firm hope and trust in the God who does crazy impossible things, at least from our perspective. It is about a firm hope in God to deliver on his promises, even when we do not fully understand all the hows and whys behind those promises. We can do this hard work because we know Jesus. We can do this work because we believe the gospel with its promise that Jesus is present with us right now in the power of the Spirit to help us become the people he calls us to be. Again, this is extremely hard work. But it is the most worthwhile and important work we will ever engage in because we know we are responding to God’s good love for us made known most powerfully in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, we do the work because we have the faith of Abraham, warts and all, not the faith of Peter when he confessed Jesus to be the Christ, and we believe that God will honor that faith, just like he did Abraham’s. It is a faith that is firmly rooted in the unshakable hope and trust that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.