2nd Sunday in Lent – March 20, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17John 3:1-17

By David J. Lull

Focal theme:
Paul’s treatment of Abraham’s story (Romans 4) shows that the basis on which both Jews and all non-Jews will be “justified” and the “righteousness” required of Jews and all non-Jews alike are the same: namely, “the righteousness of faith.” This “righteousness of faith” is trusting belief in God’s faithfulness to do whatever God promises to do. Trusting belief is beautifully expressed in Psalm 121. It is also at the heart of today’s Gospel reading (John 3:1-17).

Genesis 12:1-4a and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The lectionary cuts out Rom 4.6-12 and 18-25. (My pun for this kind of textual “circumcision” draws on the Latin roots of this compound word, which means “to cut around” for the purpose of removing a portion of something.) Read those verses anyway, at least for your sermon preparation. I can’t think of any reason to exclude verses 18-25. Perhaps the Revised Common Lectionary thought all the talk about the “circumcised” and “uncircumcised” in verses 6-12 was passé today, because circumcision has been a medical, nonreligious practice for newborn non-Jews in the United States since about 1900. Or, perhaps they thought “circumcising” these verses might lessen the tendency of some to bear false witness to Jews and Judaism. But the cut-off verses actually contain a clear corrective to that tendency in our churches. For Paul clearly included Jews (“the circumcised”) in God’s promise in this story about Abraham, who is “likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4.12)! Paul repeated their inclusion in verse 16: the promise rests “on grace” and is “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….” All means all!

In Romans 4, Paul explained why he did not “invalidate the law through faith” (3.31), which refers either the faithfulness of Jesus or faith in Jesus. From Paul’s view that righteousness or justification was not based on observance of the law (either the Jewish law in particular, or any law), some might infer that he was advocating that “anything goes.” But moral relativism, anarchy, or a life of immorality is not the only alternative to a life based on observance of the law. For example, one might obey traffic laws simply because they are the law, with consequences for violators; but a deep love of oneself and one’s neighbors is more likely to make someone a more consistently safe driver. Paul’s alternative to observing the law, presented in Romans 6 and 8, was living out of Christ’s faithful righteousness.

In Paul’s proof of his claim in 3.31 to “uphold the law,” he demonstrated how this alternative was rooted in the story about Abraham in Genesis 12, which is part of the Torah. This story has two points. The first is God’s promise to make Abraham “the father of many nations.” Jews would have understood that the Greek word translated “nations” referred to “gentiles,” who were not Israelites and who did not live by the law God gave to Israel. Paul had come to believe that Abraham would give life to—be the “father” of—both Israelites and “many gentiles.” The opposite of “many” in Greek is “one or a few,” not “all.” The many peoples of the world—Israelites and gentiles—would become one Abrahamic people.

The second point of the Abraham story, Paul argued, is God’s promise to make Abraham “the father of many nations” through “the righteousness of faith.” Abraham believed—had faith in and trusted—God’s promise to make him “the father of many nations” even though he and his wife were so old as to be near death (4.19). God’s promise is “guaranteed” not only to those who live by the law God gave to Israel, but also to those who “share the faith of Abraham” (4.16). For Abraham’s story shows that God declared that Abraham’s “faith” was the “righteousness” that “upholds the law.”

Abraham’s faith is the Torah’s example of righteousness. Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of faith” means that “faith” defines what “righteousness” is. In the Abraham story, “faith” is trust and belief that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4.17), and “being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised” (4.21). In the context of Romans 4, this “faith” is the trust and belief that God unites Israelites and “many nations” into one people, a people who once had no existence. The “many nations” who once were not Abrahamic people, now belong to the people “of Abraham’s faith.”

The emphasis in the Abraham story is corporate. This is not just about an individual’s faith. It is about “many nations” becoming one Abrahamic people through God’s promise. So, Abraham’s story can be the basis for reflection on common ground for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. At the core of all three Abrahamic traditions is faith in the same God, to whom alone all our love is due. All three reject idolatry, in whatever forms it takes: giving one’s life orientation, devotion, and loyalty to a nation, a nation’s ruler, economic gain, and so on. At the heart of all three is the double love-command: Love God and love your neighbor. Many differences in the interpretation of the nature and character of the one God, who the “neighbor” is, and what love is separate these Abrahamic traditions. But relations among their peoples will have a more “godly,” righteous character whenever Jews, Christians, and Muslims approach one another from the common ground of loving God and the neighbor (see http://www.acommonword.com/ and Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington (eds.), A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010]).

Before leaving Romans 4, we should take a look at translation problems in verse 1. First, some ancient manuscripts omit the Greek verb (the infinitive of heuriskō) translated “gained, found, or discovered.” The RSV and NJB translate this verse without this verb: “What then shall we say about Abraham,…?” That reading removes difficulties with this verb: Who is its subject? What is its object? What does it mean? So, the manuscripts that have this verb are probably older than those that don’t, since it is difficult to explain why an ancient scribe would add it and, thereby, introduce problems; on the other hand, it is easier to explain why an ancient scribe would omit this problematic verb.

The second translation problem has to do with the infinitive form of the verb. In Greek, the subject of the infinitive could be implied, for instance, by the subject of the main verb. In this case, if the subject is implied by “we say,” then this verse would read “What shall we say we have gained/found/discovered about Abraham our ancestor according to the flesh?” If that translation represents what Paul wrote, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand why Paul began his treatment of Abraham by identifying him as “our ancestor according to the flesh,” when the whole point of this chapter is to show that Abraham is the “ancestor,” not only of those who are circumcised or biological descendants of Abraham, but also of those who are not descendants “according to the flesh” but who “share” the same “faith of Abraham” that the circumcised “share.” So, it’s better to look for a translation of verse 1 that more accurately fits Paul’s point.

In Greek, the subject of the infinitive is more often indicated directly by a substantive in the accusative case. In Rom 4.1, the phrase “Abraham, our ancestor” fits that description. Abraham is the subject of the infinitive in all major English translations. In these translations, the implied object of the verb “gained” (NRSV), “discovered” (NIV and NET), or “found” (NAB), and the implied answer to the question are the same: “justification” or “faith reckoned as righteousness.” That’s certainly what Paul argued for in Romans 4. The problem is that all—except an alternative in the notes on the updated ASV—imply that Paul affirmed that Abraham was “our ancestor according to the flesh.” But, that’s precisely what Paul denied!

Let’s pause to consider the implications of the English translation “reckoned” for the Greek verb logizomai. Reformation and Counter-Reformation theologians have fought over this verb in Rom 4.3. To cut to the chase: Paul could hardly have believed God was thinking false thoughts when God “reckoned, regarded, considered, and counted” Abraham’s faith as righteousness. But that’s what we would have to say God did, if the Greek verb logizomai here meant that God only “counted” Abraham’s trusting belief in God’s promise as righteousness, even though it was not the real, genuine, authentic righteousness that God requires of all, Jews and non-Jews alike. For Paul, the story of Abraham in Genesis 12 could only mean that God “reckoned, regarded, considered, and counted” Abraham’s faith as real, genuine, authentic righteousness. So, “faith,” as the trusting belief that God is able to do, and will do, what God promises, really is the genuine thing: the authentic righteousness that God requires of Jews and all non-Jews alike.

In all English translations, except for the alternative in the notes on the updated ASV, the phrase translated “according to the flesh” modifies “Abraham, our ancestor.” The alternative in the notes on the updated ASV links this phrase with the infinitive verb: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, has found according to the flesh?” This translation is puzzling, to say the least. I have tried to figure out what the phrase “has found according to the flesh” means without success.

So, after considering all the standard translations, the most satisfactory proposal is the one Richard B. Hays made and John Cobb and I adopted in our Romans commentary (Cobb/Lull, Romans, 77). We split Rim 4.1 into two questions, made the first person plural the subject of the infinitive, made Abraham the object of the verb, and made the phrase “our ancestor according to the flesh” the object-complement: “What shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor according to the flesh?” The rest of Romans 4 spells out the reasons for Paul’s emphatic “No!” to this question.

Psalm 121
The psalmist beautifully portrays God as a faithful keeper of promises. The Creator of “heaven and earth” will not fall asleep on the job! Moreover, the protection of “your life” is not just a job description or something God does. It is who God is: the source of “help” and the “keeper” of “your life.” It is God’s very nature to be the “help” and “keeper” of life.

The psalmist was also careful not to say “God helps only those who help themselves,” or only those who love God, or only good people, or only Israelites. Of course, the use of the first and second person (I, my, you, your) refers first to Israelites. After all, it is their psalmist who is speaking. But the God of Israel was never the God of Israel alone. The God of Israel “made heaven and earth”! So, the God of Israel, whose very nature is to be “help” and “keeper,” is the source of “help” and safety for all people and of all creation. (The inter-religious, political, and ecological implications of this psalm are well treated by authors familiar to frequent visitors to this web site.)

That is why God is worthy of our trusting belief that God will do what God promises to do. Being “help” and “keeper” is in God’s very nature, in which there is no “shadow of turning” (James 1.17). That does not mean that God does not experience change, but it does mean that God does not change God’s “help-and-keeper” nature, just like God does not change God’s “love” nature. God is love (1 Jn 4.8, 16), so God “who keeps you will not slumber.” It is not in God’s nature to “slumber or sleep” (Psa 121.3-4).

Empirical reality, however, strikes a blow at this trusting belief. For 2,000 years (+/-), it might seem like God had slumbered, fallen asleep, and failed to keep Israel from harm. The creation of the modern state of Israel might be viewed as an act of a God who had awakened from a long sleep. To Palestinians, however, it is a tragedy, not an act of God. In many ways, people and the rest of creation also are not kept from “all evil” (Psa 121.7). The psalmist’s trusting belief—like that of Abraham and Sarah—is honed in the face of harsh, brutal facts of life and death.

For some, brutal realities are enough to conclude that God is too weak and/or inconsistently loving to be of help—or empirical evidence that a powerful, loving God does not exist. Here is not the place for arguments proving the existence of God, or for solving theism’s “problem of evil,” since most visitors to this web site are familiar with them, or you can find them in the resources elsewhere at this web site. Rather, my point is that trusting belief in God-the-helper-and-keeper-of-life does not involve blindness and deafness to brutal realities. On the contrary, it is a response to them, and it requires reimagining the help and protection that comes from God, and that God by nature is.

God-the-helper-and-keeper-of-life is the source of creative possibilities every step along every person’s and every other creature’s “going out” and “coming in” (Psa 121.8). The zest for life, intensity, and complexity is the “help” that comes from God. Wind under the wings is the help that comes from God. Solidarity and companionship is the help that comes from God. Always being “in-relationship-with” is the help that comes from God. Everlasting memory and care that nothing of value be ever lost is the help that comes from God—and the way God “keeps” and saves all life and all that is, was, and ever will be.

John 3:1-17
The focal theme for the 2nd Sunday in Lent—that the basis on which Jews and non-Jews alike will be “justified” and the “righteousness” required both of Jews and of non-Jews are the same, namely, trusting belief in God’s faithfulness to do whatever God promises to do—is also found in today’s Gospel reading. Here, faith is trusting belief that Jesus is “the one who descended from heaven” (3.13), which means that, in Jesus’ message, one encounters words from God (see 3.2 and 8.47). Since Jesus’ message is that, out of God’s love for the world, God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it, faith is trusting belief that God desires that the world not perish, but have “eternal life.” Faith is trusting belief that God keeps God’s promise of “eternal life.”

Let’s take a closer look at the content of this trusting belief. First, the Gospel says “God so loved the world” (3.16). It does not say God loved “only those who believe in Jesus,” or only “good people,” or only “Americans.” In this Gospel, “the world” refers on one level to all the world, and all means all, no exceptions. On another level, in the narrative of this Gospel “the world” refers to those precisely who do not believe and put their trust in God and, more specifically, to those who are hostile to Jesus and his claim that he has “descended from heaven” (3.13)—that is, that he is “a teacher who has come from God” (3.2), which is the main theme of this Gospel (see 6.46; 7.17; 8.40, 42, 47; 9.16, 33; 13.3; 16.27, 30; 17.21), and that he is “equal to God” (5.18). Since God loved all, even those who do not love God, God’s love is unlimited: it is an uncountable infinity of love (see Carolyn Stahl Bohler, God the What? What Our Metaphors for God Reveal About Our Beliefs in God, a love greater than which we cannot conceive or imagine (to paraphrase Jn 15.13 and Charles Hartshorne). Such unsurpassing love is worthy of our trusting belief!

Second, God’s love for the world is shown in that God “gave” God’s “only son” (3.16). That could mean that God gave up Jesus as God’s “only son,” as Paul said (Rom 8.32). But in this Gospel, Jesus lays down his own life (Jn 10.15, 17-18; 13.37-38; 15.13). This passage also speaks of God’s sending “the son” into the world (3.17). That language identifies Jesus as God’s messenger. For this Gospel, Jesus is primarily “a teacher who has come from God” (3.2).

In this connection, much has been made of John the Baptist’s announcement that Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1.29 and 36), which many think interprets Jesus’ death as the sacrifice of the Passover lamb to atone for the sins of the world. I won’t go into all the arguments pro and con, except to note three things:

  1. Passover celebrates the story of Exodus, which is a story about liberation from slavery. It was not the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the blood of bulls and rams were poured on the altar, and a goat (“scapegoat”) was sent into the wilderness to remove the sins of the community. Passover is about protection from God’s angel of death. The blood of the lamb was smeared on the lintels and door posts, so that God’s angel of death would “pass over” the households of Israel’s ancestors in Egypt. Also, there are no “words of institution” in this Gospel, which instead has a story of Jesus’ servitude as an example of how the disciples were to relate to one another. If the section on eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood (6.53-66) is a recasting of the Passover meal, it is strange, to put it mildly. The blood of the Passover Lamb is to be poured over the altar, not drunk. To a Jew, that would be a gross, disgusting violation of kosher rules! That’s why “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (5.66). In fact, the author of this section goes on to declare that the flesh is useless, and that what’s important are Jesus’ words, which are spirit and life (6.60-63)! Also, this passage says nothing about forgiveness of sins as a benefit of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. So, the connection between “the Lamb of God” and a Passover/Eucharistic meal dissolves on closer examination. Echoing the story of Passover in Exodus, this Gospels says Jesus brings freedom from sin (8.30-36).
  2. After his death, Jesus granted his disciples the power and authority to forgive sins (20.23), but that is about the transfer of power to forgive from Jesus to his disciples. No mention was made of the forgiveness of sins in the telling of Jesus’ death. Rather, Jesus’ death was his “hour … to depart from this world and go to the Father” (13.1). The Greek verb translated “depart” also means “pass over”!
  3. In this Gospel, sin is the opposite of trusting belief (3.18; 5.24; 9.41; 15.22-25; 16.7-11). It is the refusal to believe that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God” (3.2), which is the main theme of this Gospel (see above). So, Jesus “takes away the sin of the world” by speaking God’s word and doing God’s work, so that the world” might “believe” in him and in the one who “sent” him.

God’s mission for Jesus in the world was (and is) to bring “eternal life” to those who “believe” (3.15-16). In popular Christianity, “eternal life” has come to mean an extension of this life beyond the grave: “life after death.” In this Gospel, however, “eternal life” is already granted and experienced in this life by those who “believe.” “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (3.36; 4.14; 5.24; 6.47, 54). So, “eternal life” is a quality of life here and now. It is abundant life (10.10). For “resurrection” (11.24), this Gospel uses the future tense: “…I will raise them up on the last day” (6.40; also see 6.39, 44, 54). In the context of the story about Lazarus, “resurrection” refers to “life after death” at the time of the general resurrection of the dead. That “resurrection” is not the same as “eternal life” is clear from the pairing of the present and future tenses in 6.54: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (also see the first half of 6.40). “Eternal life” is the life of trusting belief here and now that does not “perish” (3.16; 6.27; 10.28; 12.25). Knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent is “eternal life” (17.3). Trusting belief in God and Jesus whom God has sent brings an ever flowing abundance of life!

To return to the first part of today’s Gospel reading, those who are “born from above” know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent and, therefore, “see the kingdom of God.” This “new birth” and “birth from above” (the Greek word anōthen plays on both meanings) is “eternal life.”

Finally, a note on verses 14-15: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This allusion to Num 21.1-9 is another word-play typical of this Gospel. The Greek verb hypsoō has a double meaning: “lift up” spatially and in social status and power (“exalt”). Both the serpent and Jesus were lifted up in the air: the serpent on a pole, Jesus, the “son of man,” on a cross. And both were lifted up in social status and power: both saved people from perishing. The bronze serpent had healing power, so that anyone who was bitten by a poisonous snake who looked at the bronze serpent would live; so also Jesus, the “son of man,” brings “eternal life” to anyone who “believes in him.”

David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.