Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Moving on Up . . .
You can’t see the Kingdom of God without being “born from above.” So says Jesus to Nicodemus (John 3:3). That phrase “born from above” might be a key to understanding the journey of faith. We are by nature physical beings, but by grace we become spiritual beings. By faith we are enabled, as we allow the Spirit, who like the wind, blows where it likes, without us being able to control it. If we’re willing to allow grace to bless us, then our lives might be transformed so that we can participate in God’s work of transforming the world that God loves. If being part of the realm of God means being “born from above,” then most assuredly the path of faith is an upward track. While this path may lead upward, it needs to be said that most often it first goes into the valley.
In approaching these three lectionary texts for the second Sunday of Lent, my thoughts are being pushed in interesting directions from my concurrent readings in Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey Bass, advanced proof). Rohr speaks of the reality that faces us all – that we will fall before we rise.
So we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. And that does not mean reading about falling, as you are doing here. We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we’ll never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern. (P. 66).
The journey we are taking, should we chose the way of the Spirit of God, won’t be an easy one. Consider the journey of Abraham and Sarah, after God calls him. Yes, he receives a promise and a purpose, but it’s not all smooth sailing. God calls Paul on the Damascus Road, he’s blinded and then healed, but it’s not all smooth sailing for him either. As for Jesus, he hears the call and takes up the mantle of God, but his path leads to a cross before it leads to resurrection. Suffering is part of the course of life. We must go down, in order to move up. The cross comes before resurrection. If we’re to experience the fullness of God’s promises we must understand this reality.
Our journey starts with a promise to Abram. God says – go to a new country and I’ll make for you many descendants and you we’ll be blessed so that you might be a blessing to the nations. That’s pretty good news, but it demands a sacrifice. Abram must leave behind his home and his family in order to receive the blessings. But Abram went by faith. But, he doesn’t go alone. In this particular set of verses, we don’t read Sarai’s name, but this is a partnership. There will be no descendants without her. The promise made to Abram and Sarai is really one of the most important statements in scripture, because it sets the context for the rest of the story. Christians come into the story as heirs of the promise to Abraham by grace, for we are not direct descendants of Abraham and Sarah. But then again, as we’ll see, even Abraham and Sarah and their descendants don’t earn this promise, but instead receive it by grace. It is grace that enables them to receive the call of righteousness by faith.
In many ways Romans 4 is a commentary on the Genesis 12 passage. According to Paul, the call of Abraham is not something that has been earned. Abraham is our ancestor, not because of works, but simply because Abraham believed God. Now what does this mean? “Abraham believed God.” Does that mean that God gave Abraham some kind of ordination exam with a set of questions that needed proper answers lest he be rejected? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Abraham isn’t justified – made right before God – because of the Law. Remember the Law doesn’t come until later. No, it’s a matter of faith, and again faith isn’t assent to a set of doctrines, but is simply trust. Abraham heard the call to leave behind family and friends and security so that he could follow God’s lead into Canaan.
It’s important that as we hear Paul place the Law behind Faith, we don’t hear him denigrate the value of Law. For Paul the Law its place, but it’s not the end game. Again, turning to Richard Rohr, who speaks of life’s two halves, the first half has to do with identity formation and security. It’s a question of ordering one’s life, and most assuredly the Law helps with this task. In the second half of life, we can begin to take risks and journeys beyond secure boundaries, but as Rohr suggest, “maybe they cannot answer a second call because they have not yet completed the first task.” He then goes on to write:
Unless you build your first house well, you will never leave it. To build your house well is, ironically, to be nudged beyond its doors (p. 23).
We have to fulfill at least a large part of the first half tasks before we’re ready to move on. Apparently Abraham was ready to take the next step. So was Paul. The point is, that if adherence to the Law is all that is required, then faith is of little value. If Law is the end, then what we have is a rather risk-averse life. The Law has its place, for as Rohr writes, “without law in some form, and also without butting up against the law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally” (p. 25). To live by faith is to take that step outside the doors, to butt up against the walls that try to keep us inside, and being to fly, to test the waters, and live by the Spirit.
This brings us to the gospel lesson from John. The text itself doesn’t speak to the Abraham paradigm that is present in the two texts from Genesis and Romans, but John pushes us to think outside the box. Nicodemus comes to Jesus, seeking wisdom (we would assume), but Jesus throws him for a loop with his talk of being born from above if he should want to see God’s kingdom. Like most of us, Nicodemus is thinking in very material terms. How can I be reborn from my mother’s womb? But, Jesus is speaking in spiritual not material terms. He’s moving beyond the first half concerns of rules and boundaries and identities to the life in the Spirit, where we test boundaries and allow God to move in and through us so we might reach our full potential as God’s children. Jesus first says – if you want to see the realm of God you have to be born from above – that is, born from heaven. Then he ups the ante, and says – if you want to enter the Kingdom then you will have to be “born of water and Spirit.” Traditionally, this phrase has been taken to refer to baptism, but I’m convinced that in context the point isn’t baptism, but rather a contrast between physical birth (water) and spiritual birth. Both are necessary, for we are born of the flesh, but if we’re open then we can also be born of the Spirit as well. To enter the kingdom we must experience this spiritual birth, and when it comes to the Spirit, the wind blows where it will. We don’t control it, and it will push us outside the box.
In this conversation, as John tells the story, Jesus moves onto a discussion of what it means to fall upward. No one has ascended to heaven, he says, except the one who has descended from heaven – the Son of Man. But the one who has descended must be lifted up, even as Moses lifted up the serpent, so that whoever would believe might have eternal life. And what does it mean to believe? Again, I don’t think it means signing on the dotted doctrinal line, but rather trusting in the one who seeks to take us on a journey of faith – the Spirit of God. Our hope lies then in the one sent by God who loves the world, so that whoever trusts in the one God has sent might not perish but have eternal life, which as Richard Beck notes, may have less to do with quantity of time as it does with quality of life in God.
The question that these texts raise concerns whether we’re ready to move on up into the heavenly realm? Are we ready to follow the Spirit and live outside the box? Have we formed/been formed in such a way that our identities are secure enough that we can leave the nest and follow the Spirit into new opportunities to be in partnership with God in loving the world? And we do so by faith, knowing that the wind of the Spirit blows where ever it wills!