13 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.
Nations and communities, both religious and non-religious have rules and regulations that define their identity. Some people are very attached to these rules. They might even have them memorized or at least they keep a copy close at hand. Some of those folks are adept at manipulating these rules for their own purposes. It’s human nature, I suppose. Rules and regulations do help define identity and make life simpler.
Rule keeping, however, can easily suck the life out of relationships. Marriages that are built simply on the basis of established rules rarely last, because we can easily fall into the trap of keeping track of rule violations. When that happens, when the relationship is built on legalistic adherence to rules, the joy that engendered relationship in the beginning disappears.
The same can be said of the journey of faith. The current conversation about whether one is spiritual or religious is a good example of this tendency to turn faith into rule-keeping institutional reality. People seek a relationship with God but find themselves presented with a constitution and by-laws defining who can do what, when. Many choose a loose spirituality over a hard-bound religion. It’s unfortunate, because spirituality is best experienced within community.
I think that this is what Paul is getting at in Romans 4. He points us back to Abraham, the father of nations and the example of a faithful relationship with God. He reminds the Romans that the relationship that God established with Abraham (and his wife Sarah) wasn’t based on Law. Instead, the relationship was based on trust. God called Abraham and Sarah to entrust their futures to God’s direction, inviting them to take a journey to a place they didn’t know so that they could be the ancestors of a great nation. I should add into this conversation the name of Hagar, Abraham’s other wife, from whom our Muslim friends derive their spiritual ancestry.
As we proceed through Lent, we’re called upon to examine our lives and ponder the barriers that keep us from truly experiencing a living relationship with God. We hear an invitation to let go of those things that keep us from embarking on this journey that Abraham and Sarah first embraced – by faith. The danger that Lent presents is that it can become a legalistic venture. We begin to think that if we give up this or that, or do this or that, then perhaps God will honor us with a relationship. As Paul makes clear throughout the letter to the Romans, the Law has its purpose – it gives us guidance and sets certain boundaries, but ultimately it cannot be the basis of our relationship with God. It’s not that the Law is bad or inappropriate, it’s just that it can’t create a relationship – anymore than a marriage license creates a marriage. The license is important, but its’ insufficient.
The journey upon which we embark is sustained by God’s grace, not our legalistic adherence to Law. With that, we experience freedom to live in true relationship with God.
Published in the CWCC Lenten Devotional 2013