Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
March 20, 2011
Listen to Podcast

Genesis 12:1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

For the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about baptism; about the promises we make to the newly baptized and their families; I have been thinking about the radical claims made in our baptisms:

We are claimed as God’s own and named beloved of God.  In particular, one part of our baptismal liturgy has really laid claim to my heart and mind lately. 

“Celebrating the Risen Christ, we baptize in Christ’s name, remembering that by the gift of Jesus, God’s love for us is unconditional, not based on anything we have achieved, not waiting for any response we make.”

These are the words I use at every baptism; words that are so counter cultural, so radical that they give me pause, because I worry we do not even register their meaning, or recognize the promise they hold.     

“God’s love for us is unconditional, not based on ANYTHING we have ACHIEVED, not waiting for any response we make.”  We can not EARN God’s grace.  It is a gift, pure and simple.  But, for so many this idea is not simple. 

In a culture that teaches us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; in a culture that tells us we can have anything as long as we work hard to earn it or buy it on credit, we generally have a hard time understanding the idea of God’s gift of Grace. 

This idea that we can not earn grace is good, basic Presbyterian theology and it flows out of our understandings of Paul and his letter to the Romans.  Let us listen with ears and hearts wide open to the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Rome, that we might hear God’s word for us today. 

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts the one who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

13For 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. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be 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, 17as 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.

The Word of the Lord                      Thanks be to God


Did you hear it?  Did you hear the Word of God for you this day?  I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible time reading and understanding Paul.  In January, when the participants in the Year of the Bible were reading the book of Romans, I budgeted an extra 15-20 minutes just for those readings because I always have to chew on his thoughts. 

He packs a lot of theology into very few sentences.  [I am guessing that y’all would like your preachers to follow Paul’s example.]  So lets take a moment and unpack some of this together.  Here in the 4th chapter of Romans we find Paul addressing a church divided. 

We do not know a lot about the early church in Rome, but we do know, from the book of Acts, that the Jews who followed Jesus in Rome had been expelled for some reason.  In their absence the early church that was left there in Rome became predominately made up of gentiles. 

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written after these exiled Jews returned and discovered all of these gentiles leading their congregation.  I think it is safe to assume that the Roman church was experiencing some growing pains as these Jews and Gentiles learned how to grow in faith together. 

It appears that the long held stereotypes and beliefs of the Jews and gentiles were causing them to exclude one another from the family of God.

The Jews in the community believed you were justified by following the Law given on Mt. Sinai.  The gentiles, who were faithful followers, argued against this because they were not part of the ancient tradition of God’s law. 

So, does justification come from following the law or from faith?  How do we earn God’s grace? 

What makes us worthy? 

This is what these faithful followers in Rome were arguing about.  This is one of the many reasons Paul is writing to the church in Rome.  It is funny, but I think Paul could be writing to the Presbyterian Church today, in fact, I believe he could be writing to Christians everywhere today.  Our denomination argues over who is worthy to serve in ministry;  another denomination, and I use that term very lightly here, protests funerals and other functions to make a statement about worthiness in the eyes of God; people the world over denigrate other faith traditions, saying they are not real or valid expressions of faith.

To this type of belief and discourse Paul argues that all people need God’s goodness, no matter their pedigree, and God’s goodness is shown in Christ, who reminds us that no one is privileged over and against another. 

To help make his point he goes looking for a figure from Jewish life that will illustrate his point and he happens upon Abraham, and in Abraham he discovers that how God regards us is not up to us.

God made the covenant with Abraham because of Abraham’s faith not because Abraham did such a good job of upholding the law, which at that point did not even exist. 

God made a covenant with Abraham not on the condition that he get circumcised, or on any other conditions but because of Abraham had faith that God would provide.  Abraham trusted and believed that God would give life to the dead and call into existence those things that did not exist. 

Abraham was an old man with out any heirs.  His wife Sarah was well beyond child bearing years.  They were like the walking dead, but he trusted and believed that God would provide and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.   And baby Isaac was born; and now through Christ, we are made heirs of that covenant. 

Like Abraham, and like the early church, our worthiness does not come from how many check marks we have next to our name on God’s behavior chart.  Our worthiness in the eyes of God comes out of God’s goodness and is based on the love of God, who holds us and keeps us.  All that we do in the world is in grateful response to this good news.  We teach our children, we participate in our Exploration Hour, we read our Bibles, we love and serve the poor and those in need, we pledge to the church, not in order to earn our way through those heavenly gates, but because God so loved us that God sent Jesus Christ into the world that we might have life and have it abundantly. 

As we make our way to the Jerusalem this Lenten Season may we remember that love, may we remember that by the gift of Jesus, God’s love for us is unconditional, not based on anything we have achieved, not waiting for any response we make. 

Believe in that promise my friends because, as we will see, our God “is the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Amen and Amen.