March 16, 2014

“When We Were Saved”
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

4 Well then, what can we say about our ancestor Abraham? 2 If he became acceptable to God because of what he did, then he would have something to brag about. But he would never be able to brag about it to God. 3 The Scriptures say, “God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in him.”
4 Money paid to workers isn’t a gift. It is something they earn by working. 5 But you cannot make God accept you because of something you do. God accepts sinners only because they have faith in him.

13 God promised Abraham and his descendants that he would give them the world. This promise wasn’t made because Abraham had obeyed a law, but because his faith in God made him acceptable. 14 If Abraham and his descendants were given this promise because they had obeyed a law, then faith would mean nothing, and the promise would be worthless.
15 God becomes angry when his Law is broken. But where there isn’t a law, it cannot be broken. 16 Everything depends on having faith in God, so that God’s promise is assured by his great kindness. This promise isn’t only for Abraham’s descendants who have the Law. It is for all who are Abraham’s descendants because they have faith, just as he did. Abraham is the ancestor of us all. 17 The Scriptures say that Abraham would become the ancestor of many nations. This promise was made to Abraham because he had faith in God, who raises the dead to life and creates new things.

More than a quarter century ago, a young chaplain walked into a hospital room. He was assigned to this floor. It was oncology. Most of the patients on this floor were not very talkative, the ravages of chemotherapy and radiation being what they were then and now.

Perhaps it was his condition, the illness, the disease, that caused this particular patient to have such an existential focus. I do not know why or how he was so talkative.

Walking into the room and before he could introduce himself, the chaplain was questioned: “When were you saved?”

The chaplain thought that it was a compliment for the patient to assume this status of justification. He didn’t ask ‘are you,’ he asked ‘when.’

‘Are you’ is an entirely different question than ‘when.’

‘Are you’ questions your status, ‘when’ accepts your status but wonders about timing. When is like this: There you are at the family reunion. All the regular characters are there. But you notice one unfamiliar face. You walk over with a glass of lemonade to this mop haired young man standing off on the edge of the tribe. You say hello, introduce yourself. He tells you his name, and then adds that he married your second cousin Susie last August. (Ah, that’s why you don’t recognize him). You chuckle and say ‘you’re new to the family.’ and he asks how long you’ve been here and you tell him ‘forever.’ I was born into it. You tell him ‘there never was a time when I didn’t know I was a part of this family.’

The way of ‘Are you’ is not as bad as it sounds. If the reunion was based upon the ‘when’ rather than the ‘Are you,’ the story would play out entirely different. The ‘Are you’ that Paul answers with a resounding yes is this: Salvation is received as a gift before any good works are done, it is not a reward, it is not a wage paid for work performed. It is predicated on trust. “… you cannot make God accept you because of something you do. God accepts sinners only because they have faith in him.” This is a God who does the unexpected – forgives rather than condemns the sinner.

The scriptures say that God accepted Abraham because he had faith in Him. We all know of the many acts of faithfulness that Abraham demonstrated. In his tent, in the mid day heat, his faith in God moved him, literally, to go to an unknown place only on the basis of a promise.

When was Abraham saved? When he had faith in God. Abraham was saved at the same moment you were. When you had faith in God.

One more thing about that reunion. It has to do with the ‘Are You?’ question. As in, ‘Are You’ really a member of this family? Whispered under the breath is ‘couldn’t be’ or ‘really?” If we go back there we might remember that there were some people who were missing. They didn’t come. Why? It was too difficult. They had made mistakes, maybe they had disappointed Mom-mom or Pop-pop, I don’t know. The message to them may have been direct or indirect, I don’t know, but the message was ‘you’re not welcome here.’

Sometimes the hardest part isn’t what other people think about you but what you think about yourself. So then you don’t go to the reunion at all. The family gathers at that same grove they always gather at. The date is the same, there aren’t any surprises; third Sunday in August. Two pm. The family has gathered. After everyone has had their fill of aunt Alice’s fried chicken and sister Andrea’s macaroni salad, after that while they are playing quoits, a couple of the fellas ask, “where is Jon? I wonder why he isn’t here this year.” They all know about what you have been up to, but if you showed up they would have welcomed you. At least they say they would. And if they didn’t, well they must have forgotten that part about ‘forgive as we forgive those who sin against us…’ Maybe they will call next week to check up on him, I don’t know.

It is good to remember the most important point in this text. The most important point for everyone to remember is that this faithful God justifies the ungodly, not waiting for them to shape up first. In verses 5 and 17, God is identified as the one who justifies the ungodly, the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. There is no break in their invitation. They are welcome, even before everything is straightened out.

Back in that hospital room, way back when, that young chaplain paused for a moment, thinking about the question that patient asked him. Then he replied, ’33 A.D.’ that’s when I was saved, ’33 A.D.’