Clearly the person of Abraham is important to him as he dedicates a whole chapter to him in this letter to the Romans. Abraham is of course a great hero scripture and of the story of God’s dealing with humanity and is held in great reverence by all of his children who share his faith in God – Jews first Christians next and Muslims last.
The words of St Paul in his 4th Chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome are important to us too as this little phrase holds both the power to inspire and encourage us in our journey of faith, however it can also be misunderstood and this can too can inflict terrible harm to us and our relationship with God.
St Paul states that God reckons the faith of Abraham to him as righteousness. what does this mean? Does it mean that faith itself is the kind of righteousness we perform and God counts that as good enough to make us right before him - righteousness?
Such praise of Abraham can have the opposite affect of that to encourages us as we consider the great feats of faith that Abraham displayed in his life. For example what are you like in the presence of someone who is a hero to you or someone you hold with the greatest respect? Usually we find ourselves struck dumb, unable to think straight and if expected to hold a conversation we appear as a tongue tied youth on their first date! I remember when I met and shook the hand of Pope John Paul 11 I wanted to say something but when it came to the moment I just stood there grinning life a fool I fear! I relied on my friend beside me to speak for me as I was rather over whelmed with the encounter.
And here is one of the dangers of our reading of St Paul and the praise he heaps upon Abraham – we feel unequal to the task and feel a failure. Have we shown such faith, such determination in the face of hopelessness? how can our few years of service or faith be placed alongside the one hundred and more years that Abraham showed his unwavering faith in God with out it seeming insignificant, insufficient and if so un deserving of the promise of righteousness with God that St Paul point to?
So such a reading of St Pauls words this morning are not going to help us but deflate us or turn our faith in to a competition, a race that we must strive by our own efforts to not just finish but win.
So what are we to make of these words of St Paul concerning Abraham and how his faith was reckoned, counted to him as righteousness?
Is it like a high street transaction, we have £10 but the suit we want costs £150? So God knowing that £10 is all we have, and knows how hard it was for us to come by that amount, and gives us a mangers discount and we are able to take the suit home because God has in his mercy said he will count my £10 as if it was £150 and cancels the missing £140?
The danger of this thinking is that it encourage us to see God being there to make my faith sufficient for the righteousness reckoned, necessary or needed we might say for me. The danger here is that we see the way to salvation as fulfilling duties, filling an otherwise empty balance sheet with good works. And with all this striving leaving me still as the one who is not worthy, the one whose efforts will never be enough and although it is good that God will ultimately grant me his righteousness it is a transaction that limits and diminishes me.
The consequence of this thinking is to either see the life of faith as an unfair test or one that encourages me to be a kind of self made millionaire that denies the truth that all I have is from the grace of God, and indeed I am incomplete without him in my life.
The Justification that St Paul is pointing to is something very different - not God's seeing any righteousness in me, but his reckoning to me his own righteousness, for you and me through Christ by faith.
If this is the case then What does it mean to say that faith is reckoned as righteousness?
To answer this I want to take you back to the writing of John Bunyan in the 17th century. In a prison cells he wrote a book called Grace abounding to the chief of sinners. Here is an extract:
One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And me thought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God's right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before [in front of] him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, "The same yesterday, today and, and forever"
Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.
What is at the heart of St Paul's writing is that it is Christ who is our righteousness, Christ is your righteousness, Christ is my righteousness and so that righteousness is not something to be earned, or even thought of as "ours" but Christ's. It's the same yesterday today and forever. It doesn't get better when your faith is strong. It doesn't get worse when your faith is weak. It is perfect. It is Christ. Look away from yourself. Rest in him. Lean on him.
faith connects us with Christ who is our righteousness and, in that sense, faith is counted as righteousness. Faith sees and savours all that God is for us in Christ, especially his righteousness. That's what faith does.
During these days of Lent we have an opportunity to spent more time with one another than our usual allotted hour on a Sunday morning. This lent, beginning today we will meet again at 5.00pm to look together at our life together in this church, using the research of Bob Jackson in his course Everybody welcome to reflect together how welcoming we are? The sad truth Bob reveals is that 90% of people who try out our churches fail to join them. Making Welcome central to our life is necessary if we are to attract new members so the work of Christ can continue in the years to come.
Welcome and hospitality are central to the gospel and our Christian calling, let us aspire to gospel standards of welcome and hospitality and put them in to action.