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. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For 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, as 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. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
What does faith look like? I think it depends a great deal on who you ask, but one thing I am fairly sure of is that it doesn’t look like St. Paul’s description of Abraham, despite what he says, and I know I am on dodgy ground here but I think that St. Paul’s description of Abraham as a man of faith is more an idealist description of an archetype of absolute faith than it is a description of the reality of Abraham’s actual life.
Let me remind you of what St. Paul said about him:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
Now I’m sorry, but when you read the story of Abraham most of that just isn’t true. Let me briefly recount some of the lowlights. Yes, when he was called at the beginning of Genesis 12 he left his country and went to the land that God was promising him. But as to whether he really had complete faith in God at that point, I would want to raise a few questions.
Later on in that chapter he passes his wife off as his sister for the sake of his own safety. Not exactly an act of faith. God returns to him later and reconfirms his promise to make him the father of a nation, but since there is no sign of any children he eventually capitulates to his wife’s wishes and takes her slave girl, Hagar as another wife.
Now Hagar clearly had no say in this because she was a slave. In modern culture we would probably think of this as rape, and forced marriages of young women of eastern cultures in our own time is a source of great concern for us all. So rather than trusting in God to fulfil his promise, Sarah and Abraham conspire to literally use Hagar in order to help the promise along a bit. Once again that is not exactly what we would term as an act of faith.
By Genesis 20 there is still no sign of the promised child, and once again, for the sake of his own safety Abraham passes Sarah of as his wife. It’s not until the next chapter that Isaac is finally born to Sarah, but I am not truly convinced that we have seen that great archetype of faith that St. Paul describes in the letter to the Romans.
Finally, In Genesis 22, in a gruesome act of almost child-sacrifice that raises more questions than it answers, we see Abraham prepared to kill the child of the promise on God’s say-so, showing a faith and trust, however distasteful it seems to us, that if Isaac were to die then God would still fulfil his promise.
So when I look at Abraham’s life as it was recorded in Genesis I’m afraid I don’t see a great figure of faith. What I actually see is a man displaying all the weaknesses and errors of humanity who slowly but surely managed to get himself to a point where he trusted God, but it took him years to do so.
Now the reason I’m telling you this is because I think that we are very easily disheartened by some of the stories of Biblical faith that we are told about, and we therefore assume that we are nothing special, and capable of nothing special, simply because we can’t live up to those claims. I think it’s actually really important for us to understand that they couldn’t either!
St. Peter, spoken about in our Gospel reading here, is another excellent example of this. Peter, the rock on whom Christ said he would build his church, does not come over terribly well in many of the Gospels and here we have a prime example of him not understanding Jesus and rebuking him for all his talk about how he would have to suffer.
Peter didn’t get it. And remember Peter was the one who disowned Jesus when he was put under pressure at Jesus’s arrest. And although we assume that the Peter became a man of true faith who was filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and spoke to a crowd of thousands in Jerusalem that same day, St. Paul writes later about how he had needed to oppose Peter when Peter stopped associating with Gentiles in the presence of Jews out of fear for what the Jews might say.
Yet eventually Peter laid down his life for Jesus, and in his humility refused to be crucified like Jesus because he wasn’t worthy, asking instead to be crucified upside down.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not wanting to paint these heroes of our faith as failures. What I think we all need to do is recognise that they were people just like us who made slow progress in faith. I think that we look at their lives and assume, from the great things they accomplished, that they were people of great belief who were rock-solid and had no doubts.
And in so doing we assume that there is no way that we could accomplish works of faith, and that there is no way that we can really make a difference because we don’t really believe enough. I cannot tell you how important it is that we realise that all God’s people are flawed. When Moses was called he came up with all sorts of excuses as to why he couldn’t do what he was asked.
Jonah ran in the opposite direction. Isaiah said, ‘Woe to me for I am a man with unclean lips’ and Jeremiah said ‘I can’t go, I’m only a boy’. Yet look at what they eventually accomplished.
And I know the truth of this too. When I was called to come here, maybe six years ago, I lived in fear for months before I arrived, absolutely sure that I couldn’t do it, leaving behind the diocese I had always known to come somewhere else completely new. It was a huge struggle, and sometimes it still his.
Faith is not about having doubts, it is about pressing on despite those doubts. It is not about being fearless, it is about slowly learning to trust God despite the fears. It’s not about believing the right things, it’s about doing what you’re told to do, despite being sure that you can’t.
So this Lent, as you pray through what God may be calling you to do, believe that he may indeed be calling you to do something, and if he is calling you it’s because he believes you can do it, and because he knows you don’t need to wait until you’re prefect before you start.
The heroes of the Bible were not great masters of faith who never doubted. They were people just like us with all our flaws. So if they could do what God asked of them, then so can we.