Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Our first two readings this morning are about Abram (or Abraham as he was later named). The story from Genesis recounts what is sometimes termed “the call of Abraham”, when God tells Abraham to move away from his own country and family into a new land where God promises to make him a great nation and a blessing to all the families on earth. If one reads the whole Bible, one learns that the movement away from Abraham’s native land into the promised land did not begin with Abraham, and the promised great nation did not come about until several centuries after his death. It was Abraham’s father Terah who moved them out of the city of Ur and halfway to Canaan. It was Moses who brought the great nation to the promised land and it was Joshua who finally led them into it. Abraham did a lot of great things and was obedient to God, but the work did not begin or end with him. He was only one in a long chain of people doing God’s work.
Paul talks about Abraham in our second reading this morning. He says that Abraham was righteous and did great things, but it was not the work that made Abraham righteous. Rather, it was Abraham’s faith that made him righteous. Abraham believed what God said and so he did the things he did. Paul hints that it should be the same with us: we should work because we have faith in God. We can’t do anything to gain God’s favor, because God already loves us. Nothing we do can get us on God’s side, because God is already on our side. Our work must spring from our belief that God loves us and our faith that God will take care of us. Any other basis for our life is false and bound to fail. When we trust in God’s love for us, we will work to make the world a better place for everyone, not just in order to make the world safer and more comfortable for us. We will understand and be ok with the fact that (just like Abraham) the work did not begin with us and won’t finish with us – we are merely links in a chain of people working to spread God’s peace and joy. In fact, our most fervent prayer should be that we never see the fruit of our work – not that our work should have no fruit, but that we should never see it, because if we see the fruit, we tend to work for results instead of out of faith, and we can even fall into pride because of our fruit. That is something important to monks, because from our vantage point, sometimes we can’t see the fruit of our prayer and life, and so we can become discouraged. We must continue in our discipline of prayer simply out of love, because the fruit of it is more than we can ever hope for our imagine. We do get a lot of letters from people thanking us for our prayer and life here, and it is always good to get those letters, but sometimes I wish we did not know of those people, because it can make us smug, rather than relying solely on God to carry us through or monastic vocations. Constancy and perseverance are keys to joy in monastic life, not knowledge of others’ appreciation of us.
Sometimes the chain of people doing God’s work seems to take a strange course, and sometimes the evidence of any good works being done is scant, and sometimes we worry about who will do the work after us, but there is always someone continuing to do the work of God – picking up where generations before left off and passing the chores on to generations yet to come. It is the same in our own lives; sometimes we can’t see how anything we are doing will amount to any good for anyone. Jesus says to not worry about that. John quotes him in our gospel story this morning as saying: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Just like Abraham, we won’t always see the results of our work done in faith, but just like Abraham, the important thing is to have that faith so we can and will do those good works. We must be born from above, as Jesus says in the gospel. He doesn’t explain much about that, except saying that anyone who believes in him has eternal life.
This new life in Jesus comes from faith in God and trust that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The new birth and new life that Jesus offers us brings us into the chain of faithful workers bringing God’s peace, joy, and health into the world. Like Abraham, we did not start the work, and we will not finish it. God is the beginning and ending of the chain. God lets us in on it because God loves us and wants to share eternal life. We just have to accept that love and life. Like Abraham, God will make us a mighty nation that brings a blessing on all families on earth. We might not ever see whom we are blessing, but that is ok, because we live by faith, not by sight, or feeling, or emotion. Righteousness and new birth are offered to us daily and hourly. May we believe, and so be reborn into the righteous nation of Abraham that brings blessings to all. May we then do good works and be a blessing to others out of gratitude for the new life, and may we be thankful for the blessings we receive from all the other members of the nation of righteousness. May we be faithful links in the chain. AMEN