A New Identity In Faith – February 25, 2018
What do you give a centenarian (someone who is 100 years old) for their birthday? How about a new name, a new beginning in life and a new baby? If I ever make it to 100 please don’t celebrate my birthday that way! When Abram was 99 years old that’s what God promised him when he turned 100.
Everyone gets a new name and a new identity in today’s scripture passages. Abram – exalted father or ancestor – becomes Abraham, which is a Hebrew play on words making him the exalted father of many nations. Sarai will give birth to the promised heir and so she also receives a new name: Sarai becomes Sarah. The meaning of the name change in Hebrew is unclear, but she takes on a new identity. Even God gets a new name. The Lord has appeared to Abram before, but this time he appears to Abram and says “I am God Almighty,” El Shaddai, God of the mountain or God on high.
In today’s Gospel of Mark we too are offered a new identity, but it comes with a cost. Only those who are willing to lose their life, who take up their cross and follow, can hope to find a new life in Christ.
My favorite part of the whole Abraham narrative is left out of today’s Old Testament reading. As the story continues in verses 17-19:
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” And God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.
Isaac means laughter. God visits Abraham again in the next chapter and again promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. This time it is Sarah who overhears the conversation and laughs. The heir, on who God’s promise and Abraham’s faith rests is names “Laughter.”
The renowned Christian author Frederick Buechner in a short article on faith asked,
Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway. They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half-believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meanwhile it helped keep them going. (Frederich Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 25)
In Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that it was Abraham’s faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness. What was most important for God was that Abraham believed and trusted in this crazy promise that he and Sarah would have a son, from whom God would make a mighty nation. This promise took them far away from their homeland in modern day Iraq to wander all their days in search both of a promised land and a promised child. They may have laughed, but they kept trusting this crazy promise. This, Paul emphasized, not Abraham’s obedience to a law that wouldn’t come into existence for hundreds of years, but his trust in a promise, is what was reckoned to him as righteousness. So, we are children of Abraham, not by virtue of having been born as his descendants, but through emulating a faith like his.
In essence Paul is telling the Romans and us, that we should trust the same crazy promise. In an odd way what Paul tells us bears resemblance to the conversation between the White Queen and Alice in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. The Queen had just told Alice that she was 101 years, 5 months and a day old.
"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Paul is inviting us to have faith in impossible things. And isn’t that what the Christian faith is about? Isn’t faith in impossible things, what taking on a new identity in Christ is all about?
We’re not only invited to believe in God who we cannot see, hear or touch directly with any of our senses, we’re also invited to believe that the almighty God empties himself of all divinity and is born as a tiny baby, thus revealing himself through that human life in a way we can both understand and relate to. We’re invited to believe furthermore that God’s power and strength are revealed in this human being – in Jesus – not in his victories or in his huge following or even in his miracles, but rather in his sacrificing everything and dying for us upon a cross – the shameful death of a common criminal. (Believing such an impossible thing proved too difficult for Peter in today’s Gospel story. But Jesus told Peter, the crowds and us, “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.” [Mk 8:34-35])
We’re invited to believe that in Jesus’ death that God defeated death. We’re invited to believe that death could not hold Jesus and that God raised him from the dead. In this world where death still seems to rule we are invited to believe that we too will triumph over death and share in Christ’s resurrection victory. We’re invited to believe in that resurrection power not only for some day, pie in the sky by and by, but is even power for living right here, right now.
We are invited to follow Jesus’ claim that greatness comes not through what we accumulate or our power over others, but in emptying ourselves of our possessions and our pretensions and serving others.
We are invited to eat a little bit of bread and drink a tiny sip of wine and by doing so to receive the living presence of Jesus’ body and blood. We’re invited to believe further that receiving this sacrament connects us in communion with Christ and one another and with Christians everywhere, both the living and the dead.
We are invited to belong to a Church, which as we proclaim in the creed, is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, but at the same time we see is fractured, divided and often at odds with Christians of differing viewpoints and practices.
Is there any use trying? Can we, as Alice laughingly asks the White Queen, believe impossible things? Well, consider where belief in these impossible things lead us.
- Isn’t God, who is beyond the realm of human touch or sight or hearing, a far better ideal to believe in than all the possessions and strength and pleasures and power this material world has to offer?
- Isn’t the good news of God’s improbable victory over death through Jesus’ death on a cross and God raising him from the dead, the best news you have ever heard?
- Do we not find strength and spiritual sustenance in believing that this bread and wine bring us into literal Communion with Christ?
- When we do follow Jesus by offering ourselves in love and service in acts of charity both large and small, don’t we share Christ’s love and living presence with them?
- Isn’t Christ’s ideal of the Church that is truly one in love worth living for, even though we fall so ridiculously short of it?
The Apostle Paul insisted that it is our faith in such impossible things, not our achievements, not our obedience or proper adherence to the liturgy, not the elegance of our prayers nor the perfection of our singing, that brings us to blessedness. It is not what we do at all. For blessedness does not depend on our own efforts; it is a gift from God. Our blessedness is out of our control; it is a free and undeserved gift. Paul invites us to trust in that gift – which is Paul’s definition of faith.
Like father Abraham and mother Sarah, that is the promise we pursue through all the challenges and strange twists this life has to offer us. And as we hang on to that promise of blessedness revealed in Christ, we are Abraham and Sarah’s children. We are closely related to their long hoped for son, named laughter.
This year Ash Wednesday – when we were reminded that we are but dust and to dust we shall return – fell on Valentine’s Day. And Easter, for Christians the day of God’s great victory in Christ, falls on April Fool’s Day. Is it possible to find God’s love in humility and repentance and to find our greatest triumph in something the world finds foolish?
Doesn’t it sometimes make you want to fall on your face and laugh? We Christians believe in impossible things. And if it is all true, as I believe it is, wouldn’t that be the greatest joke of all?