Two interesting readings from today’s lectionary caught my attention.
The first is Paul’s discussion of the righteousness of Abraham in Romans 4. v. 11 in particular caught my attention. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” While the line “An outward sign of an inward grace” is often credited to Augustine I cannot find it my collection of Augustine’s writings. Nonetheless, a search of Augustine’s works for the phrase “outward sign” leaves no doubt that the principle of the often credited statement is one that is supported by Augustine. (Side note – if anyone knows the reference where this is taken from I’d appreciate it).
What Paul seems to be arguing here is the actual act of circumscision was of no redemptive value in Abraham’s life. Circumscision was a “seal of the righteousness that he had by faith”. Without a doubt I am showing my covenent/reformed background here but if circumscision is a forerunner to the sacraments Paul’s teaching here should shape how we view the sacraments. The sacraments themselves are not of redemptive value. The thief who died on the cross was never baptized nor did he ever recieve the eucharist – but Jesus said “this day you will be with me in paradise”. (I am well aware of the lengthy discussion over what “this day” means but I am choosing to avoid it because it doesn’t really tie in with what I’m trying to say). However, the sacraments are important and in fact essential to the church’s life. As John Calvin points out, we as humans are phyiscal being and it is one thing to hear words, it is another thing to have them physically enacted in our lives. That is what the sacraments are all about. They are physical signs and seals of the grace of God in our lives. Two principles need to be kept in balance here. First is the point that the sacraments are not essential to salvation. A person’s eternal destiny is not in danger simply because they have not received the sacraments. However, in the life of the church the sacraments (which I define as baptism and eucharist) are essential to the life of the community because we as humans need to do more than just hear about God’s grace in our lives, we need to feel it, smell it, and taste it.
The second passage that caught my attention this morning was Matthew 19. This is Jesus’ teaching that only with difficulty will a rich person be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. When he’s done, Peter replies, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Part of what I love about Peter is that consistently through the Gospels he is the one who says what everyone is thinking but no one else will say. While sometimes this gets him in trouble (Mark 8) other times its simply beautifully honest. Matthew 19 is one of the latter cases and for his boldness he receives good news. The line I like the best, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first”. This bit at the end I would think would have great power in the lives of those who suffer for the sake of the gospel. While I personally cannot claim to have suffered much (okay, suffered at all) for teh sake of the gospel, I hope and pray that those around the world who suffer because of their faith will know that when all is made right in the world they will receive a reward a hundredfold what they have given up. God is good.