Robins and Romans

How does a Christian christian? More properly, what must one do in order to be a Christian?

Robins and Romans
Photo by Trac Vu on Unsplash

I preached this morning at a little church in Oshkosh, one that's worried about survival and being able to do what they need to do. Here's what I told them.

Romans 4:1–5, 13–17

A few years ago, when our son Bill was small, he told us that in his estimation, spring had arrived.

"Oh? Why is that?" we asked.

"On my way to school, I saw five robins," he replied.

"Were they singing?" his mother asked.

"No," he said.

"They were just robining?" 

"Yep. Pretty much."

This raises the not insubstantial question of how exactly a robin robins. To put it slightly better, what must one do in order to be a robin?

I have no idea, and I refuse to speculate. I only bring it up because it happens to be a good way to illustrate a question that's a bit more relevant to us. How does a Christian christian? More properly, what must one do in order to be a Christian?

The answer is: nothing. According to Paul, all you have to do is stand there while God loves you, like Abraham.

Now, this is not quite the truth, because Abraham actually does do a few things. He believes God. He trusts God's promises in an active sense. He welcomes those promises, you could say. And he obeys God. The Lord tells him to pick up and move, and he does, without question or hesitation.

So in a way, yes, Abraham does something. Still, Paul has a point. Much like Bill's robins, which didn't have to be singing in order to be robins, much less to be a welcome sign of spring, Abraham doesn't have to be doing anything in particular to be the father of the faith. What gives a robin its identity is a particular bone structure, its feathers, beak, coloration, and so on. But according to Paul, what makes a righteous person—a person who is in good standing with God—isn't what they look like, and it sure isn't what they do. Rather, it's God's grace being poured out upon them. 


In that sense, being righteous is more a matter of identity, like being a child. Our children can't do much to earn their position as our sons or daughters, beyond responding to our love. 

That's not a perfect analogy either, as it turns out. What Paul argues against in this passage is on the one hand the idea that we can earn our righteousness, that we have do certain things to be seen as good in God's eyes.

But on the other hand, he's arguing against what was then the traditional Jewish belief, which was that you became righteous by being, literally, a member of the Jewish family. They thought of themselves as cousins, more or less, and if you weren't born into the extended family, too bad. No Jewish blood, no salvation. It's that simple.

Paul's response to this way of thinking is that it doesn't matter what you've done, nor does it matter who your parents were. What matters, what continues to matter generation after generation, is that God is a loving god, who chooses us to be God's children.

"God gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were," and even more mysteriously, God accepts broken, sinful people to be sons and daughters, whom God greatly loves. It is inexplicable.

I know I've been a bit heady so far, but I assure you that this train of thought has very practical applications. 

God loves all God's children

For example, we often speak of things "just happening" in the world. God didn't cause whatever our latest disaster was. It just happened. And what Paul would tell us is that suffering earthquakes and tsunamis and nuclear disasters does not indicate that God doesn't love you or your nation, just as being American, rather than being from some other nation, does not protect us from national disaster. God doesn't play favorites.

The proof of God's love for us is: God's love for us. There is nothing about us—not skin or hair or race or size or riches or poverty or politics or sexual orientation nor gender identity—that shows that God loves us. If any of those things could prove God's love, you could argue that they are earned, rather than freely given, and that's simply not the case. People don't "earn" the disasters that befall them, and the places lucky enough to escape such terrible events didn't "earn" their way out of them. It just doesn't work that way. God loves all God's children.

And when I say "all," I really do mean all. Many Christians read John 3:16—"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"—as a statement of exclusion: either you believe in God, or you die. This is not so.

For one thing, that word "believe" is the same one as the "faith" that Abraham has. It's a matter of trust or confidence in God's promises, not agreeing with a proposition such as "Christ is the son of God the Father." But for another thing, the belief part is much less important than what surrounds it. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...that the world shall not perish but have eternal life. That's the message.

The upshot is that all who share the faith of Abraham are God's children, whether Jews or Christians or Muslims. We're all God's children. In fact, the way Paul talks about it, to be of the faith of Abraham really means to have trust in God in the same way that Abraham does. That means we really can't judge people who aren't members of the church. If they trust in God, they trust in God, and it's up to the good and loving God to decide if that is sufficient to make them acceptable.

That's on a global scale. Here's another example, on the level of individuals. We have this annoying tendency to assume that when we goof something up, it was an honest mistake. But when somebody else goofs it up, it's because they did something wrong! They didn't learn what they needed to learn, or they didn't pay enough attention, or they didn't work hard enough.

But the truth is that we all have our good days and our bad days, and again, sometimes things just happen. That's an argument for being patient with one another, first of all, but also an argument for seeing things in the big picture.

The Church

Particularly in the church, we have to ask ourselves, if something goes wrong or disappoints us or doesn't suit our tastes, how important is it, really? We all like to see our human institutions do well, but the important thing in a church community is the experience of God's love. All of our failures and all of our successes have to be seen in relation to that standard.

And seen in this light, our work, our still-present calling, consists less of doing this thing or believing, but in teaching the world about the love God has for us and for all people in the way that we are in the world.

What we, and they, do will follow that way of being. That means that all of those other things I've been talking about aren't distractions, but at the very heart of our teaching.

  • We need to show our children and grandchildren that God doesn't punish some people and lift others up with natural disasters.
  • We need to show our friends and neighbors that God loves everyone, whether or not they follow our religion or our way of life.
  • We need to show the world that God loves us even when we goof up, and sometimes we goof up, big time.
  • We need to show them that God doesn't hate anybody, and especially God doesn't hate people for who they are.
  • We need to show everyone that they are the fulfillment of God's promise to us, and we to them, and that we are so very grateful that they are here with us.

There is no technique in the world that can teach such lessons. It is a matter of teaching by example, and of being. We teach God's love in the same way that a robin teaches us about the arrival of spring: just by showing up.

I at least believe that we should teach all of these lessons not because they will earn us anything with God, but simply because they are the right things to do. Our job, as far as God is concerned, is the same as Abraham's: to believe, to trust, to welcome God's promises, and to move when God tells us it's time to go.

I have every faith that this little church is capable of doing what it needs to do—which is not much—when you need to do it. And I believe, I do believe, that when the time is right, God will deliver on God's promises to you, just as it happened with Abraham. Amen.

Jesus apparently cramming bread down Judas' throat