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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible - Romans
The Center: Faith in Christ

Romans 4:18-25

The center. As human beings, we often try to find the center of things. It is just the way we are. We want to find the center.

What is the center of an atom? The nucleus. We all know what the word nucleus refers to: the very center. It has become a metaphor for the center.

What is the center of our solar system? The sun. We all are keenly aware that the sun is the center of our solar system. There is no argument about that. Planets revolve around the sun.

What is the center of the earth? The equator. We know that. The equator is a line that wraps around the center of the universe. It is zero degrees latitude. It is warm on the equator; it is downright hot. We all know the equator is the center of the earth.

What is the geographic center of the United States? If you draw the shape of a rectangle around the United States and draw one line from the northwest to the southeast and another line from the northeast to the southwest, you discover that the lines intersect someplace Kansas. Topeka, Kansas sometimes claims to be the center of the United States.

What is the geographic center of the state of Washington? Again, if you draw a rectangle around the State of Washington and draw one line from the northwest corner to the southeast corner and another line from the northeast corner to the south west corner, you will discover that the two lines intersect a few miles east of Leavenworth on Highway 2. That is the geographic center of the state of Washington.

Where is the center of a basketball court? We can see it easily in our minds. There is a center circle in the middle of every basketball court. The center of an eye? We know. The iris.  The center of a target? We know. The bulls eye. In your imagination, you can see the bullís eye which is the center of every target you have ever seen.

Intuitively, we human beings often try to find the center of things.

What is the center of Christianity? The bullís eye?  The nucleus? We all know the answer. Jesus Christ. There is no argument about that. What does God want from us? We all know:  faith in Jesus Christ, believe in Jesus Christ, trust in Jesus Christ. Christ and faith in Jesus Christ is the center of Christianity. The bullís eye. We know that.

Why did you come here today? Why do Christians gather in worship services today around the whole globe? To grow in faith in Christ. We want our faith to grow strong just as faith grew strong in Abraham. We donít want our faith to be wavering and weak, to be doubting and double minded to be questioning and querulous. Down deep inside of all of us who have come here this day, we want to move beyond that. We want our faith to grow strong, like it was in Father Abraham. We want to have faith like in the gospel story for today about the Roman official who believed that Jesus could give life to his dead daughter. We want faith like the woman who was very sick and she believed that Jesus could heal her. Faith. Genuine faith. Deep faith. Trusting faith. Committed faith. New Testament faith. Growing faith. Faith in Jesus Christ is the bullís eye, the nucleus, the very center of the universe called Christianity.

Romans. The book of Romans. Today, we continue our summer series of sermons from last week on the book of Romans. The book of Romans is one of the two most outstanding books of the New Testament, along with the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John is the greatest of our four gospels that describe the life of Christ; the book of Romans is the greatest of our twenty-one epistles that describe the life of the early church. The Gospel of John is the king of the gospels; the book of Romans is the queen of the epistles. The king and the queen of books of the New Testament are John and Romans.

The church, in all of its wisdom, has a lectionary or system of Bible passages which are selected for each Sunday of the year, and so last Sunday, we began a series of sixteen sermons from the book of Romans. Yes, sixteen sermons in order to walk through the best of the epistles from the New Testament. So we are going to slowly read the book of Romans here at church this summer, and experience sixteen sermons on passages from Romans.

The book of Romans: the setting. Very briefly, we need to examine the situation at that time in history.  We recall the word, Roman, comes from the name of the capitol city, called Rome. Rome was and is the capitol city of Italy. In ancient times, Rome was the center and the capitol of the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire was one of the greatest empires ever known in human civilization e.g. the ancient Egyptian civilization and the ancient Greek civilization. These great ancient civilizations were great in art and architecture, economics and education, mathematics and military. After grand civilizations of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the Roman Empire ruled the world for nearly five hundred years, and the Roman Empire was nearing its apex when the letter of Romans was written in about 62 AD. The Roman civilization, too, was one of the great civilizations in human history. I Claudius was emperor of Rome. He was one of the Roman Caesars who were in power. The city of Rome was gorgeous and stately. The state capitol buildings of Rome such as the Forum, the Senate, the palace, were architecturally beautiful much like our Washington, D.C. buildings are today. I mean, really gorgeous. In a few years, the Romans would build their Coleseum that makes our Safeco field, seating 46,000 people, look puny; the Coleseum sat 50,000-75,000 and was a covered stadium, covered by sails hoisted up over the roof by sailors. Soon, the Romans built the Pantheon, the worship center, and its dome was the basic design for all the domes in the world such as the one our capital of Olympia. The Pantheon is the oldest building on earth which has been used from the time of its birth, two thousand years ago. The word, Pantheon, reveals its purpose: pan means all;  theon means gods. Pantheon means all gods. The Pantheon was a temple to worship all gods, and that Pantheon still stands today, two thousand years later. The Roman Empire was magnificent, almost beyond imagination, and was approaching the apex of its grandeur when the Apostle Paul began to plan his trip to Rome.

But there was one serous deficit: there was no good religion, no good spirituality, no good morality. The Roman civilization was religiously and morally bankrupt. It was said that ďall roads lead to RomeĒ but it was said that ďall gutters lead to Rome.Ē If you read the ancient Roman historian Juvenal, you will discover how morally bankrupt Rome was. Rome was a moral cesspool, a vat of sewage, a hole of moral waste and decay. Rome was ripe for a great religion like Christ and Christianity.

Paul was the missionary for Jesus Christ and for the Christian faith and Christian religion. The Christian faith was beginning to spread and permeate the whole Roman Empire. Paul had already made three missionary trips, but wanted to make a fourth trip to the far west frontier, Spain, and he wanted to stop in Rome to make Rome his headquarters as he went to Spain with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have heard the phrase, ďgo West young man, go West.Ē The Apostle Paul was going ďway WestĒ to Spain.

And so Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome to introduce himself. But more important than that, the letter was a summarization of his beliefs about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Mind of God , the heart of God, the incarnation of God in the flesh. This Jesus Christ who would permeate the whole Roman Empire.

In his letter, the key to the letter, the core of the letter, the nucleus of the letter is faith in Jesus Christ. You, Romans, need to clearly understand what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. And so Paul pauses in Romans, chapter four, and the whole chapter is dedicated to what it means to believe in Christ. The example of what it means to believe in Christ is from the story of Father Abraham in the Old Testament.

And so before we can go onto chapter five, six and seven; before we can begin to read the rest of the letter, we need to pause and understand chapter four. We need to understand his logic, his reasoning, his thinking. We need to understand Abraham. And all twenty-five verses of chapter four are about the faith of Abraham, and Abrahamís faith becomes the primary example of what it means to believe in Christ.

So before we move on in the book of Romans, let us pause and study chapter four. Let us pause and study Father Abraham as the primary example of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. Let us look at Father Abraham.

What does it mean to believe in Christ? To trust God like Father Abraham did, not wavering or doubting but firmly believing that God could do what he promised. That is what faith is: to believe that God can do what he has promised. It is to trust the promises of God so implicitly that you act on them. Let me explain.

God made three promises to Abraham:  1) I will be with you and bless you so that you will be a blessing. No matter where you go and what you do in your journey of life, I will be with you and bless you with my Presence, so that you will be a blessing to the world. And Abraham believed Godís promise. To be religious, to be spiritual, is to believe Godís promise to you, that God will be with you, at your side, in this journey called life. 2) The second promise that God made to Abraham was that his descendents would be numerous. There would be millions of descendents, like the sands of the sea and the stars of the sky. And Abraham believed Godís promises. Abraham fully trusted that God would be faithful to his promises to give him descendents. 3) God promised him the Promised Land, that Abraham and his descendents would have land to grow their crops, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land rich in abundance. And Abraham believed Godís promise. To be religious, to be spiritual, is to believe Godís promises to you.

So immediately this was all put to the test. So here was the first testing of Abrahamís faith, whether or not Abraham truly believe in God and his promises. Father Abraham was in Babylonia, and God said, ďGo to the land of Israel where I will give you a good land.Ē And Abraham got up and left his mother and father and brothers and sisters and began his journey to the promised land. Why did he get up and go? Because he believed that God would be faithful to his promises. No proofs. No signs. No wonders. No official deed in his fingers of future lands he would own. He simply believed that God would be faithful to him, be with him, would bless him so he would be a blessing. He acted and got up and left his homeland because he believed the promises of God, that God would give him a new land. That is what faith is: to believe in Godís promises even when there are no signs or miraculous evidences or proofs that the promises will come true.

The second testing of Abrahamís faith.  Abraham and Sarah got old, approaching one hundred years old and they didnít have any children. But Abraham still believed God, the promises of God, that he would be the father of a great nation and be the father of millions even though he was ninety-nine years old and still didnít have a kid. In that dark hour of aged infertility, God worked a miracle and gave Abraham and Sarah a child, Isaac, who became the father of millions. But Abraham believed in God, when he was ninety nine years old, before Sarah was pregnant, that God was faithful to his promise. He didnít start believing in God when he was 101, the year after God worked his miracle. That is what true faith is: it is believing in the promises of God, even before there is a sign or miracle.  You need understand what faith in Christ is, and it is like having the faith of Abraham who truly believed God and Godís promises to him.

The third testing of Abrahamís faith. God had commanded to take his only son out into the desert and offer a sacrifice to God. When the two of them were alone out in the desert, little Isaac asked his father Abraham where the lamb was that was to be offered for sacrifice. They hadnít brought it. And Abraham said, ďGod promised he will provide.Ē  God ordered Abraham to offer his only son Isaac whom Abraham deeply loved as a sacrifice and when Abraham raised the knife to slit the throat of his only son to be a sacrifice, an angel of God spoke sharply and exclaimed, ďStop.Ē God was putting Abraham to the test, to see if Abraham loved God more than his son Isaac. Abraham passed the test, that he loved God more than his son. And further, Abraham believed God would provide a sacrifice and sure enough, there was a lamb caught in the briars and it was sacrificed. Ö Abraham believed Godís promise that he would be the father of a mighty nation, even before God gave him a sign, a miracle, of the lamb caught in the bush. Abraham did not believe as a result of the miracle. No, Abraham believed in God before the miracle. He truly believed that God would provide.

And all of this occurred before Moses and the Ten Commandments, before ethics and morality, before obeying and following the religious rules, before the Jewish religion, before the commandment to love God and neighbor. What is true religion? Is true religion to love God with all your heart, mind and soul as in Deuteronomy 6:4 and love your neighbor as yourself as in Leviticus 19:18? What I am suggesting to you is that 430 years before there was Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18, there was Father Abraham and his faith in Godís promises. That is the deepest form of religion, the core, the nucleus, the target. We are to have strong faith in God like Abraham. Thatís what Paul is telling us in Romans four: we are to have strong faith such as found in Abraham.

And all of this is a free gift of Godís pure grace. Godís promises of his blessing, the descendents, the Promised Land are all free gifts from God, pure gifts, simple gifts. Abraham did nothing to deserve them or earn them or work for them. God simply promised these gifts to Father Abraham and Abraham believed God.

We find a similar movement in todayís gospel stories. A Jewish ruler came to Jesus because his daughter had died and this man believed that Jesus could raise her from the dead. He believed in Jesus before the miracle, before the sign, before the gift of his daughter be raised from the dead. Similarly, the woman who had been sick for a decade. She deeply believed that Jesus could heal her just if she touched the hem of his garment. Her faith was not the result of the healing. Jesus said simply to her, ďYour faith has healed you.Ē These two people from the New Testament Gospel had the same faith as Father Abraham: they believed that Jesus could do what he promised.

So we ask the question: what promises does Jesus make to us?

We are promised that Christ will be with us in all circumstances, near to us, dear to us, at our side. As Godís Divine Presence was with Father Abraham, so Godís Presence continues with us in the Spirit of Christ. Christís Spirit is with us, in us, around us, at our side to give us strength for living and power for dying. There is nothing we have done to deserve this gift of his Presence. This gift is from pure grace.

We are promised that Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, that our sins are fully and freely forgiven, that we stand before the throne of God and our sins are entirely covered over by the blood of Jesus Christ. And like the sunshine and the rain, this forgiveness from God is a pure gift. There is nothing we did to deserve it.

We are promised in Christ that we shall live forever with Christ, that we shall never die, that Christ conquered death itself and that we shall live eternally with God. And once again, it is pure grace, pure gift. We did nothing to earn or deserve eternal life with God and those we love.

And God want us to believe Christ, to believe in Christ, to trust that God can do fully as he promised. Like in the story of Father Abraham.

As human beings, we often want to find the center, the core, the nucleus, the bullís eye of a target. Faith in Jesus Christ is the center, the core, the nucleus of the Christian faith. Amen.

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