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"Inheriting the World"

There is an important qualifier. Perhaps you noticed it. Paul writes, “For the promise that he would inherit the world, did not come to Abraham through the law, but through faith.”


[1] Photo by Manav Sharma
[1] Photo by Manav Sharma

Romans 4:13-25

February 25, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


There is an odd little phrase at the start of this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans: he talks of the promise that Abraham will “inherit the world”.


It made me think of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”.[2] It begins with these lines:

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting ….”


He could be talking about Abraham, with the doubting and waiting. He isn’t, but he could be.


There are other lines that apply too:


“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you …

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it!”


You see the link, right? Abraham had impossible dreams, knew triumph and disaster, and had to force a body to serve that was as good as dead, and God promised he would inherit the world.


 

I wonder how the Romans heard that phrase when Paul’s letter was read to them.


Folks who knew of Jesus’ ministry might have heard an echo of the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”[3]


But most of the believers in Rome were Gentile converts and you couldn’t blame them if the phrase “conquer the world” shouldered “inherit the world” out of the way.


After all, Rome was not known for meekness. It was the heart of the Empire, the flexing, parading, aggressive center of law, culture, military and economic power.


If they thought about inheriting anything it was the mantle of leadership, won on the battlefield and handed down from one strong man to the next.


 

Like I said, it is an odd phrase.


When we think of inheriting things, we are probably imagining tangible items:

grand-dad’s trumpet or the rose patterned fine china,

an antique rocking chair or mom’s hand-written recipes,

dad’s wood-working tools or the hunting cabin.


They pass from one generation to the next and if not spelled out in the will, their distribution might be the source of bitter arguments between siblings.


But that is not the sort of inheritance Paul is talking about here.


 

There is an important qualifier. Perhaps you noticed it. Paul writes, “For the promise that he would inherit the world, did not come to Abraham through the law, but through faith.”


He doesn’t want to talk about a stamp collection or the painting that hung over the mantle.


He is focused on the fact that this inheritance is a gift, not something you earn; not something automatic, either, but the result of God’s gracious initiative.


To make his point, Paul points to Abraham, the father of multitudes.


You remember Abraham – his story is a novella of God’s interaction with humanity.


Frederick Buechner writes:

“The place to start is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman and, after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought ... She is laughing because she is pushing ninety-one hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby. Even though it was an angel who told her, she can’t control herself. [Nor can her husband.] He keeps a straight face a few seconds longer than she does, but he ends by cracking up, too. Even the angel is not unaffected. He hides his mouth behind his golden scapular, but you can still see his eyes. They are brimming with something of which the laughter of the old woman and her husband is at best only a rough translation. The old woman’s name is Sarah, of course, and the old man’s name is Abraham, and they are laughing at the idea of a baby being born in the geriatric ward and Medicare’s picking up the tab. They are laughing because the angel not only seems to believe it but seems to expect them to believe it too. They are laughing because with another part of themselves they know they do believe it... They are laughing at God and with God.”[4]


That believing in what they cannot explain or see or produce by their own power, is faith.


And faith is what Paul wants to talk with the Romans about —for faith is hard. It is much easier to check things off a list, than to believe in God and accept the gift of grace. Faith is hard when you are waiting for a baby, or a cure, or a job, or an answer, or freedom, or justice.


 

For Abraham and Sarah, faith did not produce immediate results. It took a quarter century after the initial promise for a child to be born. That’s a lot of waiting, and a lot of exhibiting faith.


Maybe the Romans needed to be schooled in that kind of patience. Maybe we do.


Or maybe Paul is telling them this story because he wants them to believe that God can do wonderous things through them, as unlikely as that seems. Maybe the community of believers feels tiny and powerless, dwarfed by the might of Rome. Maybe they cannot imagine that they will ever be anything more than a small group of believers gathering for prayers and the sacraments.


Maybe some in the Church feel their best days are behind them and they’re as good as dead.


Maybe the promise that they will inherit the world seems preposterous!


Perfect! God loves a challenge!


Whether it is an infant congregation in Rome or a nearly 75-year-old church in Charleston, Paul is asking us to notice how God works:

Scott Hoezee writes, “For God [had] a whole world of people to choose from, including lots of fertile young couples who could bear a child with which to begin a nation out of which the salvation of all the nations would come. Choosing almost anyone other than [Abraham and Saah] was surely the sensible thing to do. But had God done that sensible thing, it would have been easier to conclude that it was mostly human effort that got the job done. There would have been nothing striking, nothing out of the ordinary, if a couple in their 20s had conceived a child.”[5]


But look at what God did – God chose a couple who were as good as dead and from them brought forth life! Paul is saying that God did it to start this story and God has been doing it ever since. And all that life giving culminated in Jesus! After his arrest and torture, after the sham trial and crucifixion, after the body was placed in a tomb, God gave life!


God, Paul is saying, will give the believers in Rome life, too. Us too!


Not because they have earned it, or won it, or followed the proper steps. No, God has given them life out of sheer grace. Us too! Believe it!


Abraham believed, Paul says, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  


Holly Hearon explains, “The word “reckon” comes from accounting and means ‘to credit’: an act by which one account is decreased and another increased. To reckon faith as righteousness means that God draws from God’s own self to credit us with an uprightness that, on our own, we do not possess. It is an act of grace that gives us room to try again, to be strengthened in faith, like Abraham so that we may live fuller lives of faithfulness.”[6]


What would that fuller life of faithfulness look like for you?


What would it mean, for you, to inherit the world?


May God show you an answer this Lent! Amen


[1] Photo by Manav Sharma
[3] See Matthew 5:5
[4] From his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, pp. 49-50
[5] From his reflection on the text for cepreaching.org, 2/25/18
[6] From her reflections on the text for Christian Century, 2/25/24

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