At first you might call him a “drifter.” For the past three years, Stephen Swift has certainly followed a counterintuitive path as he has biked across the country and back. Hearing more of his story, just the fact of his journeying seems incredible. At age 53, this former construction landscaper has experienced a number of tragedies. Cancer claimed the lives of his father and sister. He himself had survived bone cancer only to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 18 months to live, shortly after his wife of 28 years died in a car accident.
In the midst of his grief, God spoke to him somehow in an offhand comment from his daughter, who suggested that he go for a ‘bike ride.’ So Stephen went, with a sign on his bike that said, “It’s Personal,” letting people know he was not crusading for a cause but just moving through his own life story. Yet he became aware that he carried a message of hope as he encountered all kinds of people on his way. As one newspaper quoted him saying, “I want people to live and be encouraged by my story. Never give up, never give in, always go forward. People need to learn life is precious…Encourage them, and inspire them to live.”
I got to see stacks of photos and notebooks with messages from people he’d met on bike ride when Stephen stopped into our church one afternoon last fall.He told me how this journey had not cured his cancer, but it had freed him from isolation, healed his sorrow, and strengthened his faith in God. More than 30 months after his cancer diagnosis, he saw it a miracle that he was still on the road.
“Hoping against hope”: this week, that phrase from the NRSV version of Romans caught my eye, and I remembered Stephen’s story. His incredible journey for me exemplifies this theme, which The Message puts this way: “When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said he would do.” Stephen claimed the promise that his life is precious, and he trusted God to make a way for him. As he actively entered his hope for healing, he experienced God’s faithfulness in ways he never could have imagined.
The Apostle Paul might say that Stephen showed himself to be a child of Abraham. He’s most often thought of as Israel’s preeminent patriarch, but before all that, Abraham was a man who likewise followed counterintuitive leadings from God. How would you respond if, at the age of 75 and settling nicely into retirement, God invited you to leave your home and journey to an as-yet unspecified land, promising that you would become the “father of many nations”? Despite his wife Sarah’s and his advanced ages and infertility, despite all the unknowns of the journey itself, Abraham got up and went, deciding to trust the God of the promise. He kept trusting God in spite of long years of waiting Abraham and Sarah endured before their son was born.
In his letter to the Roman Christian community, Paul calls upon the example of Abraham, as one who “hoped against hope” in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. Abraham decided to hope and trust that God could and would bring new life from his and Sarah’s barren, aging bodies.
Likewise, Christians are those who decide to trust and hope that the God who raised the crucified Christ from the dead will also raise us to eternal life. We are not Abraham’s ethnic ancestors, but Christians of all nations are Abraham’s spiritual children in our “hoping against hope.”
Paul is making this claim in a community context in which Jewish and Gentile disciples were struggling to figure out how to be faithful Christians together across great cultural differences and historical enmity. Did Gentile believers need to become law-abiding Jews before they could become Jesus’ disciples? That had been the way for the earliest Christians. As many Gentiles were responding to the gospel, must they do likewise to claim the promise of Christ? As one preacher noted, “For males in particular, this wasn’t something you’d want to go through unless it was absolutely necessary.”
Beyond the very practical matter of establishing communal initiation practices for converts to Christ, Paul objects to imposing circumcision upon Gentile believers on theological grounds. “What makes us right with God?” and “What we must do to claim salvation?” seem to be the questions at hand. But beneath those questions are deeper questions about the very nature of God: “In what sort of a God do we place our hope and trust through the good news of Jesus Christ?” How they answered that question would determine how the community lived out their life together. How we answer that question determines how we live our life together as well!
Of course, no one who argued against Paul would deny the righteousness of Abraham. So Paul argues that even before the commandments were given as signs of God’s covenant, Abraham was made righteous—brought into right relationship—with God by his basic willingness to trust in God’s promises. This is what the Reformers called “justification by grace through faith.” It puts every person on equal footing before God. Our righteousness is not in our ability to follow the rules. Truly, it’s not really about anything we do. It’s about the promises God has chosen to make and how God faithfully fulfills them.
Even before we are aware of religion, God is choosing to love us, reaching out to us, graciously inviting us to receive God’s own faithfulness. God is not a transactional broker offering us a contract. God is a generous giver, giving God’s own life to transform us with powerful grace, creating us anew for lives of freedom and love. God loves us and accepts us just as we are. All that is necessary to receive God’s gifts, our part of the relationship, is to allow ourselves to be turned towards God with openness and availability to the grace God offers.
Sounds simple, right? Then we hear Jesus saying, “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.” Not so simple. Yet I would argue that Jesus’ words are another way of naming this basic willingness to trust in a God who calls us to “hope against hope.” To hope and trust in this God is to risk vulnerability, which can certainly feel like “losing our lives.” It is to learn to depend, not on our own powers or the things we can control, but on an unpredictable grace that’s hard to perceive.
Thankfully, responding to God’s grace with trust is not something we do once and for all. The truth is, each of us will turn away from this trust numerous times in our lives. But the good news is that our righteousness with God does not even depend on the strength of our faith! “Faith” is not another ‘work’ we must do to be saved; rather, it is an awareness of and openness to God’s saving grace. “Returning” is what it means to repent, and every time we return to this disposition of trust, we are transformed so that our old ways of living die and a new freedom to love God and others is born. We are freed from the fear which is at the root of our attempts to manipulate and control God and others and build ourselves up; we are freed from the fear which is at the root of our attempts to escape and hide ourselves from God and others in self-hating despair.
This is not to say that we should throw out the rules of Christian tradition. They are meant to be tools for transformation, which God can use to open us to yet greater love and freedom. The instruction of Scripture and the spiritual practices of worship and prayer are resources which train us to perceive and be sourced in God’s ever-flowing grace. Whenever we show up to read the Bible, whenever we show up to worship with others, whenever we show up to the ongoing conversation God desires with us, we are returning to that basic decision to trust, and there God has an opportunity to speak resurrection grace into our lives.
The season of Lent is an opportune time to consider how we are “showing up” to our relationships with God and others. Are we seeing God’s transforming work in us, empowering us to the daring vulnerability of self-giving love, or, as my friend Stephen put it, to “never give up, never give in, always go forwards” in relation to God and others? What kinds of barriers are we experiencing to allowing God’s love to move freely through us?
To be sure, it is a challenge to “show up” in our world, where innumerable pressures keep us distracted, distrusting, overwhelmed and hopeless. In Lent, in the companionship of other followers on Christ’s way, we can take a step back to just notice, to just become aware where we experience closeness or distance with God in our daily lives. Such noticing is a time-tested prayer practice called “The Examen,” a gift from St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the things the Examen can help us learn to see is that God is always faithful to us, gently waiting for us to return when we have been distracted from trust and hope. It helps us to see that every day we will turn away—sometimes many times a day! Yet every day also gives us multiple opportunities to receive God’s renewing love in trust and hope.
Abraham’s story has a final word for us. From Paul’s exhortation, you might think Abraham’s trust and hope never wavered, but the story in Genesis paints a messier picture! Abraham and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands more than once, and they had plenty of moments of doubt and distrust. When they were told they would finally have a child, their first reaction was laughter at this “hope against hope.” But ultimately, these departures from God’s way make them even better examples of faith in God’s faithfulness. When their son was born, they named him Isaac, which means “laughter,” and they celebrated that their lack of faith did not stop God from fulfilling God’s promises to them.
God calls us to hope against hope, a counterintuitive trust in impossible possibilities. Let us receive God’s invitation to the unpredictable journey of faith with laughter and joy, trusting that our righteousness depends on God alone, and God is always ready and willing to cover us with grace. Amen.
 paraphrasing Shirley Guthrie in Christian Doctrine, 321.