In 2012, I took my youth group on a mission trip to Minneapolis. We worked in a number of different sites and one of them was the Emergency Foodshelf Network. This organization helps distribute food items to 70 area food shelves by channeling donations for organizations and large corporations.
Most of these are bulk items. Like 50# bags of rice that needed to be bundled into smaller portions. Or bushels upon bushels of fresh produce that we sorted so each box had a little bit of everything.
As we walked in that morning, there they sat, all shiny and shrink-wrapped on pallets, just waiting for our little paper labels that read “Corn.” Our job was to cut the labels to size, add two pieces of tape, and bundle them onto trays of 30 for distribution.
But there was this nagging question in the back of our minds all day long as we cut and taped and stacked and moved these aluminum cans.
How did we know it was really corn?
The only way to tell was to open the can. But that of course ruined the product.
You could shake the cans… and we did… and it sounded like corn… but it could have sounded like peas or beets for all we knew.
We had to trust that it was really corn in those cans. We had to go about our work, tape those labels on and trust.
And to be honest, because we knew that people would be receiving these cans, we felt responsible for their contents. Others would trust then when they got a can that said corn, a can that we had labeled, they would actually be opening a can of corn.
Our two scripture readings for today seem to give us a portrait in contrasts… between Abraham, the one who trusted and Peter, the one who didn’t.
Abraham, was well past retirement age, yet chose to follow and trust the God would use him to birth a nation. He is lifted up as the example. The one who did it right. The one who was trustworthy and true.
And Peter. Oh Peter. In this season of Lent we see how so many times he gets it wrong. He questions Jesus. He denies him. He is even called Satan in our reading for today. Perhaps what we might imagine is the opposite of one who trusts.
Last week, we talked about three different types of atonement theories. Three different ways God is working in the world to bring us back into relationship, to restore us to shalom.
We had the forensic theory – the idea of a trial or a courtroom.
We had the moral example theory – where Jesus shows us how to live.
And we had the Christus Victor theory – where Christ is victorious and rescues us from sin and death.
Today, our scriptures lead us to those forensic theories. They take us to the courtroom.
It is courtroom language that Paul is using as he describes Abraham’s relationship with God.
Imagine that Abraham is sitting in the witness stand of a great courtroom. And the question put to him is this:
Why do you deserve the promises of God?
It’s a different version of the question we often think of at the end of our days: why should you get into heaven?
Why do you deserve shalom?
And throughout chapter 4, Paul lays out an argument. Like a lawyer, Paul claims it was not Abraham’s works that made him worthy of the promises. It wasn’t that he followed the laws of God, the Torah. It wasn’t that he did all the right religious things like be circumcised.
No, what puts Abraham in the right… what proves that he deserves the promises of God is that he “trusts him who justifies the ungodly (4.4).” He trusted the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (4:17).“ He believed, even though the odds were stacked against them.
And he was right. He trusted that God would give him and Sarah a child and his claim was upheld. So using the courtroom language of the time, he was in the right. He was righteous. He deserves the promise because he trusted in the promise.
That seems too simple, doesn’t it?
Abraham’s faith was nothing more than a trust in the specific promises God made.
So what about Peter? What if we put him in the same courtroom? Where does he stack up?
If we focused strictly on this passage from Mark, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t trust. He doesn’t understand.
Or maybe a better way of putting it is that he was operating on unquestioning belief. Faith without any understanding. Peter was making assumptions about God. Assumptions like: the journey was going to be easy. An assumption that Jesus was going to march into Jerusalem and magically everything would be better.
And when faced with new evidence, new teaching, Peter chose to shut his mind. He clung to that unquestioning belief. He, in fact, challenged Jesus! The word used here actually is the same word used for silencing demons – Peter thought Jesus was out of his mind!
Jesus has to correct Peter. He has to tell him once again what God really promises.
That snapshot of Peter’s faith, however, doesn’t give us the full story.
In fact, if Peter and Abraham were really on trial, if their whole lives were spread before a court that was trying to determine if they deserved the promises of shalom, their stories wouldn’t be all that different.
If we go back to Genesis and really read Abraham’s story, his is one of fits and starts, too.
He and Sarah laugh out loud at God’s plan for their lives.
They try to do it their own way. They always have a plan B in the works. (maybe talk about how Abraham tells the king Sarah is his sister not his wife… if his wife, Abraham will be killed… as his sister, the king will bargain with him…)
Yes, they go. They stick with it. They make it to the end of the long and complicated journey of faith. But it isn’t an easy road. When we pick their lives a part with a fine toothed comb, we find there are all sorts of things that are far from trustworthy and true. There are plenty of moments when they set their eyes on human and not divine things.
Peter, likewise, makes lots of mistakes. He radically misunderstands what it means for Jesus to be the messiah. Just like Abraham and Sarah, he has his moments of weakness where he looks out for his own interests above God’s plans. He lies to protect himself.
But at the end of the day, Peter came to believe and trust in the specific promises God made. Peter came to believe in the giver of life. He came to trust that if God could raise Jesus from the dead, then God could raise him too. And Peter shared that faith with others. He led others to trust in those promises, too.
What makes us worthy of shalom? What makes us children of Abraham?
We come to deserve the promise when we trust in the promise.
And that promise is that life can and will come from death. It is a promise that sin has nothing to do with our salvation, because Jesus has already wiped it away.
In the courtroom at the end of our lives, our mistakes are no longer on the table. They no longer count as evidence against us.
What matters is if we trust with our whole being that the God who created this world out of nothing and brings life from what was dead can justify the sinner, too.
If we trust in that promise, its ours!
And it isn’t unquestioning belief. It isn’t faith without evidence or justification. We trust in that promise because we have carry the story with us of how God works. And maybe we have even witnessed it with our own eyes.
So here’s a question…. What if I was pulled in front of a courtroom one day to testify about why I labeled those cans “corn”?
Our supervisor promised that those cans held corn and I believed her. I trusted her. Why?
To be honest… if we had showed up one day at a random building with an unknown organization and we were asked to label cans of corn, I’m not sure I would have trusted. If we had done so, simply on unquestioning belief, without any relationship or evidence or understanding of who they were or what they were about, that trust would have been pretty unjustified.
But that isn’t what happened.
We learned about the organization and its history. We spent some time working with them. We saw their attention to detail and how much they cared for their clients. So on that final day, when we labeled those cans of corn… we believed in what they told us. We trusted them.
Here in this church, we aren’t asking you for unquestioning belief, either.
We hope to build a relationship with you.
We want to learn together and wrestle with the promises of God that have been handed down for generations.
And just like Abraham and Peter and Paul passed down what they knew to be true… what they witnessed God doing in their lives… we are going to share our stories too.
Stories of how God has transformed us.
Stories of how God has brought life out of death.
Stories of how we have experienced grace and forgiveness and love.
And no matter how many fits and starts and mistakes any of us make along the way, my prayer is that someday, each of us will trust in the promises of shalom. That we will trust in God and in this community of Christ in such a way that whenever difficulty and struggle come our way, we can hold fast and support each other, knowing, trusting, believing that in Christ, all will be well.