The 2018 Netflix film Private Life deals beautifully, realistically, and painfully with the issue of infertility. Rachel and Richard (played masterfully by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) are a middle-aged married couple from New York who have tried everything they can to have a child, with nothing but failure in return. Their years of barrenness have turned their moments of love and physical connection into times of tension, frayed nerves, and bitter disappointment. A failed attempt at invitro-fertilization cost them all of their savings and still left them without a child. Even the hope of adoption left them devastated when the young birth mother, with whom they had developed an adoptive agreement, decided to keep her baby rather than follow through on her promise.
The majority of the film centers on their relationship with their direction-less twenty-something niece Sadie, who wanders into their life and volunteers to be the surrogate through whom their hopes can be realized. However, in the end, like Hagar in relationship to Abraham and Sarah, this too fails to fulfill what was promised.
Private Life is beautiful but painful to watch. Rachel and Richard’s private agony is almost too much to observe, let alone endure. Nevertheless, the film ends with the couple sitting in a diner, holding hands, and waiting for another expectant young woman, hoping that she might show up and fulfill their dreams of parenthood. Rachel and Richard sit together in the diner as deeply wounded prisoners of hope.
The epistle text before us is also rooted in such undying hope and unwavering faith.
At the heart of Paul’s masterpiece letter to the Romans is the conviction that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a new creation has begun. The advent of the new creation changes everything. In particular, the new creation eliminates the former boundary that divided Jewish and Gentiles believers from one another. The Law that created such a huge division between the Jew and the Gentile (and that failed to itself bring the new creation) has been put to death at the cross, and now all people are one, by grace and through faith, in the resurrected Lord, Christ Jesus.
In this fourth chapter of Romans, Paul is passionately arguing that this new creation is not a new idea, or a strange teaching, made up in his own mind. Rather, the Gospel of unity he is proclaiming is thoroughly scriptural and has been the purpose of God’s work from the beginning. Central to Paul’s argument – and central to both the Old Testament and Epistle readings for this second Sunday in Lent – is the life of Abraham.
Here is the critical question for Paul: was Abraham considered righteous by God because he obeyed the Law or Torah – or because he followed the physical rituals (in particular circumcision) that have become so closely identified with obedience to the Law in the Jewish mind? Well, “no,” argues Paul. Abraham could not have been declared righteous for obedience to the Law since it was only enacted centuries later through Moses, well after Abraham’s life was over.
So, was Abraham considered righteous because he obeyed practices like circumcision and Jewish eating rituals? Again, for Paul the answer is “no” because even before Abraham could even think about doing any of these things, the LORD proclaimed him righteous.
If it wasn’t obedience to the Law or participation in the Jewish rituals that made Abraham righteous what was it? The obvious answer for Paul is his faith. But faith in what? Faith only matters if it is trust in something. As the writer of Hebrews chapter 11:1 so eloquently puts it, “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see…” What did Abraham hope for that led him to live faithfully?
In this text, Paul argues that what made Abraham righteous was his faith that God would fulfill the promise he had made that he and Sarah would be the father and mother of a great nation – a nation that would in turn be the source of God’s blessing and healing of the world. Of course, this was not an easy promise for them to believe in because, like Rachel and Richard, they were living out the pain of persistent barrenness.
Abraham and Sarah’s first act of faith had been to leave all of their places of security and provision to follow God – a God whom they had just encountered – in the promise of a future land, future, children, and future blessing. However, without heirs there could be no fulfillment of the promise. Gaining the Promised Land would not matter if there were no offspring, no inheritors, to carry the promise forward.
God’s promise was given to Abraham and Sarah when they were already quite old. Even if God had fulfilled his promise immediately, people would have been astounded. However, God waited nearly another three decades before fulfilling his promise of a descendent. Month after month, year after year went by without even a hint of the promise coming to fruition. Abraham and Sarah’s natural frustration led them down paths of their own making that ended only in deeper division and further brokenness. Their schemes were not God’s promise.
By the time God fulfilled his promise, Abraham and Sarah could only laugh at the possibility that new life might come from their worn out and used up bodies. And yet (don’t dwell on this thought too long) they kept doing what was necessary – by faith – to have a baby. Here is how Paul describes their faith in the text:
When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise… He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised (4:18, 21).
For Paul, it wasn’t obedience to the Law, nor participation in circumcision or any other religious purity ritual, that made Abraham and Sarah righteous. It was his faith that the end (or telos) that God had promised (a telos which on every account seemed impossible) would – by God’s grace – come to be. Abraham and Sarah lived, by faith, in the present believing God’s impossible future would come to pass. That, for Paul, is faith.
This faith, revealed by Abraham and Sarah in the birth of Isaac, is most fully embodied in the willingness of Jesus to submit himself, in obedience, to death, believing that the One who called him would be faithful to raise him from the dead. This is why Paul can write about… “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence” (4:17).
However, this faith modeled by Abraham and Sarah, and embodied most fully in Jesus, does not stop there. The invitation to believe and live by faith is extended to us. “But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. It was written for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23-24).
If it isn’t obedience to the Law or participation in sacred practices that makes the people called the Church righteous, what is it? The answer (again), for Paul, is obvious. It is our faith. But (again) here’s the follow up question: faith in what? Faith only matters if it is trust in something. So, what is the hope that is supposed to shape our life and behavior?
I am convinced that for Paul the answer is the hope of the new creation. In Christ Jesus, all things were (and are being) made new. The law of sin and death have been defeated. The dividing lines between people have been erased. Enemies have become friends. Sinners have become saints. Light gets the last word over darkness. Good gets the last word over evil. Grace gets the last word over sin. Resurrection gets the last word over death.
The land promised to Abraham has now become the whole creation, that like Sarah, groans with labor pains. The hope of a new child of laughter, has become the eschatological hope of a world set right and made new by the grace of God in the power of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. Like the birth of Isaac, the new creation is not something we can bring about in our own strength. It is only something God can do. However, like the conceiving of Isaac, it is not something God will do apart from our response of faith.
So how are we to live in faith as we await the new creation? I think Paul gives at least part of that answer eight chapters in later in Romans 12:9-21
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic – be on fire in the Spirt as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you – bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath… Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.