Each of these passages of scripture stands alone and can be explicated and exegeted into its own sermon. Relationships should not be forced, nor should any passage be forced as the lens through which another is read. That being said, these are excellent texts for any number of Lenten themes. These Lenten themes are not about self-flagellation but are about repentance; they are not about trivial fasts, but renunciation of and dying to the old way of life, raised to new life through grace with Jesus in the Resurrection.
Patrick Malloy writes, “The entire Easter cycle, from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, focuses on the Baptismal Covenant and is directed toward the Great Vigil of Easter. Even the penitential aspect of Lent must be seen as the church’s recognition that it has failed to express the grace God freely gave it in baptism. Lenten penitence is rooted in the church’s sense that it has not lived up to undeserved and unearned baptismal grace, not that it must do better to deserve or earn that grace.”
The passage from Romans — as does much of the whole epistle — emphasizes that none of us, from Abraham through his descendants has earned God’s love of grace, that it is freely given. As Paul writes, “[H]is faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
While Paul in Romans relies heavily on penal substitutionary atonement, one need not accept it whole cloth to accept the joy of Easter on the horizon: Jesus, God’s Christ, has defeated death and sin. Through that defeat of death, all of the children of Abraham have had death defeated for them as well. This is the grace that is proclaimed and celebrated in baptism, a rite of the church that usually necessitates naming.
In my tradition to begin the specific rite of baptism, the presider declares, “The Candidate(s) for Holy Baptism will now be presented.” Whether the candidate is an infant or an adult, their sponsors say — one at a time, for the whole assembly to hear individually — “I present Name to receive the Sacrament of Baptism.” Later in the rite, they are baptized by name. In some traditions, at Confirmation (which happens at the Vigil as well) candidates take a name for their confirmation. Someone baptized as Alyse may be confirmed as Catherine of Sienna.
As in the Genesis passage to which Paul refers, naming matters. In Genesis 15 the Holy One of Old directs Abram, “‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” Despite Abram’s impatience and his dalliance with Hagar leading to the birth of Ishmael, God still begins Chapter 17 with, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Abram has in no way at all earned God’s promises or love, God’s miracles of not one but now two offspring in his old age.
“Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” In an act of solidifying their covenant, God gives Abraham and Sarah new names and promises to bless them through the goodness of God’s grace.
If preaching on this passage (or any of these passages), spending some extra time on verse 7, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” After centuries of antisemitism and supersessionism — the teaching that Christians have replaced Jews in God’s heart and plans — it is worth emphasizing the God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants is everlasting. There are no caveats or asterisks in this covenant between God and Abraham, but there is a sacrifice. God expects Abraham and his descendants not to earn his grace but to respond to it with self-giving (detailed in the rest of this chapter, but not this passage).
Jesus today warns his disciples and followers that following him requires self-giving, being transformed completely, even if their names aren’t dramatically changed by God. Jesus advises, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The cross Jesus’ followers take up is Jesus’ cross, the cross the leads to death — and its conquering. It is not an allergy or fly in one’s ointment. It is daily preparing to die to sin and be made into the image of Christ. Being made into the image of Christ is an act of God’s grace, unearned like Abraham’s children — but with responses and changed lives in mind.
These passages probably should not be all preached on, certainly not in depth, in one sermon. Rather, each of them lends a nod toward a theme of Lent as preparation for baptism: naming in the rite, the freeness of grace offered and given in baptism itself, and taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, which are encapsulated in baptismal renunciations and promises.
Whether God to Abraham, Jesus to his disciples, or Paul to the Church at Rome, these passages all invite reflection on as Malloy says, “repentance rooted in the church’s sense that it has not lived up to undeserved and unearned baptismal grace, not that it must do better to deserve or earn that grace.