All week, as I've read the first lesson for Sunday (Genesis17:1-7, 15-16), I've thought to myself, "Where is the other half of the covenant?" When the Lord appears and speaks to Abram, he offers to make a covenant with him and his descendants. God promises to make Abram "exceedingly numerous" in his offspring. God promises to be the God of those descendants. As a ratification of this covenant, God even declares that Abram's name shall be changed to Abraham and that Sarai's name shall be changed to Sarah. But covenants are not one-sided. Covenants are two-way relationships, and the lectionary omits the other half.
On Sunday, we skip over Genesis 17:8-14, and, given the content of the reading from Romans 4, that seems to be a significant omission. Here's what we leave out: God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." God promises to bless Abraham with land and descendants and God's abiding favor, and, in exchange, Abraham and his descendants will enact the covenant literally, physically in the flesh of their foreskins. If they don't, they fail to keep the covenant: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant"
Paul, in the reading from Romans 4, emphasizes that "the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith." In short, God made a promise of land, descendants, and blessing to Abraham, and, when Abraham believed in the promise, God reckoned it to him as righteousness. But what evidence do we have that Abraham's faith was more than a whim? What is the sign that he believed God with all his heart? He sliced off his foreskin. He literally had skin in the game. His faith--his confidence in God--was real and strong enough for him to undergo that primitive surgical procedure.
Paul, of course, has other things to say about circumcision and that it is not the sign by which Gentiles are made children of God in Christ Jesus. In this part of his writings, however, the emphasis is on Abraham's faithfulness. And Genesis 17 makes it clear that the sign of that faithfulness was circumcision. It is a lectionary mistake, therefore, to read of the covenant God makes with Abraham AND the righteousness that comes to Abraham through faith and not see the sign of the faith itself. Without the circumcision passage, we are left with an incomplete picture of Abraham's faithfulness. His faith was costly. If we, too, are made righteous by faith, we must recognize that our faith, too, is costly. We must have faith like Abraham. We must have faith like Jesus.