Wednesday, June 28, 2017

PENTECOST IV 2017 (Proper 8)

The Sacrifice of Isaac - God Restrains Abraham's Hand.
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God Restrains Abraham's Hand -- 12th century mosaic

On this Sunday the continuous reading brings the story of Abraham to the unnerving episode of his setting out to sacrifice Isaac. It is such an extraordinary story that it has long prompted debate, and deep perplexity. God grants the aging, childless Abraham an only son-- Isaac. It is on Isaac that Abraham pours out all his love, and pins all his hopes. So how could he possibly be willing to kill the being he most loves, and thereby destroy all the hopes he has longed for? Even if we could leave the difficult issue of the boy’s own well being aside, it is exceptionally hard to understand Abraham's state of mind, still less sympathize with it.  We can say what it seems we are supposed to say -- that Abraham’s willingness to kill the child he adores reveals just how great his devotion to God is. But isn't this one step too far? Doesn't such devotion turn his 'faith' into fanaticism? And anyway, what does it say about the God who would demand such a sacrifice?

Abraham and Isaac return to Sarah.
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Abraham and Isaac Return to Sarah - 20th century mural
There is no easy answer to these questions. One thing worth noting, though, is that the story constitutes the essential Jewish background for understanding the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christian liturgies describe this as a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice’, meaning thereby to underline the futility of human sacrifice. Even a sacrifice as overwhelmingly demanding as the one Abraham seems willing to make, will never bridge the great gulf between God’s divine holiness and our imperfect humanity. It is only an action in the opposite direction -- from God to human beings – that can ever do this. As things turn out, of course, Abraham is not in the end required to sacrifice Isaac. God provides a ram, and the boy survives to perpetuate his father’s lineage. This motif too, is reflected in the Christian narrative. It is only God who can provide the sacrifice.

Though he is writing in a different context and to a different purpose, in the Epistle Paul has a similar thought in mind when he asks, "So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death." "Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God", he adds, "the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life." As he says elsewhere, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Of course, though in sharp contrast to the demand laid on Abraham, the gift is free, we have to see that this is so, and accept it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

PENTECOST II 2017 (Proper 6)

James Tissot - Sarah Hears and Laughs

On the Sundays that follow Trinity the Revised Common Lectionary offers alternative Old Testament readings and Psalms. The first is a ‘Continuous’ reading that takes us through major sections of the Hebrew Scriptures week by week and may bear little direct relation to the Epistle and Gospel. The ‘Thematic’ alternative is a passage chosen for its relation to the other two readings (though the connection is not always easy to see). On this Sunday there is even more choice, because the Gospel can be read in a long or short version. 

The continuous reading for the Old Testament begins the story of Abraham and Isaac --from before Isaac's birth in fact. The whole story will unfold as the weeks proceed, but this first episode contains an especially intriguing element. The LORD himself visits Abraham to promise him that, though both he and Sarah are very old, she will nevertheless become pregnant and give birth. Sarah laughs at the very idea. Laughing at what God promises is profoundly mistaken on several levels, and when she realizes that the LORD has heard her laugh at him, Sarah denies it. But neither her laughter nor her lie angers God. She still has the promised baby, and at this point she laughs again. Now, though, it is no longer the laughter of ridicule, but of joy, a laughter in which everyone can be expected to join her.

Augustus John - Two Disciples
We can read this little episode as a compelling illustration of the transformative nature of divine love. The human impulse to laugh is changes from mockery to delight. In the Epistle Paul picks up on something of the same theme when he says "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us". In the Gospel Jesus urges a similar sort of transformation on his disciples, at a yet deeper level.  "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Being "as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove" means taking a quite different view of the customary values of a world in which cunning is the opposite of innocence.

The reward for cunning, the world supposes, is success, while the price of innocence is failure. Believing in a providential order in which love ultimately governs all things, means that in our encounters with a fallen world we can use our God-given practical intelligence to good effect, without thereby sacrificing our integrity. When Christian disciples keep the faith on this score, the passage tells us, they are by no means offered an easy ride. That is not the way God works. But they have this profound assurance -- "it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you". Their human weakness and vulnerability have not gone away, but they have been transformed.