A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, August 17, 2003, Pentecost 9, dedicated to Chuck, Allison, Evan and Charlie Cook on their day of rededication of baptismal vows and always to the Glory of God!
(III of V in the sermon Series "Abraham: Father of Three Faiths")
For the past two weeks I have focused on Abraham as the first monotheist and as the father of Judaism. Last week, I spoke of the place Abraham has played in Jewish faith. Before Moses and David, the Abrahamic covenant was the first covenant with between humanity and God. I told how Abraham followed God's command to offer Isaac as an offering on Mt. Moriah. I shared that out of this mountaintop encounter, a new strength was born in this "Mighty Father" of faith. By 1000 B.C.E., Abraham became known as the cornerstone of Jewish faith, and through the development of rabbinic midrashic, a place in the faith which he holds to our times. Today, I will share Abraham's impact on Christianity. Let us pray . . .
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Faith is our constant companion on life's journey. Sometimes our strength of faith, other times our lack of faith, our struggle of faith, our seeking of faith, our silence, our speaking - faith is there. Our faith in other people, in economies, in religion, in God. Faith deepens or weakens. Faith renews our strength or leaves us barren in desert times. Our faithlessness or our faithfulness - all define who we have been, who we are, and where we are going.
In Letters from the Desert, Carlo Carretto writes words on faith, words which could belong to Abraham from the time of his desert wanderings. Carretto writes: "I shall never forget the nights under the Saharan desert. I felt as if I were wrapped around by a blanket of the friendly night, a blanket embroidered with stars. Yes, a friendly night, a benevolent darkness with restful shadows. In them, the movement of my soul is not hindered. On the contrary, (in the friendly night), it can spread out, be fulfilled, grow and be joyful . . . I feel at home, safe, fearless, desirous only of staying like this for hours . . . The friendly night is an image of faith, that gift of God defined . . . I have never found a better metaphor for my relationship with the eternal: a point lost in infinite space, wrapped around by the night under the subdued light of the stars. I am this point, lost in space; the darkness, like an irreplaceable friend, is faith; the stars, God's witness . . . (Carlo Carretto, Letters from the Desert, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972, pp. 139-141).
Abraham, embraced the friendly night in his walk of faith. In the darkness of nomadic wandering, Abraham knew his place in infinite space, wrapped by God's night, with the stars as God's witness. Abraham truly was a mighty father of faith in God - who is One. In the great tradition of Midrash, the Apostle Paul grasped this truth about the mighty father of faith. More than any other early Christian, Paul understood the significance of Abraham's faithfulness. The Apostle taught and wrote about Abraham as the link between a Jewish Christian past and the Gentile Christian future. He understood that the desert darkness of which Carlo Carretto writes was the growing divine life of faith in all of us.
In the letters of Paul found in the New Testament, Paul refers to Abraham 19 times, more than any other figure except Jesus. Paul refers to Abraham more than twice as often as all the prophets in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible. Paul chooses Abraham as the rock upon which to build our faith tradition for three rabbincally-based reasons. (Drawn from Bruce Feiler, Abraham, WilliamMorrow of Harper and Collins, New York, NY, 2002, p. 140).
First, Judaism was the dominant religion of Paul's time and foundation stone upon which Christianity was built. Paul needed to define our faith in terms Jews could understand, but also in terms that distinguished Christianity from Judaism. Second, Paul wanted to sidestep the rigidity of the 613 Mosaic laws, a law code that Paul saw as tyranny in Jewish life, a ball and chain on the leg of the newborn Christian faith. The Judaic law code had also come under tremendous scrutiny by Jesus - so much so - that Jesus, when questioned by the Scribes and Pharisees had synthesized 613 laws into two - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself." Finally, Paul desired a way to circumvent what he saw as the tribal particularism of Judaism, the defining characteristic of which was that all men were required to be circumcised. In Paul's experience among the Gentiles, among whom the teaching of Christ were growing, was that the Jewish laws (particularly circumcision) served as prohibitions to the growing movement of the gospel of Christ among the Gentiles and radical Jews. (Ibid).
Abraham was the perfect model for Paul's new vision of Christ-enhanced Judaism, because Abraham developed a unique relationship with God before Judaism was invented, before the law was given, before circumcision was prescribed. Abraham served as a bridge over troubled waters. He was the link to faith without the burdens of the law.
In Galatians 3:8ff, Paul writes, "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, `All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.' For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed . . . we receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Galatians 3:8,9,14b). According to Paul, the gospel of Christ was first declared to Abraham, and we, as followers of Christ, like Abraham, are justified by faith, not by the law. This belief is based on Genesis 15 when Abraham arrives in the Promised Land and God reassures him that his offspring will be greater than the number of stars in heaven. As Genesis 15:6 says, "He (Abraham) believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness." In his belief, Abraham was justified by faith. By faith, he left his father's house and wandered into the future. By faith, he trusted God's messengers who promised him a son. By, faith, he went to Mt. Moriah, to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. It is faith which justifies us before God - not circumcision. Paul believed that Abraham's self-circumcision was not a pre-condition of righteousness - but rather set him apart as father of both the Jews and the Gentiles - the circumcised and the uncircumcised. "Anyone who shows faith is a descendant of Abraham!" (Ibid, p. 141).
But, Paul is not finished. He goes on to say that God's promise of blessing to Abraham's offspring is fulfilled in Christ-event - the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the one person who bears faith, hope, and love for all of us - Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female - all are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:28-29). Paul recreates Abraham in his image, de-emphasizing the story of Abraham and stressing Abraham as the bearer of God's universal grace.
While Paul creates Abraham as the unifying force for humanity, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not so sure. Each Gospel writer, in tangling with the Jewish establishment of First Century Palestine presents Abraham as the father of their faith, the new and true faith. In one scene from John 8, Jesus outrages the Jews by proclaiming that he, as "God's Word," was in existence since the inception of time. Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." This causes the Jews to pick up stones and hurl them at Jesus. While this statement by Jesus sets him apart as divine, it also serves as a wedge in the relationship between Jews and Christians; between the children of Abraham.
By the early part of the Second Century, the followers of Paul's universal grace had punctured the arguments he made on behalf of all humanity. Instead of Abraham serving as the unifying faith force for humanity, Paul's words and the words in the gospels, related to Abraham, had begun to fracture and destroy relationships in the human family. I believe most Jews will tell you that instead of feeling included in the grace of God through Christ, Paul's words have mostly served as a springboard to their exclusion and persecution. Sadly, a theology put into the mouth of Jesus by his followers forms the core of anti-Jewish sentiments and proclamations.
The early church fathers make it even uglier. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in the second century and Eusebius in the fourth century begin to argue that Abraham wasn't Jewish after all - but Christian. Justin claims that Abraham actually regarded all Jews as enemies. Irenaeus goes further, postulating that Christianity is not the new faith, but the original faith, the one that brought Abraham to his righteousness. It was through Christ, he argues that Abraham came to know God. By the fourth century, Augustine claims that Judaism is an inferior religion and only exists for God to use as a vehicle to bring those remaining in darkness into the light (Ibid, pp. 152-153). It is this view which dominates all too much of Christian theology around Abraham (and Judaism) well into the 20th Century.
Abraham, whom Paul called "the ancestor for all who believe," has become the ancestor for all who hate. Abraham, whom Paul used to justify the inclusion of Gentiles into Christian faith is now used to tear Jews away from their own heritage. In the words of Bruce Feiler in his book Abraham, "Abraham may have stopped short of killing his own flesh and blood on Moriah, but Christians have now done it for him" (Ibid, p. 154).
At this point in the story of Abraham and Christianity, I for one, feel ashamed to be part of a history and a tradition which has persecuted and excluded the Jews, in the name of Jesus Christ. If we were to end our story here today, it would end twisted, scarred and scorned. But, in our post-Holocaust world, Christian theologians have begun to reshape and reframe this hateful heritage. One of those significant contributors is Rev. Patricia Heldt, a German Lutheran Minister who heads the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Jerusalem. She is completing her Ph.D. on the use of Abraham in early Christian writings. In 1997, the Rev. Heldt was almost incinerated in a double suicide bombing in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market. She was shopping for dinner when she heard a bomb explode a few stalls away. As she started to run, she noticed her friend Nissim, a fishmonger, shaking hands with a Palestinian. But, instead of releasing Nissim's hand, the man pulled him closer and detonated a second bomb. She was sent flying in the fire ball that erupted.
With second and third degree burns covering most of her body, Rev. Heldt spent six weeks in the burn unit at Hadassah Hospital. Still while unable to eat or drink, a reporter came to her bedside, stuck his microphone in her face, and asked, "Why do you think you survived?" She answered, "To have an opportunity to speak about the greatness of God. We are his tools for reconciliation in the world" (Ibid, p. 156). What a miraculous response!
Reflecting on Abraham and Christian history's use of him, Rev. Heldt says, "Each religion, at different times, for different reasons, tried to establish itself as the dominant religion. Claiming Abraham for yourself is just one way to establish your authority . . . You use your culture to establish your triumphalism because your political power may be waning. You want to show the world that you have always been there. Abraham is a great way to prove that" (Ibid).
Abraham is open enough. He is broad enough. He is human enough. He is heroic enough. He is universal enough to build the case of our existence around him. What we need to do Rev. Heldt suggests is to gather together all these books about Abraham from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together. Make a big pile and then "kick them." By kicking them, she means pushing them aside to discover, together who the real Abraham is. By doing this, we will begin to solve the problems of the world.
We are all on a journey called Faith. Do we have enough faith to kick all of this aside and start at the bottom of the pile? I hope and pray we do. Gathered with our sisters and brothers from Christianity and Judaism and Islam, perhaps we should all return with Father Abraham to the Saharan desert, to the friendly night, to discover once again our place in relation to the eternal - points lost in infinite space, wrapped around by the night under the subdued light of the stars. Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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