So, is it true that Abraham is the author of monotheistic religion, belief in one God ? Can a remembered figure of thousands of years ago provide the inspiration for three religions, each of them seeing him as a father of their faith, two of them with a strongly nationalistic emphasis? Today’s lectionary encourages us to remember him; in the Catholic mass Abraham is specifically named as a sign of authenticity; when Muslims pray five times a day, they mention Abraham; and when Jews look back to the covenant their ancestors made with Yahweh, they see Abraham as the signature which has made them Yahweh’s chosen people.
Perhaps almost alone of the Biblical characters, the figure of Abraham has the potential to unite those three great religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Crazy you might think, spending valuable thinking and worshipping time in church on an old testament icon when the world around us in falling to bits economically, there is profound and dangerous enmity between races, tribes and nations and we cry out for responsible and imaginative leadership on the road to reconciliation and peace. But of course at least part of the disorder in the world has to be laid at the feet of religion and the fraught relationship between those three religions.
There’s a movement going on, and particularly in the wake of September the 11th in the United States, where Christians, Jews and Muslims get together in what are called ‘Abraham Salons’ to talk about the roots of their faith.
The idea is that in this world where we’re terribly divided in faith, a way forward can be found through Abraham. The author Bruce Feiler initiated these informal, grassroots, interfaith discussions, held in communities around the United States, the shared figure of Abraham being a catalyst for building trust and communication among different religious groups. It sounds like a positive attempt to bridge the enormous and dangerous gaps between the three religions, separated as they are by convictions about their own faith but also by ignorance of each other’s. Anything that can be done to bring us together in the search for peace, friendship and unity, is well done.
But is Abraham the way to do it? I think it’s a more complicated exercise for there are things about Abraham which emphasize the divisions of the different faiths. For example, Jews will say that because of Abraham, Jerusalem and the Holy Land is their’s – ‘God has given it to us.’ And we know all the privations that that have imposed on the people of Palestine and the repercussions on the wider conflict in the Middle East. Christian Zionists, particularly in the U.S.A. endorse the idea from the perspective of their belief that when the glorified Christ one day returns to earth it will happen in Jerusalem. And in Islam, Abraham is the first person who surrenders to Allah – the very word ‘Islam’ means ‘surrender’. From Islam’s point of view, the surrender by Abraham which took place in that narrow disputed bit of land, means that Jerusalem and the Holy Land belongs to Islam. Abraham may be a key figure in these religious conundrums, but hardly a reconciling one.
There are two phrases in our Genesis reading that deny the right of any religion to see the Abraham story as a justification for their faith. God says ‘I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations’, and of Sarah he says ‘ I will give you a son by her, I will bless her and she will give rise to nations.’ Nations, not religions. As Paul says ‘ he is the father of all of us’. And lots of people, lots of nations :, not this one or that one, me and not you, but everyone? The Abraham story is not about singularity and possession but more about plurality and gift. It can be read as God’s endorsement of his creation and of the responsibility of human beings to care for it and to care for each other.
There are many good stories about the way the Christian story has been interpreted through the ages. The Church often unfairly gets a bad press. Especially in an aggressively secular age such as ours, which begins to feel uncomfortably near to what Jesus in Marks’ gospel calls an ‘adulterous and sinful generation’. But the Way of Jesus has inspired most of the great reforming and compassionate movements of human wellbeing. At the heart of our faith is a commitment to health, peace and justice for all people and especially for those whom the powerful and the rich ignore. Even so possessiveness can be the curse of religion. It’s when we hold our faith to our chests, when we expound it in terms of ‘them and us’, when we define faith in words that exclude others, supposing that because we are God’s friends, we are separated from the commonwealth of humanity, that trouble begins.
And possessiveness can lead to triumphalism. I saw a T shirt in a shop with the words….’Jesus loves everyone. But I’m his favourite’! No favourites surely in the Kingdom of God : before the King we are all equal subjects of his love. We know it’s more complicated than that and we can’t ignore the sheep and goats analogy, but any faith that sets you on a throne of certainty and removes you from the rest of the human family, is a dangerous fantasy.
Paul is on the same wavelength as he writes to friends he has yet to meet in Rome. Righteousness is not bestowed on a believer by tradition, by Law, by the Jewish Torah. It is a way of life, an opportunity to move out of fixed and constrained forms of belief into the wonder and delight of God’s promises. O.K says Paul, we are decedents of Abraham. All of us are, all of us can respond to God’s call and God’s gift and graciousness. Paul bravely if not altogether convincingly –like all preachers he has his off moments –links the old faith of the promises given to Abraham to the Christian faith, to the sacrifice of Jesus and to the new life that arises from his resurrection.
Then there are those hard forbidding words of Jesus which we heard in the gospel reading, and to which his disciples took objection. They had been on a high hill where a visionary experience had linked their stumbling new faith with the traditional faith of their fathers. ‘This is my Son’ said a voice out of the clouds. But they have to leave the mountain top and Jesus faces them with the challenge of his death and the demands which soon will be laid on them as his successors. And they don’t like it. ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.’ In the urgency of that moment, in the last days of Jesus’ life, there is a dramatic poignancy in words that are familiar to us, but not easily interpreted for us today, for we are post- not pre-resurrection people. But here’s one thing. So much of religious argument is about saving the past, about keeping hold of the old. Often seen as faithfulness, instead it can also means a lack of faith in the on going life of the Spirit. The absence of faith rather than an endorsement of it. There is so much risk in the Christian Way. So much that has to be put aside if we are to run the race of faithfulness, so much fear of the unknown that has to be replaced with the trust that the path ahead is safe and we can walk it with confidence. Our life has been defined by our values, our understanding and our culture. Lose those, we fear, and we might be in danger, of losing ourselves. And yet that surely is part of what Jesus was saying to his confused and anxious friends. ‘Start again’. ‘Start with faith, start with honesty, start with promise, start with me’ says Jesus.
A last look at father Abraham that takes us out of privilege, possessiveness, and triumphalism. Out of the sterility of stale faith into a free-er view of God. John Bell – the maverick leader of the Iona Community has a different slant on most things. He has said that the lovely thing for him about Abraham is that he’s an old man and he is one of several old people who indicate that God is not simply interested in young folk but that God has a peculiar calling to old people. It’s interesting that later in the Bible, in Joel “…the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams…” and it’s the middle aged who really have to watch out. He goes on to say that Sarah’s amused reaction to the news that in old age she is going to be pregnant suggests that in God’s heart there is humour, and laughter is one of his gifts to humanity.
Perhaps when the world’s three major religions- so long at enmity with each other and causing danger and destruction to so many innocent people –can begin to laugh at themselves, there really will be a new dispensation of honesty but also respect between them. Indeed may it be so.