Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Sometimes we need a slow pace, a place to listen carefully, to pray and reflect upon our relationships and become more aware of God. Perhaps this is where Abram and Sarai are in this seventeenth chapter of Genesis. They are old, probably more reflective, more contemplative, more aware of their mistakes, wiser. Whatever the case, within the span of a few verses the world of religion is turned around. Everyone in the story is given a new name – including God, Abram, and Sarai. The changes are subtle, yet the implications are profound. The new names are linked to the covenant God makes with Abraham and through Israel, through the church to each one of us. The covenant is linked to creation and is not dependent on our faithfulness, (Whew!) but becomes our destiny. The gift in this passage is the reminder that at the center of our being rest blessing and promise, naming and covenant. Through the extravagant grace of God this covenant has been opened to even us.
Five citations from Psalm 22 will be recounted in the passion narrative from the Gospels, dealing with suffering and feelings of abandonment. But here in these verses we hear a summons to praise, which seems a peculiar request from a people who are broken and humiliated. Jewish tradition associates the entire psalm with the Purim feast – a reminder of the threat of extermination by Haman and Ahasuerus before Queen Esther intercedes. In our own lives examples of brokenness are not hard to find and it seems insensitive to sing songs of praise to the brokenhearted. First, we make a distinction between praise and thanksgiving, which often go hand-in-hand, but do not go together here. There is nothing to give thanks for in tragedy. But this is a call to lift up the nature and being of God – because, (vs 24) The Lord has not despised the afflictions of the afflicted! The Lord has not turned away, but has heard. Praise God for the self-giving nature of God’s love and compassion. Emerging from centuries of bondage and humiliation, African Americans exuberantly sang, Great day! Great day, the righteous marching. God’s going to build up Zion’s walls. This is the day of Jubilee, God shall set my people free. Great day! God’s going to build up Zion’s walls, moving from suffering to praise with a gracefull rhythm. Perhaps the distance between the two is not as far as we thought.
There are many theories of atonement: the moral influence theory, the substitutionary theory, the Christ the Victor theory, the recapitulation theory, the mystical theory, the example theory, and many more. All are attempts to answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” Almost every Christian church reveres the symbol of the cross, and however it is understood, Jesus’ death on a cross is important in bridging the gulf between humanity and God and points to resurrection. As theologian Paul Tillich has taught us, as symbol it not only points beyond itself but participates in the reality to which it points, namely, the saving love of God for humanity. In this passage Jesus tells the disciples “plainly” about his cross and that as disciples they must take up their own crosses and follow him – losing their lives in order to gain them. He says this to the disciples, not the ordained, not the apostles, not the members – but to those who would be his followers, his disciples. This season reminds us that there are opportunities all around us to sacrifice for the love of God, for compassion, for justice, for peace. When we are willing to accept Jesus for who he is, then we can understand who we are to be, and denying self, take up the cross and follow him.
Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century Danish theologian, offers this description of love: To have love is to presuppose love in others; to be loving is to presuppose that others are loving.” Faith operates the same way. To have faith is to presuppose faith in the other; to be faithful is to assume and will that others are faithful. God wills faith in Abraham and a faithful relationship reflects that faith back. Only God can create faith. Having the “right” set of beliefs is not faith. The church, at best, can only cultivate faith, and should cultivate faith. This sometimes requires balancing our faith in others with our willingness for others to have faith in us, so that we may become equal partners of faith in God, particularly where other religions are concerned. Paul speaks to all Christians who allow their particular moral or cultural-religious observances to divide, both within the church universal and among the three major monotheistic faiths. Faith in the God of Abraham is the common ground of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and is a reconciling force for understanding among “all his descendants” (v.16).