Eucharist Sermon - 28 February 2021

The Second Sunday of Lent
Romans 4:13–end, Mark 8:31–end
The Reverend Canon Richard Peers, The Sub Dean
I abandon myself: Abraham in St Paul’s letter to the Romans

Well, we now know the road map. There is light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes well by June 21st we will be out of lockdowns.

I expect there are things you are yearning to do.

I am yearning to see my dad in his care home.

To go for a long walk that ends up with a pub lunch.

To invite people for dinner and sit at a table with friends.

I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly a travel addict but I am also yearning to go abroad, to hear people chatting in other languages, to see places I’ve never been before.

And I am yearning to worship in other languages. I love to go to church in France and pray in French.

One of the places I am missing most is the little Burgundy village of Taizé perched on a hill a few miles east of Cluny. I first went there when I was 17 and I have been most if not quite every year since. It’s the home of an ecumenical monastic community where thousands of young people gather over the summer months. I am excited that Clare, our college Chaplain, and Dirk an academic in chemistry and next year’s senior academic (Senior Censor) at Christ Church have agreed to come with me and a group of students on a chaplaincy pilgrimage in June 2022.

Photo of Isaac, stained glass from Taizé FranceWhen I am in Taizé I maintain my discipline of celebrating Mass, the Eucharist every day by concelebrating with one of the monks in the little crypt chapel under the main community church. The chapel is full of icons and very beautiful. In the corridor outside there is a stunning stained glass window. It is tall and narrow and this canvas is a photo of just the lower half of it. It’s an image of a boy, perhaps seven or eight years old and you can just see adult hands, one on each shoulder. In the whole window you can see that the hands belong to the man stood behind him, a man with a long beard.

The window, made by one of the brothers of the community at Taizé portrays a story from Genesis 22. It’s a searing and heart breaking story. And even though I have this canvas on the wall in my cellar chapel here at Christ Church I can hardly bear to look at it. The boy is Isaac and the man is his father Abraham. The story in Genesis 22 is the account of God asking Abraham to take his son, his first and most beloved son up a mountain and slaughter him, to kill him as a sacrifice.

Looking at this picture, this stained glass, the trust on Isaac’s face for his father is total. His faith in him is total. His eyes look up secure in the knowledge that his father will care for him.

Genesis 22 is one of the most powerful passages, among many, in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jews today read this account on the High Holy Day, the Days of Awe, the Day of Atonement and the Jewish New Year each Autumn.

In our first reading today St Paul reflects on the Abraham cycle of stories. The letter to the Romans where our first reading comes from is notoriously complex and Paul’s argument is difficult to understand. It is particularly hard for us to follow when we get snippets to read like today’s passage which really make no sense without the larger context, the whole argument. It is even harder to understand because our minds are full of the arguments of history. Our reading of St Paul is overlaid with thoughts about faith and works that owe more to the sixteenth century Reformation than to first century Judaism. Finally, it is hard for us to lay aside centuries of Christian anti-Semitism that make us think of the ‘superior’ Christian grace taking over from the supposed ‘inferior’ Jewish law.

Romans 4 is a key passage in Paul’s letter. Almost all of the commentaries will point you to Genesis 15 as the key text on which Paul is commenting. They do so because Paul is clearly reflecting on the promise made to Avram – who has not yet been renamed Abraham – that his seed would be many. That Abraham would be the father of many nations.

However, I want you to think of this picture of Isaac as vital to understanding Paul’s viewpoint. Paul was clearly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, almost certainly in the popular Greek translation made at Alexandria. He would certainly have been familiar with what we know as chapter 15 of Genesis. The covenant God makes with Avram. But chapter 15 is hardly the most memorable, the most colourful, the most dramatic of the stories of Abraham.

The covenant is in some ways an important turning point in the story but it is not the heart of who Abraham is. It tells us very little about Abraham’s character or history.

The whole of that character, all of that history would have been in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter and as he reflects on Abraham here.

Abraham is fascinating because (in Genesis 12) he leaves his homeland, his family and community behind. He leaves everything. In his travels he meets Melchisedech, an otherwise unknown king and priest; a priest without lineage. God makes this covenant with Avram that his descendants will be as many as the stars of heaven and then he is asked to sacrifice his son, presumably necessary to make that happen on the mountain of Moriah. And Abraham obeys. He takes a knife, wood to burn the body of his son on and goes up the mountain.

Only at the very last minute does God intervene and halt the sacrifice.

Puzzlingly St Paul doesn’t make much of the obvious parallels between Isaac and Jesus, later Christians have often done this. I think that’s because Paul is much more concerned with Abraham as the image of the true believer whose faith is absolute trust in God.

Paul must surely have known what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The remarkably simple, seven clause prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray. Again it is so familiar to us that it is hard for us to read it as if for the first time. It is the fourth clause that stands out for me every time I pray it. “Thy will be done”.

Just think about how extraordinary this is. We spend our whole lives making plans, making sure we are in control of things, and then we pray Thy will be done.

We pray it but we don’t mean it. We get ourselves worked up for job interviews, we pray Thy will be done, but mean: God, make sure I get this job.

Abraham really meant it. If God’s will meant leaving home and everything he knew, he would do it. If it meant killing his beloved son, he would do it.

As I’ve already said I miss worshipping in French. So I have been using some French in my prayers lately. One of my favourite French prayers is by Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a hermit priest who died early in the twentieth century and will soon be formally named as a saint:

The prayer begins Mon Père, Je m’abandonne à toi. My Father, I abandon myself to you.

It’s an impossibly hard prayer to really mean.

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

An impossibly hard prayer to mean. But really all it does is extend that clause of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done.

That is Paul’s faith, that is Abraham’s faith. Total abandonment to the divine will.

This picture of Isaac reminds us of nothing more, but nothing less than all the crosses and crucifixes in this building. It is the sign of abandonment. The sign of giving ourselves totally and utterly to God.

This is the heart of the Christian faith. This is what Paul understands: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Forget sterile arguments about faith versus works. Pauls’ understanding of Abraham is utterly simple. As simple as the faith of a child. Into your hands I commend my spirit, my life my all. Je m’abandonne à toi.

Sources:

Schoeps, Hans Joachim. “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 65, no. 4, 1946, pp. 385–392. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3262158. Accessed 27 Feb. 2021.
Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4
N.T. Wright
Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35(3) 207–241
Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
, Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A; Baker Academic 2007