The story in Genesis (Genesis 22:1-14) is one which always makes my heart sink and my grief rise. It’s the story of Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice his only son Isaac on an altar to God. I imagine the horror of the request, the trust Abraham displays as he responds; the betrayal the young boy, his son Isaac must have felt, when his father tied him up, laid him on the altar covered with wood for the fire, then reach for his knife to kill him. Did Sarah know what Abraham was planning? What must each of them have felt? How do you come back into relationship from such a dreadful series of actions.
Then the relief felt by Abraham when God tells him to stop and a ram is offered instead, must have been profound and shattering for both Abraham and Isaac. As Abraham said trustingly:
God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering my son.’ (Gen. 22:8)
I am aware of my 21st century feelings being overlaid on a story that is millennia old, telling a story about a different time and culture. But it is important we reflect on what the story tells about trust, love, our priorities and what we believe today about our relationship with God and one another.
Abraham’s story about his willingness to kill his son, invites us into thinking about trusting God. This was Abraham with whom God was establishing a relationship, such a strong relationship it caused Abraham to leave his father and his family and strike out with God’s guidance. This was God in whom Abraham was learning to trust, who promised him a nation would rise from his family, who promised and gave him a son, when both he and his wife Sarah were old. This was God who was able to shift the ancient practice of sacrifice of people, of children to appease jealous and angry gods, to one of animal and grain offerings instead and for this to be done with thanksgiving, for forgiveness and with hope.
This is God who changes the world, one person at a time as human beings learned, struggled and slowly came to recognise and accept God’s love rather than always seeking vengeance and retribution. We too are learning to listen to God, but now through God’s Son, we know far more clearly God created us in God’s image, God loves us, forgives us, lives with us and welcomes us. This replaces our belief and fear of a remote, judgemental and angry God, who punishes and needs appeasing. The story of how our relationship with God changes as we learn about God’s love through Jesus, is astonishing.
In Matthew’s Gospel 10:40-42 Jesus tells us about God who welcomes all of us, who loves righteousness, justice and peace. Jesus brings us closer into the mystery of God’s endless, all-embracing love, explaining how loving Jesus, is loving God; God loves us as God loves Jesus; we are bound into the divine love of God, expressed through God’s Son and God’s Spirit for all humanity.
God’s love is clear as we listen to Jesus’ speak of God’s love for God’s little ones. And Jesus means not simply children, but those who are considered inferior, vulnerable, of less worth or value in our society, the discarded and disposable ones. Jesus’ reference to ‘little ones’ reminds us of his conversation he has later, with his disciples before their last supper together, in Matt. 25:31-46.
On this occasion he talks about those who are hungry being fed, thirsty and given a drink, a stranger and being welcomed, naked and being clothed or imprisoned and being visited. He says:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25.40)
In this story, Jesus tells us the reward for those who indiscriminately, abundantly, lovingly, generously meet human needs whatever and wherever they exist, inherit God’s kingdom.
Mother Teresa reminds us everyday we encounter Christ in distressing disguise in those who are ‘hungry not only for bread, but hungry for love; naked, not only for clothing, but naked of human dignity and respect; homeless not only for want of a roof over their heads, but homeless because of rejection and contempt.
We are sent by Jesus into this world, to alleviate human suffering and meet real needs, and to work miracles of love and healing by hospitable acts including the gift of a cold cup of water in hot, dusty environment to the most humble and insignificant of God’s ‘little ones’. We, who have benefited by being welcomed into this community, share this welcome from God with all who come, so they too may have the miracle of hospitality worked upon all who turn up.
We need to be Christs to each other. We are called both to represent Christ to the stranger and to encounter Christ in the stranger. Love is expressed through the warmth of our welcome, and the breadth of our inclusiveness and not by the depth or loudness of our rejection, exclusion and grasp of our privilege.
The idea of welcoming all who come, whoever and wherever they are is really, really important. It’s a much-valued characteristic and mission of this parish community, and it is worth everything we are, as we practice and share God’s love. Welcoming someone in Jesus’ name, changes lives.
I am reminded if all we are is one more cultural organisation serving our own needs as if there was nothing more important in our busy lives, then we are no longer God’s church.
God’s hospitality has no hidden agenda and expects no return. God’s hospitality flows out of all our routines and daily habits, making sure everything we do welcomes others and shows them God’s love is our work as disciples. This is radical justice being offered to everyone, irrespective of race, creed, gender and sexuality or life circumstances. This kind of hospitality is a practice and a spiritual discipline. We are God’s little ones who have been welcomed and loved by God, and we too welcome with love, God’s little ones.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol. 1 Chapters 1-13. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.