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Our horizontal and vertical saviour

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Preached by The Revd. Gregory Clifton-Smith, using scripture Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16;  Romans 11: 13-24, at Evensong on Sunday 24th February 2013, the second Sunday of Lent.

One of the side effects  following the announcement of the pope’s impending abdication from the see of St. Peter, is the  consideration of his relationship with other faith bodies, most particular with the Muslim and Jewish faiths. On last Sunday’s ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 the general feeling was that it was both good and bad. The majority of other faith bodies in general seemed to have welcomed the periodic get together of world faith leaders to look at what it means to be living a life of faith in increasingly secular surroundings. Muslim Theologians welcomed the opportunity for two-way interfaith dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians. Jewish religious leaders were wary of the pope’s welcoming back into the fold of Western Catholicism traditional followers of Archbishop Lefevre, principally because one of his bishops has denied the holocaust ever having taken place. But they were pleased at the pope’s apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s  position with regards to Jewish people ‘en masse’ being blamed with deicide down through the ages and thereby encouraging by default anti-Semitic behaviour. But this is a question that should not be asked of a departing pope but of each one of us. Just what should our relation be with the other Abrahamic faiths?

As our reading from the Old Testament this evening and its surrounding text reminds us, these faiths began life organically related one to another in the closest possible way. In the chapter before our Old Testament lesson this evening occurs, we are reminded of the rather unconventional arrangements that led  to the conception of Ishmael, by Sarai gifting Abram her Egyptian maid Hagar for that purpose. Then following on from the extract we have just heard, Sarai (who has now become Sarah) is able to conceive herself along with her husband Abram (who has now become Abraham) and together they become the parents of Isaac. From Isaac is, of course, descended the Jewish and Christian faith; from Ishmael is descended Islam. In the same way, the later twelve tribes of Israel are depicted as brothers (this time with four different  mothers), so too are Judo-Christians and Muslims. And if this is not food enough for thought, let’s remember, the angel Gabriel who announces to a Jewish mother that her son will be the Son of God, is the same angel through whom God reveals to Mohammed the words of the Koran.

Yet in over 2000 years of history Christians have sought to kill Jews and Muslims, Muslims have sought to kill Jews and vice versa and Muslims have sought to kill Christians. We have  committed fratricide on an epic scale. Just what has gone wrong? And the question remains, just what should  be the relationship be between  the  Abrahamic faiths?

I would like to suggest this question can have one of three answers: it should be a vertical relationship, a horizontal relationship, or a combination of the two. To explain what I mean it is necessary to return to our first reading. Because Abram is the biological father of both Ishmael and Isaac, when God promised him that he will be the father of a multitude of nations, as well as being the father of Jewish people, and Christian people, he is also the father of Muslim people; and so these three world faiths have a horizontal relationship one with another. Because Sarai is the biological mother only of Isaac, the promise that she will be the mother of nations is to be understood as successive generations of Jewish people and thereby understood vertically. The horizontal relationship generates mutual respect, the vertical relationship signifies the special relationship that the Jewish people perceives that God uniquely has with them. But interestingly, both Christians and Muslims believe that they too have a unique and special relationship with God. It is easy to see how the first position leads easily to “jaw, jaw”, whilst the second can so easily lead to “war, war”! We have only to look to the simmering hostilities between Palestinian and Jew on the West Bank and the Jihadhists who believe it to be Gods will to bomb people into becoming Muslim. The importance of the significance of this moment in religious history is underlined by Abram and Sarah’s change of name. It’s the equivalent of  and oral underlining of the text.  But of course, Abraham crucially encapsulates both positions, that of affirming mutual respect  of one faith with another, yet asserting the special relationship that God has with his chosen people.

Just as our Old Testament Lesson this evening uses the the idea of Abraham’s progeny to talk about our relationship principally with our monotheistic brothers and sisters and our relationship with God, our New Testament Lesson uses the image of grafting branches from a wild olive tree on to an olive tree domestically grown  to make a similar point. Paul is clear,  that whereas, because many Jews have failed to acknowledge Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, so their branches on the tree of faith have been cut off and replaced with Gentile Christian ones; these subsequent branches can be just as easily taken off again if  the sap of faith does not freely flow though them. They can be replaced with the original branches if they have a change of heart, or more importantly a change of faith. But the possibility remains that another branch from another species of wild olive could also be grafted in, should their faith prove more pleasing to the vine grower.  

How are we then, to affirm our mutual respect of one monotheistic faith with another, yet  assert the special relationship that God has with his chosen people through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ and offer this as good news to be shared with the sons and daughters of Abraham? I think this may very much depend on our own particular personalities, the gifts that God has given us and how we each perceive our own vocation to live the Christian life. There will be some, like St Paul who will seek to argue the rightness of their cause and the distinctiveness of their belief not just in their own faith communities in order to nurture the faithful, but in the wider public square. But preached words carry no authority unless the lives of those who utter them are rooted in service, born out of love for one’s fellow brothers and sisters. There will be others who quietly and  without fuss seek to emulate their Lord in loving their neighbours as themselves, when asked why they do this, will then be able to talk of the faith which brings them, and will bring others, life in all its fullness. Even if not asked openly why they act as they do, their hope will be that their actions will speak far louder than any words can. St. Francis of Assisi clearly understood this when he instructed his friars, “Always preach the gospel, only use words if necessary”.

But this of course has implications far beyond our relationship with our Abrahamic brothers and sisters for it talks of ours and their relationship with those of other faiths and those of no faith at all (the horizontal relationship);  and ours and their relationship with God Almighty (the vertical relationship). The vertical relationship which points towards future generations of men an women of faith, also points to the source of all being. That which makes the Christian faith unique is that these vertical  and horizontal relationships find their perfection in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word through whom all creation came into being; whose love reaches out to all humanity, especially to those on whom society has turned its back; whose death on the cross and resurrection form the dead continues to have implications for all people for all time. How ironic it was, that his instrument of execution was a reminder of that which made our Lord unique, the vertical and horizontal saviour of all humanity. That is the Lord and brother we are each called to follow.

Let us pray.

O God, loving Father of all your children, yet transcendent in majesty and power;

let the whole earth acknowledge your great glory and worship you in holiness;

let the nations submit to your righteous rule, and be united in a community of justice and peace;  let all people fulfil the purpose of your love and live in obedience to your word.

So shall your name be hallowed, your kingdom come,

and your will be done on earth as in heaven, through Jesus Christ our Lord, AMEN

We pray for the communities of faith throughout your world. We pray especially for our bothers and sisters who claim descent form your servant Abraham. Whilst being aware of our differences,help us to rejoice in that which we share in common.

Within our Anglican family, we pray…………….We pray for our partners in mission……………

We pray for this diocese, for this cathedral, and for all who have attended worship today.

We pray for our world, for those who would seek to kill those with whom they disagree rather than dialogue with them. We pray for the troubled areas of your world. Inspire us to change that which inhibits and enslaves people.

We pray for those who suffer in any way…………………..We pray for those who have died.

We pray for ourselves.

Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth.

Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust.

Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace.

Let peace fill our heart, our world our universe. AMEN