Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness (Rom 4.22)
What links Abraham and Jesus: an old man hoping against hope for children to perpetuate his name, and a young man challenging his disciples to go with him on the way that would lead to conflict and suffering?
A starting-point is the theme – a very contemporary one – of journey: a journey to an unknown future which God will disclose. Abraham had set out in obedience to God’s promise to make him the ancestor of a multitude of nations. How could this be, since he and his wife Sarah were elderly and had no children? [As the notes on the reading explain, he was the same age as Prince Philip; she just a few years younger than the Queen.] And where would they go? But they went, and they trusted that God would fulfil the promise of heredity [even more vital for them than for the royal family] – though they had their moments. What was Abraham's response when the angel told him that Sarah would bear a child? He laughed – as well he might given the biological facts of life. But in due course Isaac was born, and the family line began to take shape. On Good Friday we shall hear how Abraham’s faith was tested to the extreme: was he prepared to offer this son, his only legitimate son, risking all this in obedience to the mysterious command of God? Jews call this difficult passage the 'Akedah' or binding; it's read at Rosh Hashanah (New Year), and has become crucial in post-holocaust theology.
The journey that Jesus made was, in geographical terms, a much shorter one that Abraham’s – just a few fateful miles up to Jerusalem – but in mental and emotional terms even more extreme and demanding: the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and after three days rise again. This time no-one laughed; far from it, they were appalled. But Jesus told them that this was his destiny, and he was undertaking it in obedience to God. Did he have to? Peter thought not – he could have gone somewhere else and avoided the conflict. But that, said Jesus, was Satan speaking again, just as he had in the desert. Once again, the offering in prospect was the offering of an innocent son; but this time, the son was Jesus himself. Like his ancestor in faith, Jesus trusted that God would fulfil God's promises, and so he made that journey; and he invites all who are his disciples to make it with him.
God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants – as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. Many nations, one people. Jews, Christians and Muslims alike are the heirs of this covenant. But the Christian covenant, inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, is more inclusive; he died for all who would follow him on that journey, and put their trust in him. If the covenant with Abraham was with every generation of his descendants through birth, the covenant in Jesus is potentially with everyone, through death and new birth into eternal life – for his is the family name that is above every name. It is not through our children and grandchildren that we live on after death, but through Christ and the power of his resurrection.
In recent years we have become more aware of the nations and cultures of the far East whose traditional faiths have been very different from Abrahamic monotheism, and whose countries have seen massive development, putting them centre-stage in world affairs. There are, of course, many Christian converts among them. One was the Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama (who died in 2009). [Half a century ago] he wrote a little book whose opening chapter reflects on the key phrase in today’s gospel: take up your cross and follow me. The cross, he says, is an inconvenient thing to carry: it is ugly, heavy, painful; it has no handle. (That is the title of his book - No Handle on the Cross.) He compares this with what the efficient oriental mind would prefer to carry: a neat and nourishing lunch-box. He asks, why should we not carry a comforting meal of boiled eggs, sliced Swiss cheese, a piece of New Zealand lamb chop and green lettuce and a thermos of hot coffee - an over-developed, caloried-salaried, international, technological, carefully-packed lunch-box for the sake of Jesus Christ?…With such a lunch-box in our hands, we can whistle and light-footedly follow Jesus ‘from victory unto victory’. The lunch-box symbolises our resourcefulness, spiritual and mental energy, high-powered substantial theology, good honest thinking, careful (international and technological) planning and sacred commitment to our faith. Why not, then, ‘let him prepare himself and take up his lunch-box and follow me’? We can be and will remain energetic and resourceful. If necessary, we can even walk ahead of Jesus instead of ‘follow him’.
The irony of this has intensified in the years since; his words have taken on a hollow ring in the light of global credit crunches, the pandemic and other events which have exposed the limits of human resourcefulness: we're not in control after all, though we seek to rise to the challenges of the time. Yes, it is true that we need resources for our journey, pilgrim rations. But it is also true (and this is what Koyama was getting at) that the temptation in east and west alike is to make the gospel convenient, evacuated of all offence, packaged to appeal to our natural inclinations and to fit a world-view in which economy, efficiency and self-gratification rule. (Perhaps that explains why one cathedral offered cupcakes instead of ash on Ash Wednesday.) This is not the way of Jesus: and to imagine we can walk ahead of him is, of course, the ultimate blasphemy. Because the cross has no handle, the journey cannot be painless or efficient, in the world’s terms.
Another of Koyama's books is called Three Mile an Hour God, because this is the speed at which love walks, the speed of a man on foot walking with his disciples to the cross. He lists a series of contrasts between the values of the gospel and the values the world prefers: slow movement and fast movement; inefficiency and efficiency; insecurity and security; heavy-footedness and light-footedness; pain and glory; self-denial and self-assertion.
Now a good deal of what is often said about denying yourself and taking up your cross is rather dodgy. It is not about giving up chocolates for Lent, or the other little things that we do (though these have their place, as long as we don’t imagine they’re a way of earning God’s favour). It is certainly not about the parent who says, self-righteously, ‘I have sacrificed myself for my children’ (and it is sad that such parents sometimes end up existing only through their children or grandchildren). On the other hand, neither is taking up the cross about masochism, or letting yourself be a doormat for others to walk over. Pious talk about self-denial has too often been used as a way of controlling others and putting them down (typically, men controlling women). Nor is the command of Jesus really about that phrase that you often hear, to describe an incurable illness or an insoluble problem, ‘well, we all have our cross to bear’.
Yes, we can be identified with Christ through suffering, and find healing in his wounds. The cross is indeed the emblem of the ‘cost of discipleship’; as Paul says, we are crucified with Christ. But what Jesus says here is not a general metaphor; it is far more specific. If you want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. Remember that he spoke – and Mark’s gospel was written – for a generation that faced persecution and martyrdom for their faith. Taking up the cross – an instrument of death which has no handle, which has to be painfully dragged to the place of execution – involved real commitment and real risk. And that is what Jesus is saying – to them, but also to us who, thank God, do not face the extremes of martyrdom for our faith: you must take that risk: be prepared to risk everything, your very life, and die in order to live.
I began by saying that what links Abraham and Jesus is the theme of journey – putting your destiny into God’s hands, as both of them did, and as we are called to do. The deeper link, therefore, is that of faith: wholehearted trust that God will honour God's promises and justify the risk. And that is at the heart of St Paul's teachings about what it means to be a Christian. We are justified by faith, through grace; that is, we cannot justify ourselves before God, but God justifies us, makes us righteous: the initiative is always God’s. Through the undeserved mercy of God (his grace), we are set right with him, our broken relationship is restored, not by anything that we do, but by believing that Jesus the crucified died for us. In him is our righteousness; by his cross we are ‘right-wised’ with God.
As our Lenten journey continues, and we walk in the way of the cross, let the faith of Abraham – his conviction that God was able to do what he had promised – become for us faith in Jesus, the crucified redeemer in whom all the promises of God are supremely fulfilled. It is through God’s grace, by faith in Christ, that we are saved.
Richard Young (Rector)