- Genesis 12:1-4a & Psalm 121
- Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
- John 3:1-17
Communities that did not observe the Transfiguration as the last Sunday after Epiphany may wish to use Matthew 17:1-9 in place of John 3:1-17.
First Reading: Abraham, agent of blessing to the nations
The short passage from Genesis 12 is the opening paragraph of the Abraham cycle, a complex of traditional materials now shaped into an epic about the “ancestor of the ancestors.”
Within the logic of the narrative world of Genesis, the ancestor of Israel is Jacob, the father of the twelve sons whose fictional extended family creates the tribes of Yahweh. But beyond Jacob stands the towering character of Abraham who serves in the sacred story as both the ancestor to whom God makes binding promises (for posterity, for land, and for a covenanted relationship), and also the source of blessing to other peoples.
The blessings that other peoples will experience as a result of Abraham’s special standing with God include the blessings promised to all Abraham’s descendants (including Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs in these stories) as well as a blessing to all the people of the land. It is this wider blessing that our text this Sunday celebrates, and that sense of universal blessings stands in contrast to the universal judgment that we saw in last week’s story of Adam and Eve in the garden.
While the instinct of monotheistic communities seem to be to claim a monopoly on God’s blessings, here in Genesis 12 we find a rare moment of spiritual generosity:
The LORD said to Abram,
“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
Abram went forth as the LORD had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12:1–4 JPS)
Note especially the last lines of the indented words in that quotation.
The presence of Abraham and his descendants among the people of the land is going to be such a source of blessing to the indigenous peoples of Canaan that they will use his name as a way of invoking blessings on themselves. The word translated “earth” is adamah and has a strong connotation of soil, rather than “earth” in the sense of the world below the heavens, for which the usual Hebrew term would be eretz.
The point is therefore both narrowed and yet amplified. The story is not speaking of all humankind being blessed through Abraham, but of those least likely to see themselves as beneficiaries of his blessing: the indigenous people of the land of Canaan. This is a more generous way of thinking about the Canaanites than we find in books such as Joshua and Judges, but for now it may suffice to reflect on the underlying idea that the blessings experienced by an Abraham are not simply for his own sake, but will be enjoyed and celebrated even by those who do not share his faith.
Second Reading: Abraham, ancestor of those who have faith
In Romans 4 we have an example of the Abraham tradition being drawn into a new context and, within that new context, being invested with a whole new set of meanings. This is the normal process for creating meaning when reading a text, but in this instance the new meanings are sufficiently different from the traditional readings of the Abraham story that it might cause us to pause and reflect.
The parts of this chapter selected for reading in church are verses 1-4 and 13-17. As always that makes me wonder what was in the missing verses that caused the lectionary committee to omit them. Verses 5-12 provide some of the key theological ideas of this passage, but they are expressed in terms that may be thought to make it unsuitable for public reading.
But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”
Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.” (Romans 4:5–12 NRSV)
Paul seems not to share the modern Western discomfort with using male circumcision as a theological symbol, although as a Hellenistic Jew he would certainly have been aware that male circumcision was one of the things many Romans and Greeks found most disturbing about Judaism. Paul, of course, was a champion of the liberal view that Gentile males who became Christians did not need to undergo circumcision, but that is not the point he is making in this chapter, nor in these offending verses that have been summarily excised from the lectionary.
In a fine example of premodern theological exegesis, Paul is arguing that the exact circumstances that applied at various points in the Abraham narrative have theological significance. In this case, Paul is arguing that Abraham was justified on the basis of his trust (faith) in God even before he was circumcised. His subsequent circumcision was an expression of the righteousness he already enjoyed, and in no way contributed to his blessed status in God’s eyes.
Tying this theological insight to an isolated verse from a Psalm—and then reading it in a way that cannot be justified from the verse or its context—does not do much to bolster the intellectual force of Paul’s argument for modern readers. Instead, such hermeneutical strategies only highlight the distance between ourselves and the ancients from whom we received the Bible.
The larger point that Paul was seeking to make is that Abraham’s trust in God, and God’s blessing of Abraham, had nothing to do with observance of Jewish rituals such as male circumcision. Further than that, in Paul’s way of thinking, Abraham’s intimate body piercing history makes him uniquely qualified to be the archetypal believer for Gentiles as well as Jews. While we may appreciate the point being made by Paul, we cannot help but be reminded that the Bible comes from another time and place—and they did things differently there!
Gospel: Jesus and Nicodemus
This well-known story from the Gospel of John finds itself in the new context of our readings this Sunday. How do we read this passage alongside the two Abraham traditions served up from Genesis 12 and Romans 4 by the lectionary committee. What were they thinking?
This scene can be understood as operating on two levels.
One level—and perhaps the level which we notice most readily—affirms the universality of God’s love for all humanity. This is, after all, the passage in which we find that famous verse, John 3:16.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (NRSV)
The verses on either side of this classic proof text much beloved of roadside billboard evangelists tend to reinforce the impression that John 3 has Jesus proclaiming God’s wide and generous love for all humanity. Such a theme certainly fits with the way we have been “reading” the Abraham tradition in these notes.
However, there is another motif running through this story, and it is becomes blazingly clear if we look at verses 18-21. These verses come immediately after the point where this week’s lectionary selection ends, and actually complete the paragraph that v. 17 begins:
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:18–21 NRSV)
The severity of these concluding sentences tends to qualify both the positive statement in v. 17 (“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” ) and the classic statement of divine love in John 3:16.
On closer examination, the discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus also has a less generous undertone. Note the polemical edge to the exchange in vss. 10-12:
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:10–12 NRSV)
What seems to be coming through in this episode is something of the complaint by the Johannine community who find that their witness about Jesus is not being received by their Jewish neighbours. Boundary lines are being drawn. Some people are inside the circle of God’s light, while others are in the dark—and have put themselves there by their refusal to believe.
In light of that sectarian undercurrent, even John 3:16 seems a little less generous than first imagined. It is not after all, a declaration of universal salvation for all people; but rather a statement that God’s gift of “eternal life” is restricted to those who believe in Jesus.
One of the challenges faced by a religious tradition that places great emphasis on the value of a particular belief, a particular practice, or a particular figure, is how to maintain a generous openness to the sacred wisdom and intrinsic dignity of other spiritual communities. Yet both the first and second readings suggest ways of understanding a figure such as Abraham in such a way that his story encourages spiritual generosity and imagines ways that God’s blessings might be the experience of people beyond the boundaries of our own religion.
- 020 Kingdom and Children – (1) Gos. Thom. 22:1-2; (2) Mark 10:13-16 = Matt 19:13-15 = Luke 18:15-17; (3) Matt 18:3; (4) John 3:1-5,9-10.
- 350 Jesus to Nicodemus – (1) John 3:11-21.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.