Mennonite Life – summer 2012, vol. 66
Making Peace with Abraham
Sermon delivered at Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kan., Sept. 25, 2011, and Tabor Mennonite Church, rural Newton, Kan., Oct. 23, 2011; texts: Genesis 12:1-3, Romans 4:13-25, James 2:19-26, and Surah 2 in the Qur'an
by Patricia Shelly
Patricia Shelly, Professor of Bible and Religion at Bethel College, served with Mennonite Central Committee from 1996-2000 as country director of its program in the West Bank and Gaza. She has been leading study seminars to Jerusalem every other year since 1986. The next seminar trip is in January 2013.
Opening prayer: O God, open our minds and hearts that we may understand the length and breadth and height and depth of your great love. In Jesus' name, Amen.
When I worked in Jerusalem 15 years ago with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), I learned what it was like to live as part of a Christian minority among Jews and Muslims. Today 10 million people live in Israel/Palestine and 98 percent of them are Jewish or Muslim - only 2 percent are Christians, most of them Arab Christians whose families have lived in the Holy Land for centuries. So Jerusalem society today is dominated not by Christianity but by Islam and Judaism. I was a Christian living in a Jewish and Muslim culture.
Every day I lived in Jerusalem, five times a day, I heard the call to prayer from a neighborhood mosque, calling faithful Muslims to pray. Whether I was sitting at my office desk, driving across town, caught in a traffic jam or, sometimes, in the middle of a church service - the public, amplified Muslim call to prayer would remind me to worship the God of Abraham. The call to prayer would often awaken me about 4:30 a.m. The recording was in Arabic, but I knew what it was saying: "God is great! Get up and pray. Prayer is better than sleep!" Yes, I would say, prayer is better than sleep - Amen! Then I would roll over and go back to sleep.
On Friday evening, sirens would sound all over the city, announcing the beginning of Jewish Shabbat - for religious Jews, a day set aside for contemplation and prayer and resting in God's presence. On Saturday, all the businesses and shops in Jewish Jerusalem are closed and the public buses do not run. Sunday morning, everything opens up as usual and the city is a-bustle as if it were Monday morning in Kansas. I would walk through the Old City every Sunday, through a busy market place, well aware that for most of the people around me, this was another working day and I was the peculiar one, taking a day off to go to church.
When I returned to Kansas, I could identify with the Jewish and Muslim minorities of Wichita much more closely. Even though I was once again part of the dominant religious worldview in my culture, I found myself thinking more about the Jewish and Muslim religious traditions - and, frankly, how I could be a better neighbor.
In significant ways, living in Jerusalem meant learning how to make peace with Abraham, whom all three religions claim as a significant ancestor. This experience gave me a deeper appreciation of Christian faith and Christ's claims on my life, even as it opened new ways of appreciating Muslim and Jewish perspectives on faith. It was as if I were being more deeply rooted and grounded in Christ, even as I heard the call to embrace others who also worship the God of Abraham.
I want to explore three dimensions of making peace with Abraham, as we think about this common ancestor not only for Christians but also Jews and Muslims.
First dimension: Making peace with Abraham means learning to share
We can't make an exclusive claim to the Abrahamic heritage. It is certainly true that Jews, Christians and Muslims see God differently. For Christians, this means coming to understand God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the triune God. But even so, at the very beginning, we have to come to terms with the claim of all three traditions that they worship the God of Abraham and model themselves, in some way, after that patriarch.
For Jews, Abraham was a believer in the one God who also obeyed the Torah (law) of God, (keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath) even before Moses received the commandments on Mount Sinai, long after Abraham lived. Abraham is described in the teachings of the rabbis (in the Talmud and the midrash) as a good, observant Jew.
Muslims too believe in the God of Abraham, as the one God who created the world, redeems and sustains it. When Muslims call on Allah, they are simply using the Arabic word for God. If we were Arabic-speaking Christians, we would open our Arabic translations of the New Testament and find there Allah as the word used for God.
The Qur'an, the Muslim scriptures, frequently mentions Abraham and reveres him as one who submitted himself to the worship of the one God and revitalized monotheism at a time when the world had fallen into forgetfulness of God. So when Muslims say "Allahu Akbar!", they are saying "God is great!" Or more literally: "God is greater!" - greater than any human ability to define or confine the divine. "Allahu Akbar!" is not a war cry, although this is sometimes the impression we may get from watching our media reports - it is a confession of faith in the God of Abraham, a call to prayer.
Muslims, Christians and Jews find common ground - make peace with each other, we might say - when they realize that they all worship the God of Abraham. We all claim to be spiritual children of Abraham - and as children, we must learn to share.
Second dimension: Making peace with Abraham means wrestling with the meaning of his faith
Early Christians were not sure how to understand Abraham's legacy. The texts from Romans 4 and James 2 explore two different sides to Abraham by discussing the dynamics of faith and works in his life.
In Romans, Paul turns Abraham into a faith champion. He makes an extended argument that Abraham is saved by faith, citing a verse from Genesis 15: "Abraham had faith (believed) and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So, Paul says in conclusion, just as God saved Abraham by his faith, so too we - those of us who believe that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead - are saved by faith (Romans 4:13-25).
The writer of James, however, sees Abraham as a perfect example of works. He says, with very dry humor: "So you have faith (believe) God is one; you do well! Even the demons believe and they shudder!"
Even the devil can have faith. Abraham is noteworthy, the book of James tells us, because he acted on his faith. His faith was completed in his works - his willingness to obey God when commanded to sacrifice his son, Isaac (James 2:19-26). And James cites the same verse from Genesis 15, to show that it is Abraham's faith-filled work which is reckoned to him as righteousness.
So Christians have wrestled with their understanding of Abraham from the beginning. Judaism may claim Abraham as a good Jew and Islam may describe him as the preeminent Muslim, but the New Testament presents Abraham as a Christian model of faith and life, one who knew how to combine faith and works.
But wrestling with the faith of Abraham can take us into even deeper waters than reconciling faith and works, because the faith of Abraham is a clear reminder of the wideness in God's mercy. As we have seen, Christian interpretation of Abraham has most often appealed to his faith on the basis of Genesis 15:6: "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Paul liked this verse. He refers to it four times in Romans and once in Galatians. He cites it as evidence that it is by faith that one is saved. Paul is very clever here. Because, as he notes in Romans 4, Abraham's faith justifies him in Genesis 15, two chapters before the command of circumcision is given (which comes later in Genesis 17) and long before the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. So, Paul concludes, it is faith that saves, not the commandments.
The church has usually interpreted this as a word of pride and priority - that even though Christianity came after Judaism, we were really first, because Christian faith is prefigured in Abraham. Our faith is Abraham's faith.
I read this differently. This is not a word of priority, but a word of humbling. For though Torah may illumine faith and Christ may perfect faith, even before all that, "Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness." Rather than invoking pride, this word should remind us of the wideness in God's mercy, and God's freedom and power to act.
For if God justified Abraham, before the Torah or Christ, who knows what God may yet do? How do we make peace with that question? If God justified Abraham before Moses or Jesus or Muhammad, how can we be so quick to judge the faith of Jews and Muslims we may meet?
I think of two of the staff people who worked at the MCC office in Jerusalem when I lived there - Adla and Sahir, Muslim women who between them had worked with MCC for 60 years. They would tell me that working with Mennonites had made them better Muslims because of the values and commitment they had seen in generations of MCCers.
Should we celebrate this strengthening of their Muslim faith? Or should we be concerned that this long association with Mennonites had not led to their conversion to Christianity? Adla and Sahir sometimes talked about themselves as Mennonite Muslims. I'm not sure what that means, but I will trust God to work it out.
I am reminded of Peter's word in Acts 10, when he was confronted with the faith of the Gentile Cornelius and was pushed beyond the limits of his own understanding of whom and how God justified. Peter said, "Now I know that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God" (Acts 10:34).
The faith of Abraham - our faith - is a faith that sees the wideness in God's mercy, far beyond the limits of the human mind and heart. I have met many Jews and Muslims who model the faith of Abraham and challenge me to submit my life more fully to God, to live more faithfully. I look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of my faith, and through Christ, I catch a glimpse of the immense and merciful heart of God who loves the world and all its peoples, a God whose limitless love is beyond my understanding.
Abraham's faith is a witness to me that invites me to move beyond the narrow limits of my own Mennonite definitions of faith, even the limits of my own Christian understandings of faith, and contemplate the sovereignty and compassion of a God who knows all those who share the faith of Abraham. A God whom I have come to know in Christ, but also a God who is greater - as Muslims would say: "Allahu Akbar!"
For me, making peace with Abraham means wrestling with these realities.
Third dimension: Making peace with Abraham means bearing fruit
This too is a challenge not to be complacent in our connection to Abraham and our belief in one God.
When John the Baptist is preaching, he challenges his audience: "Bear fruit that befits repentance and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:8-10).
This text reminds us that finally the test of our faith - the challenge for all the children of Abraham - is to bear fruit that is worthy of our faith commitments.
The Qur'an seems to echo John the Baptist's concern. Speaking of earlier revelations to Jews and Christians, the Qur'an says (5:48): "If God had so willed, he could surely have made you all one single community; but [he willed it otherwise] in order to test you in what he has given you. Compete then with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return and God will inform you of the matters in which you dispute."
Making peace with Abraham means bearing fruit that befits followers of Christ. As Christians, our challenge is to give a faithful witness to the truth about God's compassion and love that we have come to know in Christ - in his life, death and resurrection - but to do it in a spirit which recognizes the wideness in God's mercy. Can we be both clear about our convictions and open to others in a common quest for truth? That is what it will mean to make peace with Abraham.
We must do a lot more thinking and talking about this - how to engage in respectful dialogue with Jews and Muslims, acknowledging our common legacy but also that God has given each community a unique insight into the mystery of the Godhead. I think we can be deeply rooted and grounded in Christ, even as we embrace others who also worship the God of Abraham.
So we are heirs to the faith of Abraham and followers of Christ. We go forward now into the future, just as Abraham and Sarah went forward into a land that God was showing them, not knowing exactly where they were going but knowing they went in the promise and presence of God.
I close with one last story about a personal encounter that has helped me think about what it means to share peace between religions and cultures.
Ali Akbar was a young Iranian official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran who played an instrumental role in arranging a series of meetings between Christian leaders and the President of Iran several years ago. I participated in these meetings and visited with Ali Akbar on several occasions. He had come to know Mennonites earlier, while participating in the summer peacebuilding institute at Eastern Mennonite University.
Four years ago, when Ali Akbar was in New York to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly, he visited a Mennonite church in Akron, Pa., with his friend, Ed Martin, who worked for MCC. In that Mennonite worship service that morning, they sang the "Benediction" song I wrote: "The Lord lift you up, the Lord take your hand."
After hearing that song, Ali Akbar told Ed: "I like that song very much; those are very good words. I would like a copy of that song." So Ed's wife framed two copies and gave one to Ed and another to Ali Akbar as a symbol of their friendship and work together.
When Ed told me this story, I sent an e-mail to Ali-Akbar, saying it was especially meaningful to me that this "Benediction" song had now become part of the connection between us. He wrote back that he had hung the framed words of this song on the wall in his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He wrote, "I love your song. It inspires me by its spirituality. I hope you have a chance to look at Rumi's poems. I have the same feeling about them."
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi is a 13th-century Persian poet, a Muslim sufi, whose poetry is quite beautiful and full of love for God.
For me, this brief exchange illustrates the kind of respectful engagement that I would like to see more between Christians and Muslims and Jews, where we can appreciate each other and learn from each other even as we engage the substantial differences between and among us.
Ali Akbar didn't send me a particular poem of Rumi's, but I share one here that reminds me of our exchange and the subtle but hopeful work of peacemaking:
A Wished-for Song
[You are] a song,
a wished-for song.
Go through the ear to the center
where sky is, where wind,
where silent knowing.
Put seeds and cover them.
Blades will sprout
where you do your work.
May our songs and seeds and lives yield a harvest of peace and justice, as we praise the God of Abraham - the God of Jewish faith, the God of Muslim faith, the God of Jesus Christ, indeed, the God of many names. Amen