Living in The Story Readings for Week 4

Genesis 12-20

Psalm 23

Psalm 25

Romans 4-8

John 13-17

As You Read the Old Testament

As you read this week, you might consider the fact that Abraham was not a Jew. Is that a startling statement? The people known as “Jews” didn’t come into being until much later than the time of the Patriarchs. Abraham is highly honored within the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because all three monotheistic religions see him as one who shaped the foundational understanding of these faiths.

As you read Genesis 12–20 (and as you read all these stories about the patriarchs in Genesis), notice the numerous descriptions of ancient Middle Eastern culture within the story. For example, the practice of polygamy and of producing children with several wives, concubines, and slaves was common. Also note the cultural understanding of the role of women. Across the ages, across the globe, in countless societies, women have been subservient to men in general and to the male head of the household in particular. Even to this day in some societies, a woman’s value is measured by her ability to produce sons. (In light of this, consider how unwise it is for modern societies to use the Bible as a template for so-called “biblical family values.”)

Last week, in the story of Noah, we were introduced to the notion of covenant. When order was restored after the chaos of the flood, God covenanted with all creation and marked that divine promise with the sign of the rainbow. Now here in the Abraham story, we see covenant narrow as it becomes more personal and particular. God chooses, calls, guides, and protects this one man, creating covenant with him and thus with his descendants. Covenant always is God’s initiative, God’s choice, and God’s sustaining grace.

From Abraham on, we will watch the story narrow even more. It is his son Isaac (not Ishmael) who continues this particular covenant relationship with God. It is Jacob (not Esau) who continues the story. Jacob’s twelve sons become the tribal people of Israel who eventually become the political nation of Israel.

We know that there are countless other stories of other people and nations who lived during the same time as the patriarchs and Israel, but they either are not mentioned at all or are mentioned as a kind of footnote; that’s because the Hebrew Scriptures are written as the story of one particular people. The Hebrew Bible is Israel’s personal witness to their experience with the one who called and redeemed them. The story of Israel tells the good, the bad, and the ugly of their human experience where mistakes, misunderstandings, foolishness, and violence are documented with startling honesty. Even so, the story claims that the covenant with Abraham’s descendants continues because of God’s grace. Covenant is grounded in the faithfulness of the Covenant Maker.

As You Read the Psalms

As you read the Psalms this week, consider the nomadic life of Abraham and his sons, shepherds deeply committed to the well being of their flock as they navigate the land and the seasons. The image of shepherd takes center stage in our beloved Psalm 23.

This poet acknowledges the reality of “dark valleys, evil, and enemies,” but even when he walks through these experiences, there is complete trust in God who is Shepherd and Protector. The psalmist believes everything that is needed for life—food, drink, rest, and right paths—comes ultimately from the hand of the God who is Shepherd and Provider. This psalm is a song of gratitude and deep confidence.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the image of shepherd often dovetailed with the image of king. Within the ancient nation of Israel, the king was to be caretaker and protector of God’s people. Sadly, a common complaint of the prophets was that the kings of Israel too often neglected their shepherding responsibilities and instead became guilty of plundering God’s flock. Whenever this neglect and oppression happened, the prophets would accuse and challenge the false shepherds and promise that God would, one day once again, re-gather the scattered flock, leading them and tending to them as the ever-faithful Shepherd.

As we read through the Psalms this year, we will see other metaphors that describe our human experience with God. In the best tradition of poetry, the poems of the Psalms offer us images, metaphors, and pictures of this God who created and sustains all things. Besides shepherd and king, God is like a father, like a mother, like a judge, like eagle’s wings. God is like a rock, a fortress, a shield; like water and light.

Note the ways the poets of the Psalms explore the same core questions that emerge again and again throughout all the Scriptures: who is God? and who are we? What does it mean to be God’s people, the families of the patriarchs, the children of Israel, the community of the church? These questions of Scripture ponder who we are together in relationship with one another because we are in relationship with the God who created us all—Creator who is Source and Goal of all creation.

The relationship described in Psalm 23 reminds us of the parable Jesus told about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in order to go in search of the one that was lost. When he found that single sheep, he rejoiced and called on the whole community to rejoice with him (Luke 15:3–7). Each life is precious beyond measure. “The Lord is my Shepherd” and so the hesed of the Lord—God’s goodness/mercy/compassion—follows me, pursues me, runs after me all the days of my life.

As You Read the New Testament

As you read Romans 4–8, see how the apostle Paul hearkens back to the Abraham story to make his crucial arguments for the inclusion of Gentiles within the new Christian community. Abraham is the father of all the faithful, Paul insists, not just those who are circumcised (an essential symbolic, physical, covenant act for all faithful Jewish males.) Paul asserts that now, circumcision is spiritual, not literal. “Circumcision of the heart” becomes the sign of unity within the Christian community and a person is a “Jew” who is one inwardly; real circumcision is a matter of the heart, Paul insists (2:29).

Abraham’s faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness” before he participated in the sign and symbol of circumcision, Paul confirms (4:9–12). The timing of this divine reckoning allows him to make his core argument: obeying the Law does not produce righteousness, rather, living in faithfulness and trusting in the one who is faithful and trustworthy allows the faithful to be “reckoned as righteous.” Acceptable relationship with God doesn’t come about by our human efforts, rather, relationship (covenant, promise) is God’s divine grace given freely to us.

Just as Abraham experienced grace—even with all his mistakes and stumbles, even with his “dead” body—so we too experience God’s gift of grace in the very midst of our weaknesses, sinfulness, and estrangement.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death (8:1–2).

If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness (8:10).

As You Read the Gospel

The Gospel of John also taps into the Shepherd metaphor as it tells the Jesus story. John’s Jesus says explicitly:”I Am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (John10). For John, it is Jesus who leads God’s sheep, provides sustenance, offers protection, and secures salvation.

You also might want to look back at John 8 while you are reading the Abraham story this week and recall an important conversation between Jesus and “the Jews” discussing the meaning of Abraham for the people of Israel as understood by John. “I tell you, before Abraham was, I Am. So they picked up stones to stone him . . .” Understand how theologically brazen this I Am claim would be for these monotheistic Jews. It’s a Christology that conflates the being of Jesus with the very essence of God. Every Jew reading John’s Gospel would immediately recognize the ancient story of the burning bush in which Moses is encountered by the Voice from the flame and experienced the self-revelation of the One-Who-Is. “I Am,” said the voice, “this is my name” (Ex 3). When we read John’s gospel, we find ourselves awash in the long story of Scripture; we find ourselves in the same story that has been flowing fresh for millennia.

As you read John’s stories that seem to cast “the Jews” in negative light, please remember that just about everyone in the Gospel of John is a Jew. The phrase, “the Jews,” was one way John designated those who did not accept Jesus as Messiah and so were in opposition to the new Jesus movement. We’ll talk more about this later.

 Reflection: Where is All This Going?

Several years ago, a group of friends and I walked a labyrinth together. It was interesting to do this personal spiritual practice alongside a larger spiritual community. We all started in the same place, of course, but we began at different times and progressed at different rates so we never were in the same place at the same time. We all stood in various places along the same path.

When you walk a labyrinth, at first it feels a bit like a maze with a pathway that twists and turns. But unlike a maze, in a labyrinth there is never a dead end; there always is a way forward. Sometimes we would be oh-so-near the center when the way forward would spiral around until we found ourselves almost back to where we started; our orientation would be completely readjusted.

The Christian practice of walking a prayer labyrinth developed centuries ago as a mini-experience of holy pilgrimage with Jerusalem as its goal and center. These days, many Christians who engage in this spiritual practice understand the center not as a geographic location but rather as an encounter with God. Walkers of this way understand that our “center” is not one particular place; rather the whole labyrinth—our entire journey of faith—is embraced within the Ground of Being.[1] Everything in all creation is enveloped and enfolded within the one who is Love-Truth-Reality, The Center of all-that-is.

As we read the Genesis stories this week, we will hear God’s call for Abram to “go,” to enter the pilgrim’s life and leave behind everything familiar and comfortable. Abram is called to walk away from land, home, and family and to walk toward an unknown future in his labyrinthine way with God. (By the way, that leaving impresses me in a deep spiritual sense, but also in a very practical way. When archaeologists’ describe Abram’s hometown, Ur of the Chaldeans, they say Abram may well have had running water and indoor toilets! Walking away from indoor plumbing to live as a nomad in a tent is more faithfulness than I probably could muster!)

Abraham’s life of faith and faithfulness is legendary and has become the foundation of the religious faith of most of the people on our planet, the “father of many nations.” His example of faith gives us a touchstone while we figure out how we too might be a blessing to the nations of the earth in which we live.

But the Abraham narratives also show us how often he stumbled in his walk with God. Abraham’s journey in faith happened stage-by-stage and step-by-step; his labyrinthine walk with God happened in fits and starts, in twists and turns. When we actually read these stories for ourselves instead of hearing them in their children’s version, we recognize what a mixed bag our biblical heroes really are. But even with Abram’s imperfect faith, we see in him a stubborn faithfulness that helps all of us mixed-bag followers keep hoping against hope that God is more faithful than we ever can be.

Abraham and Paul

Abraham was a pivotal a figure for the apostle Paul as Paul read and reread the ancient stories and reinterpreted the historic faith of Judaism in light of the Christ event. In his letter to the Romans, Paul draws extensively from the story of Abraham as he argues his point that—even though God has done a whole new thing in the universe in the event of Jesus Christ—still God’s work of making things right in the world, of making people right with God, has been going on for a very long time.

Hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said: ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.

No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’

(Rom 4:18–22)

NT scholars and pastors M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock consider what this means in their excellent resource, The People’s New Testament Commentary. Here is part of their reflection:

Paul’s own faith is centered on the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God who generates hope when there is no hope, the same God who acted in the ‘dead’ bodies of Abraham and Sarah to give new life . . . For Paul, all those such as Abraham who trust in God’s impossible promises have resurrection faith—even though they may never have heard of Jesus.[2]

Now that’s a hopeful interpretation! If Abraham is the father of the faithful, then surely this is true of all people whose faith points them toward the one true God—no matter what they may call the one who is beyond all names, no matter what they might understand about how that hope has been accomplished. Surely, still, this is faith that God honors and reckons.

No matter where we are on our labyrinthine journey of faith, at all our different stages and places, any faith that holds on to God’s impossible possibilities and leads us toward the Center; any faith that leads us to love is faith that God reckons as righteousness.

Boring and Craddock observe something else helpful in this Christian reflection of the Abraham story. Consider their explanation of this idea of reckoning. Paul’s term, reckoned and counted as righteous, “has legal connotations, but it is not a matter of a ‘legal fiction,’ as though the judge treats the accused ‘as if’ they were not guilty.” Rather, in Paul’s argument, God’s pronouncement of righteous “is performative language that creates the reality it pronounces.” [3]

A minister pronounces, “You are husband and wife” and something very real comes into being. An umpire calls, “strike!” and so it is. Paul proclaims that—because of the work of God and the Word of God made visible in Jesus Christ—the guilty are “right” and sinners are “righteous” and so we become what God pronounces. In God’s work of justification and reckoning, an alternative reality comes into existence completely without our participation or help. And so any faith that hopes against hope in God’s impossible possibilities, any faith that leads us toward the Center, is faith that God “reckons as righteous.”

Abraham and John

In the Gospel of John, we also find that the Abraham story has special relationship with John’s Jesus and important theological significance. For the Christians in John’s community, following Christ “in the way” meant their lives were immersed in the way of God that has been unfolding since the beginning of history; the same way Abraham was called to follow.

And yet, now Christians claim that it is in Jesus the Christ, the perfect and revealed Way of God, that all our journeys of faith are included. Like a cosmic labyrinth, God’s Christ encompasses all creation—every beginning, every ending, and every step in between—”even though they may never have heard of Jesus,” Boring and Craddock remind us.

Journey is and has always been a primary paradigm for the way of the people of God. Journey is an important metaphor that stands in opposition to seeing ourselves as a settled people because settled faith can become comfortable, safe, and predictable. We easily become set in our ways; we become stuck. That’s why an intentional and disciplined faith journey is crucial. Even when we journey in fits and starts as Abraham did, even when we don’t know where we’re going or exactly what we’re doing, even when we make mistakes or refuse what God is unfolding before us—even so we, like Abraham, can “hope against hope” that all this is going somewhere, somewhere good and right.

Like Abraham, who saw the fulfillment of God’s promise not with human eyes but with the eyes of hope and confidence, we too entrust ourselves to the one who is our Eternal Center, the one who generates all hope. That faith reminds us why we need each other, why we need spiritual community: to encourage each other and to embody hope for one another throughout life’s journey.

Whenever we see ourselves journeying with Abraham, on the move with Paul, following Christ as the Way, then we can live with confidence that in this journey of understanding, of thought, of theology, of practice, of life, then we are on the way with God. Even though we may feel sometimes like we’re going around in circles, maybe what we really are doing is progressing through the spiraling path of a cosmic labyrinth God is unfolding before us.

“Where is all this going?” we may ask, but I wonder, Is that really ours to know? When we live our lives in God’s labyrinth, we follow the path God opens up before us. We are called to take the next step and then the next step after that. We are called to faithfulness.

[1] A phrase made popular by theologian Paul Tillich.

[2] Boring and Craddock, People’s New Testament Commentary, 478–479.

[3] Boring and Craddock, People’s New Testament Commentary, 478.

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics, and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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