Materials for Worship on Sunday July 2nd 2023

Nerys writes: I hope you’re ready for a challenging read this week because none of our Bible readings are straightforward. Each one is quite difficult for us as modern Christians to relate to, being not only textually difficult but also spiritually and ethically challenging. Some churches will have chosen not to include the story of Abraham and Isaac in their services today but I think it’s important that we don’t shy away from passages like these but learn ways of approaching them. It is clear that none of them are to be read unthinkingly or uncritically or taken at face value. We have to make a real effort to prayerfully discern what they might be saying to us about the God we worship and how we are to live our faith and communicate it with others.

Despite its happy ending, the tale of the near-sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, Genesis 22.1-14, is one of the darkest and most disturbing of all Bible stories. It is a story which horrifies us and leaves us with many questions. Why would God instruct a father to kill his own son? Why was Abraham ready to go along with it? What about the effect of this experience on the child? What about Sarah, the mother who is left behind? And most importantly of all, what is this story saying about our God and the nature of our faith?

Generations of Jewish and Christian scholars, artists and poets and ordinary readers of the Bible have grappled with this passage. Some have sought to make sense of it by filling gaps in the narrative in imaginative ways, some have read it metaphorically while others focus on its historical and literary context. It’s possible that somewhere in its background lies teaching about human sacrifice, a practice forbidden and regarded with horror in ancient Israel. The story as we now find it, though, is introduced as a test of Abraham’s obedience to God. It can, in fact, be seen as a culmination of a series of tests experienced by Abraham and a key part of the larger story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. In the Jewish tradition this passage is read daily as part of the morning service. Early Christians saw what God was calling Abraham to do as a sign of what God himself intended to do, sacrificing his own son for the sake of the world. For many, this story prefigures the Cross. For others, however, the life, death and teaching of Jesus reveal a faithful, loving, self-giving, self-sacrificing God, not one who demands blind faith and the sacrifice of the lives of others.

However hard I wrestle with it, I am, unlike artists like Domenico Zampieri above, unable to turn this chilling story into something beautiful and uplifting. At every reading I am also left with more questions than answers. And yet within it and through it, I hear the call for us to trust God rather than depend on ourselves and on earthly things, and I am given assurance that God provides for us in even the most unlikely and darkest situations.

Today, the idea of slavery is just as alien and abhorrent as the idea of human sacrifice. In Paul’s day, many of the people of Rome including those he was addressing in our epistle, Romans 6.12-23, would have been either slaves or freed slaves. For them, the image he uses to describe what coming to faith is like would have been acceptable and meaningful. For us who see slavery of any kind as immoral and unjust, it is troubling. Instead of picturing the process of becoming a Christian as that of being set free, Paul describes it as a change from one slave master to another. His argument that human beings will always be enslaved to someone or something is challenging for us who believe that we have a measure of self-control and self-determination. The thought of being God’s slaves is uncomfortable. It would be easy to dismiss this passage as a response by Paul to a particular concern of the churches in Rome. And yet, if we look beyond the imagery what we see is another invitation to trust God rather than depend on ourselves and on earthly things. We also find an assurance that when we choose to give our whole selves to God’s service, God will provide. God will give us the grace to live a life of joyful obedience which leads to an incomparable freedom to be the people we are meant to be.

Our Gospel passage today, Matthew 10.40-42, is a mind-twister as well as a tongue-twister. It is part of a longer story of Jesus preparing his disciples as he sends them out into the towns and villages of Galilee to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Having given them his authority to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and drive out demons, he speaks hard words about the need for absolute loyalty and commitment in the face of division and persecution, of losing life in order to find it, of taking up the cross to follow him. Then he gives words of encouragement and comfort: ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’. His disciples will be sent out as envoys of Jesus, coming in his name, on his business. To offer them help and hospitality is just like offering it directly to him who is God’s envoy. And God will reward those who support their work, even if it’s with something as little as a cup of cold water. The apostles may well feel small and vulnerable but God is watching over them and will provide for them through the goodness of the people they will meet on the way.

Despite the complexity of the text, this is probably easier for us to relate to than the other two readings. As we translate it into our situation, however, there are certain questions that arise. Who are Jesus’s instructions intended for today? Are they just for wandering missionaries or those in full-time ministry or are they for all of us? It’s easy to see ourselves as the ones who offer cups of cold water. It is true that supporting others by providing help and hospitality is an important aspect of the life of the Church but there is more to being a Christian than this. Each one of us is called to go into the world to speak of and embody the Good News of Jesus. We are instructed to go with empty hands, ready to accept the kindness and hospitality of strangers. We need to be willing to risk hostility and rejection. God has promised to provide us with all we need for the task by means of the generosity of others who will be blessed through their encounter with us.