We live in days when we’re very concerned about child protection, and the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac strikes most of us as particularly barbaric. How traumatic it must have been for poor little Isaac! But, if we can, let’s leave our own culture aside for the moment, and try and live through the story as it was experienced at the time
Abraham was very devout, and wished to be obedient to God in all things. And so, when the thought came to him, seemingly from God, that he had to go to Mount Moriah, and there offer up his dear son as an infant sacrifice, he didn’t demur. Personally, he didn’t want to do it, but it seemed to be God’s will and so he went ahead.
They set out, first in company, and then Abraham and Isaac continue on the last part of the journey alone. Isaac was getting worried. He knew there was going to be an act of sacrifice – he was carrying the wood for it – and his father was carrying the necessary equipment, a knife and, probably, flints with which to kindle a fire. But there was no sign of anything living to be sacrificed, apart from…?
And so his question … but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?
Abraham was evasive, giving the sort of answer with which parents fob off their children when they ask awkward questions. That’s the way God does it. God provides the wherewithal.
And they get to the spot where the sacrifice is to take place. The altar and the wood are prepared, and then, horror of horrors, Abraham ties Isaac up, places him on the sacrificial pyre, ready to slaughter him, raises the knife, and… STOP!
Abraham now realises that this is not the way to prove his commitment and obedience to God. There is another way. He sees a ram caught by its thorns in a thicket. That is to be the sacrifice. And so there is a happy ending, but not – of course – for the ram!
The story seems so barbaric, but, in fact, it represents a great leap forward in our human understanding of how we humans relate to God. We mustn’t forget that Abraham lived in a world where infant sacrifice was common. It’s there in the Old Testament: in Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub (1 Kings 16.34).
And the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is a powerful statement that infant sacrifice is not God’s will. It was a great leap forward in our understanding of our relationship with God. And, of course, as we read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, there is great meaning for us in the words, God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, as they point forward to God’s sacrifice of his own Son for the salvation of the world. This story of Abraham and Isaac marks the giving of a new insight in the course of the religious history of humankind. Which brings us to the reading from Acts…
We often forget that the Christian Church began as a Jewish revivalist movement, but as events moved on that began to change. Philip found himself preaching to the Ethiopian court servant, and, when he came to faith, baptising him. And then Paul was converted and began to transmit the Gospel, not only to Jews, but also to people of other races. The Church was beginning to spread beyond its Jewish origins.
However, Peter still believed that the Gospel was for the Jews, and only for Jews, but even he came to be convinced otherwise, and we heard in our reading how he told the story of his change of mind to the Jewish church leaders in Jerusalem.
It all happened in a very weird dream. I’ve often had strange dreams, and I expect many of you have too. This dream of Peters was certainly one of those. What he saw was a sheet let down from heaven containing all sorts of animals, including wild animals, reptiles and birds. And this vision was accompanied by a voice saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat”.
And this was a very shocking dream, because some of those animals were ritually unclean, forbidden food to good Jews like Peter. So, Peter objected saying he’d never eaten forbidden food in his life. And the voice came back, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean”. So, in his dream Peter was being told that he could eat all the unclean food after all.
We have to remember what a revolting command this was to Peter. Jewish dietary laws were (and are) not simply a matter of hygiene or healthy eating, but a matter of morality, rather like vegetarianism is for many today. He felt that he was being incited to commit an immoral act. He would have felt sick at the thought, with the sort of revulsion many of us would feel if we were told to eat a pet dog or cat.
So, like Abraham in the act of about to slaughter his son Isaac, Peter heard a voice from God persuading him that what had hitherto seemed the right thing was no longer the right thing. And he did manage to convince the church leaders in Jerusalem that the Gospel was not only for Jews but for non-Jews as well.
Here, again, is another new insight in the course of the religious history of humankind. Which brings us to today’s Gospel reading…
A new command I give you, said Jesus, Love one another. For us, it’s so obvious that we don’t think of it as a new commandment. And in a way it wasn’t. The lawyer who asked Jesus the question about how to inherit eternal life knew this already: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself’. Yet it is new in that Jesus links the love that disciples should have for one another with the love that he has for them. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. And it’s that love of Jesus for us that makes possible the love that Christians have for one another. And that love can radiate out into the surrounding world.
William Temple, the great Archbishop of Canterbury during World War Two, wrote: “If the church really were like that, if all Christians had for one another, a love like that of Christ for them, the power of its witness would be irresistible… making people generally love their neighbours as themselves”.
That, the last of the three new insights contained in today’s readings, is the one that is still a challenge to us. Infant sacrifice – we know that is wrong. The Gospel for all people everywhere, for all races – we know that is right. They now go without saying. But loving one another as Christ has loved – and loves – us: that is an insight that is an enduring challenge to us.