Who was Abraham? Who are the children or descendants of Abraham? What does claiming Abraham as a shared ancestor mean for the relationships among the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? Could this shared ancestry be the key to reconciliation and unity? These are some of the questions my classmates and I wrestled with during a 2-week course entitled “The Children of Abraham” at St. George’s College in Jerusalem—5–18 September 2013.
The scriptural record about Abraham is pretty lean. He appears suddenly in Genesis 12: 1, out of nowhere, with scant biographical information. As the story unfolds, we learn that he listens to an unnamed God, who appears as suddenly and without prior notice or preparation, calls Abraham to leave his family of origin and community to go to an undetermined place by an unspecified route, with only God’s promise. We know nothing about why God picked Abraham, and why Abraham might be open to make such an extraordinary commitment and journey. Over time, we see that God slowly shows Abraham his heart, the fullness of his love and compassion. It is no wonder that extra-scriptural stories were created to explain and give shape and color to Abraham and his life.
Part of what sets Abraham apart is the concept of monotheism. As one lecturer put it, up to Abraham, God was usually found in the wind, the water, the sun, etc. In that period of time, much worship was focused on a variety of idols. What emerges from the Abrahamic narrative is the self-revelation of the one true and living God, and Abraham’s complete devotion to and love of God. God made God’s self known to Abraham in ways God had not exhibited in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
It has been calculated that about three-quarters of the world’s population claims a relationship to Abraham. Each of the three major faiths has monotheism in common. Each tradition makes an unique claim for being children of Abraham. Jews trace their heritage through genetics, through the line beginning with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. Muslims also trace their heritage through genetics, but through Ishmael rather than Isaac. Christians make claim to be spiritual descendants and inheritors of Abraham. Therein lie some of the seeds of differentiation, controversy and suspicion. Developing theologies and traditions have done little to help the three faiths overcome divisions and differences. Historical events such as persecutions, pogroms, and crusades have added layers of mistrust and distance that would grieve the heart of Abraham.
Nowhere are the tensions and fault lines among the Abrahamic faiths more evident than in Jerusalem. While many of the tensions appear to be political in nature, one cannot underestimate the influence of religious differences, and the behaviors of religious groups that at one time or another dominated the city of Jerusalem for centuries.
I was privileged to celebrate and preach at the course’s concluding Eucharist. The setting was a Crusader Church in Abu Gosh (one of four places claiming to be Biblical Emmaus). At the end of the homily, I said to my classmates and I say to you:
Some of you may remember a comic strip called Pogo. One of the more memorable lines was this: “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” I want to borrow that paradigm to suggest the following. “We have met Abraham, and Abraham is us.” Surely this is a bit of hyperbole. None of us is likely to parent a nation. And, yet, after experiencing this course with you, I am convinced in the truth that “We have met Abraham, and Abraham is us.” For which one of us has not been called by God to a distinct and discrete ministry? Which one of has not been blessed to be a blessing that transcends time and space? Which one of you has not invited the Holy Spirit to cultivate and form a faith that guides you through the struggles of uncertainty, doubt and fear? Which one of us has not had to leave our comfort zones in order to take up those ministries? On the other hand, I suspect each of us has, out of frustration or anxiety, parented a project or idea, perhaps successful, but somewhat short of the full blessing God might have had in mind.
Having journeyed with you for these chock-a-block days, it is clear to me that each of you has encountered and is devoted to the one true, living, and utterly reliable God. You know deep in your heart of hearts what you will soon sing:
There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven;
there is no place where earths’ failings have such kindly judgment given.
There is plenteous redemption in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head (Hymn 469).
Each of you knows because in one way or another, you have very personally been touched, marked and blessed by the love, mercy, forgiveness and grace of God.
As with Abraham, God calls each of us to get up and GO. There comes a time when we must decide to leave whatever behind, and to travel the journey God would have us take—even when the precise destination and the exact path are not fully known or appreciated. Reach out for holiness. Be filled with the wonder and delight of God’s presence everywhere. Go with the confidence that God is present in the journey, and already present in the destination. As Abraham so wonderfully modeled for us, God will provide, God will see to it that we will always be firmly and lovingly in God’s embrace.
—The Rev. Canon John E. Kitagawa, D.Min.