Something like 2100 BC is the date of the events we’re hearing about today in our first reading. Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and today’s reading comes from fairly early on in that book, though of course scholars argue over exact dates. Something like 4000 years ago, at any rate. Given that, you might think that what a text like this records would be something so distant from the things that matter to us now that it would just be a kind of curiosity, that we might find little more to say than “How different people were then! What quaint ideas they had!”
But in fact, in this brief story we find God acting just the way he acts today, and we find Abraham responding in just the way we have the chance to respond today. God has not changed, and human nature has not changed. We are still in the same story now as we were then. After all, the Bible’s not a history textbook or a rule book or a book of ideas about spirituality. It’s a coherent narrative across time, spanning centuries but generously given to us by God so we can better understand both him and our own nature – which we never will, unless we come to fit into that narrative ourselves.
And every passage of Scripture has its place within that coherent narrative across time I just mentioned – it moves the plot forward, or helps us understand what’s going on in the larger picture, or stops to praise God for some part of it. This is why it’s a bad idea to only hear Scripture in bits, the way you would if all you did in your Christian life was come to Mass every Sunday, or if all you did was look at Bible memes that get posted on social media.
It’s very tough to understand Scripture well when you are only exposed to it out of context in that way. We have to read it in big blocks, on its own terms. And we see in our culture all the time the effect of people who don’t receive the Bible on its own terms, who don’t read the whole thing, but cherry-pick little bits of it as if it were all about some cause on the American left or some cause on the American right.
So let’s take a look at this passage from Genesis 18. Again, it’s very early in the book. God is just now beginning the first stages of his plan to bless humanity. People turned away from God so quickly that we can’t even date that, but there have already been stories about it in the first few chapters of Genesis, and God has already revealed that he is determined to heal us and win us back, and that he will do this through showing Abraham and Sarah’s descendants more and more and more about himself, about who they are, and about how life works.
You might note that these are all things 21st century America is extremely confused about. People don’t know who God is, they don’t know who they are, and they don’t know how life works. I mean, if we knew more about what God is like and what he can do, we would be able to imagine other ways to deal with wrongdoing than permanent and vicious demonizing of others. If we knew more about who we are as creatures all made by one God in his image, we wouldn’t see this resurgence of racism among us. If we know more about how life works, we wouldn’t be on a constant treadmill of useless quests to manufacture our own meaning and our own self-justification.
God has revealed lots of very useful information about areas of life where contemporary people are actively damaging ourselves and others all the time. And it starts right here in Genesis. God gave the first notice of his plan to save our lives in chapter 12, and then here in chapter 18 he shows up again, proactively coming to Abraham in a town called Mamre, which is where Abraham has been living since God first broke in on him. God shows himself to Abraham in the guise of three men, Abraham runs to greet him, asks him to stay, and offers this three-personed manifestation of God lavish hospitality by washing his feet and having a meal cooked. At the end of supper, God repeats a promise he’s already made, that Sarah will have a child, the next step in God’s plan to save the world through Abraham and Sarah’s descendants.
Now we could get involved for hours talking about the incredible hints and echoes God has embedded in this story -- hints and echoes that will resonate, as we read the rest of the Bible, with things he is going to do in the future. We could take note that God chooses to show himself through this image of three persons, which as Christians we see as his dropping an early hint of what he will later reveal about the Blessed Trinity. We could take note of the meal as the place God and humanity meet, which as Christians we see as God preparing us to receive the news that he will ultimately feed us with very self in the body and blood of Christ who becomes present at every Eucharist. We could take note that the promise comes specifically through a woman’s womb, tied to a birth that nobody expected, which as Christians we see as pointing forward to the role of the Virgin Mary in bringing God’s promise in person into the world.
Throughout these early passages of Scripture, you know, God already knows the fullness of truth, but humanity can only handle a little truth at a time. This magnificent book shows a slow progression across the centuries of what aspects of God’s truth and plan people are capable of hearing. But God embeds hints throughout, so that as we look back in hindsight we will realize that it’s the same God, the same strategy, the same truth in every book of the Bible. And we discover more and more about who God is, about who we are, and about how life works, as we learn to read the Bible on its own terms.
If we decide that experience is worth our time, we come to see that, in the great image Ben Myers uses in our summer book on the Apostles Creed, “We are like people who have inherited a vast estate. We have to study the documents and visit different locations because it’s more than we can take in at a single glance. In the same way, it takes considerable time and effort to begin to comprehend all that we have received in Christ. Theological thinking does not add a single thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are.”
What a difference it makes day to day, if we take the time and make the effort to get to know this vast inheritance, to absorb and use the riches and the beauties and the spaces and the equipment and the views that are ours by grace. To realize how much we have been given through God’s great plan that starts with Abraham and Sarah, and that finds its culmination in the matchless work of Jesus Christ. Jesus, this amazing person, God made flesh, the finite married to the infinite, whom Paul tells us about in today’s reading from Colossians. I wish we had time to talk about the Colossians reading! Go home and read it, or better read the whole epistle. I’ve read it twice already this week. There is more there than anyone could ever put into words.
One of the things that so impressed me in the Diocese of Paris this summer, as I talked to clergy and laity and visited communities who are part of what they call the creative minority of practicing Christians, was the passion I saw for receiving all that God wants to do for us – the passion for Scripture, the passion for the Blessed Sacrament, the passion for moving from consuming services and teachings outward into ministry and evangelism. All of that has grown out of a process that for them started in the early 80s, of realizing that Christianity itself had to be reintroduced from the ground up among the people of that city – that their inheritance from God, the vast estate, had been that thoroughly lost even among people who were still sitting in church services, even among their lay leaders, even among their priests. The buildings had crumbled, the fields were overgrown, and the entire inheritance had to be rediscovered anew.
That they just had to start afresh, which they’re still doing now. Still re-learning the contents of that inheritance, what has been revealed about who God is, about who people are, and about how life works. All things that 21st century America, too, is extremely confused about. People don’t know who God is, they don’t know who they are, and they don’t know how life works. So we really need this information. And it’s all available, if we will take the time to start discovering and using what, in Jesus Christ, we have already inherited.