Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 8, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
The eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, is a lengthy recollection of the great heroes of Jewish faith. The list begins with Abel and his offering of a sacrifice pleasing to God and moves on then to Enoch and Noah and to the great patriarchs before concluding with Moses and an evocation simply by name of other great figures of the Old Testament. Of them all the author has two wonderful things to say: not only that “the world was not worthy of them,” but that “God himself was not ashamed to be called their God.” The God who refused to give the name that would reveal his inmost being was not ashamed to call himself the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
The figure of Abraham is singled out in the portion of the chapter we have heard. The man in whom the biblical history of salvation begins was the great example of faith in the Old Testament; for St. Paul he was the great symbol of the faith that justifies us; and in the Roman eucharistic prayer we call him our “father in faith.”
Three moments in Abraham’s relationship with God earned him this great title, his call to leave his homeland, the promise of a son born to him in his old age, and the call to sacrifice the son born of that grace. I will focus on the first of these because it is the one whose theme is most exploited in this letter as a model for us Christians. Abraham was probably born in the southern part of what is now Iraq, and that very name can remind us that the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all trace their religious histories from the same great hero.
Abraham set out in response to God’s call, “not knowing where he was going,” but, at God’s word, willing, simply out of faith in him, to leave behind the familiarity and security of homeland and people for the life of a nomad, without a known destination. That is the point stressed by the author of the epistle. Even when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reached Canaan, the promised land, they were there as foreigners and aliens. They were not at home even there, not because they wished to return to their original homeland, but because they were looking for another homeland, a better one, a well-founded city, whose designer and builder is God, the city prepared for them by God. That they are aliens is emphasized, that they are not settled down but living in tents, that they are in search of something more, some permanent place to live, some lasting home.
In all these respects, the author concludes, Abraham is a model for us Christians: “For here we have no lasting city, we are seeking a city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). The metaphor is supposed to apply: we Christians are like nomads, not living in houses but in tents, not at home anywhere but foreigners and aliens everywhere, always on the move, knowing where we’ve come from but not knowing where we’re going, looking forward to, moving toward, the only homeland in which we will no longer be strangers and aliens, the presence of God.
The rich metaphor has appealed to Christians over the centuries. A very early text, which scholars date from the first half of the second century, has this description for people who wonder who these new people are:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either by locality, by speech or by customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use some different language; they do not practice an extraordinary life….While they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, still the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous and contradicts expectations. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.
St. Augustine often used the metaphor to describe our lives as one of search, expectation, and longing; and he made much of the difference between living in tents on earth and living in a permanent house only in heaven. The theme of the “pilgrim people of God” was recalled to mind at the Second Vatican Council, only we shouldn’t think of that term “pilgrim” as if it referred to people on the way to some holy shrine; instead we should take it in its original sense. The Latin word peregrinus means stranger, foreigner, someone not in his native land; applied to the Church, it conveys the idea of us as a people not entirely at home where we may be living, but restless, rootless, nomads, wanting, eager even, to get home.
But, we might reasonably ask, do these metaphors have any meaning for us, apply to us at all? Is there anyone in this church who feels like an alien? The problem of immigration, and of illegal aliens, is all over the news these days. What would you think of alien as a symbol of what it means to be a Christian? Is there any respect in which our views or our behavior mark us out as aliens in American culture and society today? Or are we perfectly content here, thoroughly at home here, feeling no need and no desire to be anywhere else, to have a homeland anywhere else, to be different from everyone else? Do those words written from within a hundred years of Christ at all describe us: “Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign”?
All of this is prompted by the presentation of Abraham as an example and illustration of Christian faith, as our father in faith. Abraham was called to leave the familiar and the secure, and we should not be surprised if our Christianity at times or perhaps at some single great moment requires us to leave the familiar and the secure, that is, what everyone else is doing, or thinking, or saying, and to set off for a new and better homeland. We Christians are living as aliens and in tents, wherever we are, and we should not confuse these tents with our eternal home.