Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.”I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
A photo of a dress on a mannequin has been making the news and is all over social media. I first saw it on Facebook. It has horizontal stripes of two colors. What two colors? That is the controversy. Some people see them as white and gold, others see blue and black. In my family, for example, Ben and Nathan see it oppositely.
Scientists have explanations; it is all about the eye and the brain. But the interesting thing is that whichever way you see it, you are absolutely certain. The comments people make on social media show how certain everyone is of their own perceptions. Often you hear the question, “How can you possibly see it differently?” But people do, in fact, see it differently.
This dress color controversy came at a perfect time. It is a striking illustration of a controversy that has no clear way to be solved. You cannot make me see those colors your way no matter how much you argue with me, no matter how emotional you get, no matter how many other testimonials you line up on your side. Nor could I convince you.
Dealing with Controversy
Our church has been going through the process of dealing with controversial issues of far more consequence than color perception, as we all know. People are divided, see things differently, and emotions can get intense.
In another case of perfect timing, the texts we are given in the lectionary for this second Sunday in the season of Lent can help us, if we are open, to answer the question: how do we deal with a situation of deep controversy?
Importantly, the texts are not about the controversial issues; they are about something much deeper. They are about who we are; our identity.
The text we read from the Hebrew Bible is the famous promise God made to Abram, when he changed his name to Abraham; from “exalted father,” to “father of a multitude.” Abraham was promised a family.
The whole remainder of the Hebrew Bible is about this promise of a family and of land for the family to live on. The family has a hard time getting started, as Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children.
But God is able to bring fruitfulness into situations of barrenness – which he does rather frequently in the stories of the Hebrew Bible. So Abraham and Sarah finally have a son, Isaac. Isaac receives the sign of the covenant, which is circumcision, and the story of the family is off and running.
The family that came from Abraham grows into twelve tribes, and eventually does come into the land of promise many years later. Their family story has quite a few dark episodes. Beneath the surface, every family has issues and problems. I do not know any exceptions.
Circumcision – the First Church Controversy
Our lectionary text, you may have noticed, skipped over verses 8 – 14 of Genesis 17. I do not know why, maybe they decided it was unsuitable reading: it is all about God’s command to Abraham to circumcise Isaac and every male member of the household.
Circumcision, God said, was the sign of the covenant for all generations. It was serious. God said an uncircumcised male should be cut off from the people. God called it an “everlasting covenant.”
So, it is no surprise that circumcision became a huge controversy in the early church. Paul went around preaching the gospel beyond the bounds of Jewish Palestine, and starting communities of faith among gentiles.
In his mind, according to his letters, these church groups were supposed to think of themselves as families. They were to treat each other as brothers and sisters, and treat older members with the respect and dignity of fathers and mothers.
For Paul, these people who put their trust in God and who embraced Jesus as Lord were a natural extension of Abraham’s family. He said it as clearly as it can be said:
“if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring (lit. “seed”), heirs according to the promise.” – Gal. 3:29
The promise to which we are heirs, as Abraham’s offspring, is that promise to Abraham, the covenant that started the whole story.
But if we inherit the promise, and if the sign of the covenant that seals that promise is circumcision, should not Christians become circumcised? After all, it is for “all generations”! That’s what the bible says.
But to a Greek-speaking, Hellenized gentile in the Roman empire, mutilation of the body was unthinkable. They considered it barbaric and disgusting.
The Disgust Emotion
This is typical. When we humans are faced with other humans who look at things differently or act differently, we often feel the disgust emotion. We automatically feel superior to people who disgust us.
It is funny how things can change though. The idea of eating raw fish and seaweed used to disgust most Americans, and the people who ate them seemed strange if not a bit barbaric. But then sushi became more and more available, and eventually we got used to the idea. Some of us even tried it, and now enjoy it. Disgust became acceptance and eventually even delight.
But anyway, the early church was deeply divided over the circumcision issue. They had to have a big church conference about it, according to the book of Acts. Each side made their case. One side won and the other side lost the debate. The rest is history.
The take-away is this: both sides, the circumcised Jews who had followed Jesus and become Christians (who lost the debate) and the uncircumcised gentile followers of Jesus, were all in one family. And they stayed as one family after the vote was over.
I have to give the Jewish Christians a lot of credit. They had history on their side, they had centuries of tradition, they had faced ridicule, and they had bible verses to quote to support their opinions. But after they lost, they were willing to stay together; not without bumps in the road, but they stayed together. Why? Because that is what families do (or, ought to do).
Practicing Self Denial
In other words, they were practicing the Christian discipline of self denial. They put into practice Jesus’ words when he said,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”
There is maybe no greater form of self denial than to say “no” to the voice of the ego in our heads. It takes spiritual maturity to say “no” to the internal voice that wants to assert itself, to justify ourselves, and to win the debate.
It is painful, and a kind of death to self, to stay at the table with people we disagree with. But that is what mature families do. It is easy to leave. To slam the door. To pick up the marbles and run off the play ground. It feels good. And that is why taking the high road of staying involves self denial.
Habits of Self Denial
I am sure that in your family, you have formed habits of self denial. You practice self denial every time you keep your voice down in an argument. You practice self denial each time you resist the urge to cut off the other person’s monologue. You practice self denial each time you forgive the others when they were not able to act maturely, and each time you forgave a hurt. Of course you did. That is what families do.
Families that develop habits of self denial end up having long histories together. They build up a treasury of shared experiences. They have memories of going through rough times together – times of illness, times of loss, times of pain. And they have the happy memories too, the vacations, the celebrations, the graduations, weddings, the baptisms, and the anniversaries.
That is what we are: a family. And that is why neither this current controversy nor the next one will kill us. Winning is simply not the reason we stay in. We stay because we are family. We have a history with each other. We have been to each other’s hospital rooms. We have prayed for each other. We have grieved with each other as we have stood side by side in funerals and memorial services.
We have worshiped together, shared meals together. We have watched the children among us grow up. We have attended their weddings and witnessed the baptism of their children. That is what families do.
Missing the Community
I was in a conversation recently with a person who grew up in a Christian home; they all went to church regularly. But in adulthood he left and does not consider himself a Christian, and does not attend church. We were talking about ethics, about what is good. He is a person who tries to be good and to do good. He told me he does not miss going to church.
I told him I get that, but asked him if he misses the community? He freely admitted he did miss the sense of family that a church is.
The church – unlike any other gathering, a club or a political organization or social group – functions like family. We care for each other. We call and text and write emails and cards to each other. We miss each other when one is absent. We are interested in hearing each others stories. We jump up and go when someone needs help. The short hand way to say this is that we love each other.
Being the Family We Are
There are all kinds of theological bases we could give for our unity in Christ. But today, we simply give thanks for the family that God has put us in, as spiritual descendants of father Abraham.
We give thanks too, for the many times people around us have found the maturity and grace to practice self denial when we have been difficult to live with. We commit ourselves to following Jesus and practicing self denial in our relationships with each other, recognizing the great cost he bore to bring us into the family.
Today, we will again gather around the supper table as the family of God. We will break one bread and share one cup, and know ourselves as the body of Christ, the family of God.