The Place of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, Reverend Douglas Skinner, and Imam Yahya Abdullah will together explore the place of Abraham in the Scriptures of their respective faith traditions. Join us as we investigate our shared spiritual origins in the faithful response of Abraham to the call of God, and reflect on our continuing spiritual connections. An opportunity for questions and answers will follow the presentations, and refreshments will be served following the event.
My parents had three children. One of us is rather artistic. Another one of us became quite academic, and the third one of us was the social one, she always had lots of friends. One of us still lives in Southern California where all three of us were born. Another one of us now lives in South Carolina. And I’m in the Lone Star State. One of us votes Republican. Another one of us votes Democratic. And one of us thinks of ourselves as an Independent politically. One of us is a Roman Catholic, another one is a Reformed Baptist, and I’m a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). One of us is a Yankees fan, another one of us roots for the Rangers, and the third one of us couldn’t tell you what sport we’re talking about. One of us keeps dogs, another one of us is kept by cats, and the third one of us has a ferret! And I could keep going.
My parents had three children, and each one of us is a very different person today from the other two, even though we all three sprang from the very same source. Hang out with us for a while and you might conclude that we have very little in common; and in some respects that’s true. But the deeper truth is that we are still family — and that creates a powerful bond. And I think about this every time we have one of these Abrahamic family reunions.
Hang out with us separately for a while – go to our synagogues, our churches and our mosques – listen to what we say – watch what we do – and you might conclude that we have precious little in common; and in some respects that’s true. We believe different things, and those different things that we believe are not inconsequential. They define us, and they are not up for grabs here this evening.
For me to surrender my deeply held conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my personal Lord and Savior, would mean that I was no longer a Christian, just as any insistence on my part that you embrace this belief in order to be a part of this conversation here tonight would mean that you would thereby cease being Muslims and Jews. We don’t leave our differing convictions at the door when we step into this conversation here tonight. We are not ignorant of our differences, or naive, pretending that those differences don’t matter — that somehow when it’s all said and done, that we all believe the same things.
Neither Rabbi Schlesinger nor Imam Abdullah believe what I do about Jesus Christ. If they did, then they’d be Christians, and they’re not. And if I didn’t believe as I do, well, then I’d be either a Jew or a Muslim. What makes this conversation necessary, even urgent, are those differences — deep, profound and passionate differences. But what makes this conversation possible is that back behind these differences, sacred as they are, there is another sacred fact. We share an ancestor, a common Father – Abraham.
Now, my descent from Abraham is different from that of Rabbi Schlesinger and Imam Abdullah. Presumably, both of my friends could trace their personal connections back to Abraham through a family tree. Their descent is physical, one through Abraham’s son Ishmael, and the other one through Abraham’s son Isaac. My physical family tree runs through a Scottish Clan named McPherson. I’ve got inventors and preachers, farmers and doctors, soldiers and undertakers as ancestors, but no ancient Middle Eastern Patriarchs. If belonging to this family requires his DNA then I’d best sit down and shut up. But I’m not going to, because I believe that I belong here at this family reunion as well. You see, I’m a spiritual descendant of Father Abraham.
As a Christian, my connection with Abraham is through the bond of faith. In his letter to the Christians in the region of Galatia, what is now part of Turkey, the Apostle Paul explained –
6 Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, 7 then understand that the ones who have faith, these are sons of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the good news in advance to Abraham: “In you all the nations will be blessed.” 9 So then, the ones who have faith are blessed together with Abraham who believed.
The letter to the Galatians is the very first one that we have from the pen of the Apostle Paul. In fact, it may very well be the earliest book – chronologically – of the entire New Testament! It’s a letter addressed to a small community of believers that began under the ministry of the Apostle Paul on the second stop of his first missionary journey which we think took place between 47 and 48 AD.
After Paul left Galatia, the new believers in Jesus Christ he left behind began to waver in their faith. And so Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians in order to ground them once again in the Gospel – the Good News – that he believed the Risen Christ had commissioned him to preach. It was their acceptance of this message that had made the Galatians Christians, and it’s in the verses right before Paul’s reference to Abraham and who his sons and daughters are, that we are told what the content of the message was that Paul preached (3:2-5) –
2 I want only to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now trying to be made complete by the flesh? 4 Have you suffered so many things for nothing—if indeed also it was for nothing? 5 Therefore does the one who gives you the Spirit and who works miracles among you do so by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Three times in these verses from Galatians chapter 3 Paul described the experience of salvation he preached as a matter of “receiving the Spirit of God.” God, who got pushed away through the rebellion of our sin, has now come back to restore His relationship with us. That’s what that language of “receiving the Spirit” signifies to us as Christians; we are returned to a right relationship with the God who made and sustains us. This is why one of the most basic ways that we who are Christians talk about salvation is as reconciliation – as God, through the work of redemption, repairing the damage that was done to the shalom of creation by our sin.
Now, the Good News that Paul preached to the Galatians was that this work of redemption has been completed by God in Jesus Christ; that it was in Christ that God has reconciled the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The only remaining question for Paul was how does someone personally benefit from it? How does this reconciliation with God get actualized in our lives? And the answer Paul consistently gave was that we are saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).
“Grace” refers to what God has done for us to restore us to Himself because He loves us, and “faith” refers to the personal response that we are asked to make to what God has done for us. And the Biblical case study that the authors of the New Testament repeatedly cite in illustration of this kind of “saving faith” is Abraham.
6 Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, 7 then understand that the ones who have faith, these are sons of Abraham.
The pivot on which this whole argument turns is Genesis 15:6 – “Abraham believed in the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” As Christians, we believe that Abraham is our Father because he took God at His word in Genesis chapter 12, and moved out into the unknown future on the basis of God’s promise alone. This is the defining moment in the Abraham story from our perspective as Christians, and we who are Christians believe that this same thing is asked of us. In another New Testament letter, the letter to the Hebrews, the author defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen” (11:1), and then, in illustration of this kind of faith, the author of the letter to the Hebrews told his readers about, not surprisingly, Abraham.
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out to a place that he was going to receive for an inheritance, and he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he lived in the land of promise as a stranger, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the fellow heirs of the same promise.
This is the basis of our connection to Abraham as Christians. We are part of Abraham’s spiritual family as Christians, not because we are physically descended from him, but rather because, by believing as he did, we get a share in the blessings of his covenantal relationship with God. This is how we understand what God meant when He told Abraham, “By you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” in Genesis 12:3 and, “Behold, my covenant is with you and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” in Genesis 17:4. As a Christian, I believe that there is room in Abraham’s family for everyone who with me believes in the one, true and living God.
The same New Testament author who gave us our most basic definition of faith as Christians – “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen” (11:1), – and who then cited Abraham as its primary example, also told us this –
Without faith it is impossible to please God, for anyone who comes to God must believe that God is, and that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (11:6)
It’s this kind of faith that connects me to Abraham as a Christian. And it’s this same kind of faith that connects me as a Christian to anyone and everyone who believes as Abraham did. And what this means is that on this journey of faith that I am on, when I bump into another pilgrim who is on the way, rather than just looking at how we might be different, I also try to notice how we resemble each other, and on that basis – the basis of a shared experience of faith – to attempt to forge a relationship on that basis – the basis of faith.
Rabbi Schlesinger, Imam Abdullah, tonight we find ourselves as companions on a journey of faith that Abraham began long ago. There have certainly been some twists and turns, at some points we have moved in different directions. But because of Abraham – your father and my father; and because of the call of his God – your God and my God; and because of his response of faith – your response of faith and my response of faith; I see in you tonight a strong family resemblance, and I am happy to share the road with you.