Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
St. Mark 8:31-38
This is one of those terms that we assume that people know and understand. However, with the lack of biblical studies in general, such an assumption is probably wrong, and people need to be reminded of the import of such a concept. The notion of covenant appears in several aspects in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The first of the covenants to be described in the Bible is the covenant with Noah (last Sunday’s first reading.) In the story of the flood, God reveals his covenant with Noah not only with words, but also with the sign of the Rainbow. Other covenants follow, with Abraham, Moses, “the new covenant” of Jeremiah, the so-called “Priestly Covenant” made with Aaron and his descendants, the Davidic covenant, and finally the covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven, described by Jesus. All of these agreements have deep roots in the legal systems of the ancient near east, most especially with the legal form of Hittite treaties. Other ideas and actions flow from the covenant: a) The sacrifice that sealed the covenant (see Genesis 15) b) the witnessing of the covenant by heaven and earth (see Deuteronomy 30:19), c) or the trial that comes when the covenant is not kept. These promises and their consequences become an important part of Christian theology, and are best seen at work in the readings for the Easter Vigil, and in the Christian Scriptures that follow in the Mass after the Baptisms. From here we could go on to discuss the Baptismal Covenant, but will save that for a time closer to the Great Vigil.
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 Sarai 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."
On one level this reading is about names. We are introduced to an archaic name for God, “El Shaddai”, and learn that Abram and Sarai’s names will be changed to Abraham and Sarah. The latter may be the tying together two ancient Abrahamic traditions, or in the style of kings, one may be a common name, and the other a “throne name”. This is not the Abraham who argues with God over the fate of Sodom, but rather a quiet individual who falls on his face in the presence of God. The covenant that God proposes has two aspects: a) the promise of a multitude of descendants some of whom will be “nations”, and “kings”, and b) that Sarah will become a mother. Verses omitted from the reading (verses 8-14) include the provision for the circumcision of males, which was not unique to Israel, but also to other Semitic peoples in the western part of the Fertile Crescent, and especially amongst the priestly castes of Egypt. The cutting of flesh (see the reference to the Abrahamic Covenant in the background above) involved both animals and humans in making the covenant incarnate.
Breaking open Genesis:
- What promises has God made to you?
- Have you believed in them? Why or why not?
- How is Abraham a symbol of faith?
Psalm 22:22-30 Deus, Deus meus
Praise the LORD, you that fear him; *
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob's line, give glory.
For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them; *
but when they cry to him he hears them.
My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
For kingship belongs to the LORD; *
he rules over the nations.
To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.
My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the LORD'S for ever.
They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.
We know this psalm from the liturgies of Holy Week, where the initial verses of the psalm connect with the suffering of Jesus. Our usage this morning is limited to the latter verses of the psalm. Here the author gives thanks for preservation from the difficulties outlined in the first half of the psalm, and begins with a shout of thanksgiving. Now we are in the Temple, in the “great assembly” that has gathered there to honor the God who “does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty.” The extent of God’s grace extends from the Temple to include not only the poor, but also “all the ends of the earth”, including the dead as well, “all who sleep in the earth bow down.” This is very unusual, for the psalter usually does not entertain the notion that the dead can praise God. Indeed it is the opposite – the dead cannot praise God. Here, however, the author expands on the extent of the praise, and exaggerates the number of those who are praising God. The author does not stop there, but includes those yet to come, “a people yet unborn” who will know the love and grace of God, and “the saving deeds that he has done.”
Breaking open Psalm 22:
- Are you included in the psalmist’s list of those for whom God is concerned?
- Who is on your list of concern?
- How wide is God’s mercy for you?
The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Here we have Paul’s excursus on the first reading (see above). Abraham and Sarah are used as examples in Paul’s argument about the Law and Faith. Paul sees these ancients as primary examples of faith. He observes that the promise given to Abraham and Sarah extends beyond them and their age, to be delivered “also to those who share the faith of Abraham.” What follows then is a midrash on the new recipients of God’s promise and covenant. The argument is succinct: “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours as well.” The task of the Letter to the Romans: to recognize the gifts of Israel in her relationship with God, and the extension of those gifts to the gentiles.
Breaking open Romans:
- What was the faith of Abraham?
- In what or whom do you trust?
- In what ways was Israel blessed?
St. Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples 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."
Again, I offer the suggestion that you read the entirety of the pericope, for the initial verses have been lopped off by the lectionary. They describe an important context for the reading. The answer of the disciples to Jesus’ question, “Who are the people saying that I am?” is made more poignant by a further question to them, “who do you say that I am?” The answer that is forthcoming is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one, just as priests, prophets, and kings in Israel were anointed. From that confession follows a further examining of what those words of faith are really all about. Jesus wants to press deeper, and with this we join our lectionary reading again. What Jesus teaches now is not about the correctness of Peter or their observations, but of what needs to happen next – a prediction of the Passion. Peter finds this odious, and says as much. Suddenly we are back in the wilderness of temptation, but now it is Peter who is playing the role of Satan, and who must know step behind.
The teaching that follows is what any disciple should know – the cost of the cross not only to Jesus, but also really to all of us. There is here language of denial – Lenten language. It is not denial of trivial things, such as we might suggest in our Lenten disciple, chocolate, meat, movies, etc., but rather the essential thing, life itself. The author of Psalm 22 (see above) gets at the same thing with his phrase, “my soul (better translated ‘my seed’) shall live for him.” The seed of psalm 22 is the essence of the future and the descendants of Abraham that Paul argues for. What do we give up for Jesus? Ourselves! If we are not ashamed of the Christ (using Peter’s confession) then God will not be ashamed of us.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Why does Jesus call Peter “Satan”?
- What does Jesus mean about “giving up ourselves”?
- Are you ever ashamed of your faith?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller