No longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a host of nations.
Genesis 17: 5
Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? Or the prophets, who died? Who do you make yourself out to be?
John 8: 53
In today’s reading from Genesis, Abram prostrates himself before God and God declares the covenant with him. From this moment Abram is a new person, one whose life is now constituted fully by this covenantal relationship with God. The change of name represents the totality of the conversion and God’s total claim on Abraham, and on the “host of nations” which Abraham will father.
The gospel challenges us with the question who is truly the heir of Abraham, and equally, who is the brother or sister of Jesus? In the early days of the Church, when the community out of which John’s gospel comes coexists with the rest of the Jewish community who do not believe in Jesus, the questions are burning issues. Yet, in their deeper sense, abstracted from the historical and cultural milieu of the gospel, the questions remain ever active and challenging. Of those who lived in Jesus’ time, some few were able to recognize him as the Word and manifestation of God, but most were not. How about for us? What is required if we are to recognize the presence and call of God among us?
Abram becomes Abraham by an act of faith that, despite all evidence to the contrary, entrusts all of his life to God. He makes a leap of faith that means no longer is his life his own but rather a total response to whatever it is that God, in his covenantal love, asks and requires. This is so even when what God asks would appear to put at risk the promise God has made to him. The faith of Abraham is not primarily faith and trust in the promise of God, as Abraham understands that promise, but rather faith and abandonment to God.
In Jesus’ dispute with those he encounters in the eighth chapter of John, we see that its their status as children of Abraham that becomes central for them. Might it be true that their inability to recognize Jesus is based on their failure to recognize the difference between God and the gifts and promises of God, as we humans interpret them. And so for us, have we abandoned our lives and our wills to God or to our notions and ideas about God?
Thomas More once said: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” The demands of God on us are total. They transcend all other commitments, to persons, nations, institutions, churches. Sometimes we speak of a country as a “Christian nation” as if citizenship should be somehow a privilege of those who self-identify as a member of a certain religious group. We create rules of custom and behavior and then attempt to define membership in a church as constituted by one’s conforming to those rules. Yet, as Jesus says to the Samaritan Woman, “But the hour will come—in fact it is here already—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 23) The condition for the recognition of God, even in places where we would not expect God’s presence, is the capacity to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” Such worship is the faith of Abraham who, as Jesus, is prepared at every moment to let go of whatever it is that God asks.
We shall always be creating small gods on which to displace our faith. They may be other persons, or groups, or material success, or religious communities and churches. Any partial good which we make absolute always threatens to blind us to the presence of God in reality. It is a faith that holds nothing back and that puts no one or nothing before God that makes us children of Abraham and brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Faith simply means that what I am seeking is not here, and for that very reason I believe it. Faith expressly signifies the deep;, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that the believer cannot settle down at rest in this world. The one who has settled down has ceased to be a believer, because a believer cannot sit still—a believer travels forward in faith.
Soren Kierkegaard, Faith and Reason