The Third Church
Genesis 21:8-20Galatians 4:21-31
We would do well to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.
I suppose that’s not the most surprising statement to be made by a former missionary. But I do believe it is true. We would do well to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe. Allow me to illustrate with one example from my time in Palestine. For those of you who have heard this story before, I apologize.
Fr. Toma is the Greek Orthodox priest in the village of Zababdeh where we lived in the northern West Bank. He was also our neighbor, and became a close friend. He looks every bit the part of the Orthodox priest, with his long flowing black robes, white beard, and pony tail tucked away. As we stood by the side of the road one day together, he turned to me, and said, “You Presbyterians!” I braced myself. “Why don’t you cross yourselves?”
I was caught by surprise, and didn’t have a ready answer, but I remembered something about answering a question with a question, so I said to him, “You tell me.”
“Don’t you see what you’re missing? These three fingers brought together, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the unity of God in Trinity. And these two fingers, the humanity and divinity of Christ, brought together in the womb of Mary. He was true God, became flesh, sits on the right hand, and will come again!”
“Oh, that! We’ve got that. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door...” It kind of pales in comparison, doesn’t it? We would, indeed, do well to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.
Our readings today are a case in point. We hear the familiar story of Isaac and Ishmael. One is the child of God’s promise, born to Sarah and Abraham in old age. The other is the older child born to Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, Abraham’s concubine. The story this morning reflects the earlier rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, with Ishmael playing with – some translations prefer the harsher word mocking – his younger half-brother. Sarah has had enough, and so compels Abraham to send Ishmael and Hagar away, never to be heard from again. Isaac continues on, heir to the promise made to his father, becoming the father of Jacob, who is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The story seems to beg to us to pick sides, to choose between the future glory of Isaac and the dire fate of Ishmael. Given those options, there’s no alternative. As Christians, we consider ourselves spiritual children of Isaac, the child of the promise. Ishmael means little to us. The choice is clear. We side with Sarah and Isaac, helping to send Ishmael off in the desert to fend for himself. The rest of his story might be interesting, but it means little to us.
But we would do well to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.
Tony Maalouf is a Lebanese Baptist Biblical scholar whom I’ve been reading recently. As a Christian both by birth and by choice, Maalouf is a fellow spiritual child of Isaac. But as an Arab both by language and by culture, Maalouf is also a child of Ishmael. For Maalouf, the choice isn’t nearly so clear, and the potential schism in Abraham’s family has serious consequences for him. This quandary has forced him to be more deliberate as a scholar, and he employs a masterful overview of history, scholarship, and language to offer a very different, and I believe more accurate, account of the story of Isaac and Ishmael.
First, Isaac and Ishmael have a good relationship. The word that is sometimes translated mocking (and is rendered playing in our translation) is best translated laughing. It is clear from the word itself that Ishmael is laughing with Isaac, not at him, and that the two are enjoying each other’s company. Ishmael, the older brother, is doting on his younger sibling.
Second, Sarah’s angry reaction is understandable, but not justifiable. As a woman in the Ancient Near East, Sarah’s future stability is directly connected to that of her son’s. If Ishmael and Isaac grow up together, and her maidservant Hagar sticks around, Isaac will split Abraham’s inheritance with Ishmael, and Hagar will remain in the household alongside Sarah. The story, therefore, may tell us more about the rivalry between Sarah and Hagar than that between Isaac and Ishmael.
Third, Abraham loves Ishmael. While Sarah insists on driving out Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham has to be convinced by God that it will be OK. He then sends them away – not drives them out –with sustenance.
Fourth, Ishmael doesn’t disappear from the story. The fate of the child is of concern to the writer, and God saves both Ishmael and his mother from the harsh desert of Beersheba, promises to make a “great nation” of Ishmael, and then is with they boy as he grows. Genesis continues to refer to him as Abraham’s son, and names the twelve princes of the twelve tribes who are his children.
Finally, Isaac and Ishmael maintain their relationship. Their land is adjoining. And when Abraham dies, Ishmael and Isaac bury him together in the cave of Machpelah.
Seeing this text in a new light also raises questions about our text from Galatians, but for now, we will remain with our Genesis narrative. Perhaps the story isn’t about Isaac and Ishmael after all, and about some kind of primal need we have to choose sides. Perhaps the story is about God, and about the fact that God is at work anyway. God offers salvation and promise to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, and brings protection and comfort to Sarah and Hagar.
While it is Maalouf’s scholarship that might bring us to view this text in a new way, it is his cultural background and approach that brought him to ask the right questions in the first place. There are numerous other examples from the church around the world. From South Africans who can teach us about truth and reconciliation to South Americans who can teach us about liberation and freedom to the captives, we would do well to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.
This point is especially relevant as we face the reality of a changing global church. For many of us, the terms “Western” and “Christian” are synonymous, but the statistics paint a very different picture. The most populous Christian continent is Africa, with 400 million practicing believers. Missionaries from Brazil and Korea are coming to Europe and North America to bring the gospel to places that they see as living in darkness, captive to violence, materialism, and immorality. We sit here today at American Christians, part of the rich heritage of the European Reformed Church. But there is a Third Church emerging from the Third World, a church of poverty and powerlessness, our own sisters and brothers in Christ, that doesn’t look or sound like us, that prays and worships very differently. They are not the product of our missionary efforts. They are not our spiritual children. What is our connection with them?
I don’t have an answer to this question. What I do bring to the conversation is my experience of three and a half years lived among brothers and sisters in Christ who are very much children of both Isaac and Ishmael. And in that context, almost every single day, my assumptions about Scripture and theology were challenged, and I learned something profoundly new about the gospel and its call for my life. And now, returning to the American church, back to my hometown of Atlanta, I find myself living in Chamblee, where only one-quarter of the residents were born in the United States. What is my connection with them?
As a cradle-bred Christian, baptized as an infant at First Presbyterian Church, the current status of the worldwide church leaves me with more questions than answers. Even if we leave out the rest of the world and simply focus on the United States, approximately 20% of our population is, to use a popular term, racial ethnic. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is roughly 9% racial ethnic. Our own national denomination doesn’t look like our own nation.
And as I read Paul’s rendering of the story of Isaac and Ishmael, I move beyond simple questions. Paul’s allegorical application gives me great pause: am I a child according to the flesh, or one according to the promise? Are those of us who were “born into” the church children of Ishmael, the one destined to be tossed out? Are those who are part of this growing Third Church, this global church, are they the children of Isaac, the one destined for inheritance?
But if our Lebanese Baptist Biblical scholar is right, and I do believe he is, then this isn’t Paul’s point. After all, Paul is the one who wrote those radically egalitarian words our youth so ably preached last Sunday, that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Paul’s point about Isaac and Ishmael here is, rather, a rhetorical one. He is taking the arguments of his adversaries, those who would hold Gentile converts subject to Jewish ritual law, and is turning those very same arguments against them. His opponents are claiming to be descendents of Isaac, but Paul convincingly turns them into descendents of Ishmael.
But it is not, in the end, about our family resemblance. It is not, in the end, about Isaac and Ishmael at all. Rather, it is about Christ, the one who calls all, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Isaac and Ishmael, into a new relationship with Christ, and through him with sisters and brothers around the world. And in this new relationship, we find our assumptions fundamentally challenged and we find ourselves fundamentally changed.
The Church today, and we as part of it, is faced with a challenge today, to be the body of Christ in the midst of a dramatically changing reality. How should we respond? What will that response look like? The only thing of which I’m sure is that I don’t have the answers. But I do know that the questions are worth asking, and that in that gap between the question being asked and the answer becoming clear, God is very much at work. We would do well to listen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.