This is the well-known story of Abraham and Sarah and the three messengers.
- We are told that the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. I’m not certain that Abraham knew this straightaway. I doubt it. But we get insider information. (v. 1)
- Abraham appears to be a very gracious host to these strangers. He is, in fact, merely observing the custom of the day. In a desert climate, when travelers appeared, you were expected to provide food, drink, and shelter. Not offering these would be unthinkable. Desert travel is risky business. Everybody is expected to provide this level of hospitality. (vv. 2-8)
- As he was watching them eat, they asked about his wife Sarah. “She’s over there in the tent.” (v. 9)
- One of them says something incredible. He predicts that she will bear a son to Abraham. (v. 10a)
You may know the rest of the story. Sarah overhears this, and laughs to herself. She has a right to laugh, because she is over 90 years old. Not only that, but Abraham is older than her. What are the chances that two people of that age could conceive, let alone Sarah give birth?
A few verses later, she denies laughing. But one of the messengers says something that is key-- “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (v. 14) Let’s hope that nothing that wonderful happens to those of us who are “up in age”! But when God has plan, nothing gets in the way.
It is good to remember that we have the benefit of time. This is something that the first century Christians did not have. Over the eons, church leaders have sorted out the details of the relationship between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are very familiar with the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. In the first century, the church fathers, like Paul, had to remind believers of Jesus’ place in the big picture. About half of today’s lesson is just that. In doing so, Paul uses some phrases and concepts that are interesting to ponder. Let’s have a look.
- Paul starts out by stating that Jesus is “the image of God”—Jesus is what God looks like. This is not news, actually. In early June, our gospel lesson has Philip asking Jesus to show them the Father. “Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’” (John 14:9)
- The next two verses sound a lot like the first chapter of the gospel of John. Jesus was there at the beginning of creation. (vv. 16-17)
- Here are two statements worth thinking about. Jesus is the head of the church. (And we are Jesus’ body in this time and place.) He is also the firstborn of the dead; he leads the way for us in eternal life. (v. 18)
- We now get a description of Jesus’ life-saving mission. I like how he says “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.” Our Father wanted to make things right between us and him. He sent His son to do this. Jesus dutifully obeyed the Father’s will. (vv. 19-20)
- Paul shifts from the Father and Son to us. Before we knew Jesus, we were lost, doing things that were displeasing to the Lord. Now that we have followed Jesus, we are made right with God through Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul goes on to urge us to remain steadfast in this faith, and not stumble. (vv. 21-23a)
- Paul then talks about his own mission as a servant of the gospel. He has suffered greatly for this mission, but that doesn’t matter. (vv. 23b-25)
- He takes pleasure in revealing the ancient mysteries that are now revealed to us, the saints. In fact, God wants all of us Gentiles to share in the riches of this mystery. (vv. 26-27)
- By learning and understanding this mystery, we become “mature in Christ”. (v. 28)
If you’re wondering what the mystery is that Paul is talking about, he already told you. It is there in the first half of the lesson. It is the mystery of Jesus being there at the very beginning, doing the Father’s will, and coming to earth to reconcile the difference between God’s expectations and our failure to live up to them.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
- Who is doing all the work in this passage?
- What is our job, according to this passage?
- God alone.
- Remain steadfast in faith
This story can be a troublemaker, if you let it. Fortunately, I have a new insight on this story, which I recently learned from a female Palestinian Lutheran Pastor. But first, let’s look at the story.
- On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus stops at the home of Martha. You know her brother Lazarus, and her sister Mary. But it states that it is Martha’s home. In those days, that only meant that Martha was a widow, and her husband had left her the home. (v. 38)
- Her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words. In those days, you sat at the feet of your teacher to learn. (v. 39)
- Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not doing what she is supposed to be doing. Boldly, she tells Jesus “Tell her to help me.” (v. 40)
- Jesus tells Martha no, that Mary may sit at his feet and learn. (v. 41)
This Palestinian pastor provided me with a great cultural insight into this story. She said that even today, women in that culture are expected to prepare meals for the men. It is the men who discuss important matters. The lines of division are very clear, and Mary had crossed the line. She chose to abandon her duties, and listen to Jesus’ teaching. Martha was doing what was expected of women. Mary was shirking her duties. Martha was devoted to serving and Mary to learning.
This pastor goes on to say that both learning and serving are equally important in Christian life. Serving is a vital part of what we do, but it comes after learning.
There is a great story in the book of Acts about this. In chapter 6, there is a dispute amongst the believers. Some of the widows were being neglected, because the church leaders were too focused on teaching, not serving. They solved this by setting up a separate group to ensure that all the widows would not go hungry. They came to realize that they must strike a balance between teaching and serving.
This same tension exists in today’s gospel lesson. Mary steps out of her expected role, and wants to learn. Jesus tells us that learning is vital. We must all find the balance between learning and serving.