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5th Sunday after Trinity

08 July 2022

17 July, Proper 11: Genesis 18.1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-end

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THE meeting by the oaks of Mamre is called a “theophany”, which means the appearing of a divinity. The text begins by affirming that Abraham does meet God there (“the Lord appeared”), but, when it comes to identifying the three beings who visit Abraham, the ground is less certain.

From early times, Christians detected in this encounter a pre-Christian glimpse of the Trinity. By the fourth century, when the doctrine of the Trinity was coming to its full theological expression, debate on whether to keep the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament as part of Christian revelation had been settled, but many of the Christological readings that have become standard in later centuries were still being worked out. Mamre is one such.

The historical-critical method has long been established as standard practice in biblical scholarship; so we could explain inconsistencies in the Mamre encounter by means of the documentary hypothesis (the theory that Genesis is constructed from four sources: J, E, D, and P). But the mystery of Mamre resists a pedestrian approach. It is better to accept the text as it stands, and that the author (or editor, or redactor, or compiler) has reasons for telling the story like this.

The three figures do not draw near to Abraham: they simply materialise in front of him. The author of Genesis struggles to make pronouns fit realities, though not in quite the way that we do nowadays. Are they one, or three? “The Lord” appeared (singular). They were “three men” (plural). Abraham spoke to “them” using the term, “My Lord” (singular). He spoke to them as more than one (plural). All very odd.

Telling a theophany in story form makes it easier to grasp (we have all entertained unexpected guests at times). In Colossians, Paul takes a different path, expressing God’s reality by making statements in abstract terms. This passage is inspiring and daunting at the same time. I do not think that I have yet fully appreciated the meaning of “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” or “Christ in you, the hope of glory”, though I sense a link to Johannine incarnation-theology.

Some scholars see Colossians 1.12-20 as a Christological hymn reflecting a baptismal liturgy, others, as a pre-Pauline body of teaching which Paul has incorporated into his letter, as he does elsewhere (Philippians 2, 1 Corinthians 11). Either way, Paul has received teaching about Christ in a highly concentrated form, which incorporates past and future — as well as the present — into the “fullness” of Christ’s identity. We need help from thinkers, storytellers, artists, and musicians to dilute it into a palatable form that can be imbibed and absorbed over time.

Line after line of this Christ-hymn reveals the divine nature and reality as complete in itself, and yet gathering to itself what is fractured and alienated, to heal it and reconcile it. Tackling the content of Colossians 1.15-28 can feel like walking into a rich banquet convinced that you have time only to grab a sandwich and slurp a Starbucks. It’s all too beautiful — too much.

The cumulative force of truth after truth about God and Christ is overwhelming: once we start to hear those words speak to us of the God we pray to and worship, we can find ourselves with nothing left to cry but our unreadiness and unworthiness: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7.24).

It is easier to hear divine truth in story form, when people, not principles, are the vehicle by which God enables seeds of faith to take root and grow. This Gospel passage from Luke 10 is (frankly) annoying in its lack of appreciation for those behind-the-scenes heroes without whose selflessness church life could not flourish. It is tough to be told off for being too considerate and helpful. But, annoying or not, it makes the point that the proper way for Christians is neither asking for praise as their reward nor finding other means of winning approval, but solely fixing their attention on Christ.

Charles Wesley got this just right; so I hope his words will be widely sung this Sunday:

 

For ever would I take my seat
With Mary at the Master’s feet:
Be this my happy choice;
My only care, delight, and bliss,
My joy, my heaven on earth, be this,
To hear the Bridegroom’s voice!

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