Belatedly, happy new year!
At the office of Matins this morning we heard chapter 18 of Genesis, which you can read now here – and you should if you plan to read on here! The chapter appears at first reading to contain two separate stories: the hospitality offered by Abraham to three mysterious travellers, and then Abraham’s intercession on behalf of the wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah.
However, if you spend a little time with the chapter you will find that in fact it is one act with two scenes. Abraham’s act of hospitality in hosting the three wayfarers is in fact the justification for his intercession on behalf of the inhospitable cities of the plain. As is so normal in scripture, there is more than one level of meaning to be found.
The three men who visit Abraham are often depicted as angels, but it is clear from the text itself that these three men are a manifestation of the Lord God himself. Christian reflection on the Lord’s appearance as three men finds in it a prefiguring (however unwittingly by the sacred author) of the Blessed Trinity. One famous example is Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, which depicts this very scene, with strong allusions to the Eucharist and the supreme Table of divine hospitality.
So the human Abraham is host to God himself, and receives him into his tent. Whatever else it might be, this is a prefiguring of the Incarnation, in which God comes to dwell in the tent of human flesh. Abraham in his hospitality represents all humanity. And just as God’s making a home in the tent of human flesh changed humanity forever, so too Abraham is not the same after having received the Lord into his tent.
The fruit of the Incarnation was the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who became the Lamb of God, the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world, and the one mediator between humanity and God, the great High Priest. He intercedes for us constantly at the right hand of the Father (Romans 8:34). Just as the Incarnation established the God-man Jesus Christ as the only true and effective mediator for humanity before God, so too we can see that Abraham, after he has welcomed the Lord into his tent, has become a new person. He is not a divine person like Christ, nor is he a fully effective mediator like Christ. Nevertheless, Abraham, a mere man, is enabled now to stand before God and intercede on behalf of the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham seems to be aware of the audacity of his action (v.27):
Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.
Abraham’s actual intercession is stunning if you let it sink in. In a wonderful piece of Hebrew haggling, Abraham bargains God down to 10 righteous men as the price for sparing the cities – their very presence in the cities of human sin would be enough for God to spare those cities from the just punishment for their sin. Abraham has effectively convinced God (but not really convinced – it was His plan the whole time) to accept the principle that a righteous person can avert the just punishment due to those among whom that person has chosen to dwell.
Sadly, as we know, there were no just people able to avert justice for the cities of the plain. Indeed, no number of truly just people could be found until the Incarnation, when God’s dwelling with human nature revealed the one just man able to avert divine justice from humanity, in the midst of whom he had chosen to dwell. The power was from God but manifested in a beautiful justice, that since by a man came sin unto death, so by a man came also the resurrection from the dead. God had to do it, and so too (in terms of fittingness) did a man. Thus we see the reason for the Incarnation.
It is of course not the whole story. There is the little matter of the Cross! Abraham, a sinner, used words to intercede for the cities, seeking a righteous man to be their ransom from death. In Christ we find the sinless one interceding for sinners, not by words that aim to turn aside divine justice for human sin, but by the action of taking the burden of divine justice on himself, by paying the penalty for sinners. That was his death, on the Cross, his death as a man, not as God. In his humanity we find the first and only truly sinless, truly righteous man. His righteousness lies not merely in his sinlessness; it lies most powerfully in his selflessness – he gave his life for ours, when as the righteous one he was not under the penalty of death himself. That is the consummation of the Incarnation.
So, in its own way, this chapter from Genesis also reveals to us the purpose of living as Christ has commanded us, which is not least to love one another as he has loved us. And the greatest expression of that love is, of course, to lay down one’s life for another. Our laying down our lives for others by acts of selflessness – our crosses – are the means by which we share in Christ’s Cross. This means (among others) of sharing in his Cross enables our little crosses to make of us righteous ones, conforms us to Christ and strengthens his life within us, so that it finally comes to pass that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20). By this Christian living, we find ourselves made into that Righteous One for whom God will spare the sinful city. We can be those just ones Abraham hopes to find dwelling among the sinners.
In our worldly city of sin Christ now abides continually, by means of his Spirit which animates his earthly Body, the Church. The presence of the Church is the presence of the Righteous One, and that presence is manifested not least through individual Christians whose lives of selflessness, sacrifice, prayer and worship make active Christ’s saving presence in demonstrable power. That is how important it is for us to strive to live truly Christian, Christ-like, lives – it is not just for our sake that we do, but for the sake of all those around us. To accept the grace to live truly Christian lives is the best gift we can give to sinners.
This chapter from Genesis reveals also the mystery of redeemed humanity: that we are, at the same time, both the sinners dwelling in the cities of the plain, and the presence of the Righteous One for whom God will spare them. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.