“Good Parenting 101” – Beth Christianson
In lots of ways, I still consider myself to be pretty new to this Anglicanism thing. Before I began coming to church at St. Mary’s, my impression of the Anglican church was synonymous in my mind with England and Englishness. But I’ve learned a lot about our rituals, our church calendar, the festivals and feasts and fasts we observe, and I’ve come to appreciate how much deeper into the history of the Church our Anglican roots go. The lectionary we are following in Lent dates all the way back to the 5th century. We share feasts and fasts with other liturgical churches, holy days which Christians have been observing for nearly all of our history.
But in my mind, Mothering Sunday has been a holdover to my original impression of the British-ness of the Anglican Church. I found Mothering Sunday versus Mother’s Day very confusing. And when I read up on Mothering Sunday online, I learned about simnel cake, and young women who worked as maids for the English gentry getting this Sunday off to go home and visit their mothers. This is the Downton Abbey of Anglican traditions.
All of this, seemingly, built up over time around a single phrase from today’s Epistle lesson from Paul’s letter to the Galatian church: “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” Over time, Mothering Sunday became the day to return to your mother church, or to the Cathedral church of your diocese. The Church is the mother of us all.
But Paul is not talking about English maids bringing spring bouquets to their mothers in this passage. So what is going on here? And why has the Church been reading this passage today, at the mid-point of Lent, for nigh-on 1500 years?
Someone asked me at Alpha a couple of weeks ago why Christians should even bother with the Old Testament. If we have the New Testament, the Old is redundant, isn’t it? Well, this passage from Galatians is a great example of why understanding the Old Testament is essential to understanding the New. There are two layers of context you need to get what Paul is talking about when he says “the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”
First, the context of the letter to the Galatians. Galatia was a large Roman province in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. Paul visited many cities and towns in Galatia on his first missionary journey, preaching the Gospel, and teaching the new converts there about who Jesus was and what he did, and about how to be a Christian. When Paul moved on from Galatia to travel into Greece, he left behind a number of vibrant, Spirit-filled Christian communities.
Later on, however, Paul gets reports that after he left, some other Jewish Christian missionaries came from Jerusalem to visit the churches in Galatia, and told them that what Paul meant to say was yes, Jesus, cross, death, resurrection, but also you should be following the Jewish laws and traditions which had been handed down from Moses, which Jesus, and Paul himself, had followed. Becoming fully Jewish was the only way for the gentile Galatian Christians to become fully part of God’s real family. To make this point, these other missionaries used the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. This is the second layer of context you need to understand this passage.
Hundreds of years before God gave Moses the law which the Jewish people followed, which the Galatians were being told they also needed to follow, there was Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. God promised Abraham, who had no children, that God would turn him into a great nation. Abraham believed God’s promise, and followed where God led him for decades, growing richer and richer, but still having no children. Eventually, when Abraham and his wife Sarah were old, Sarah told her husband, look, obviously God isn’t giving you children through me, so why don’t I give you my slave Hagar? She can bear you children, and I’ll get to call them mine. So despite God’s promise, Abraham agreed to this, and Hagar gave birth to a boy called Ishmael. But God renewed his promise to Abraham yet again, that he would have children with his wife Sarah, and she also gave birth to a boy, Isaac. Much drama ensued, and resulted in Abraham and Sarah kicking Hagar and Ishmael out, since Sarah refused to allow Ishmael to share in her son Isaac’s inheritance.
Now, back to Galatia. The Jewish missionaries were telling Paul’s converts that they were like Abraham’s son Ishmael; only nominally part of the family, but not full inheritors. In order to be fully in God’s family, they had to become like Isaac, the ancestor of the Jewish people, who follow God’s Law. They needed to become circumcised, like their Jewish brethren, in order to fully inherit salvation.
Now, Paul hears about all this, and that the Galatian Christians are being convinced by this argument to allow themselves to be circumcised, and have begun to observe the Jewish festivals and feast days. So he writes this letter that we have today to correct this bad theology that the Galatians are falling into.
In the passage we read today from Galatians chapter four, Paul is using the same story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar to make the exact opposite argument from what the false missionaries had been telling the Galatians. Here is how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Tell me now, you who have become so enamoured with the law: Have you paid close attention to that law? Abraham, remember, had two sons: one by the slave woman and one by the free woman. The son of the slave woman was born by human connivance; the son of the free woman was born by God’s promise. This illustrates the very thing we are dealing with now. The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is from Mount Sinai in Arabia [where Moses received the Law from God]. It corresponds with what is now going on in Jerusalem — a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar. In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother — this is the way of Sarah. Isn’t it clear, friends, that you, like Isaac, are children of promise? In the days of Hagar and Sarah, the child who came from faithless connivance (Ishmael) harassed the child who came — empowered by the Spirit — from the faithful promise (Isaac). Isn’t it clear that the harassment you are now experiencing from the Jerusalem heretics follows that old pattern? There is a Scripture that tells us what to do: ‘Expel the slave mother with her son, for the slave son will not inherit with the free son.’ Isn’t that conclusive? We are
not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. Christ has set us free to live a free life.
So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”
So that is the point Paul is making by invoking this Old Testament story. As Christians, we are fully part of God’s family entirely through faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing else needs to be added to this. Jesus said in Matthew chapter 5, “l have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” The law God gave Moses on Mount Sinai was fulfilled in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. That is why faith in Jesus is all that is required for salvation, for the Galatian Christians, and for us.
So what is there for us in this passage today? As far as I know, no one from Jerusalem is pressuring us to become circumcised. Nevertheless, there are lots of ways in which, if we are not grounded in Scripture, we can come to believe that more is required of us in order to earn a place in God’s family. And maybe this is where the image of the Church as a good parent is helpful.
One of the things that has made me uncomfortable about tying this story about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar to a special day in which we honour mothers, and the church as our mother, is that this story is not exactly a shining beacon of good parenting. If God saved the world through the family of Abraham, it was entirely by His grace, and not from any innate holiness of these people. Sarah does not believe God’s promise to make her pregnant, so she gives her slave to her husband, and he goes along with it. Then when Hagar gets pregnant, she becomes prideful and disrespects her mistress. Sarah turns around and blames Abraham for that, and he holds up his hands and says, it’s got nothing to do with me. She’s your slave. So Sarah is cruel to Hagar, who runs away from home until God promises to take care of her, and persuades her to return. Then years later, when Isaac is born, Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael gone. She tells Abraham, no way is she going to allow that slave’s boy to inherit anything. Conveniently forgetting that the whole thing was her idea in the first place. And Abraham gives in! He sends his son and his mistress/employee off into the desert to die! God has to rescue them, again. This story is like How to be a Terrible Human 101.
But when Paul uses this story as a metaphor for Jewish and Gentile Christians, Hagar and Ishmael are not the victims, the two people in the story who are rejected and abandoned by the ones who had responsibility for them. Paul quotes Sarah when he says, “There is a Scripture that tells us what to do: ‘Expel the slave mother with her son, for the slave son will not inherit with the free son.”‘ What we must do, then, is allow the story to exist simultaneously on two levels. The first level is the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar as we have it, as Paul and the Galatian Christians had it, from Genesis. The second level is as a metaphor, where we leave off concerns about who was right or wrong in the story in terms of how they treated each other, and merely look at the two boys as symbols of God’s two covenants with humanity; the first covenant of the law, and the new covenant through faith in Jesus Christ.
The earthly Jerusalem, from which the Jewish missionaries had come and were leading the Galatian Christians astray, is represented in Paul’s metaphor by Ishmael, the son of a slave, and Mount Sinai, where God gave the law to Moses. But Paul tells the Galatians there is
another Jerusalem, a heavenly or spiritual Jerusalem, represented by Isaac, the child born of God’s promise. This spiritual Jerusalem finds its manifestation on earth as the Church. The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
What kind of mother is the Church to us? Images of shelter and belonging, of unconditional love, come to mind. Good parenting is also about teaching your kids to be decent human beings. Paul taught the baby Galatian Christians to orient their lives around faith in Jesus Christ. He taught them the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, so they would understand how Jesus fit into the story of God’s salvation work in the world. The Gospel Paul brought to the Galatians would have included instructions on caring for one another, but also caring for the poor, the outcasts, the widows and orphans of their communities. The Gospel Paul taught to the Galatians would have included taking care of a Hagar or an Ishmael, of sheltering them and treating them with the dignity of a child of God.
In the same way, the Church is our source of good parenting. This is where we learn to orient our lives around faith in Jesus Christ. This is where we are taught our history, so we can understand where we fit into the story of God’s salvation work in the world. This is where we learn that we are also free from the bondage of sin and death. We are full members of God’s family, because of the work of Jesus on the cross. We are called by God to show the world we belong to his family by the way we love each other, and by the way we extend that love to the world, to the Hagars and Ishmaels out there, who’ve been rejected and cast out. Like good parents, we are called to offer unconditional love, just as we have received unconditional love ourselves.
So on this Sunday at the mid-point of Lent, we have traditionally taken a moment out of our lenten vigil to give thanks to God and rejoice in our belonging to God’s family, and that we have a mothering Church, which shelters us and offers peace and rest.