God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”
This is a text about the promise of flourishing in the face of seemingly hopeless realities. Both here, and later in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are incredulous that at their advanced age they can start a family. Sarah’s barrenness has already been the occasion for Abraham to father a child, Ishmael, through a slave girl, Hagar. Abraham cannot see beyond his nose: it is a hopeless case. But God has other plans. It is God’s truth, God’s intention, which is the reality here, not the pessimistic assessment of Abraham.
To me the relevance of this to our ecumenical situation today is obvious. The unity of the Church is a reality, not a dream. It must be a reality because it is founded on the person, will, and sacrifice of the one Jesus Christ, and in turn is built on the unity of the Father, Son and Spirit. Yet it is a reality which those of us who call ourselves Christian are unable to grasp and realise. We are caught up in the many excuses we put forward as reasons why we can’t be truly one in our worship and life as Christians. And yet God has already seen something beyond our own ignorance and blindness. We think we know what reality is – the difficulties, the obstacles, the cultural and social and political differences, the historical hurts and misunderstandings which broken up Christ’s Church in the past.
But God has other plans. We should rest on the hope that the original, given unity of the fellowship of the disciples around Christ really is God’s will for his people, and really is what he is working out in all the constraints of human history. We should raise our eyes, and lift up our hope, to that horizon.
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose covenant with your erring people showed us how your faith in us endures beyond our failings, work in us now, in all our sad divisions, and move our hearts to rejoice in the purpose, the love, the hope and the unity which is your Son’s gift to the Church, so that we may show your peace and unity to this fractured world. Amen.
The Rev’d Canon Dr Jeremy Morris National Adviser for Ecumenical Relations, Church of England