Readings: Genesis 17, Romans 4, and Mark 8
The wonder of scripture is that we meet ourselves; that we recognise something of our humanity in these texts and see ourselves in a greater context.
That is certainly true for the first of the readings this morning. The saga of Abraham and Sarah draws us almost beyond time into an encounter with God that lies as a common source for Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Chapter 17 of Genesis is a turning point in the saga: we are told God appears to the elderly Abram and that Abram ‘fell on his face’ to hear God speak and God promises him heirs and accordingly changes his name from Abram (Great Father) to Abraham (The Father of many).
Then the vision passes and we hear that “Abraham fell on his face and laughed”. In this we see two personas – the first is the ‘Abram’ who longs in his heart, unutterably, to have a child by his wife Sarah and is promised that by God; the second is the Abraham who does not believe the promise and laughs that he should think God would do something so contrary to all reason and experience. After all – what has been promised is the wildest folly!
We recognise both Abraham’s in us: in our hearts we long for the assurance of God’s purpose in our lives but our reason makes us perpetually doubt and question it: we want it, but we deny it. Does that sound familiar? Does that echo something of our experience?
Pascal, who certainly knew something of the challenges reason could set itself also implied that what we think of as reason or rationality may exist alongside another, perhaps deeper and more intuitive wisdom: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the earliest Christian texts (60-80 AD), written for a church where, although there were still some living witnesses to it, the resurrection of Christ remained as difficult to explain to others as it had been for those who first experienced it.
Of course, Paul implies, (using the example of Abraham) reason will tell us that the resurrection is impossible! Why would one hope for life beyond death? It is just as impossible to hope for that as it was for Abraham and Sarah expect to have children! Yet look what happened! We are the people who are always ‘hoping against hope’, believing what reason alone tells us is impossible!
Paul’s letter starts to sing as he speaks of a God beyond our imagining and wildest dreams – a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”. Paul speaks of a God who is utterly beyond our reckoning, whose being calls into question the narrowness of our reasoning and how we claim to understand the world. In Pascal’s terms, Paul speaks of the wisdom of the heart, the unimaginable God, against whom all our reasoning is as nothing! “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of...”
And this makes sense when we come to the gospel of Mark, the earliest of our Gospels, written (we guess) about 20 years after Paul’s letter to the Romans. In incident after incident through the gospel Jesus teaches his disciples, tries to help them grasp the reality of who he is and the implications of that for him as the Messiah. Peter, the boldest of the disciples, in a moment of understanding even confesses that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Yet that insight and understanding come to nothing as Peter tries to persuade Jesus that his destiny as Messiah must not be allowed to include the cross.
Yet again there is a divided vision here: while Peter recognises who Christ really is he also wants to negotiate a different deal, something that does not require the cross. We can put the point another way: Peter indeed glimpses the mystery of Christ but he wants it on terms that he can understand and accept. We might even be able to put this dichotomy into the heart and reason conflict that Pascal uses. Peter’s heart acknowledges God but his reason can make no sense of the Cross and works against it.
As we reflect on what this season of Lent means for us – the dilemma of heart and reason that can cause us all sorts of difficulties in our faith and how we follow Christ, may be something we give more attention to. Perhaps we may become more aware of the limits of reason. Perhaps we may, with Pascal, become more open to the possibility that God accesses us not just through our reason but in other ways as well – and that truly “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of...”
So, in this Eucharist we come seeking the one who knows us through and through – and who greets us in bread and wine.