The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him.” So begins this ancient story from the Hebrew scriptures, which goes on to describe how Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality to these three strangers, who in turn announce that in spite of her age Sarah will bear a son. As was common and expected in the culture of the Ancient Near East, Abraham offers “a little water” to the visitors, that they might wash their feet; “a little bread” to refresh their bodies; a place to rest in the shade of a tree. It is, after all, the hottest time of the day, when travelling is not only uncomfortable, but ill-advised. Sit, rest, refresh. It is the way of that world.
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The travelers accept the offer—“Do as you have said,” they reply—and immediately Abraham goes into high gear. “And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ He ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.” He’d been talking a bit of bread and water, yet ends up laying out what amounts to a pretty serious feast… thanks, of course, to Sarah’s bread-baking and the servant’s preparation of the calf; all in the “heat of the day” no less.
Having now refreshed themselves with this generous hospitality, one of the three visitors announces that “in due season… your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah has been eavesdropping on the conversation, and this announcement elicits from her only laughter. “Why did Sarah laugh,” is the response. Why did she say, “‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” As it turns out, nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. A child is conceived, and when he is born they name him Isaac, which means “Laugher”—“Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’” (Genesis 21:6)
Here at saint ben’s, we often display our reproduction of Andrei Rublev’s icon of this story. Written in the early 1400s—icons are “written” as opposed to “painted”—it is titled “The Hospitality of Abraham,” yet it is also very often referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity.” You see, there is a long and ancient tradition of hearing rumours or hints of the Trinitarian nature of God tucked into this ancient story of the three visitors. Although the story portrays three visitors, they speak as if with one voice, and by verse 13 they are referred to as “the Lord.” “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh?”
The icon pictures three angelic figures—they are winged, and though clothed in different colours, they are otherwise more or less identical. They are seated at a table that opens toward the viewer. The icon is conventionally “read” from left to right, and so the angel on the left represents the Father, the one in the centre the Son, and the one of the right the Holy Spirit. Coming up behind the central figure is a tree; an “oak of Mamre,” but also a suggestion of the “tree” on which the Son would be crucified. On the table is a cup in which there is something that might be wine. In earlier versions of this same icon “type” it is a lamb that rests in the chalice, representing the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Rublev seems to have been intentionally vague on this point in his otherwise very carefully written icon, yet the centrality of the cup is a clear indication that is a place where our eyes are meant to focus.
The faces of the Son and the Spirit are both oriented toward the Father, reflecting the proclamation of the Nicene Creed that the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” Yet unlike some traditional art of the Western church, which shows the Father as bearded and aged, the Son as a smaller man, and the Spirit as an even smaller dove, Rublev portrays the three as essentially the same in size and bearing; they are three, yet one.
The figure of the Son is shown pointing to the cup—the viewer is meant to pay attention!—while the figure of the Spirit points toward the front of the table, which is where things get even more interesting. Though you might not even notice it at first, the front of the table is marked by a small rectangular opening. In his meditation on this icon, Henri Nouwen offers the following reflection:
As the mysteries of the intimate life of the Holy Trinity are unfolded to us, our eyes become more and more aware of that small rectangular opening in front beneath the chalice. We must give all our attention to that open space because it is the place to which the Spirit points and where we become included in the divine circle. (Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord)
That little opening is “the place to which the Spirit points and where we become included in the divine circle,” suggests Nouwen. A place for us, and place of restfulness where, as Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3). This is all the more poignant when you consider that Rublev’s icon was written for his fellow monks at a time of deep political upheaval in 15th Century Russia, as such times always put monastic communities at deep risk. I found it all the more poignant when I recently saw a photograph of the chapel of the monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas in Algeria—the setting of the film Of Gods and Men, which recounts the 1996 story of the abduction and murder of seven of the nine monks by Algerian rebel fighters—and there on the chapel wall was a large reproduction of the Rublev icon. If you saw the film or know the story, you’ll be aware that that monastic community had made a Gospel decision not to flee the Algerian civil war, but rather to stay in the community to serve their Muslim neighbours as a sign of their faithfulness to the living Christ.
We are not, then, meant to escape from the world by hiding in that rectangle, for in fact the table around which these three figures are seated is open to the world. As was true for those monks in Algeria, having our lives hid safe with Christ in God may well lead us to risk all for the sake of love. Knowing that we have a place at the table in the presence of the Triune God should deeply convict us of the truth that there is always one more place—one more opening—alongside of us.
Which brings us to tonight’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew. Set at the very end of Matthew’s telling of the story, the risen Jesus appears to the eleven disciples and says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Forget your old scruples about Jew and Gentile—about insider and outsider—and immerse the world in the life of the Triune God. Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you, which in the end is to issue an invitation to live fully, abundantly, and audaciously as a people who feast at the table set by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And lest you begin to lose heart or hope, he concludes by saying, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And so a young Albanian nun named Teresa ends up on the streets of Calcutta, helping poor Hindus to die surrounded by love and treated with dignity, and a group of Trappist monks from France risk all to stay present in loving service to their Muslim friends and neighbours. Or closer to home, a Baptist pastor named Harry Lehotsky moves from New York City into Winnipeg’s core area to bring a revolutionary gospel into the life of a depressed and broken neighborhood, while the grieving parents of the murdered Candice Derksen publically proclaim their willingness to do the hard work of forgiving their daughter’s killer.
Those are big stories—well-known stories—but there are countless little stories that get played out each and every day by ordinary disciples striving to do the faith. And you know, if we take Jesus at his word, those little stories and day-to-day acts of making room at the table are oh-so-important. After all, it is in something so basic as extending a meal to strangers that Abraham and Sarah “entertained angels unaware.” Whenever you see that icon sitting at the front of the church, we must see it as an invitation to both draw closer and to do what we can to open yet another place at the feast of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.