The Jews called Abraham their father because they spring from him. The Muslims who venerate him equally called him “the friend”, friend to God and because of his defence of his nephew Lot and his hospitality to the three visitors at Mamre, friend to man. We Christians call him our father in faith because of his trust in God, which God credits to him as righteousness. What would the Canaanites and Perizzites call him if they were alive today? Probably imperialist, colonialist, and thief. We Canadians have been painfully learning over last few years that the history of our country that we learned in school is much more complex and painful when the experience of those who were colonized is taken into account. A lot depends on who writes the history books. The only Abraham who has come down to us looks like an authentic hero, given the bloody code of conduct of those times. The pattern of migration forces Abraham out of Chaldea, down near where Tigris and Euphrates run together. He then comes to Haran and after that goes southward with his flocks and herds. Famine is what drives him chiefly, says the Bible, although centuries later when he becomes a folk-hero his movements are interpreted as a series of calls from God.

We should easily recognize him, steeped as we are in frontier lore from seeing years of movie westerns. Abraham sets out for the unknown full of trust in his God, convinced that somewhere there was a land he could someday call his own. Like our own explorers and settlers, when Abraham got to that land he found that to call it his own he would have to steal it from the people who had got there first. When you read in Genesis 14 how Abram the Hebrew leagued with the king of Sodom and his allies to whip Chedorlaomer of Elam and the three kings he looks heroic. “Give me the people; the goods you may keep”, says the king of Sodom after the victory. Abraham piously refuses: “I have sworn to the Lord that I will not take so much as thread or a sandal strap…. lest you should say ‘I made Abram rich.’” It would ill-befit us to doubt the story but the Israelites wrote it. The account of the defeated Elamites does not remain. But it will not do to fault the history writing of the Bible. We should be grateful that in Abraham we have an authentic hero, a thoroughly decent man. He conducts himself well every time we meet him. In today’s liturgy we meet him doing a strange thing but one that is terribly important to us. Abraham is cutting a covenant. A bargain is struck, God’s word is given. The land and children will be Abraham’s. As a sign of this bargain three animals and two birds are hacked apart. The sun goes down, vultures are fought off, and Abraham falls into a trance. Then a flaming torch passes between the parts of the animals in the terrifying darkness. The symbolism of the bloody separation was if either of us defaults on this promise so may this happen to us. The unseen God cut apart like a heifer or a ram? Well, not really. But the seriousness of the event is compared to that between a powerful king at a weaker one where the former sets the terms, all of them favorable to the lesser recipient. This is the notion of covenant. It is a notion that is with us still, coming right up to today’s celebration of the Eucharist.

We celebrate a renewed covenant that is an everlasting one. The symbol this time is not blood and fire and smoke. It is not even the mangled body of a man on a cross though that is the appearance given. The symbol of God’s faithfulness to us in the new covenant is a totally obedient man, Jesus: a faithful man, a man who will never go back on his word as God does not go back on his. There is no one we know of quite like this. That is the uniqueness of Jesus. It is not his blood that is important; Blood is only a result, an outcome. The greatness of Jesus is his faithfulness, the cause of the bloodshed. The reading from Philippians says we too will be “conformed to the body of [Christ’s] glory” if we stay faithful to the terms of the covenant. What is the fidelity that brings as its result eternal life? We used to say things like not missing church or keeping the Lenten fast poorly. But they are external things like the blood on Calvary. They are not what matters. God sees the inner spirit. God sees the heart. If we are to keep our part of the covenant which has Christ’s body and blood as it signs, we must abhor all bloodshed. That, after all, is why he died at the hands of senseless men: to bring an end to blind hate that thinks it can solve anything by destroying human life.