Guest Preacher

John Riches preached about Lambeth as part of his sermon on Sunday. He was preaching on Genesis 18: 1-15.

Here is what he said:

‘And the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.’

Surely this is one of the great archaic stories of the ancient world, of the world of theOld Testament, of the world of Eastern orthodoxy, familiar to us in the Andrei Rubev’s great icon of the Trinity, the three angels seated round the table.

The story operates on different levels: it is the story of Abraham’s hospitality to three – unidentified – men who in the heat of the mid-day sun are travelling past his tent, at Mamre, some few kilometres north of Hebron in the Judaean hills. Abraham runs to meet them, to call them in, (why? does he know it’s the Lord or are they people he needs to keep in with? – we are not told) and offers them bread and water. They accept this offering but then Abraham orders Sarah to bake cakes and himself kills the fatted calf and waits on them at table.

The men get straight to the point with – unexplained – insight into Abraham’s situation: the barren and aged Sarah, they predict, will have a son. Sarah’s derisive response to this announcement lacks delicacy: ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’

The Lord (singular) reproves Abraham and Sarah and asks why Sarah doubted. ‘Is there anything too hard for the Lord?’ and repeats his announcement. The incident ends with Sarah’s denial that she laughed, the man’s challenging her and the men departing.

One of the features of the story which stands out is the shifting use of the singular and the plural: they/he; the men/the Lord, both by Abraham and the narrator. Does Abraham really know who this is/these men are – something disclosed to us from the very beginning? Is the Lord accompanied by two assistants or is he mysteriously present in the three, in the encounter, the giving and receiving of hospitality, in the promise, prediction which echoes God’s promise in the previous chapter? And a further ambiguity in the narration: in chapter 19 the men are referred to as angels, something clearly taken up by Rublev, in his account of the story.

This ambiguity lies on the surface of the narrative: at a deeper, personal level, we are given an insight into the emotions of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham, the man ‘rich in cattle, silver and gold’, the war-lord with 318 trained men, is so unsettled by the sudden – miraculous? – arrival of the men before his tent, that he runs to meet them (not the action of a man of power and substance), that he changes his mind over what he offers them to eat, that he accompanies the on their way. Sarah is so unsettled by what is certainly a very unsettling prediction – that she first makes and then, out of fear, lies about her laughter.

Yet beyond the disturbing and unsettling nature of this encounter, there is more: the basic exchange between Abraham and the strangers – what is know in Orthodoxy as ‘the hospitality of Abraham’: Abraham’s offering to the men,/to the Lord and their/his promise which he will effect. ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’

It is this which is reflected, brought out in Andrei Rublev’s glorious icon. Three angels, figure of great tenderness and beauty sit round a table on which is a bowl/chalice with some for of meat in it (lamb, calf?) They are seated on a hexagonal dais: three figures turned towards each other, yet grouped in such a way as to draw the viewer into their circle. Their fellowship is not closed but open to whoever will accept the invitation. As George Herbert has it: ‘Love bade me welcome.’ Here the invitation is clearly into a circle of friends, of intimates, of persons linked in gracious, caring communion.

And of course the Eucharistic symbolism of the icon is unmistakeable. Abraham’s hospitality, his ‘entertaining of angels unawares (Heb 13.2), is an anticipation of, a foreshadowing of, the Eucharistic participation of the worshipping congregation in the life of the divine Trinity. Here we encounter, in and through the outward, visible signs and actions of the liturgy, the mystery of the divine life and here the divine life touches and moves us, brings new life to birth in us.

Rublev’s icon is known as the Trinity, sometimes as the Old Testament Trinity, but it is, insofar as it includes and draws in the viewer, an icon of the church, of the Eucharistic community gathered round the table and sharing in the feast of the Lamb. As such it is an image of remarkable openness. Here is no building whose doors need to be locked against the impure, the unholy: rather, one might supply (again with George Herbert), it is an open table, where the unworthy, ‘guilty of dust and sinne’, are assured of their acceptance. All that is required is to allow oneself to be drawn into the circle of this grace and tenderness, to be touched and transformed by the love and the friendship of the Holy Trinity.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our bishops assembling at Lambeth were to allow themselves to be caught by a vision of a church like this? Not one where you first had to sign up to a ‘covenant’ to enable you to know who should be in and who should be out, but one which joyously accepted our Lord’s invitation to us and to all, an invitation to participate in the ‘grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

And a last point. The figures in the Rublev’s icon – if you look very carefully – carry the most fragile of staffs, walking sticks. They are figures on the way, not an institution growing strong in and over against the world but a fellowship to be encountered in the heat and dust of this world’s conflicts and sorrows and trials and joys and hopes and triumphs, a fellowship grounded in acts of hospitality and promise and thanksgiving.


  1. Rosemary says

    I love Riches – the beautiful teaching exposition which them turns into a more orthodox homily – not merely a moving sermon but such a model of how to preach.

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