Genesis 18.1-15, Colossians 1.15-28, Luke 10.38-42
In our Old Testament reading God reveals to Abraham and Sarah that he is able to sit light to the normal rules of nature. Sarah is 'advanced in years', which is the Bible's way of saying that she had passed the menopause. She laughs at the suggestion that - in nine months' time - she will have a baby. But God is able to do things which to us seem impossible.
Now, of course, neither Abraham nor Sarah realise that they have been entertaining God's messengers unawares. They have simply been following the rules of hospitality and offering food to travellers in the desert. Sarah is embarrassed when the stranger tells her that he has heard her laughing. Again it is discourteous to laugh at a stranger, however ludicrous their comments might seem.
Our Gospel reading is also about offering hospitality, but this time not to strangers. One of Jesus’ disciples, Martha, invites him to her home. Like any good host she then gets busy preparing the food but her younger sister, Mary, instead of lending a helping hand, sits engrossed at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.
There are all sorts of rules being broken here. Mary is breaking the rule about offering hospitality to visitors. When people come to your home it’s customary to put their needs first. Which of us would organise a party and then get so involved in the conversation, or the games, or the dancing, or whatever, that we forgot to help prepare the food? Well, you might say, men do that all the time! But Mary doesn’t even have that excuse. She has been born and brought up to be a good and dutiful host. She has broken the rules of good hospitality.
But then this is no ordinary party. Jesus isn’t holding the company spellbound with witty repartee. He’s probably teaching his disciples about matters of supreme importance, matters of life and death even. It’s natural for Mary to want to be engaged in this conversation, and Jesus commends her for it. Martha breaks the rules that govern rabbis and their disciples by interrupting the flow of conversation and bringing everyone back down to earth. ‘Hey folks, there’s food needs cooking here! Do you want to eat or not?’ It’s bad manners to interrupt a teacher, especially one as important as Jesus.
Finally, the hymn about Jesus from Colossians tells us that Jesus crosses much more significant boundaries and conventions than simply challenging the rules of etiquette. Paul presents him as far above and beyond a charismatic teacher. He is at once both a normal human being and the image of the invisible God. He is the first-born before creation. Later, Christian theologians would go on to say that he was never created at all but was always one with God, completely indivisible from him. This is not just an infringement of the rules. This tears up the rulebook as other religious faiths have conceived it.
A famous icon of the Orthodox Church goes so far as to depict the three strangers who visited Abraham as the three persons of the Trinity, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but this idea surfaced long before the icon was painted. Even if this is a fanciful interpretation of what the Genesis story means, identifying Jesus with God from the beginning of time clearly means that he has been involved in everything that God has ever said and done. He cannot be confined by anything in the cosmos - not even by death.
According to Paul - and to the hymn he is quoting - it is Jesus’ radical departure from all the natural laws and norms that we have always taken for granted, which gives him the power to reconcile us to God. It is not good enough to think of him simply as a wise teacher who went about doing good. We have to put all our hope in his groundbreaking and transforming power and then go on to share this mystery with the whole world in order to complete the work that he began.
When he chides Martha, Jesus seems to be saying that compared to many of the things we get so excited about, observing the right dress code when we go out to a party or to a posh restaurant, following the right etiquette when we’re entertaining guests, or more serious issues like deciding whether we’re for or against gay marriage, or even where we stand on human rights’ issues, the decision whether we are wiling to commit ourselves to the way of Jesus is far and above the most important that we will ever make, because obedience to him is an apodictic rule. Jesus expects us to decide - in every age and every place - whether we are going to follow his agenda and be reconciled in him to God so that we may be presented holy, blameless and irreproachable before him, whether we are to be like Martha or like Mary, like Abraham or like Sarah - who dared to laugh at God’s impossible promises.
On a practical level it means being prepared to take risks, sit light to convention and go out on a limb both in our own pilgrimage as individual believers and as a faith community. As Abraham and Sarah discovered, not much is predictable about being pilgrims, very little can be taken for granted. Some rules are there to be broken or transcended. But the apodictic rules, about loving God and neighbour and yielding to the reconciling love of Jesus are continuously sure, established and steadfast.