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Bloody Feet of Love

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Genesis 22:1-14

Matthew 10:40-42

One of the most well-known excerpts of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Four Quartets, is the beginning of the final stanza that reads:

We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

“To arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” is a working definition of an important literary dynamic within scripture called an inclusio. An inclusio functions by beginning and ending with the same concept, and the ending transforms our understanding of the beginning. There are hundreds of inclusios within scripture; in fact, once you understand how an inclusio works, you might start to notice them everywhere. For example, John’s Gospel opens with the words, “In the beginning,” the exact same words from Genesis 1, forming an inclusio. John is repeating, connecting, and transforming our understanding of the purpose of God’s creation in Genesis 1 through this inclusio. Our lives are filled with inclusios too: certain repetitions that bear the possibility of transformative understanding. I might observe that an annual pilgrimage to a place like this carries the possibility of forming an inclusio each year, or perhaps even for a lifetime.

I’m introducing the concept of an inclusio because today’s Old Testament lesson is best understood if we consider it as an inclusio. What makes Abraham’s story powerful is that it is simultaneously the ending of one inclusio and the beginning of another inclusio. This bivalent inclusio makes Abraham’s story a special axis point of insight into the nature of faith and true love.

Some of you who know it may remember that Abraham’s story begins with a sudden, seemingly random, and impossibly difficulty challenge: at the age of seventy-five, God tells Abraham to leave his family and everything he knows to travel to a foreign land. Most of us would never entertain such an outlandish challenge, or we would at least ask God to explain himself, but Abraham does not. He follows. Here we can see the clear connection and repetition of Abraham’s response to this first challenge from God to leave his homeland and his response to the final challenge to kill his only son. In each instance, Abraham follows God’s command without hesitation and questioning; however, an inclusio is not simple repetition, it is transformative repetition: “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Here's the transformative detail: at the beginning of this inclusio, Abraham is given a seemingly impossible challenge, but God also presents him with a remarkable reward. God tells Abraham that he will become the father of a great nation, and he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. Wowza! That remarkable reward potentially complicates Abraham’s motivations. Was Abraham being faithful to God’s command, or was he interested only in the reward? At the beginning of the story, we cannot know the nature of Abraham’s heart.

At the end of the story, however, God doesn’t offer Abraham any reward to accompany the final challenge. He doesn’t tell Abraham that he will give him more children if he kills Isaac. “Just do it,” God says, and Abraham follows. Not only does God not offer Abraham a reward, but the final challenge also removes from Abraham the son who was the fulfillment of the reward from his first challenge. This final challenge is the undoing of the first challenge’s reward.

A close and curious reader of Abraham’s story might wonder if Abraham was truly faithful to God until this moment; however, Abraham’s response to God’s final challenge transforms our understanding of Abraham’s motives all along. Our suspicion about Abraham’s motivations is clarified and transformed through this inclusio. Abraham is faithful to God, even when God asks him to do something horrible. Faithful Abraham: we couldn’t see you clearly until the end of your story, but having “arrived where we started, we have come to know you for the first time.”

And yet, what kind of God would be so capricious and cruel? What kind of God would test a faithful man in this way? Even as this inclusio clarifies our understanding of Abraham, it complicates our understanding of God. It is with this two-fold realization that the genius and beauty of this inclusio comes into focus. Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is the end of Abraham’s inclusio and it is the beginning of Jesus’s inclusio. We can see this connection most clearly when Isaac starts to wise up to the funny business. Realizing that his father has brought wood and a knife but no animal to sacrifice, Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.”

With this prophecy, Abraham points ahead through the centuries to another Father who will sacrifice his only and beloved son to show his faithfulness to a broken world. Jesus is “the lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29), and in Jesus’s story we see God fulfilling the faithfulness that Abraham only points towards. In Jesus’s story, we see the completion of this inclusio, and our understanding of God is transformed: God is not a capricious dictator doling out confusing tests and rules; he is a loving Father, Abba, who loves us even when that love costs him his only and beloved Son. Abraham’s faithfulness is a foreshadow of God’s perfect faithfulness and love for his beloved children. In this final inclusio, we are invited to realize that this story was never about Abraham’s faithfulness, or even our own faithfulness; rather, this story is about God’s faithfulness towards us.

In the same way that my father’s bloodied feet on the dock revealed to me the depth of his care for his children on that camping trip to Duck Hole,[1] Jesus’s bloody body on the cross is God’s testament to the world that He loves us with an untainted, unfailing, and unconditional love. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is the ultimate revelation of love.

God’s love is a love of sacrifice. It is the absence of any notion of sacrifice that makes almost all secular visions of “love” hollow and brittle. When we say something like, “I love spaghetti,” we suggest that love is about feeling good rather than self-sacrifice. This kind of love does not hold transformative power. Christian love, however, is a love that sacrifices its feet to save his children; a love that sacrifices not only feet, but also hands and head and whole body.

God’s love performs the action of sacrificing his only and beloved son so that Abraham would not have to: “God himself will provide the lamb,” Abraham prophecies, and so He did.

The inclusio is complete in this final sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and our understanding of God is transformed. We are invited to realize that God does not make us jump through hoops to earn his love (the way it might appear to us at the beginning of the inclusio). God doesn’t love us more if we succeed, and God doesn’t love us less if we fail. God loves us when we are dead to sin, and God’s love doesn’t change when we return to Him. Unlike, brittle and often capricious human love, God’s love, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). This is the gospel of grace, and it has the power to transform our lives if we are willing to embrace it and trust in it. Through this revelation, we are gifted permission to let go of a human vision of God who demands arbitrary things of us to earn our salvation; we are further invited to let go of all the posturing and striving we do to prove to ourselves and our neighbor that we are worthy of love. Instead, we are invited to become whole, healthy, blessed, and completely secure in our Father’s love.

In the spirit of the biblical inclusio, let me return to the full and final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s poem:

We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea.

By pointing to the children in the apple-tree and the hidden waterfall, Eliot is pointing us back to the Garden of Eden, to an even larger inclusio. In the Garden of Eden, you may remember that there are two trees that have names. There is the famous forbidden tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is the tree that causes Adam and Eve to forget God’s unconditional love. The first tree, however, is the tree of life, which has long been understood to be the cross of Christ. The fruit of the tree of life would then be the body and blood of Jesus. Even before the serpent appeared, therefore, God had paid the price of love, and Adam and Eve knew the truth of Christ crucified. From this perspective, Jesus’s death is not only the end, but also the beginning: the alpha and the omega: a perfect inclusio. “The end of all of our exploring will be to arrive were we started and know the place for the first time.” So…when we approach the altar today and kneel before God to receive the fruit of his Son, we are returning to the beginning, to feast on the fruit of his love, the body and blood of Christ, always and forever given for us.

Lord, open our eyes and our hearts to this love. Amen.

[1] During the children’s sermon, Tyler shared a story of his boyhood when his father was stuck in the Adirondack wilderness with Tyler, his brother, and his two cousins. Tyler and the other children were all under twelve years old: one with a sprained ankle that could not bear weight and another with a laceration on his forearm. In terribly wet weather before the age of cell phones, Tyler’s father deposited the boys at the end of the old Tahawus logging road with their packs. His father ran 10 miles to the car so that he could drive around the park to collect the boys via the logging road. At the time, Tyler remembered being bored and frustrated with his father. The next day, Tyler saw his father’s bloody feet and realized how much his father had sacrificed to keep them safe. The question for the children that prompted the story: How do we know that our parents love us?

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