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Our Common Spiritual Ancestor

Thomas J Parlette

“Our Common Spiritual Ancestor”

Genesis 12: 1-4a



“As I looked up the slopes to my left I saw bits of the skull, a chunk of jaw, and a couple of vertebrae.”

Sounds like the opening scene from one of those CSI crime dramas – but it’s not. Those words were actually spoken by Donald Johanson, a paleo-anthropologist who one day in 1974 was digging in a remote spot in the Ethiopian desert. He was recounting his discovery of the earliest reasonably complete human skeleton ever found – a female.

As Johanson and his companions made their way back to camp, the Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was blaring from a portable cassette player. One of his co-workers suggested, “Why don’t you call it Lucy?”

So, Lucy she became. Ever since, anthropologists have considered her to be the oldest potential common ancestor of us all.(1)

There’s something in all of us that makes us curious to know where we came from. In recent years, this curiosity has merged with high technology, and now we have access to home DNA testing kits.

For somewhere between 100 and 200 dollars, you can buy a test kit, swab some saliva from inside your cheek, send it off to the lab, and a short time later you’ll be looking through a report that tells you what percentage of your ancestry comes from different regions of the world.

About a year ago, my youngest sister took one of those tests – and then she forwarded the results to me and my other sister, figuring we could all share the results, since we share the same DNA. The results were pretty much what we expected – an even mix of English and Irish, with a little Western European thrown in – not surprising, we always knew we had some relatives who were from the Basque country of Spain in our family tree. But there was one surprise. According to the DNA test, I am actually 10% Scandinavian. I don’t know whether its Norwegian or Swedish or what – but it turns out I fit right in here in Minnesota. I have a little bit of Scandinavian blood in me – “uff dah.”

But if we keep going back through the human family tree, I mean really far back, anthropologists would say that physically, it may all come down to Lucy. Of course, theologically, we would point to Eve from the Garden of Eden as the grandmother of us all – but in scientific circles, it comes down to Lucy.

In a spiritual sense, however, much of the religious world has a common ancestor as well. No one knows where his bones are buried, but the Bible gives us a name. His name was Abram – and we first read about him in this passage from Genesis today.

Abram, also known as Abraham, is the root of the three great monotheistic religions of the world. Abraham is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

In the Jewish faith, this passage, this call of Abraham, is seen as the beginning of an internal, spiritual journey. These words from Genesis are the ones that 13 year old boys read in Hebrew from the Torah at their Bar Mitzvah. After this coming of age ceremony, a Jewish boy is considered a man, responsible for his own actions and encouraged to go forth – follow God and find your place in life, just as our ancestor Abraham did.(2)

For Muslims, Abraham is equally important. Yes, Muslims do acknowledge the Hebrew Scriptures and consider Abraham their spiritual ancestor as well. But Islam tends to stress the importance of Abraham’s submission to God in this call story. In fact, the word “muslim”, one who practices Islam, actually means “the one who submits to God.”(3) That is indeed what Muhammad preached. He didn’t actually think he was starting a new religion – at least not at first. He was simply calling his fellow Arabs to a new, single-minded devotion to the one God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.(4)

As a young man, Muhammad had studied both Judaism and Christianity. In his day, Jews lived throughout Arabia, particularly in cities such as Mecca and Medina. There were Byzantine Christians there as well, in significant numbers. The cousin of Muhammad’s wife, a leading figure in their household, was actually a Christian. So strongly did Muhammad desire to honor these other faith traditions that, when he came to political power, he insisted that Jews and Christians must not be only tolerated, but protected. If they wished, they could convert, but in his view, there was already sufficient wisdom in each of these traditions to lead people to the one God, the one he called “Allah” – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.(5)

In those earliest days, Muhammad taught that Muslims should bow, in their daily prayers, not toward Mecca, as they do now, but toward Jerusalem. Muhammad called Jews and Christians “People of the Book” – a phrase that Christian scholar Karen Armstrong suggests could be translated, “People of an Earlier Revelation.”(6) For Muhammad, he was bringing another revelation of  the one God, as recorded in the Koran – not a different revelation from a different God.

For Christians, we see this call to Abraham and Abraham’s response as the defining act of Abraham’s life. God calls – Abraham listens and follows. Accepting the call is what makes him the father of faith.

For Jews, Abraham’s response is the beginning of a spiritual journey. For Muslims, it’s all about obeying God. And for Christians, this story is about having faith in God.

And what faith Abraham demonstrates in this story. First of all – he doesn’t really know who is talking to him. We know, because the writer tells us it’s the Lord. But the Lord never actually identifies himself. This is not like Moses at the burning bush, when God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” God doesn’t do that for Abraham. God does make some promises here to sweeten the deal – I will make of you a great nation, You will be blessed, Your name will be great, and Your name will be a blessing to others. A pretty tempting offer. Apparently it was enough, because Abraham does what God commands. He goes. He leaves everything behind – except his brother’s son Lot. He takes Lot with him, and off he goes. Where is he going?- he has no idea. Abraham is just doing what God tells him to do.

There is a preacher from the 1950’s who once wrote a famous sermon on this text. He had a great title for it. He called it “Marching off the Map.” Good title, that’s exactly what Abraham does here. He is marching off the map. He has no idea where he’s going, he only knows that God promised to give him a new land, make of him a great nation and that God would bless him All Abraham knows is that he’s heard a voice deep inside him that he takes to be the voice of God. And he’s willing to risk everything.

Theologian Alan Richardson has written, “According to the Bible, our knowledge of God is not like our knowledge of electrons or square roots – we know truth about God only by doing it, not by talking or reasoning about it, just as we love only by loving. Truth in the biblical sense is something to be practiced.”(7)

There’s an old story about a bible translator in India, who was working to translate the New Testament into one of the many dialects spoken in India. He was having a difficult time finding a word for “faith.” Just then, a young boy came into his study, and the translator waved him over to a chair in the corner.

A few moments later, he looked up and saw the young boy walking around the chair, studying it from every angle. “Go ahead, sit down – I’ll be with you in just a moment.” But the boy wouldn’t sit, he just keep staring at the chair with his head cocked to one side.

Then it dawned on the translator what was going on. The boy had never seen a western style chair before. He wasn’t sure he could sit on such a thing without it collapsing. Then the boy asked a question, “Can I give myself to this and know it will hold me up?”

And the translator knew immediately – there was his word for “faith.”(8)

In one of his books, Henri Nouwen tells of something he learned from some of his friends who were trapeze artists. There is a very special relationship, the circus performers told him, between the person they call the “flier” and the one they call the “catcher.”

The flier of course, is the one who lets go, and the catcher is the one who hangs by the knees from the other trapeze and catches the flier. When the flier reaches the top of his arc, his one task is to let go, arms reaching out into space, and then to remain as still as possible while the catcher grabs hold of him. It’s a skill not easily learned, for it goes against every human survival instinct. “The flier must never try to catch the catcher,” said the trapeze artist. “The flier must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but he must wait.”(9)

As Abraham set out on that journey of faith, he began to learn that God is the catcher. Though he feared he was falling, though he felt at times like he was hanging in mid-air, cut off from everything, waiting to thud into the ground – he had to wait. For the Lord had promised to catch him.

And catch him God did. Abraham received his promised land, and his wife Sarah had a baby, even in her old age. And by these two people of faith, the whole family of the earth has indeed been blessed.

And so it continues. The Jews, the Christians, the Muslims – all of us claim a common heritage. We are children of Abraham.

We Christians claim something more, of course, that goes beyond the other two traditions – that in Jesus Christ the Son, God is uniquely present, reconciling the world to himself.

The three faiths, however, share a common ancestor. We are all children of Abraham. Like Abraham, we will not begin to live into God’s will for our lives until we learn to step out, to go forth together on a journey into unknown territory, as, with God’s help, we search out the things that make for peace.

May it be so for our world today. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 2, p. 23.

2.    Bruce Feiler “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths”, Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 2002, p. 45.

3.    Ibid…p. 45.

4.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 2, p.24.

5.    Ibid…p. 25.

6.    Ibid…p. 25.

7.    Ibid…p. 26.

8.    Ibid…p. 26.

9.    Ibid…p. 28.