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Breath of the Spirit
Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.
Breath of the Spirit is our electronic spiritual and liturgical resource for our members and potential members. Nothing can replace your chapter or other faith community but we hope you will find further support here for integrating your spirituality with your sexuality and all the strands of your life.
In debating with conservative Christians who demanded that Gentile converts first become Jews before they accepted Christianity, Paul of Tarsus often zeroed in on the Genesis author’s statement, “Abram put his faith in Yahweh, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.”
FEBRUARY 21ST, 2016: SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Recently I heard that experts now believe there actually are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand on the seashore. Makes Yahweh’s promise to Abram in today’s first reading more meaningful than it would have been in pre-telescope days. Yet, for our Jewish/Christian faith, that’s not the most important line in our pericope.
In debating with conservative Christians who demanded that Gentile converts first become Jews before they accepted Christianity, Paul of Tarsus often zeroed in on the Genesis author’s statement, “Abram put his faith in Yahweh, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” “Righteous” is the adjective our sacred authors normally employ to show that someone is doing what God wants her or him to do. In the first century, CE, most Jews – including “Judaizing” Christians – defined a righteous person as someone who faithfully kept the 613 Laws of Moses.
Paul argued that anyone who adhered to such a definition would have to deny that the first Jew – Abram – was a righteous person. He lived hundreds of years before the Law of Moses came into existence. Gentile converts to Christianity, according to the Apostle, were to be judged on the righteousness of Abram, not the righteousness of Moses. He insisted that they not be obligated to follow the 613 Sinai regulations, but only, like Abram, to have a faithful relationship with God. For Christians, that meant they develop a meaningful relationship with the risen Jesus in their midst.
In Paul’s theology, Gentile Christians could accomplish that just as well as Jewish Christians. He had no problem with the latter – like himself – adhering to the Mosaic Law, but he insisted that Gentile Christians not be burdened with such regulations. From Paul’s own experience, Christian righteousness came from a relationship, not from obeying laws. Those who had made a covenant with Yahweh in which keeping the Law of Moses was part of their responsibilities, should keep those laws. But no one should be forced to enter such a covenant in order to be a follower of Jesus.
It’s quite possible that when, in today’s Philippians passage, Paul talks about those whose “God is their stomach,” that he’s actually referring to Christians who had begun their path to righteousness by building a meaningful relationship with the risen Jesus, but over time had reverted to keeping the dietary regulations of the Mosaic Law. Obviously it’s much easier to keep laws than to build a relationship. Laws normally don’t change one’s personality; only relationships can do that.
That insight seems to be behind the gospel narratives of Jesus’ transfiguration. The event appears to be a classic “biblical myth:” a way to describe an insight of faith. Though something really happened, it didn’t happen exactly as our sacred authors symbolically describe it. In this situation, something certainly happened to Jesus’ disciples during his earthly ministry; something which led them to understand Jesus in a deeper way than others who encountered him during that ministry. Their eyes saw something others missed. They were convinced, for instance, that this itinerant preacher was the culmination of biblical faith. (The biblical name for the bible is the “Law and the Prophets.” That’s why our evangelists have Jesus mythically stand between Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet.)
Yet we must never forget that those for whom Paul and Luke wrote considered themselves to be other Christs. That means that both authors were helping their readers reflect on how their relationship with the risen Jesus was also transfiguring them.
I suppose we’ll one day get to heaven if we just follow the proper laws; but we’ll only be transformed in this life if we form righteous relationships.