21 May 2014

Circumcision and Law as well as Gospel: What's all the fuss?

[[Sister, what is the issue with circumcision about in the early Church?]]

This week's readings from the Acts of the Apostles focus mainly on the huge disagreement that led to the Jerusalem Council, namely the Judaizers' insistence that new Gentile Christians be circumcised and submit to the Mosaic Law. I suspect that like you most of us are apt to ask what the big deal is. After all if we follow Christ we will also keep the Law, so why the great flap from Paul and those who work with him?

The answer Paul's theology gives us is pretty simple. When he encountered the Risen and Ascended Jesus he realized that Jesus was the goal and fulfillment of the Law, the fulfillment of the covenant with God, the one in whom salvation was achieved and available to all. Reunion or reconciliation with God was achieved in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of this man who was, in fact, crucified according to the law, and then vindicated by God. This vindication was also, therefore, a judgment on the law and its fragmentary and partial nature. As a result none of the fragmentary or partial ways of achieving or at least remaining in union with God were necessary any longer --- and that included the law that had been shown to be such a fragmentary vision of the will of God. If one was in Christ, if one had been baptized into his death and resurrection, then one had fulfilled the law in him as well. Either this is true or it is not. Either life in Christ alone is a means, sign, and measure of our covenant faithfulness and life with God or it is not. Either we are carried by the grace of Christ into God's presence or we must get there according to our own feeble works. Paul saw this clearly and because he did he rejected laying extra burdens on Gentile Christians.

 Remember that the Law was a partial revelation of God's will for us. The task before human beings is not merely to keep the Law in the sense of not coveting, not bearing false witness, not committing adultery, etc. We are to fulfill the law, that is we are to be the authentic human beings who do the will of God and love God, ourselves and others in the exhaustive way God calls us to. The Law can summon us to love and set the minimalist guidelines beyond which we may not go if we wish to remain on the path to and with God, but it cannot empower us to love. It can call us to live truthfully but it cannot make us true. It can sometimes prevent ever greater estrangement from God but it cannot lead to union with God. All of those things come to us in Christ who is the "end" or telos, the goal and fulfillment of the law. Once the goal has been reached (or once those on the way have seen or "known" this goal) the path markers are no longer necessary and, if our focus is drawn to them, may even cause us to crash short of our goal.

( N.B., I am thinking here of something I wrote about with regard to increasingly detailed definitions of the requirements for admission to consecration as a virgin. It is something Paul knew well about the Law: [[ It's a little like riding a bicycle between two posts. If a person looks at the posts, first one then the other, then again, etc., she will invariably crash into the posts. If, on the other hand a person sights along the top of the wheel to gauge its projected  movement along the path or, even better,  focuses as well as one can on the path beyond the posts --- that is, if she looks at where she wishes to go and is actually heading rather than where she does NOT wish to go --- she will pretty much sail through the posts without concern.]])

Moreover, to focus on these as signs of covenantal faithfulness is to risk being divided within the believing community. This was the primary issue for Luke I think and Paul would not have disagreed. To the degree we live IN Christ and are empowered by his Spirit we no longer need the Law itself. To turn back to measuring our lives and those of other Christians in terms of Law would be an example of what Jesus himself forbids, namely, putting our hand to the plow and then turning back, or refusing to let the dead bury the dead. It would also be an example of entering the wedding banquet without the garment (the works) provided by the Bridegroom himself as well as of the lection we heard a couple of weeks ago regarding entering the sheepfold as a thief and robber because we have come in in some way other than the gate that is Christ himself. The Johannine affirmation we heard last Friday, "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me" is, in part, the same truth Paul and Barnabas are insisting on in this week's readings. It is also the reason we heard the story of the vine and the branches (remain in me!) today or are given Friday's Gospel admonition that we act in Jesus' name (that is, in the power and presence of Jesus) and love one another as Jesus loves. To the degree we do these things we no longer need the law; in fact, to the degree we do these things we are FREE of the Law and of course, free to fulfill it as well.

The tension between Judaism and the new Way and between Law and Gospel informs all of these gospel stories and more besides. In Christ God has done something absolutely new and entirely sufficient in giving us access to the abundant life of God; there is no going back to older or "dead" or far less lifegiving realities. The transition that was called for in light of Jesus' resurrection was both total and truly world shattering.