Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Galatians 4:22-31 / John 6:1-15

Saint Paul presents us today with a very subtle and, if not read carefully, worrisome claim. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul sets before us Abraham and his two sons, not here both named, but he has in mind Ishmael, the elder who was born of the slave girl Hagar, and Isaac, the younger, born of Abraham's wife Sarah as a result of God's promise. Paul warns us that these things are said by an allegory. That is, Paul is not claiming that the stories in Genesis of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael are not historically true. Rather, he wants us to see that while he seems to be speaking of these figures in the past, he is actually aiming to speak about something else, that is allegorein, to speak otherwise.

Why does Paul give this warning? It turns out that the reading he provides yields some surprising tension with the Scriptures themselves. His first claim, that Ishmael is born of a slave woman and so of the flesh, Isaac of a free woman and so of the spirit would quite easily have been received by a surface and facile reading of Genesis, one which held up the people of God's promise over the pretenses of their Gentile neighbors. Then, however, things get tricky. Paul associates the son of Hagar, the son of a slave, with the giving of the Law on Sinai, with the very gracious act by which God established the sons of Isaac as a priestly people, a holy nation. Moreover, Sinai itself, and then by transference Jerusalem, are shifted to Arabia, to the land of Ishmael's exile and the place of the nations who do not know God. In contrast, the Church, and here one must have in mind the gathering of the Gentiles into Christ as well as the Jews, turns out to be Jerusalem, and these sons of darkness who grew up in pagan cult, turn out to be the sons of the free woman, the children of promise.

Now, on a facile reading, Paul has simply taken the Jewish disdain for the Gentile people and inverted it, claiming that God does not favor the Jews, but favors instead his (Gentile) Church. Yet, that reading is dangerously mistaken. The question here is not whether God loves the people of promise, nor is it whether the Law is good an righteous. The issue Paul is putting before us is rather the question of human presumption and divine initiative.

In the case of Abraham and Sarah, God had promised them descendants countless as the stars. However, anxious and not trusting fully in God, they sought together to force God's hand by producing a child on their own initiative, through Abraham's begetting Ishmael by Hagar. Ishmael himself is not without God's promises, being destined to father a great nation himself and being, with his mother, watched over in the wilderness when Abraham and Sarah cruelly cast them out with a glib assertion that God had promised to make of him a great nation and so he need not fear sending them to their death in the desert. Even so, he is not the child of God's promise to Abraham. This promise is fulfilled in Isaac, conceived by God's omnipotence, despite the unbelieving laughter of Sarah or the weakness of Abraham, who himself must confront that weakness and trust in God when asked to destroy in sacrifice that very answer to his prayed by slaying his own son.

What Paul wants us to see is that the formation of God's holy people, the gathering of the elect, has always been and will always be the result not of our own plans and initiative, but the result of God's work in us, God's fidelity to his own promises. Our attempts to force his hand, to produce the effect which God reserves to himself, will inevitably end in sadness, in a pale imitation of the promise, even as the Ishmaelites would never be, and could never be, the people God had chosen as his own. So, for Paul, the spiritual danger of the Jewish people facing the newborn Church was in living as though they were themselves the masters and arbiters of their own election by God. In cleaving to the Law as a way to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles, and so act as though God could not ever choose them as well, they had ironically made themselves to be like Ishmael, the product of an attempt to bypass and take control of God's promise.

The worry for us in Christ, then, ought to be clear. We can and should rejoice in the marvelous redemption won for us in the blood of Christ, and in him we need not expect any further revelation. Even so, we can be just as guilty of attempting to force God's hand, of determining on our initiative where, when, how, and to whom God's grace of election will come. The mercy extended to us in Jesus Christ is meant always to disturb any such security, that we might find our foundation in no one but him, in no other promise but his, and in no other way to fulfill that promise save by his gracious work. This is the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free, and it is the freedom which our Lenten way opens to all who are called from the slavery of self-assertion to the liberty of receiving our truest selves from the Lord Jesus Christ.

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