Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit… Amen.
Every year during Lent, the lectionary reading provides us with the foundational stories of Faith: the story of God’s promise to Abraham and to what having faith in God’s promise meant for the very first Christian communities. I want to suggest to you that the readings from Genesis and Philippians tell us that having faith goes beyond how we commonly understand the term today, as say, mere believing in something, someone, or even God as an abstract deity. Rather, today’s bible readings prompt us to see that faith means following in the way of the cross, to take the path of Jesus in our own, literal, material bodies. The Lenten season provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be cross-bearers in today’s world.
Beginning with today’s Genesis reading, we’re presented what looks like a rich, pastoral scene. We can easily imagine Abraham taking a nice leisurely walk at dusk, pensively gazing up at the stars. Suddenly and with a start, he hears the assuring voice of Yahweh, and all seems well with the world. Abraham then turns and strolls back home to Sarai, eager to share with her God’s message of hope. “Our offspring shall be as many as the stars in the sky,” he tells his wife. I often think to myself, wouldn’t it be nice if I could hear the word of God so clearly.
But to read the passage in this manner, to read the foundational story of faith in this way, is to sanitize it, to rob it of its message of hope. In what seems like our never ending attempt to clean up the Bible, to make it appropriate for Sunday School, I think we tend to glide over the rougher bits. We know Abraham is credited as the father of faith, but let’s look at Abraham’s actual life to see if faith is really, so easy.
First, we recall call that this is the third time that God has given his promise to Abraham. One would hope that one time was enough. In the preceding chapter, we’ll told about a devastating famine that was so terrible that Abraham had to pawn Sarai into Pharaoh’s harem – and let’s not have any illusions about what an Ancient Near East harem was. We’re also told that Abraham bickered with his relative Lot and the land had to be divided so as to forestall a civil war of sorts. As the story continues, Lot and his tribe are captured. Abraham is then forced to gather his army and after a slaughter, eventually frees Lot. And a few chapters after today’s reading, Sarai, in an act of desperation to preserve the family lineage, convinces Abraham to father a son from her slave girl, which only foments more strife.
The story of Abraham makes it plain that living by faith doesn’t really assuage fear or doubt (Source). God appears to Abraham, withdraws, appears, only to withdraw yet again. We begin to see that faith or belief in this case is less about believing in an abstract deity or holding to some mental idea, and more about learning to trust, hear, and follow Yahweh’s call amidst our deepest failures.
From Abraham we travel to the time of Paul, around 40 or 50 AD, a few years before the first Gospels were written. Today’s reading brings us to the Roman military city of Philippi. Now, we’re not quite drawn into the Epistles in the same way are with the familiar stories of Genesis: Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah. But in Paul’s letters we continue to see the drama of salvation history played out before us yet again.
So let’s step back into this Roman world and into the minds’ of the Philippian community to understand just what it is Paul is trying to say.
Philippi was originally established a veteran colony, with its citizens enjoying the rights and privileges of Rome itself – no small thing in the ancient world. The Philippian community would have taken great pride in their lineage and military heritage. In the ancient world, citizenship defined one’s ethics, defined one’s behavior in the world. Clearly, this far different from how we understand citizenship in modern times, which is marked by a passport.
It’s important that we don’t underestimate the role that Rome plays in Paul’s letters. For in the ancient world, Rome stood for the rule of might over right. The fact that the Roman powers had conquered the world and subjugated the peoples, including the Jews, clearly meant that Rome was simply fated to rule the world, at least from Rome’s perspective. Most importantly, it was Rome that crucified the Messiah.
We know that at the time of writing his letter, Paul is under military arrest and likely facing execution, and not for religious reasons. In the book of Acts we’re told that Paul was accused of high treason. He was charged with professing another Caesar, one who happened to be named, Jesus Christ. Paul’s Philippian friends were also facing hardships, blowback it seems, from abandoning Roman gods for a Jewish god.
We also know that in Paul’s day the fastest growing religion in the Empire was the religion of Caesar (N.T. Wright). So, for instance, various Roman emperors commonly claimed the mantle, “Son of God.” Other well known “Christian” words that we take for granted we’re actually common Roman terms. For example, “Gospel” was a familiar word, with Roman acolytes proclaiming the ‘good news of Caesar.’ The “savior” of the world was Caesar who brought “salvation” to the peoples. And, most importantly in light of today’s Epistle, any Roman citizen worth his or her salt, would place their “pistis” – what the New Testament translates as “faith” – in their “Kurious” or “Lord,” the emperor.
In the ancient world, pisits / faith meant more than mere believing in something or someone. The Greek word carries the sense of that which gives confidence, that which one can place their trust or allegiance in, or that which confirms, ‘yes, this is the story for which I will stake my life.’ In fact, for the everyday Roman citizen, pistis / faith would have evoked political allusions, as the term was frequently used in military legends (Morgan). A much more helpful translation of pistis, then, is fidelity.
With this understanding of faith / fidelity in mind, we can begin to see the numerous contrast Paul draws between having fidelity in Rome – what the Philippians would have understood – or fidelity in the way of the cross – what Paul was calling them to become: cross-bearers.
When Paul tells his Philippian friends that their “citizenship is in heaven,” he is aiming to realign their current allegiance and moral outlook (Oakes). He is not, by the way, giving them a “pie in the sky” theology.
So, rather than placing fidelity in the emperor, newly baptized Christians are to place their fidelity in the crucified enemy of the state.
Rather than lording over inferiors, cross-bearers are to ‘let the mind’ of Jesus be in them, to live the life of a suffering servant (2.5). No easy task for a proud Roman.
Rather than seeking the upward mobility of Roman privilege, cross-bearers are called to share in Christ’s downward sufferings, “to become like him in his death,” (3.10) as Paul says, and therefore to share in his glory.
Rather than feeling pride in their great city of Philippi, cross-bearers are to claim the citizenship of heaven, suffering for the sake of love, giving oneself for another.
This contrast between placing fidelity in Rome or the way of the cross couldn’t be greater for Paul. As an analogy, you might recall the old folk song made famous by Pete Seeger in 1967, “Which side are you on?”
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there;
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair
Roman citizenship and all the privileges thereof, or the citizenship of heaven. Victory achieved through war, leaving a trail of crucified bodies behind, or victory achieved by the crucified body of Christ. We can easily imagine Paul saying, “You’ll either be a cross-bearer, or a thug for J.H. Caesar.”
Imagine how startling this message would have been for a typical Roman citizen. Messiah’s are not born in stables, they are born in kingly glory. Messiahs do not spend their time with the dregs of society, lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes; they spend their time courting important persons: senators, business leaders, and generals. Above all else, Messiahs are not crucified; Messiahs crucify.
Fidelity Not Belief
We might then contrast Abraham’s ragtag faith and Paul’s fidelity with how faith is commonly understood today. As the great literary critic Terry Eagleton observes, many of us still hold to the Yeti view of belief in God. That is, do you believe in a certain type of mysterious creature, or type of Supreme Being, or don’t you? Now, it’s wonderful to speculate on Yetis and Sasquatches, but this is not how Abraham or Paul understood faith. One important reason being that believing in God in biblical times was really no big deal.
Biblical faith is not about abstract or cerebral ideas floating around in our heads. Faith-as-fidelity for Abraham and Paul, is “performative rather than propositional” (Eagleton). It is that for which we give our very bodies for the sole purpose, as Paul says in today’s reading, that we “may conformed to the body” of Christ’s suffering glory (3.21).
Why is the examination of the word “faith” / fidelity important? Because I often wonder if mere belief in God is enough. We’re not likely to be executed by Romans, but when the time comes for us to bear our cross, in whatever form, will a set of abstract propositions bouncing around in our heads be enough? Don’t we need something more, something embodied?
Here in the Pacific Northwest we often hear the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I even admit to having used the phrase from time to time when talking with my atheist friends. Now, we understand what people are really saying, “oh, I’m not like those crazy Christians I see on TV with the big hair, makeup, and southern accents.” But it needs to be pointed out to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd: “yes, but you’re also corporeal, you also have a body” (Source).
Some of you might be familiar with Graham Greene’s deeply religious and grace-filled novel, The End of the Affair. Green’s book tells the story of Sarah and the extreme guilt she feels after committing adultery. After falling in love with another man and betraying her husband, Sarah’s guilt runs so deep that it extends down to the very core of her body. One day, after a long walk, she stumbles into a Catholic church and begins to finally notice the statues of saints, Mary, and of course Jesus, lining the church walls. She wonders to herself why all this emphasis on the material body in Christianity? Why the blood stained statues? ‘If I were to invent a religion,’ she says, “it would be that the body was never born again, that it rotted with last year’s vermin.” I want to believe in something “vague,” something “cosmic” she thinks. I just want to float into a spiritual ether one day and be rid of this guilt ridden body.
But as she continues to reflect on the all the bodies around her, she experiences a conversion, she begins to see that “we can love with our minds, but can we love only with our minds?”
“Love extends itself all the time,” says Greene, “so that we can even love with our senseless [finger] nails: we love even with our clothes, so that a sleeve can feel a sleeve” (110). This is an observation that St. Paul would have wholeheartedly endorsed, as he was sitting in his jail awaiting execution.
We are not spiritual beings floating 3 feet above the ground, but beings who are to take up the path of Christ in our own bodies, bodies that are falling, bodies that have been broken, bodies that will one day, as Paul says, be joined with Christ’s body. As Nadia Boltz Weber once said to the “spiritual but not religious crowd:” “Christianity isn’t spiritual, it’s material. You can’t even get started without a loaf of bread some wine and a river.”
It’s also important to point out that Paul or indeed any of the biblical writers are not interested in bodily suffering for suffering’s sake alone. What we are called to do is to enter into the suffering of the world, to help bear its burdens through the grace of the Spirit.
More than ever, we need to be a people who can face the world’s nightmares head on. Sadly, such nightmares are not hard to find: the Flint water crisis, ISIS, the Zika virus, extremist groups, an economic system that puts profits before people, and on it goes.
If only our vocation as Christians was as easy as mere belief, as believing in God the same way we might the Yeti or Sasquatch. To quote Terry Eagleton once more, he provocatively ads that “the New Testament is the brutal destroyer of human illusion [and easygoing optimism]. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”
As we make our way to the cosmic events of Holy Week, my prayer is that we will continue to be a community of cross-bearers. As those who not only gaze at Christ’s work of redemption on the cross from a safe distance, or from some 2,000 years later, but who respond to the summons and grace to participate in the reconciliation of all things, here and now, and in our own bodies, to the glory of the God the Father. Amen.