Becoming God’s Covenant People
Where do we fit in the story of God’s vision for the world? Has God chosen one people to bless and the rest are left to fend for themselves? Or does God change lineups every once in awhile. If one group of players isn’t playing well, then God can ditch them and pick up a new team? I don’t think that’s the story of the way in which God created a covenant people.
As we continue the Lenten journey the lectionary offers us texts from Genesis, Romans, and the Gospel of Mark. In Genesis we hear the story about how God made a covenant with Abraham and with Sarah. In Romans Paul talks about that same covenant, but this time there seems to be a broadening of horizons, or at least finding a trajectory that may have been neglected. And in Mark, Jesus asks the Disciples who do you think I am, and when Peter makes the “Good Confession,” Jesus has to further define what that means, because Peter gets part of the answer correct, but misses some important aspects of the story.
Prior to reading these three passages I had been reading Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity (Baker Academic, 2011). Kirk referenced both the Genesis and the Romans passage in detailing how Paul sought to write the Gentile Church into the story of Israel. Both of these texts, Genesis 17 and Romans 4 speak of God covenanting with Abraham to form a people whom God would bless. As Kirk tells it, by writing the church into the story of Israel he reminds us that the church is a “community whose identity is being molded into the shape of that people of God whose story is written on the pages of the Old Testament. And that story, in turn, is being shaped by Paul’s convictions about Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah” (p. 62). And in Mark’s gospel, Jesus defines his messiahship in terms of the cross, inviting those who would follow him to take up the cross with him. Thus the church is defined by the cross of Jesus, who according Peter’s confession is the Christ.
In Genesis 17 we read the story of God making a covenant with Abram and Sarai, wandering Arameans, whom God has come to believe will make appropriate partners in making for God a people. God comes to Abram and reveals God’s self as “El Shaddai” or God Almighty. El Shaddai invites to Abram to walk with God and be a trustworthy covenant partner. God promises Abram many descendants. Abram will be the ancestor of many nations. As a sign of this covenant, God changes Abram’s name. Later God will do the same for Sarai. Now they shall be Abraham and Sarah. From them will come nations and kings, and the covenant of God will continue from generation to generation. All of this will happen despite the fact that Sarah has moved past the age of bearing children. But of course, according to the biblical story, such impediments cannot withstand God’s purpose. The covenant will be initiated through them.
The Genesis story is familiar, and Paul takes it and writes the church into it. For Paul this process of writing the church into the covenant must be done in a way that transcends the Law. It is the righteousness of faith not the righteousness of Law that makes it possible for the church to gain access to the covenant. At issue here, of course, is circumcision. Circumcision is the sign of the covenant God makes with Abraham, but it’s a non-starter for Gentiles. Paul sees the means of making covenant changing here. It is by faith in Christ, not by Law (the unspoken circumcision) that this occurs. In Christ, the church is numbered among the nations that are part of the promise God makes with Abraham.
Paul puts the focus on faith, which isn’t to be taken as “belief.” Faith is trust, a trust that enabled Abraham to believe God’s promise that God would provide him descendants through Sarah, despite his age. Paul says that he was nearly 100 and his body was “as good as dead,” while Sarah’s womb was dead. But that didn’t keep Abraham from embracing the promise. He was, Paul says, “fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:1-22 CEB). And that faith is addressed to the God who raised Jesus, and will raise us as well, from the dead. Jesus was handed over to be killed for our mistakes and was raised to meet God’s requirements of righteousness. Yes, there is something of a substitutionary form of atonement present here, but it’s not clearly defined. What is clear is that we are written into the covenant God made with Abraham, not through keeping the Law, which leads only to wrath, but by trusting our lives to Jesus. Therefore, in Christ one is no longer a Gentile, even if one isn’t a Jew either.
The story we’ve been following leads us to the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is up in the north, at Caesarea Philippi, and as they sit there talking, Jesus asks for a progress report. Who do they say I am? The answers vary – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. There is this sense that Jesus embodies the spirit of one of a spiritual ancestor, one who no longer lives, but who might live through Jesus. Then comes the difficult question: Who do you think I am? Peter, perhaps speaking for the disciples a whole or maybe just for himself names him the Christ. You’re the Messiah. And in true Markan style, Jesus tells him to tell no one. You’ve got it, but at least for now keep this confidential.
Peter may have known who Jesus is, but his definition and Jesus’ definition appear to be in different places. That’s because, when Jesus starts talking about the religious and political leaders of the people rejecting him and even killing him (though three days later he’ll rise from the dead) – that’s too much for Peter. Peter, who hasn’t been reading Paul lately, grabs Jesus and scolds him. I love that word, “scold.” Obviously Peter knows better than Jesus. He’s the adult and Jesus the child who needed correcting. How the tone changed.
Jesus, of course, is no child. Jesus looks at them and corrects Peter. In fact, he sternly corrects him. Not only that, but Jesus says to Peter: “Get behind me Satan.” Now, I don’t think that Jesus is thinking of Peter being an embodiment of absolute evil. What Peter is serving as is a tempter, an impediment to the course that Jesus knows he must take. It is a temptation that Jesus surely faced regularly. He must have known that his path was a dangerous one, but Peter didn’t understand. He seems to have assumed that all Jesus needed to do was go out and call together an army and everyone would come and greet him with flowers – you know, like on Palm Sunday. Peter had in mind a Palm Sunday experience, but not a Good Friday experience. Like many of us, he couldn’t envision the path of God involving a cross. But, as Jesus points out, Peter is looking at this question from a human perspective, not God’s
And what is God’s perspective? Where will God’s pathway take Jesus? But, it’s not Jesus that takes up the cross. All who follow him must do so as well. Here is where most of us find it difficult to follow Jesus.
All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. (Mark 8:34b-35 CEB).
The way of Jesus, is the way of the cross. I know it’s overused, but Bonhoeffer’s definition of discipleship does seem to fit: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Or, as Daniel Kirk puts it:
When people are called to follow Jesus, he calls them to a new way of life. As we read through the Gospel of Mark, we discover that the call to follow Jesus is an invitation to participate in Jesus’ own mission of inaugurating the kingdom of God. People’s lives are transformed – and they are called, sent, or driven to do things they would never have done before. But those who will not answer this costly summons find themselves standing, dangerously, against the rushing tide of the coming reign of God. (Kirk, p. 74).
The message here concerns the covenant that God as made first with Abraham, and then with the rest of Creation through Christ. We’ve been written into the story, but it’s a story that means a change in our identity. The question for us this Second Sunday of Lent is, are we ready to follow? Are we ready to deal with the ramifications of being part of the covenant people of God? There is a cross involved, but there is also resurrection.