Easter Essay: Believe the Story or Trust the Promise?

Text: Galatians 2:16 “[B]ut we now see that no one becomes acceptable to God by relying on traditional religious practices. We gain this acceptance only through a confidence in God like that of Jesus, God’s Anointed” – Scholars Version (SV)*

 

Easter calls attention to the traditional, fundamental “beliefs” associated with the Christian religion – if only for a day. The secular world pays little attention to the nuances of Christian “faith” in a post-Christian world. Easter is a liturgical season that lasts for seven weeks. In Christian tradition, the time between the resurrection of Jesus and his “ascension” into the sky (Pentecost) replaces the time between the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Not only do most Christians concentrate on the resurrection story – often literally. Editorial writers for supposedly sophisticated secular media seem to feel obligated to attempt to find meaning in the traditional religious legend of a dead man walking out of his tomb. But “faith” does not mean “belief.” “Faith” means “trust.” “Faith” further means “confidence.”

The challenge for Christianity today is to reclaim for the twenty-first century the foundational scriptures of the first century. The earliest known letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the communities of Jesus followers in the Roman-occupied Mediterranean world is the Letter to the Galatians. In their introduction, Dewey et al. write that Paul is offering the Galatians a choice of living a life based on confidence in God, or upon traditional religious practices. “For Paul what is at stake is quite clear: a life of freedom, lived out of confidence in God or an existence still subject to the confining forces that dominate the present age.” The scholars’ translation of the original Greek opens the possibility for a fresh and deeper understanding of Paul’s sometimes murky language. Acknowledging the risk of anachronism, and claiming the ancient Jewish custom of midrash – which encourages argument with the text – what is at stake for followers of Jesus’s message and inheritors of the Christian religion is equally clear: A life of freedom, lived out of confidence in nonviolent distributive justice-compassion or an existence subject to the fear-based violence of political normalcy (Empire) that relies on religious fundamentalism.

In the first century, Paul preached confidence in God’s raising of the Anointed into God’s realm. Paul was certain that Jesus was the manifestation of the apocalyptic vision found in the Book of Daniel (see especially Daniel 7). Paul’s transformational realization was that God used a common criminal executed by Rome as the Anointed One who would restore God’s distributive justice-compassion to an oppressed Roman world. The conventional archetype for a savior/liberator in Greek/Roman tradition is a hero. But Paul’s transformational insight was that God did not choose a hero. Instead, the one that brought the possibility of the restoration of God’s justice to the people was a condemned, executed, enemy of the state. In the letter, Paul warns the “foolish Galatians” to pay no attention to the false message they had received from other itinerant followers of the Christ (the “Anointed One”) who did apply the Greek concept of a hero to Jesus.

Twenty-first century cosmology leaves no room for Paul’s first century interpretation of apocalyptic vision. Instead, Paul’s insight, coupled with Jesus’s own words reported in the gospels, leads to the realization that true power resides not in imperial power over others, but shared power with others. God’s distributive justice-compassion is then restored: The poor are blessed; the dispossessed inherit the land; the hungry are fed; the bereaved are comforted. “Confidence in God” today means living in the certainty that, as Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The choice – as the scholars write – is between a life lived in that certainty or “an existence still subject to the confining forces that dominate the present age.” Paul’s first century “present age” was no more or less subject to the confining forces of imperial injustice as the twenty-first century – when (according to John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg) we have the capacity to destroy the planet “atomically, biologically, chemically, demographically, and we’re only up to ‘e’.”

Paul argues that anyone who has the same confidence in God that Jesus did has no need for a physical sign carved into (or off of) the body. All that is necessary to inherit the promise of distributive justice-compassion given to Abraham is to live the life that Jesus lived. Paul writes, “So everyone of you who has been baptized into solidarity with God’s Anointed has become invested with the status of God’s Anointed. You are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or freeborn, no longer ‘male and female.’ Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28, SV, emphasis mine).

Likewise, there is no need for anyone to take literally (“believe”) the story about the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to be saved from hell in the next life, as traditional and fundamentalist Christians demand. All that is necessary to inherit the promise of God’s distributive justice-compassion given to Abraham is to live a life liberated (saved) from injustice here and now. The “traditional religious practices” (baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, ordination) are irrelevant for determining participation in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion. Indeed, “belief” in the literal story results in the dogmatic denial of the possibility of “God” as the universe itself, and destroys confidence in the goodness and distributive justice inherent in the evolutionary process, that “moral arc.”

Further, such “belief” reverses the traditional trust (faith) that Jesus’s death resulted in victory. In 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, Paul writes ecstatically from his apocalyptic first century vision:

What I am saying, my friends, is this: flesh and blood is not capable of inheriting the coming Empire of God, no more than the corruptible can inherit the incorruptible. Listen, now, I am going to tell you a wondrous secret: We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet signal. The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we [too] will be transformed. Because this perishable man must be clothed with immortality. And when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable and the mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:

Death has been engulfed by victory.

Where, O Death, has your victory gone?

What’s happened, O Death, to your fatal sting?

The law is what makes the seductive power of corruption so lethal. But thanks be to God for giving us the victory [over corruption and death] through our Lord Jesus the Anointed (SV).

The “seductive corruption of power” includes the injustice that results in the normal course of civilization, and the propensity to use imperial power over others. The law then acts to entrench that kind of imperial power – which extends to tribes, religions, corporations, and governments – and leads to the establishment of systems of injustice and death. What’s required is the creation of systems of liberation and life. Paul’s transformational realization is that anyone who participates in the work of creating those systems of liberation and life is participating in restoring God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion (the kingdom of God).

The whole idea of a hero that would come in to save the day (as present-day traditionalists believe) was anathema to Paul. The transformation is up to us, and it can happen in the twinkling of an eye.

 

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*Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A new reading of Paul’s rhetoric and meaning by Santa Rosa, CA, Polebridge Press, 2010, 41-65.

 

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