Sunday's first reading (Gen. 15:5-12,17-18) is essential for understanding why we Gentiles can be Christians without first becoming Jews.

In the first years of our faith, all who decided to imitate Jesus' dying and rising were Jews. If a Gentile, seeing the value of acquiring Jesus' faith, wanted to join one of His communities, he or she first converted to Judaism, then eventually was taught about Jesus and baptized.

Paul and some of his co-missionaries thought they could skip that first step. Amid much "turmoil," they began to baptize Gentiles as Gentiles.

Biblical basis

They didn't take such a drastic step because of their "liberal agenda." They had a biblical basis for their actions; it revolved around one verse in the first reading: "Abraham put his faith in Yahweh, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness."

To understand why Paul employs this verse in Romans 4, we must understand a little about Jewish history.

When conservative Jewish-Christians insisted that Gentiles first convert to Judaism, they presumed that followers of Jesus had to be part of the Sinai covenant, which Yahweh made with the Chosen People during their exodus from Egypt. They had to keep the 613 laws the Israelites agreed to keep as part of their contract with Yahweh. For them, those regulations were at the heart of Judaism, the religion Jesus practiced.

But Paul reminds his readers that the Exodus happened around 1,200 before Jesus, while Abraham lived around 600 years before that. That means Judaism's founder knew nothing about the 613 laws. Yet, as Sunday's reading tells us, Yahweh still regarded him as righteous -- doing what Yahweh wanted him to do.

Paul argues that keeping the laws of Moses can't be essential to Judaism because the first Jew, Abraham, was doing Yahweh's will six centuries before those laws came into existence.

Faith in God is the only essential. Gentiles could imitate Abraham's giving of himself to Yahweh without formally converting to Judaism and keeping the 613 laws.

Though we presume Jesus did keep them, Paul contends that it was Jesus' Abraham-like faith in God that His disciples were to imitate, not His adherence to the Sinai covenant. Gentiles were attracted to Jesus because of how He related to God and others, not because He kept the Mosaic Law.

As Paul says in the second reading (Philippians 3:17-4:1), the Jewish law doesn't bring righteousness. We accomplish that only by becoming one with Jesus, imitating His faith: Jesus "will change our lowly body to conform with His glorified body by the power that enables Him also to bring all things into subjection to Himself....In this way, stand firm in the Lord."

Transfigured

We read about some of the implications of conforming to Jesus' glorified body in Luke's transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:28b-36). Jesus' face changes its appearance and His clothes turn a dazzling white, but Moses and Elijah also play an important role in the scene.

We must remember that the Bible is never called "the Bible" in the Bible. It's simply referred to as the "Law and the Prophets." By having Moses, the great law-giver, and Elijah, the great prophet, conversing with Jesus, Luke is telling his readers that whatever Jesus of Nazareth is about, He's rooted firmly in the very Scriptures that give meaning to their faith.

By having the pair speak with Him about "His exodus that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem," Luke reminds us that we can be transformed with Jesus only if we die with Him. By practicing such an active, giving faith, we're fulfilling all biblical laws and prophetic teachings.

Instead of relating to a book or a set of laws, we, like Abraham, relate to a person, someone who demands more than can be squeezed into one book -- or even 613 laws.

(3/1/07)