One of Father Ed Hays' most insightful stories describes his entry into the afterlife. When he arrives at heaven's entrance, an angel tests his faith, commanding him to walk stark naked across water to an island in the middle of a huge lake, an island on which God resides.
Hays' first attempts at reaching the island are a disaster. Though shouting out every creedal statement he can remember, he still sinks after taking just a few steps. The angel keeps telling him that he's carrying too much baggage, too many dogmas. So each time the priest tries to step out into the lake, he slashes more and more from his creed, reducing his profession of faith to what he thinks is a bare minimum.
In the end, he's able to walk across the water to the island by loudly repeating just one phrase: "I believe in God! I believe in God! I believe in God!"
Essentials
The author of Sunday's first reading (Gen 15:5-12, 17-18) could have been the ghost-writer for Ed's story. His well-known narrative describes some of the first biblical actions of Abraham, the first human to believe in Yahweh. Yahweh promises him both descendants and a land for those descendants to inhabit, then graphically "cuts a covenant" with him as a guarantee that the promises will be carried out.
Notice that God does all the promising and covenant-making. Abraham's role in this event is simple. He does just one thing: "He puts his faith in Yahweh." And God credits his faith as "an act of righteousness." (The author's original readers would have understood "righteousness" as doing the things which God wishes us to do, being the kind of people God expects us to be.)
Our Sacred Writer is dealing here with faith's most essential dimension. Long before theologies were developed, long before dogmas evolved, long before creedal statements took shape, only one thing was necessary for those who followed God: to believe in God.
As Father Hays reminds us, anything beyond a simple trusting relationship with God can become the excess baggage which hinders us from reaching God. No matter how important these "things" are for denominational acceptance or a test of our orthodoxy, righteousness comes only from our determination to trust in God, no matter where God leads us. Martin Luther once described such faith as stepping though a door into total darkness, not being able to see either the location of the ground or even the position of the next step, all the while trusting that God won't let us be hurt.
Basic faith
It's this type of basic faith that Paul encourages his Phillipian community to develop (Phil 3:17-4:1). In this part of his letter, Paul seems to be going eyeball-to-eyeball with some Christians who, thinking there's more to Christian faith than just believing in Jesus' death and resurrection, still insist on keeping the Jewish dietary regulations. They are the ones "whose God is their belly."
The Apostle demands that his followers simply imitate his imitation of "the cross of Christ." Only by imitating Jesus' death will we eventually reach the point at which Jesus "will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pattern of His glorified body." For Paul, theologies, dogmas and creeds aren't worth much in the long run. One arrives at the light only after one steps out into the darkness.
Even in Sunday's Gospel (Lk 9:28-36), the tremendous experience of seeing Jesus transfigured, perceiving Him as someone who personifies Sacred Scripture and recognizing Him as the one whom God has chosen seems not to be as important as we might think at first glance. Notice how the narrative ends. "When the voice fell silent," Luke writes, "Jesus was there alone."
In other words, no matter what insights Jesus' followers would one day be given about Him, they always would be expected to keep returning to Him alone, to the Nazarean carpenter whom they had left everything to follow.
None of our Sacred Authors expect us to ignore or reject theologies, dogmas or creeds. They just want us to put such "accretions" to our faith in their proper place and to remember that they're secondary to our basic relationship with God. Though they enlighten and edify, only faith in God saves.

(03-05-98)