Though many of us feel comfortable within tight religious restrictions, the biblical authors champion a faith which overcomes restrictions, a faith in which we experience a relationship with an unlimited God.

No one expresses this faith better than Jeremiah. In the first reading for Sunday (Jer 31: 31-34), he encourages his community to go beyond something which undergirds all Jewish faith: their covenant with Yahweh. The original Mt. Sinai agreement between the Hebrews and Yahweh turned a ragtag band of fugitives into God's "Chosen People," guaranteed them possession of the "Holy Lands," and gave them a privileged place among all God's creation.

Now this prophet proclaims a new covenant. Yahweh promises a second pact, one which "will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt." The Israelites ignored and broke that agreement.

New agreement

This time, there'll be no excuse for failure. Everyone will know his or her responsibilities. "I will place my law within them," Yahweh decrees, "and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know Yahweh. All, from least to greatest, shall know me."

Bypassing the limits of intermediaries, Yahweh plans to set up a personal relationship with each person, a relationship which will bring that individuals complete forgiveness.

More than six centuries after Jeremiah's ministry, a handful of Jews actually began to discover a new covenant in their lives because of their relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. This Galilean carpenter taught His followers to reflect on what God was doing in and through each of them, especially when they, like Jesus, gave themselves totally over to God. Though such complete giving brought certain death, it also brought the life every follower of God craves.

In the Gospel (Jn 12: 20-33), Jesus first uses an agricultural analogy to explain this contradiction. "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies," He says, "it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." Then He calls on His followers to reflect on their own experience to prove that life comes from death. "When I am lifted up from the earth," he promises, "I will draw everyone to myself."

Death and life

This latter teaching parallels an insight about Jesus' suffering which is central to the second reading (Heb. 5: 7-9). "He (Jesus) learned obedience from what He suffered," the author writes; "and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him." Throughout the Christian Scriptures, the message is the same: The only way to preserve our life for eternity is to lose it here and now.

Yet, we can't overlook the first part of the Gospel. "Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip and asked him, `Sir, we would like to see Jesus.'" Jesus only speaks about the necessity of dying with Him after Philip informs Him of the Gentiles' request.

Nineteen centuries after the composition of the Christian Scriptures, it's difficult to appreciate the significance of non-Jews in those writings. Our Sacred Authors still had memories of their Jewish reform movement's transformation into a Gentile religion. That's why the evangelists always stress Jesus' Gentile contacts. They're signs of things to come: a future in which people won't have to operate within the limits of Judaism in order to be saved, when Gentiles can develop a relationship with God by simply developing a relationship with Jesus.

Those comfortable within religious limits should remember that we'd have no Gentile Christians today if our ancestors in the faith hadn't overcome such limits. (04-06-00)