Listening carefully to Scripture, we'll often hear our sacred authors calling us to return to the essentials of our faith. They're driven by a passion to make certain their readers are "righteous:" that they're living the way God wishes, the way that guarantees a fulfilled life.

That's why the author of Genesis introduces this famous "covenant cutting" ceremony with the statement, "Abram put his faith in Yahweh, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness" (Gen 15: 5-12).

Only a loving, trusting relationship with God brings fulfillment to our lives. No matter what promises we expect God to keep, no matter what theology we use to explain our faith, only our relationship with God counts.

Laws kept

A couple of years ago, I invited a friend, an Orthodox rabbi, to speak to my parishioners about Judaism. After having explained a few of the 613 Torah laws he faithfully keeps, someone asked hin about his belief in an afterlife. "I believe everyone eventually gets into heaven," he replied.

A half-dozen hands immediately shot into the air, all with the same question: "Why do you keep those 613 laws if you think everyone is going to get into heaven anyway?"

A broad smile accompanied his answer: "Because God asked me to keep them."

The rabbi's simple answer is at the heart of Abram's righteousness. Specific laws and regulations can be accidental; faith in God is essential.

Because Christians believe one best develops a relationship with God by developing a relationship with the risen Jesus, Paul tries to show his Philippian community the consequences which occur when Christians shove the essentials of their faith into the background and begin focusing on accidentals (Phil 3: 17-4:6).

They who do so "conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is their shame. Their minds are occupied with earthly things." They end up this way because they're concentrating on the trappings of religion instead of imitating Jesus' dying and rising.

In a highly "mythical" narrative, Luke points out some of the phenomena which accompany our relationship with the risen Jesus (Lk 9: 28-36). Like Jesus, our lives are completely transformed. Just as those who look at Jesus through eyes of faith see more than a Galilean carpenter, so our eyes of faith perceive something in ourselves and others which takes us beyond our humanity.

Following Jesus

In the same way, those who give themselves over to Jesus become part of the ongoing process of salvation symbolized by the prophetic ministry of Elijah, and the lawgiving and liberating ministry of Moses. According to Luke, this life-giving transformation takes place only because we're willing to accompany Jesus on His pilgrimage to Jerusalem: the place where one dies, rises, receives the Spirit and is sent forth with a specific ministry.

Such "sent" people are awakened by Jesus to "see" the strange things happening around and within them right here and now. They begin to understand that the salvation they're expecting on the future is already taking place in their everyday lives.

And lest any reader miss Luke's emphasis on the essential, he employs one more mythic sign: "A cloud came and cast a shadow over them...(and) a voice said, `This is my chosen Son; listen to Him!'"

What we Christians are called upon to do in life, we do because we've heard Jesus ask us to do it. No matter the specifics, no matter the promise of rewards or punishments, our faith basically revolves around listening to Jesus and carrying out what He asks. Anything else on decides to do can only be for "extra credit."