In one of his best-known stories, Rev. Ed Hays describes a dream in which he dies, and, as a test of faith, must walk to an island inhabited by God in the middle of a large heavenly lake. Only one force can support him as he treads across the water: his faith.

Though he recites every creed he knows, he keep sinking. Frustrated after several near-drowning attempts, he turns to the angel accompanying him and asks, "What’s the problem?"

"You’re carrying too much baggage," the angel replies. "Lighten your load, and you can make it."

Father Hays finally races across the water and reaches the divine island, yelling only, "I believe in God! I believe in God! I believe in God!"

Righteousness

We find the scriptural basis for that story in the opening lines of the first reading (Gen 15: 5-12). "Abram put his faith in Yahweh," the Genesis author writes, "who credited it to him as an act of righteousness."

"Righteousness" in Scripture refers to the proper relationship humans are to have with God. A righteous person does what God expects him or her to do. Abram, the first biblical person to form a relationship with Yahweh, discovers up front what God expects.

This refuge from Ur is simply to put his future into Yahweh’s hands. Though God promises him descendants and ownership of the land into which he migrated and even seals their agreement with an ancient Hittite ritual, their basic relationship revolves around the trust the two have in each other. As Father Hays discovered, whatever else we add to that simple, mutual faith can become excess baggage which actually keeps us from reaching God.

One way scholars distinguish Paul’s writings from those of his later disciples is to study the creeds found in those letters. As in the second reading (Phil 3: 17-4:1), Paul constantly fights against any tendency to complicate one’s basic faith in Jesus. In this case, the people who "conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ" can only be those who attach the 613 laws of Moses to their faith in Jesus.

According to them, Christians not only must believe in Jesus, they must also check for the kosher seal on everything they eat. As Paul puts it, "Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’ Their minds are occupied with earthly things."

On the other hand, true Christians are transformed not by adhering to a system of dietary do’s and don’t’s, but by building a relationship with Jesus. "Our citizenship is in heaven," Paul writes. Jesus "will change our lowly body to conform with His glorified body." There’s no need to eat special foods in order to accomplish that transformation.

Transfigured

Luke says something similar in the Gospel (Lk 9: 28-36). No only are Peter, John and James permitted to experience a new dimension of Jesus, but they also hear a voice from heaven that applies that dimension to themselves: "This is my chosen Son; listen to Him." The implication is that anyone who forms a relationship with God’s Son will one day share in the transfiguration of God’s Son.

Yet even after such a life-changing experience, Luke mentions that the three "found Jesus alone." Though everything had changed internally, externally they were still living the same life they shared before they went up the mountain. No wonder they "did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen."

The older we get, the more we reflect on the relationships which formed our personality and the commitments which shaped who we are. Our sacred authors constantly invite us to reflect on how our relationship with and commitments to God have changed us. They’re convinced that our faith is the only thing we can take with us into heaven.

(3/11/04)