Unchaining our faith

In a recent America magazine article, Father Francis Sullivan, my seminary ecclesiology professor, explores God’s ability to save people who practice non-Christian religions.

At one point, he responds to those who contend such religions have "objectionable" elements. He reminds his adversaries that the late Karl Rahner "pointed out that even in the Hebrew religion, certain elements needed to be corrected and purified as time went on, and this did not contradict its being the way of salvation for the Hebrew people."

Most of us naively tink that how we understand and express our faith today is how it’s always been understood and expressed. Sunday’s three readings show that isn’t the case, especially when it comes to understanding and expressing God’s actions and presence among us.

Half a hymn

We easily identify with the early Christian hymn which comprises half of the second reading (II Tim 2: 8-13). The unknown author of this late first-century letter uses it to help strengthen his community during the periods of suffering which come to all followers of Jesus.

"If we have died with Him," he writes, "we shall also live with Him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with Him. But if we deny Him, he will deny us. If we are unfaithful, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself."

This hymn’s author has great confidence in Jesus’ faithfulness to us only because he believes that disciples of Christ actually become "other Christs." We don’t have to go to special places, wait for special times, or depend on special people to experience the risen Jesus. Like all Jesus’ earliest followers, he believes the place, time and person in which we best and first discover Jesus springs from the where, when and who of ourselves. Jesus is faithful to us because He recognizes Himself in us.

God wasn’t always thought to be so universally present. Though Elisha’s cure of Naaman’s leprosy demonstrates that Yahweh can help even non-Jews (I Kgs 5: 14-17), Yahweh’s actions are still limited to a single geographic place. Naaman would never have been cured if he had stayed in Syria.

Listen carefully to the Syrian’s words to Elisha: "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel." The God who turned the pagan officer’s diseased skin into "the flesh of a little child" performs such marvels only in Israel. That’s why Naaman eventually requests "two mule-loads of earth."

Now converted to the God of Israel, he must take some Israelite dirt back with him to Damascus or else he can’t worship Yahweh. Scattering Jewish soil around his property, Naaman will create a mini-, extra-territorial Israel. He’s confident Yahweh will accept his "holocaust and sacrifice" because he plans to offer them on the country’s soil in which Yahweh works.

Open to all

No doubt that reading is part of the liturgy because it parallels Jesus’ Gospel cure of the Samaritan leper (Lk 17: 11-19). Yet, recognizing the evolution of faith which took place during the 600-year period between the two readings, we can also recognize how our biblical authors constantly try to break through the limits which humans impose on God.

Just as the author of II Kings takes a significant step by showing God is just as concerned for Gentiles in Israel as Jews in Israel, so Luke shows that faith in Jesus, and the salvation it brings, isn’t restricted to those who profess mainstream Judaism. Even a heretical Samaritan can receive and be grateful for it.

Perhaps the most important line in three readings is the remark in II Timothy: "The word of God is not chained." Though we intellectually agree with the statement, practically we chain God’s word every day. Today of all days, we should reflect on what it really means to have an "un-restricted" God working in our lives.

Our ancestors in the faith evolved in their understanding of that truth. Are we absolved from continuing that evolution?