19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
If I had been a Pharisee at the time, I would have hated Jesus, too. And I would have hated Paul – hate in the Biblical sense of feeling no connection or sense of obligation. He is simply not one of us. (So, as with Simon, the customary courtesies don’t apply.) And when Paul begins to pull people away from the path of Judean observance…well, such a one is deserving of whatever ill fate befalls him. He is against everything I know about God and our identity as God’s people. He betrays core values of our community. His words are like someone burning a Qu’ran/Koran. They incite violence, just like an African-American sitting down at a white’s only lunch counter. You can’t transgress communal norms so willfully and not expect violence. Just ask Stephen, stoned to death by a mob.
Modern American society is no longer bound by such tight communal norms – although we still see its vestiges when crowds assault people for coming to hear Donald Trump. They would assault Trump, if they could, for he is violating core values of tolerance and inclusion. Such words must be silenced, shouted down, removed from the community.
I wish I knew all that Paul meant when he declares, “I have been crucified with Christ.” His world is far different than mine and I’m sure those words speak differently to him than to me. There is a kind of death of self that is part of true religion. A turning from a life preoccupied with my wants and desires to a life focused on what I can give, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. It’s the turn towards compassion, kindness, generosity, sacrifice.
But I don’t think that’s quite what Paul means here. I think he means that his old life, defined by obedience to Torah, has perished in his encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. He has come to see that God’s favor does not come from the observance of Judean cultural practices. It comes from allegiance to the God who raised Jesus from the dead, allegiance to God’s work of bringing the kingdom, allegiance to the gathering of all nations and peoples to proclaim God’s praise, allegiance to the rebirth/re-creation of the world that has begun in Christ and is dawning for all the world.
He has died to the life he once lived, the way he once defined his identity. And now he has been raised into a new life, a new identity, a new vision of God and the world.
Those who talk about being “born again” understand something of this fundamental transformation and reorientation of life.
The notion that we are saved by some law is like a huge gravity well that tends to draw everything into itself. It is that fundamental assumption that there is some standard by which we obtain some sense that we are the right kind of people. It changes from group to group. The way we dress is a group marker. It shows our affiliation – and the people with whom we identify establishes our identity. Language, too, shapes our identification and identity. In Detroit, a black child could be mocked for “talking white”. Trump was mocked for say “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians” – it was a tell revealing he was not an insider.
Custom, culture, practice, law written and unwritten, it is all part of the “law” that defined Paul. And now he has broken with that past and given his allegiance to the world of the resurrected Jesus. But gravity keeps pulling Jesus back into the realm of culture and custom, of “law”. People are right with God, pleasing to God, because they observe certain practices, be they rituals in church or personal prayer and Bible study. People are acceptable to God because they are generally good people, kind to pets, tolerant of children, decent neighbors, or because they have had the correct kind of religious experience. There was a time that people were acceptable because they put on their Sunday best and attended church each week, though that is fading fast. Success, education, political views, opinions about creation and evolution or sex and abortion are all markers of who is and who is not acceptable to God. This gravity well of “law” sucks Jesus and the human religious impulse into its center.
But then comes the resurrection of Jesus, this new reality in the world. What was once an event for the end of time when people would be sorted by their conformity to “law” has become a living reality in the midst of time. And the hope of a world transformed, set free from its sins and called back into the peace of God – a world that was thought to follow the general resurrection – that “age to come” is here now in this Jesus risen. And so Paul declares that he has been crucified with Christ. The old world is gone and a new one dawns. And what matters now is not “law” in any shape, but allegiance to the new world God is making where sins are forgiven and bread shared and all people are regarded as members of one family (“love one another,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love your enemy”). “The old has passed; the new has come.” This is the dawning truth of the world, and what matters now is allegiance to this new life of the risen Christ (“faith”).
It’s not easy to fight the gravity well of “law”. But the grave is empty and the door open for us to be born from above.
It’s why the woman bursts into Simon’s house ignoring all custom and law to declare her love and allegiance to Jesus and to give her most precious gift: herself.
+ + +
For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6