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God Has Swallowed Religion

2 Pentecost, May 29

First reading and psalm: 1 Kgs. 18:20-21 (22-29), 30-39Ps. 96
Alternate: 1 Kgs. 8:22-23, 41-43Ps. 96:1-9Gal. 1:1-12Luke 7:1-10

The people, standing with Elijah, limp under the weight of their opinions and their gods. The prophets of Baal likewise limp about the altar they have made, cry, cut themselves, and rave. Religion is, really, a miserable thing. Human beings tried to justify themselves before unseen forces and yet “there was no voice, no answer, no response” (1 Kgs. 18:29). There certainly is no deep confidence, no calming of conscience, and no abiding love.

God has swallowed religion whole. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kgs. 18:38). This proves “that you, O Lord, are God” (1 Kgs. 18:37). Indeed, nothingness after the fire proves that God is no thing of this world. The alchemy of God’s falling flame makes wood, stone, dust, and water into the unseen holy of holies.

The majestic God has sent his Son into the world. The Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, “gave himself for our sins to set us free from this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). This is not of human origin, but is wholly and completely the gift of God. (Gal. 1:11). This gift may be received, but never manufactured; it may be held in love, but not merely as one’s own. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. To know the gift of Jesus Christ is to know that one has been called, summoned, set apart, and elected as a member of Christ’s body. This is divine love calling out to an undeserving humanity. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were enemies of his cross, or indifferent to his suffering, Christ loved us and redeemed us.

And yet we often fail to guard a gift as pure and precious as imputed righteousness in Christ for the simple reason that it leaves no room for personal merit. It is in no sense deserved. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. Heaven gives it. But the ego objects. What about me? What about my effort, my goodness, righteousness, my fidelity, all my loves, and my suffering? What about it? Is there peace in one’s approximate goodness? And is not the devil near and roaring? We confuse ourselves and confound the gospel if we look for something other than the pure gift of forgiveness, freedom, and new life in Christ (Gal. 1:7).

A centurion sends Jewish elders to Jesus to plead for the health of his slave. The centurion, though a military agent of Rome’s oppressing arm, won the respect of many Jews. They say of him, “He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (Luke 7:5). So they say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him” (Luke 7:4). The centurion sees his situation differently. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Luke 7:6).

Incredibly, Jesus interprets I am not worthy by saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9).

Faith is a kind of emptiness, a passive righteousness. Everything is gone: the wood, the stone, the dust, the water. Every claim to goodness and merit disappears as Christ alone shines with all glory and goodness. “[T]he new man will sing a new song and will belong to the new covenant” (St. Augustine, Sermo 34). Take the gift and remember that even taking is a gift.

Look It Up: Read Ps. 115:1.

Think About It: It is not I, but Christ.

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