This week the first scripture readings for daily Mass are excerpts from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
The Letter to the Galatians is about the Church and it provides a glimpse into the Church’s history, particularly an issue that vexed Christians in the first years of the Church’s young life. This issue was how to best understand the identity and mission of the Church as the new Israel.
Remember, the Church is not an ethnic identity, an institution, a social service agency, political party or faith-based club. There might be elements in the Church that are similar to these things, but similar does not indicate equivalence or that the Church should be reduced in our understanding to these things. What is the Church?
The Church is a new kind of Israel.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ is that the one, true God (the God of Israel) has made himself known in an extraordinary way- he has accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. God did this so as to effect the transformation of Israel so that it might become for the whole world a route of access by which humanity might receive a relationship with the living and true God. The transformation of Israel has happened and manifests itself in the world in the Church. For the Christian, the Church and Israel are one reality.
Now mind you, we are not talking about the modern nation state of Israel, but something much deeper and more important. By Israel is meant the people that God has chosen to be bearers of his revelation and a unique way of life into the world. The revelation and the way of life that goes along with it are presented to the world as an invitation to know who the one, true God is and to share communion with his divine life, both in this world and in a world that is yet to come.
This revelation, and way of life, is given to the Church by God in Christ, and those who receive it are given the mission of sharing this revelation and way of life with the world.
Now, perhaps, none of this sounds at all controversial to us, even if we might be hearing it for the first time- but it was controversial in the first years of the Church’s life, and it is the controversy that St. Paul is trying to address in his Letter to the Galatians.
The Letter to the Galatians was written because some in the Church resisted the revelation that the Church was in fact a new and transformed kind of Israel. Some thought that the Israel that had preceded the revelation of Christ remained essentially unchanged, and the point of the revelation of the Lord Jesus was simply to ratify the older form. On a practical level, this meant that Gentiles, people who were not born as Israelites, would have to first become Israelites through circumcision and then adhere to the many cultural and legal practices that had prevailed as elements of the Israelite way of life for centuries.
St. Paul says no to all this- and he says no because he believes that Christ does not simply ratify Israel as is, but Christ changes Israel, and he does this so that the Gentiles might enter Israel, not through circumcision or the Law of Moses, but through Baptism and for the sake of a new way of life lived through the Sacraments and Works of Mercy.
The temptation for Israelites who have come to accept the revelation of Christ is a nostalgia for the Israel before the revelation of Christ. This nostalgia manifests itself in an imposition on people who were not born Israelites, and that imposition is a block that is preventing people from knowing Christ in his Church.
This is the reason that St. Paul chastises the Galatians this morning, calling them stupid and bewitched. Their nostalgia represents ignorance of the revelation of Christ and they are so caught up in this nostalgia for the Israel before Christ that they are acting like people who are under some kind of spell.
This “spell” inhibits the mission of the Church, the new Israel, which is to draw the Gentiles into a relationship with the Lord Jesus, so that they can know and serve the one, true God and take their place among his chosen people.
What does any of this have to do with us? What “spell” are we under?
We shouldn’t treat our identity as Christians or our membership in the Church as a kind of ethnic birthright affording us special privileges and faith-based services of which we are the principle beneficiaries. The Church is not our clubhouse whose resources belong to our causes or self-interested endeavors. This is the attitude that Pope Francis has repeatedly criticized as “self-referential” and it is causing the Church to falter in her true mission. Pope Benedict warned us repeatedly about this tendency as well, but most decided not to listen to him, and the “self referential” rot, the tendency to reduce the Church to our clubhouse, continued unabated.
The mission of the Church is the mission of the new Israel, not focused on getting what we want out of the Church, but on giving our lives over to Jesus Christ, placing ourselves as his service, even if this means great sacrifices, and making our way of life an invitation to know the Lord Jesus, living and truly present in the Church. This is what is meant by evangelization and it is evangelization that is the mission of the Church.
If we are not doing this mission of evangelization (the mission of the Church as the New Israel), if we are caught up in ourselves and playing with the Church’s faith as a self-directed and self interested project, then we are, like the Galatians, not only foolish, or confused, but bewitched.