Last week, the Church presented as the first scripture readings for daily Mass select excerpts from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
The Letter to the Galatians is about the Church, particularly the identity and mission of the Church, and the Apostle Paul testifies that it is best to understand the identity and mission of the Church as the new Israel- an Israel that has been transformed by Christ.
The mission of the new Israel (the Church) is to invite all the nations and peoples of the world to know the one, true God and to share communion with his divine life.
Saint Paul’s testimony might not seem all that controversial to us, but during his lifetime, the identity and mission of the Church as the new Israel was a vexing matter. If the Church was the new Israel, what about the “old” Israel? What was to become of the time honored customs and traditions of the Israelites? What was the place of the Law of Moses in the life of the new Israel? And perhaps most vexing was what did a Gentile, someone not born as an Israelite, have to do to become a full participant in the new Israel?
St. Paul is attempting to offer some clarity in regards to an article of the Apostolic Faith that has become controversial. But not only that, he is issuing a warning- and the warning is that there is no going back to the Israel before Christ. The revelation of Christ has changed Israel’s way of life forever. Nostalgia for way Israel was before Christ leads only to a dead end. Christ is God, and God has made Israel new. Christ does not propose a new school of thought in regards to Israel in the manner that the great rabbis and teacher of Israel did, but Christ who is God who brings to fulfillment the old Israel and transforms Israel into something new.
There is for St. Paul no middle ground to stand on between the old Israel and the new Israel. Everyone, whether or not they identify with the old Israel or new Israel, whether or not they are Jew or Gentile, are now, because of Christ, standing in the new Israel.
In today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul uses employs biblical imagery from the Old Testament to make this point. If out of nostalgia, an Israelite who has come to accept Christ as Lord and Savior, resists the transformation of Israel in terms of its identity and mission, then the Law of Moses along with all the customs and traditions of the Israelites, will become a burden for themselves and for others, especially for the Gentiles.
This is not what Christ intends. The purpose of the new Israel is to introduce people to Christ, not propagate the Israelite way of life as it was before Christ’s revelation.
The historical particularities of this controversy do not press upon us with much urgency, but the identity and mission of the Church does.
We live in an era where, for many of the baptized, the identity and mission of the Church, if not unknown or unintelligible, has been reduced to our opinions or thought of in terms of how the Church can gratify our immediate needs.
The Church is here to be what I want it to be when I need it and to provide sanction to those goals towards which I aspire.
In other words, it is not Christ’s Church that we know or want, but a Church that we make up for ourselves.
A Church that is not Christ’s is a fake, it can only be a counterfeit- no matter how successful or popular, it cannot be or do what Christ intends.
There have been two variations of this counterfeit Church in recent memory, one that conceived of the Church as a nationalist or ethnic identity and one that conceived of the Church as a secular corporation. Both are expressions of what many people want from the Church, but they have little or anything to do with what Christ intends for his Church to be and do. If the baptized go the way of nationalism or corporation in terms of the Church, they will arrive at a dead end.
The baptized cannot know their identity and fulfill their mission is they do not first accept from Christ the identity and mission of the Church.
Christ the Lord speaks about the mysterious “sign of Jonah” through which the wisdom and power of God will be manifested to the world. The truth of this sign will represent God’s judgment, that is, the revelation of God’s Truth.
What is this mysterious “sign of Jonah”?
The “sign of Jonah” is the totality of the Paschal Mystery, which culminates in the resurrection of the Lord. It is in this Mystery that the wisdom and power of God are revealed.
But in addition to this, the “sign of Jonah” will be revealed in peoples and nations who come to know the one, true God in Christ. It will be these multitudes that, who hearing of the revelation of God in Christ and accepting him for who he reveals himself to be, manifest to the world the “sign of Jonah”.
The “sign of Jonah” is repentance and conversion to Christ.
Are we the living representatives of the “sign of Jonah” in the world?
If not, what “sign” do we reveal?