The Apostle Paul makes a strange claim this morning, testifying, “We are the circumcision.” What does this even mean?
Circumcision was a practice by which a male was incorporated into Israel- one became an Israelite, not simply by birth, but by being circumcised. The covenant between God and his people was literally cut in flesh and required a literal offering of blood. Circumcision indicated the sacrifice required of an Israelite was real and permanent.
Becoming an Israelite was not easy and living as an Israelite was not easy. Like true love, being an Israelite in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel involved sacrifice and required the gift of one’s life. Circumcision made it clear that being an Israelite was not a matter of that could be reduced to an idea or a feeling- it was a whole way of life.
St. Paul is saying is in strange, off-putting testimony is that what circumcision represented to the Israelite so now is Baptism to the disciple of Jesus.
Baptism is not just a welcoming ceremony. Baptism is for the New Israel, the Church what circumcision was for the Old Israel. And Baptism cuts deeper, for it marks not just the body, but the depths of our souls.
The trivialization of Baptism is one of the great heresies that the Church has long endured. We trivialize Baptism when we reduce it to an ethnic custom or as I said, a welcoming ceremony. As the ritual of Baptism makes clear (but few appreciate or listen), Baptism is about blood, death, life in this world and life in a world to come. What it signifies is real and permanent. And in the end, when we face the Lord, what he sees in us are none of our worldly identities, attainments, or aspirations- none of our academic degrees, financial portfolios, family genealogies, political or ethnic identities- what the Lord sees and measure our lives by is the identity and mission he gave in through our Baptism. Everything else is a loss compared to what we have gained in our Baptism.
In his Gospel the Lord Jesus speaks to the Scribes and Pharisees about how he is fulfilling one of the great messianic expectations of the Old Testament prophets.
Remember, Christ is the Messiah, the one who the prophets foresaw that God would send to set Israel right in terms of her identity and mission. The great surprise that is revealed in the Lord Jesus is that God himself comes to Israel and reveals himself as the messiah.
One of the great messianic expectations of Israel is the gathering of the nations, which some interpreted as the restoration and unification of the twelve tribes that had constituted the old Kingdom of David.
Christ indicates how he is accomplishing this expectations, by going himself to find and retrieve the lost- the sinner, the alienated, the unbeliever, the morally compromised, the sick, the dying, the poor. All those who because of whatever circumstance had been forced to the margins or what Pope Francis calls the peripheries. Christ is going out to the farthest reaches of Godforsakeness and bringing the lost back home.
He calls out to them to repent and believe. He offers the forgiveness of sins and a new way of life. He draws them into the sanctuary of his divine presence and there he gives them what they need most- a second chance.
In this way he is gathering the tribes.
And so should we…