I have the greatest job in the world. This past weekend I had the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with 35 youth as they confirmed their faith, reaffirmed their baptisms, and committed to follow Christ. As part of confirmation weekend I had the opportunity to give a message on Romans 3:1-8, circumcision of the heart. Below is the transcript along with an audio file.
When I was informed about this week’s scripture, and sat down with Jason to discuss the text a question was raised. “What does Paul mean circumcision is not physical?” Jason, being ever appropriate and full of couth responded by say, “we have 15 boys in our confirmation class this year, I think that they, you, and I would agree that circumcision is about as physical as it gets!”
In the fall of 2011, when I first arrived on campus at Wesley Theological Seminary, I was forced to enter into a covenant. As part of a class titled Spiritual Formation for the Practice of Ministry, a class I cynically referred to as my 3 hour weekly waste of time in D.C., I entered into a covenant with six other first year seminary students. I could not have made up the makeup of this group. There was Chris, an Army computer analyst who pushed back at everything our professor said, Okey an Air Force Chaplain candidate who was glued to his phone, Sharon the director of religion and faith programs at the Human Rights Campaign, Melvin a licensed local pastor from Baltimore who was more opinionated than Jason and more longwinded than Steve Larkin, Monica a stay at home mom who really needed to cut back on her caffeine intake, Terah whose definition of a bad grade was an A-, and me the State Department contractor who was just there to get his class credit and move on (and didn’t mind an A-).
These were people that I would have never hung out with outside of class. But here we were, assigned to the same group for the rest of the year. We covenanted to pray for one another, serve the community with one another, and help carry one another through our first year in seminary. The “touchy-feely” side of me, which is not as large or developed as many of you might think, thought “awww… it will be so nice to have a group of partners that will walk this journey with me”. The cynical side of me thought “oh great, here goes 3 hours every week that I won’t get back”.
Covenants are part of our Methodist heritage. John Wesley encouraged members of the early Methodist movement to meet regularly in Methodist Class Meetings. They would confess their sins to one another, pray together, and be healed together. This is where the early leaders of the Methodist movement were nurtured and equipped.
The Old and New Testaments are a collection of covenant stories. In these stories we learn of leaders within Israel who were nurtured and equipped by God for the call God was placing upon them. The Abrahamic covenant promised land, descendants, and prosperity. Exodus 19.5 tells us that if the Israelites could “obey” God’s voice, and keep God’s covenant, then they would be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples”. The Davidic covenant established David’s house, David’s throne, and a kingdom. And then there is the new covenant which was established a new relationship between God and humans, which was mediated by Jesus. This new covenant was different. This new covenant was not limited only to the nation of Israel. Jews and Gentiles would now be blessed and protected through the new covenant. From front to back the Bible is a covenant. And that is where our scripture reading brings us.
“Then what advantage has the Jew? What is the value of circumcision?”
These questions are precisely what Paul wants to get to the bottom of. And for us reading the text today through our twenty-first century Christian lenses we assume the answer will be “none”. There is no advantage.
Circumcision was not about getting in or staying in God’s favor.
Circumcision was meant to identify those who were already in. If circumcision was meant to separate Israel from the rest of the nations, a physical mark of their covenant with God, where does this fit into the new covenant established through Christ? Paul does not side-step his question about the advantage the Jews have over the Gentiles. In verse two he addresses the question head on. Israel had been entrusted by God with the “oracles of God”, aka the Scriptures. These oracles had been written down long ago, by the generations of Abraham, Moses, and David, for the use of future generations. And who comprises the future generations: Paul and the Gentile church. As N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham puts it, “The covenant was there to put to rights, to deal with evil and restore God’s justice and order the cosmos”.
Since September 9th our confirmands have been in covenant with one another and with you, I bet most of you here did not know that we as a congregation entered into that covenant. By joining our confirmation class they covenanted to attend and actively participate in worship, attend weekly lessons (missing no more than 3), and attend an end of the year retreat. That was their end of the covenant. And in exchange our teachers (Sarah Lynn, Haley, and Patty) along with our high school mentors agreed to teach them and share the oracles of God with them.
As a congregation we covenanted to help them by teaching them the faith. That’s why Jay Steadman did not mind a group of loud 6th, 7th, and 8th graders interrupting a Sunday school lesson he was trying to teach. That’s why when this group would approach you in between services, while you were grabbing a cup of coffee, and barraged you with what might have seemed like hard or personal questions about your own relationship with God, you cheerfully answered them. That was our end of the deal in the covenant with our confirmands.
Israel had been entrusted by God, through covenants that guaranteed prosperity and protection, to share the oracles of God with future generations. What really had transpired in the gap between generations? Was Israel faithful? Israel was called to be a faithful servant of God, to obey God’s laws, to be a light to the nations. That was the purpose of the Torah! The Torah was intended to enable Israel with the ability to preserve the oracles of God and be a light to the nations. However, over time and generations the Torah took the place of the oracles.
For some, it became more important or simply easier to fulfill the requirements of Torah law rather than keeping and preserving the oracles which had been entrusted to Israel. For some it was easier to keep the outwards appearance of their faith. But Israel had been unfaithful, and Paul knew this better than anyone else.
Our confirmands can tell you why Paul would know this just as well, if not better than anyone else. Before Paul was Paul, he was Saul. Saul was a Jewish Pharisee who painstakingly persecuted the early church. Through these persecutions Paul was in fact violating many of the oracles and laws he, as Jew, had been chosen to preserve. Israel had been charged by God to not only save these stories for future generations, but was also charged to be an example of how to live for future generations. What Paul is saying here is that Israel had in fact been unfaithful. And Paul does not mean that Israel had lost its faith in God or simply became a band of unbelievers. Israel had been unfaithful to God’s commission. Paul even goes so far as to use Israel’s own stories to explain their unfaithfulness.
In chapter three of his letter to the Romans, Paul was not writing down new ideas, he was simply uses what David had written in Psalm 51. This is the same theme that is scattered through second Samuel chapters eleven and twelve. Paul quotes the Psalm and points to what vindication Israel could have rightly suffered as a sinful nation. No reader of this letter, who was familiar with the psalter would fail to miss the unquoted verses within the theme of Romans 3. There is no escaping God’s righteousness. David knew that and so did the reader of this letter.
A covenant relationship only works if both parties enter into the agreement knowing they are in it for the long-haul. This is one of the premises of marriage. Believe it or not Allison did not marry me because I am the perfect example of what a husband should be. We do not marry our spouse and become partners with them because we know they are without flaw or are perfect. The covenant group I
was forced into joined during my first week’s at Wesley did not kick me out of the group if I did not meet the prescribed agreement among us. If one of our confirmand was unable to meet a requirement of our confirmation class, or began show signs of disinterest Sarah Lynn, Haley, and Patty would not kick them out of the class and banish them from the group. These punishments might seem justified or appropriate to some but that is not the point of entering into a covenant relationship.
When we read the stories of the Old and New Testament and see Israel’s unfaithfulness to God’s commission, it would be easy for us to assume that Israel would receive a just punishment. That God would judge Israel as nation, because the covenant was built upon a nation and not individuals, and condemn the nation for their unfaithfulness. But you see, that’s not how grace works. And what God does is open this covenant to all: Jews AND Gentiles.
This new covenant, opened and available to all people, is about the way in which God addresses our unfaithfulness through the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. After all, this what what the covenant was intended to do in the first place. Our unfaithfulness, our rejection of the covenant does not separate us from God. My sins, your sins do not keep us away from God.
This covenant with God did not mean that the early church, the first Christians (those people who met Christ on the road to Damascus and broke bread with him) did not doubt. A covenant with God does mean that we are certain in our beliefs, have no doubts, know everything there is to know about the Bible. This covenant does not require us to know everything about being kind or virtuous. It’s not about us at all! What it is about is us playing an active role in what God is doing in the world.
This is what Paul is getting at when he says that true circumcision is not “something external or physical”. In the last verse of chapter two, Paul says, “a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and NOT literal”. This means that we can have all of the outward signs that we want of our faith. It does not matter how many “Jesus fish” you have on the back of your minivan. You can wear a cross around our neck, show up to church every Sunday without fail, or even participate in a small group; but if we have not opened our hearts to be marked by the Holy Spirit then it’s all for nothing.
Last weekend I had the chance to go on a retreat, to go camping with our confirmation class. We braved rustic cabins, spiders, no cell phone service, technology glitches and weird howls in the night to open ourselves up to be marked by God. We opened our hearts to the opportunity to have the Holy Spirit work through us. We gathered to learn what it means to grow, give, serve, and share as a follower of Jesus. We learned that it is through growing, giving, serving and sharing that our hearts are circumcised by God.
On Sunday morning, just as we were getting ready to leave and head back home to the soccer and lacrosse games that were scheduled I told our confirmands that if they were unwilling to do so, unwilling to allow God to work through them and their confirmation vows, then it would all be for nothing.
If our confirmands were there to simply check off a box, never again seeking out what the oracles of God will speak to them, never again to doubt or wrestle with God, or to never open themselves up to have God write on their hearts again, then their time in confirmation, this entire year would have been for nothing. Because it is when our hearts are marked by the Holy Spirit that we cannot be separated from God, even through our doubt, questions, unfaithfulness and sin. It is when our hearts are circumcised by our faith, our faith in Jesus Christ, that we are made one with God. It’s not an outward symbol. It’s not physical. And it is what keeps us connected with God through our unfaithfulness.