The Second Sunday in Lent, 25 February 2018

February 1, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 17:1 – 7 Psalm 22:23 – 31 Romans 4:13 – 25 Mark 8:31 – 38 or Mark 9:2 – 9

Discussion of the Texts: For Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent, barring the omission or addition of certain verses, the Catholic Lectionary for the present Lenten season has been identical to the Revised Common Lectionary (I am not here considering the optional readings offered within the RCL).  Today marks a shift in that trend, as the Catholic Lectionary for the liturgical year calls for a reading not from Genesis 17, as in the RCL, but for a reading from Genesis 22 — the call from God for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah; specifically, Catholic across the globe will hear today the words of Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18.  We all know the story:  Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, the promised son of the covenant between God and Abraham; and Abraham acquiesces (the four opening stories of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling not withstanding), only to be stopped by an angel.  The positive addition to the Catholic lectionary reading is how the angel, calling Abraham again, reaffirms the covenant established within the RCL reading (Gen. 22:15 – 18; 17:4 – 7, 15).

That being said, the first reading of the RCL recounts the calling of Abram by God, and God’s declaration to Abram — who thereafter is named Abraham — that a covenant will be established between God and Abraham, for Abraham would become “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4; cf. 17:5 – 6; Rom. 4:16 – 17, 18), as well as the latter’s descendants (17:7).  What is more, Abraham is not the sole ancestor to the multitude of nations guaranteed by God; rather, his wife Sarai — thereafter Sarah (17:15) — was to become the mother of countless nations (17:16).  This covenant is later affirmed by the author of Romans:  “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13).  Here we read that it was not through the law that Abraham was to be vindicated for his share of the covenant established between himself and God, but that it was his faith, “hoping against hope…that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:18, 21), which was the guarantee that the covenant would pass from him to all who shared his faith (part of why Abraham was one of Kierkegaard’s “knights of faith”).

Now, in addition to the difference in first readings between the RCL and the Catholic lectionary, the second reading for Catholics today will be Romans 8:31b-34.  Recalling the covenantal passages of Genesis 17 and 22, and Romans 4, the operant passage of Romans 8 would appear here to be the first from the Catholic Lectionary:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31b).  This passage indicates for us the mark of the covenant for God, that S/He (I am here following, albeit adapting, Hartshorne’s approach when referring to God with a gendered pronoun) would be God to the descendants of Sarah and Abraham (see Gen 17:7).  It is for this reason that the Psalmist declares “All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him [sic]; stand in awe of him [sic], all you offspring of Israel!” (Ps. 22:23); and later, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him [sic]” (22:27).

We are thus led to the Gospel reading(s), having thereof two options:  Mark 8:31 – 38 and Mark 9:2 – 9 (the Catholic Lectionary does not include Mark 8:31 – 38 as an option).  Considering the former, we read here the story of Jesus rebuking Simon Peter, having just declared that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  We are told, with those gathered there, that we must lose our lives to save them, to “deny [our]selves and take up [our] cross[es]” (Mark 8:34).

In contrast to the stark nature of the words from the end of Mark 8, we are treated at the opening of Mark 9 to the occasion of the Transfiguration:  “…and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus” (9:3 – 4).  As we all know, the Apostles (Peter, James, and John) in attendance were flabbergasted at the sight of Elijah and Moses conversing with Jesus (9:6; we may speculate as to how Peter was aware of their identities, as indicated by 9:5).  Ultimately, following the departure of Elijah and Moses, as well as the return of Jesus to his regular form, the Apostles are directed to say nothing of what they have seen “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9).  Perhaps an important addition to this final reading comes from the Catholic Lectionary, with its inclusion of Mark 9:10:  “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.”

Upon reading the Lectionaries this week, the Revised Common and the Catholic, we find a number of key themes which thread their way through:  namely, covenant and faith.  It is obvious in the readings from Genesis, both from chapter 17 and from 22, as well as Romans 8; Romans 4 is not as clear, yet covenant and faith remain as essential elements, as with Psalm 22.  The conclusion of Mark 8 and the opening of Mark 9 point us to Genesis 22, where the sacrifice of Isaac is often understood within Christian circles as a prefiguration of the sacrifice of the Cross, and the subsequent glorification of the Resurrection (prefigured in the Transfiguration) is the outcome of the covenant between God and the descendants of Sarah and Abraham.

Process Theology and the Texts: How do we as process theologians understand these concepts — covenant and faith — which are, in some form or another, crucial for understanding the Christian tradition?  While doubtless defined alternatively by various Christian traditions, I would look to my own Catholic tradition for an operant definition:  “A solemn agreement between human beings or between God and a human being involving mutual commitments or guarantees” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2ND Ed. [1994] 1997, 873).  From a process perspective, we will recognize that covenants are not merely for human beings and God; rather, God establishes covenants with the whole of the Cosmos, and so too can we as human beings.

But of the covenant between God and Abraham; or, God and Noah; or, God and Moses — what can we make of these covenants between God and particular human beings (as recounted within scripture)?  It is important to recall that a covenant is not a contract:  though there may be a contractual nature to a covenant, such as the mutual exchange of commitments and benefits, the failure of one party to meet their end of the “bargain” does not render a covenant null, unlike with a contract.  What is more, a contract is a legalistic formulation of coercive power — each contracted party is treated as having obligations to other parties, under threat of which they will not receive benefits in the event of failing to meet these obligations.  In contrast, a covenant is a form of relationality, mirroring the persuasive power of God — recall that God is not some tyrant “lording” over the Cosmos, but is creative-responsive love (John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition 1976, 41 – 62).  God continues to uphold the Divine side of all covenants established with the Cosmos, despite any possible shortcomings on the finite side, just as we are called to uphold our side of these covenants.

Preaching the Texts: “Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:22).  The sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of Abraham — the very thought of Abraham contemplating it — is anathema to our modern sensibilities.  How could any cogent parent consider committing such an apparently heinous crime?  Further, Isaac was the promised son of the covenant—how could Abraham so foolishly (as we may think) decide to sacrifice Isaac?  It was, by the account of Romans 4, an act of faith.  Now, faith is, as the late Rev. Richard P. McBrien put it, “personal knowledge of God” or “our perception of God in the midst of life” (McBrien, Catholicism:  Study Edition 1981, 25).  Additionally, it is one of the three theological virtues, alongside hope and love.  Still, the difficulty we today could have with the story of Abraham is one possible starting point when considering how to preach these reading from a process perspective.  Indeed, one could bear in mind the previous week’s commentary (i.e. for the First Sunday of Lent), when it was pointed out that mythological accounts are “stor[ies] that [unveil] the true origin of the world and human beings,” though not necessarily the facts (Catalin Partenie, “Plato’s Myths,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, para. 1), recognizing that the facts of the story of Abraham are more than likely mythological.  Nevertheless, the story may yet teach us something of the Cosmos and God:  as God appeared to Abraham, so too may God appear to us — in every passing moment, every occasion of experience, every be-ing we meet.  And like Abraham, as well as countless others (e.g. Samuel, etc.), we may yet hear the call of God.  How do we hear this call?  To what do we hear ourselves called?  Are we doing what we can to be the voices of God within the lives of others?

Another troubling passage from today’s readings comes from the Psalm—the response of the people of God:  “For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he [sic] rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28).  This passage is problematic for the process theist attempting to maintain a scriptural grounding because of how it describes the power of God, viz. dominion and ruling over.  This God sounds, we could say, like a monarch (at best) or a tyrant (at worst).  What is more, this God strikes as one who regularly intervenes in the course of the Cosmos, rather than one who sets-up its initial subjective aim and then beckons it ever onward.  That being said, a potential preaching topic could be to reinterpret this passage about divine dominion as being not coercive power, but the persuasive power of covenant — as described above — which is creative-responsive love.

Consider another sermon topic stemming from Romans 4, that of the place of faith in the life of the Church:  “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void” (Rom. 4:14); and, “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his [Abraham’s] descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16); and, “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him [as righteousness],’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also” (4:23 – 24a).  By this passage, and many others, we learn of how faith — a virtue, a gift from God, and our perception of God in the midst of life” — is that by which we are justified in our belief, in our hope.  However, we also learn from scripture that such faith, sans works, is dead (James 2:14 – 26).  As the author of James rightly points out, even Abraham was inspired to act according to his faith — his heart was changed by his faith, his personal knowledge of God.  To put it another way, Abraham was changed by his encounter with God; or, the occasion of experience which was the Divine encounter so shaped future occasions of experience that Abraham could not but believe in the power of God in his life.  How then, we should ask, have our lives been shaped by encountering God?  How has our “perception of God in the midst of life” shaped our beliefs and actions?

A final sermon suggestion makes itself evident within the words of Jesus to Peter from today’s first suggested Gospel reading:  “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33).  We may subsequently ask ourselves, what is it during this Lenten season which is distracting us or leading us to set our minds after human rather than divine things?  Are we truly following the call toward our subjective aims?  Are we fostering creativity, order and novelty, and therefore beauty in the world around us?  Recalling the words of the Psalmist today, have we ensured that “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (Ps. 22:26), or that the naked are clothed, or the most vulnerable in our midst — which includes ourselves — have been cared for?

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.