Looking Past the Peril
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. – Galatians 5:2-6, NRSV
Truly, I would be relieved to avoid some scripture passages, like this one. Honestly, if I didn’t have an assignment to write, I would have spent my time elsewhere in God’s Word.
After all, I am aware that circumcision itself has fierce proponents and opponents. I know little of the topic and I am convinced the world has no need of uninformed opinions, especially mine. More importantly, circumcision has ritual significance for Judaism, and I am aware how this perilous text from Galatians has been used with anti-Semitic intention or anti-Semitic consequence, which I am certain grieves the heart of God.
But I am grateful that my writing assignment caused me to ponder these verses longer than I would have, otherwise.
Circumcision is a ritual that can be performed only once, of course. So I wonder: is Paul warning against our thinking that any single action can satisfy God’s desire for a vibrant, ongoing relationship with us? Is Paul cautioning against anything that might become a “to-do” list for a believer, instead of continually examining and adjusting my response to God’s gift of faith?
Any religious teaching can be solidified into doctrine, which strains out its poetry, sifts out its dynamism, and hollows out its heart. So I wonder: is Paul insisting that Christ — the essential meaning at the core of life — appears from my perspective to be constantly changing, simply because I am constantly changing?
Thank you, Holy One, for giving more questions than answers. Thank you, God, that the one certain answer you gave is the barely-penetrable mystery of love. In the name of love’s self, Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.