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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: We Walk by Faith: But Where Are We Headed?

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June 13, 2021: The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16
2 Corinthians 5:6-10
Mark 4:26-34

A Reflection by John Falcone

In this week’s second reading, Paul gives us one of the most famous lines in the New Testament: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

What does it mean to “walk by faith”? At first glance, the rest of the passage does not give us much help figuring that out. The reading appears somewhat confusing – if not flat-out bizarre. First, Paul says that he is filled with confidence: he would rather live with Jesus, even if it means leaving his present body behind. Then Paul insists that we must all be judged in the end before Christ. Does “walking by faith” simply mean passing safely through Final Judgment and enjoying heaven in the company of Jesus?

If we put Paul’s “walking by faith” in its broader context, it becomes easier to understand – and harder to avoid Paul’s challenge to our status-quo. This passage is part of a longer argument in which Paul defends his version of the Gospel against the so-called “super-apostles” who are preaching in Corinth (2 Cor 11:6). The super-apostles dazzle believers with theological arguments. They also emphasize the importance of religious distinctiveness. For them, following Jesus means grounding believers in Jewish traditions. Paul insists on a different message: “Christ crucified” – a stumbling block for power-politicians, and naiveté for the over-sophisticated, but for those who are being reshaped by God’s message, “the power and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18-31).

Paul does not long to die and go to heaven; he longs for his body, and ours, to be reshaped at long last into living embodiments of God’s just and egalitarian Reign here on earth. Nor does Paul limit this radical reshaping to only those who would practice the Jewish traditions. Instead, Paul opens the door of salvation wide to any who would trust in a crucified and risen Jesus.

In light of this longer argument, and of Paul’s training in the Pharisaic tradition (see Phil 3:5), Paul’s line about “walking by faith” starts to make more sense. In Hebrew, halak, “to walk,” plays a role in two key theological contexts. First, halakah is “the way to walk”: the rules for business, work, rest, diet, and so on that all good Jews must follow. Halakah is the life-way of the commandments, so that we can do justice, love mercy, and walk with God. Second, the commands “Lek-leka!” are God’s first words to Abraham: “Walk now, go forth! From your country and your kindred and your parents’  house to the land that I will show you… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). As a well-trained Pharisee, Paul knew both the Jewish legal traditions and these sacred Hebrew texts. (The Pharisees believed that holiness and Biblical learning belonged to all of the faithful, not just to the priests.) For Paul, “walking by faith” is a whole way of living, a worldview that shapes every part of our economic, personal, and political lives. “Walking by faith” is also an act of great courage, a decision to set out with a clear purpose but without a clear destination. Paul invites us to be confident in the promise of a blessing; but all we can bank on is God’s Spirit to show us the way.

The Scriptures do offer an idea of what life will look like in the land where God finally leads us. In this week’s first reading and Gospel, we hear that God’s Reign will look like a shady grove, filled with fruit and broad branches, where every bird will have a safe space to nest (Ezekiel 17:23; Mark 4:32). The Reign of God is a place of hospitality, a safe place to build families, to grow, thrive, and rest. All kinds of people and creatures will live there; more queer and less queer; people of all genders, races, and cultures; owners, workers, and “non-productive” people alike – all sharing our resources together. The Scriptures depict God’s Reign as very different from our present practices of exploitation and resource extraction. In God’s Reign, everyone gets to live and to thrive – not only because that’s what God calls us to, but also because things will have to be different. In this time of Covid and Black Lives Matter, in this time of economic turmoil and ecological crisis, we have come to understand that we truly are interconnected. What hurts some of us ends up hurting all of us. Without justice, without sustainability, there can be no lasting peace.

We don’t have a map that tells us how to get there. All we know is that we will be deeply surprised as the journey unfolds. “God does a new thing! Do you not perceive it?” (Is 43:19). Like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus keeps trying to let us in on the “Messianic secret;” it’s just that we would rather not hear or understand. The secret is simple, but hard to accept: there can be no resurrection without suffering and dying. The transition will be very difficult. There can be no sustainable future without radical change in the present – radical changes in our world and in us.

In Jesus’ parables, the decisions are always up to us. The crop is ripening; the sickle is out (Mark 4:29). Will we allow God to lead us towards a new way of life? Or to phrase the question as Paul does: Are we prepared to walk by faith and not by sight?

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John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End. Get Breath of the Spirit scripture reflections in your inbox every week.