God’s Constancy: Replacing the Theology of Replacement

When I was asked to preach this first Sunday of Lent, I was surprised to see that yet again the lectionary focuses on the baptism of Jesus. I shouldn’t have been. I think I’m too protestant and so I failed to notice the pattern of scriptures we encounter during the season of Lent.

That pattern initially established by the Catholic Church and then entered, with revisions, by major protestant bodies including the ELCA in the 1980s is intentional about what verses from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament go together. That intention is found this Sunday with the story of the flood, Jesus’s baptism, and the link made between the two in 1 Peter

When God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

That linkage is made more explicit in the Catholic catechism

The Church has seen in Noah’s ark a prefiguring of salvation by Baptism, for by it “a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water”: through the waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness. If water springing up from the earth symbolizes life, the water of the sea is a symbol of death and so can represent the mystery of the cross. By this symbolism Baptism signifies communion with Christ’s death.

That linkage goes back to the days of the early church where new Christians would begin the process of initiation into the Christian faith during the season of Lent, which would culminate in their baptism at Easter. Fellow Christians would fast and seek to support the initiates as they underwent this process.

And the wider church itself was called to remember their own baptism, in the process of self-reflection, purification, repentance, and fasting. Some churches will move the baptismal font to the front of the sanctuary so that it is the first thing seen at the altar, thus becoming the focus of our Lenten worship.

The waters represent, like the season of Lent, like the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the way death and life work to save us. Death to the old self so that new life can emerge. That interplay is found in the Catholic Catechism writes about water as the source of life:

Since the beginning of the world, water, so humble and wonderful a creature, has been the source of life and fruitfulness. Sacred Scripture sees it as “overshadowed” by the Spirit of God: At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness.

And the source of death

Water springing up from the earth symbolizes life, the water of the sea is a symbol of death and so can represent the mystery of the cross. By this symbolism Baptism signifies communion with Christ’s death.

As do the waters of the flood. Because in the flood story, the waters don’t save, the boat instead saves Noah, his family, and the animals from the waters.

That linkage continues and is modeled in the Great Thanksgiving offered before communion when God’s acts of salvation are recounted before sacrament as the Catechism writes

In the liturgy the Church solemnly commemorates the great events in salvation history that already prefigured the mystery of Baptism:

Besides the flood story and Jesus baptism we get a tour de force of the various times water ends up saving the people

But above all, the crossing of the Red Sea, literally the liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, announces the liberation wrought by Baptism. You freed the children of Abraham from the slavery of Pharaoh, bringing them dry-shod through the waters of the Red Sea, to be an image of the people set free in Baptism. Finally, Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of the Jordan River by which the People of God received the gift of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, an image of eternal life. The promise of this blessed inheritance is fulfilled in the New Covenant.

So, it’s possible to think of three covenants in this account.

  1. The covenant made with all of humanity and all animal life, sometimes called the Noachide covenant.
  2. The covenant made with Israel in the Sinai with the reception of the law.
  3. And what the Catechism calls the New Covenant, made with the church.

But I want to call into question this language. Or propose a revision in any case.

To talk of the Red Sea crossing and Noah’s flood as prefiguring baptism, to speak of Jesus fulfilling what was merely anticipated in the Hebrew Bible, to speak of the Old versus the New covenant is to tell a story that says God has replaced the old with the new.  

Sometimes this has been called replacement theology. God couldn’t get it through people’s heads the first time around and so God ditches the old covenant and finds a new one to replace it with.

The problem with this language is the role it has historically played in promoting Anti-Semitism.

At best, such a theology sees Judaism as a precursor to a new and improved Christianity. At worst it says God ditches the covenant with Israel all together because of their sin and blindness and has given this covenant to us in the church, who are more favored by God. Either way, Christianity is pitted against Judaism and the sad history of persecution that has marked our relationship to Judaism.

It also makes God terribly unreliable.

According to Paul in Romans 11: 29 the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. IF they could be revoked, there is no constancy in God. After all, how do we know God will maintain God’s call to the church? Maybe it’s time for a new covenant and we can be dispensed with? Maybe a covenant with humanity?

Our trust in God’s character is a trust in God’s goodness and constancy. Our language and how we speak of covenant with God should reflect that.

And after all it’s clear there is a covenant with all of humanity, with all of creation, found in the Noah story. Let’s reclaim that, as a hope for our world.

Keeping to Paul’s claim that the promises of God are irrevocable and are still standing, I propose that God’s covenant with Noah and with all people is still good. That God’s covenant with Judaism at Sinai still holds, that the covenant established in Jesus and the church remains in place. While humans make and break promises all the time, God never does which is why God is good and why God is God.

I’d instead see the readings from the story of Noah to the story of Jesus’ baptism as measures of God’s constancy. When God wants to save us, we see a theme in how it’s done. With water, with deliverance from real and concrete harms that mar our world and relationships with one another.

That the God who uses waters to deliver Israel, that the God who uses waters for our baptism in Christ, is the same God who uses waters to nourish creation, to clean Muslims at prayer. It is the same God who shows up in the calm waters to be found at Buddhist and Shinto shrines and who through UNICEF works to provide clean water in every part of the world.

The reason Peter knew Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, is that Jesus did and said things consistent with the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures. He was recognizably an expression of God’s doings in the world. Because God’s constancy makes that apparent.

When the Great Thanksgiving is offered today, I hope God’s saving work in the sacraments, in the story of our faith and the story of our world makes God apparent to us today. And that we can take that God who shows up in consistent and apparent ways and draw strength from that same God in our Lenten journey.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings and vice minister at Bethlehem Lutheran in Billings MT

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