Lectionary Thoughts: First Sunday of Lent

Noah and the dove, early Christian catacomb near Rome, 3rd-4th centuries.

There is a hesitation among Christians to suggest that God might ever get creative in God's saving work. We tend to resist the notion that God might have tried different things over time, or that (gasp, clutch pearls) God might have offered more than one way of salvation. For Christians, the way is Jesus, and John's definite articles in John 14--the way, the truth, and the life--have probably fed a lot of the Christian resistance to notions of multiple ways of salvation. We want to claim that Jesus is the way, although we disagree on how or in what sense that is true. We want Jesus to be God's one and only pathway.

But it has always seemed self-evident to me that God has offered God's self in relationship to humans in several different ways. The people who wrote the New Testament, who all wrote in a time before Nicene orthodoxy had taken hold and given a somewhat-durable answer to the question of salvation, took a few different cracks at the question. There is variation within the gospels; some leave it open ended, while others are more specific. Mark can be vague about soteriological language, while John is more confident. The author of Hebrews, meanwhile, is kind of freelancing with a theory about Jesus as part of an archaic priesthood of Melchizedek. Paul's soteriology is the subject of fierce debate these days, but I'm among those that think that he has been wildly misunderstood by the Christian tradition (and especially Protestants); I think Paul was much less "orthodox" than we usually presume, and possibly some kind of universalist. There is incredible diversity of opinion, even in the New Testament, about how God saves. 

But the Hebrew Bible is pretty clear on this: God has made a number of covenants over time, each in a particular circumstance for a particular people. The Genesis text for the first Sunday of Lent (Genesis 9:8-17) narrates one of these covenants. Here, God makes a covenant with Noah and "every living creature" not to destroy all the earth with the flood ever again. This is a remarkable moment for a number of reasons: it shows a God who seems to realize that a line has been crossed with regard to floods, but who also seems to reserve the right to destroy life in other ways. It is a covenant with the present and the future, since it is a covenant with both Noah and his descendants. And it is marked by the rainbow in the sky, which is a sign and a reminder. 

This isn't quite a covenant about salvation, at least not in the sense that Christians might insist on. It's not about individual status, and it doesn't rely on intellectual or spiritual commitments on the part of humans. But it does relate to the preservation of life, and with human (and natural) thriving. In this sense it mirrors other covenantal moments in the bible: it promises an ongoing relationship into the future. 

So the covenant with Noah sits alongside covenants with Abraham (coming up next week), David, and Moses (at Sinai) as major instances of God promising salvation and partnership with humans. Seen in this tradition, Jesus' life and death looks like another moment of God offering partnership and solidarity with humanity. (I am pretty sure that this is how Paul thought about Jesus, when it comes down to it). So there might only be one way of salvation--divine commensurability with humanity--but God initiates and re-initiates it throughout history. It is reiterated again and again, many new times and places. There might be only one "way" of salvation, but it takes many forms. 

The covenant with Noah is a very powerful one for our times. We live in days when flood--through rising sea levels and increasingly powerful and destructive storms--has become a major concern for many of the world's peoples. Perhaps there is a way to read this covenantal moment between God and humanity in a new light in our own day, and to remember God's promise of solidarity with us in the face of old terrors and new fears. Even when we have brought it upon ourselves (as certainly seems to be the case equally in both Genesis and our own times), God stands with us, and sets reminders for us that God is on our side, ready to deliver us. That seems like good news to me.