The Manifest Destiny of Christian Faith

2nd Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2021, Genesis 17:1-8, 15-16, Mark 8:31-38

The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

I’m a trivial pursuit freak, so when I encounter a peculiar word, phrase or situation in the Bible or any place else, I will research its origin. For those who wonder about the name change of the person God persuaded to leave Haran for parts unknown in the Middle East, “Abram” means “father of many,” because those who followed him were many. But his name was eventually changed to “Abraham,” meaning “father of many nations,” because his progeny would now include the founders of many tribes and nations, but also religions. We should remember that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are all referred to as Abrahamic faith traditions because they trace their origins to Abraham. Likewise, his wife, Sarai, meaning “princess,” would be renamed “Sarah,” meaning “mother of many nations.”

The giving and changing of names are very prominent among African Americans. No longer are many of us willing to accept surnames or common European names that originated in cultures that enslaved us, but are choosing names more mindful of our African origins. And those, like myself, who keep European names, do so because of the history and identity such names provide with those who came before us. My wife and I were, therefore, very intentional in chose names our children would, hopefully, appreciate. Devon refers to the Gaelic meaning of “poet,” Ethan is of Hebrew origin meaning “strong and enduring,” and Adria comes from Latin meaning “dark and beautiful.” 

Our names identify us with family and history, so when we choose to change our names, we do so with the desire to embrace a new identity and future. An African American spiritual begins, “I told Jesus it would be alright if you changed my name,” reminding us of the Apostle Paul, who was previously known as Saul until a life-changing encounter with the spiritual revelation of Christ completely transformed him from an oppressor of those who followed Christ to one who professed his newly-found faith in Christ.

It is crucial that our faith identity, like our names, be one that affirms who we are in relation to God and the world in which we live. By so doing, we must acknowledge that every aspect of the biblical and religious tradition to which we adhere does not always speak as one heart and voice, but often offers competing impressions of God and the way to salvation. Even as Peter was repulsed by the notion that the chosen one of God would suffer and die, contrary to the common belief that the Messiah would be the conquering, kick-butt political hero, we also must weigh contradictory notions of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

One can easily interpret the promise God made to Abraham concerning the land his people would inhabit as a Manifest Destiny, a concept coined in 1845 by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan promoting the belief that the United States was divinely destined to bully and bulldoze its way across the entire North American continent to the Pacific Ocean, destroying anyone, if necessary, who resisted.

During this season of Lent, we remember the forty days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, who even employed scripture to lure him away from God. As Christians, we will encounter many passages of scripture in which faith uses military might, or military might uses faith, to expand its borders of dominance. We need to recognize that the Bible conveys an evolution of thought about God, from the God who employs any means necessary, and destroys anyone, if necessary, to achieve dominance to the God that realizes if we have all power and knowledge and faith to move mountains, but have not love, we are nothing (1st Corinthians 13:2).

So, we learn to discern the presence of God in scripture and in the testament of our lives from the solid rock of God’s love and compassion for the world, rather than the sinking sand of God’s brute force over the world.

As Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer confronted the evils of racial superiority promoted in Nazi Germany; as Baptist and Civil Rights minister Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted the powers promoting the evils of racial segregation and economic inequality; and as we confront similar evils which, like Satan, employs scripture, to lure us away from God, we must be keenly attentive in recognizing where the voice of God is and is not. 

Our manifest destiny is not in conquering lands and people, but in transforming hearts through the compassion of the cross; a compassion and love so overwhelming and liberating that we are able to embrace a new heritage, name, and identity as children of God. Amen.