First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 17

William Loader

Pentecost 17: 5 October  Philippians 3:4b-14

Just two verses earlier Paul had warned about "the dogs" and "the circumcision". The target of his attack is not so much Jews as Jewish Christians, who dispute Paul's legitimacy and object to his attitude to scripture. They demanded that scripture and its commands were infallible and saw Paul as watering down God's word in the interests of winning people to his way. It was cheap evangelism, selling the gospel short. Paul, for his part, saw such fundamentalism as one of the very things which stood in the way of true faith and from which people needed to be liberated. Paul is not always exemplary in his handling of such conflicts. They generated a lot of heat, both in his day and in the ministry of Jesus - just as they often do in the church today. Calling people names does not usually bring progress.

So we are meeting the passionate Paul. What he is passionate and positive about comes to the fore in our passage. First he asserts that, if he must, he can match their claims (3:4-6). He is all that they boast about, a true Jew, a true Israelite. Their admiration for zeal needs to acknowledge that his zeal was exemplary! Then comes the twist: zeal, yes, but that was a zeal which attacked Christ and his church. On their terms he was blameless, because he was a blameless observer of all the commandments. Can one be a blameless devotee of scripture and at the same time an enemy of Christ? Paul would say a very definite: yes! Fanatical devotion which loses perspective and blindly follows beliefs and maxims, even when they are scriptural, is so often dangerous, because it justifies hate and in the name of God perpetuates violence. Such violence is as much present in Christianity as it is in other religions - wherever human worth and dignity is given second place to a notion of God's laws, wherever people think that people were made for the sabbath not the sabbath for people. As soon as people imagine that God has other priorities than love and compassion, such as self aggrandisement and self absorption, then matching behaviour will follow - in religious people and in their leaders.

Paul describes a reversal of values. He is not abandoning scripture, let alone abandoning God, but he is abandoning a theology based on seeking to please God by zealous protection of divine laws. He is abandoning a theology which sees God as obsessed with his own laws and preoccupied with becoming angry and offended when things are not done in exactly the prescribed way. Such theology is a projection of human egotism. In Christ he has found an understanding and embodiment of God which says that God's being is characterised by love and generosity which is pained and angered by human sin and harm and seeks to reconcile people from their estrangement and their captivity - including their captivity to religion.

Without throwing away his own religion Paul, nevertheless, throws away a theology which had made him important and given him great status. In its place he embraces Christ and Christ's way. But this is more than just a change of values. It is also a deeply spiritual and personal change which affects Paul at the heart of his being and changes his future forever. One could read this as the exchange of one fanaticism for another. We could see Paul as now blindly following Christ. The passage could then read as little more than the self indulgence of a new kind of fanaticism in which Paul is totally focused on the rewards and prizes of his resurrection. Such fanaticism does occur from time to time, in every age, and is not better than his fanatical espousal of the Law.

Fortunately we know enough about Paul to recognise that this is far from a religious ego-trip. Paul's desire to live in conformity to Christ expresses his conviction that God was in Christ doing the work of reconciling, as we saw last week in 2 Cor 5:19. The sharing of that life includes the vision of resurrection and hope. It also consists of engagement in mission and ministry, compassion and reaching out, as God in Christ reaches out. That can include suffering, if that is what this solidarity demands, but it is not the blind suffering of the fanatic, but, as he expresses it elsewhere, the travail so that something new may be born, the pain entailed in enabling more and more people to experience God's generosity. This means going all the way with Christ, through pain and suffering if need be and beyond that ultimately into hope.

Paul refuses to claim he has graduated or has arrived (3:12-14). He taunts some of the Corinthians who seem to think they have arrived (1 Cor 4:8) and doubtless here, too, he has in mind the same kind of arrogance. Paul sees no need to claim the power which might come with such a status. His ministry does not depend for its effectiveness on a kind of spiritual invincibility or perfection. Such constructions which preachers can make for themselves or others can make for them are powerful tools and for many very persuasive. But they are an abuse of power and a return to the very stance on which Paul has turned his back. Not the power of demand and law, but the invitation of love and relationship sets people free. No one said the latter would achieve a greater numerical following. Often the reverse is the case.

Paul is not seduced by such opportunities to become a god. He does not lose focus. Employing the common metaphor of the race, he asserts that he keeps his eye on the goal. The high calling may be a calling to join Christ on high. Or it may be a calling that comes from on high. Either way the prize is not a thing but a relationship with God and Christ. Slippage is possible here; we could easily become captive to the image and convert Paul's words into self indulgence again. Of course, Paul really is acting in his own self interest and doing what he wants to do and wants us to do the same. He really wants us to find our ministries and our lives by finding ourselves engaged in the life of God. He wants the Philippians to be imitators of him in this (3:17). But for Paul what one needs and what fulfils come together as one with what God needs and what fulfils God. That is nothing other than communion and engagement with one who loves. In this we reach our goal, God's goal, and through our oneness engage in God's goal that love and peace and goodness may fill the whole creation

Gospel  Pentecost 17: 5 October Matthew 21:33-46

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