First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 2

William Loader

Lent 2: 17 March  Philippians 3:17-4:1

Few of us would advise our congregations that they should imitate us, as Paul does here! It would break too many of our cultural norms. We would find ourselves entering the confused world of valuing ourselves and the fears of being seen to over value ourselves. We would also be rather hesitant knowing our own limitations and failures. Yet there is something healthy about the way Paul is 'up front' about it all. He seems quite unconfused by the issues. He wants others to share his commitment, to follow the way he is going. We should not see his advice as assuming he is some kind of idol. Rather he is saying: be like us - in what we are doing and trying to do and be. Paul does not contemplate that there would be a discrepancy between what we preach and what we are.

Being an imitator or follower might apply across many aspects of the Christian life. For Paul it has a very concrete reference. He is concerned about a theology and those who propound it. Already at the beginning of the chapter in 3:2-3 he warns against these "dogs" as he calls them. There he calls them "the circumcision". The focus is probably not Judaism, i.e. unbelieving Jews. Rather it is Christians. That is why they are dangerous and pose a danger in Paul's eyes to the Christians at Philippi. These Christians are (without knowing it) enemies of the cross of Christ (3:18). They would not see themselves in this way, but they would certainly see themselves as enemies of Paul. For Paul that amounts to the same thing!

Paul uses strong language and is emotionally involved. A lot is at stake. Paul is passionate. Such Christians had invaded his churches in Galatia. Now there seems to have some prospect that they would spread their influence to Philippi. Paul's words are harsh: their god is their belly and their glory is in their shame (3:19). What is this referring to? "Shame" and modesty belong together. Male penises are not evil; but they were to be hidden and it offended decency for them to be exposed in public, as it does today. These people gloried in their circumcised penises. This sounds outrageous, but it is Paul's taunt against those who go around insisting that all Gentiles must be circumcised. Paul rejects that demand. Those who demand it would counter by saying they are asking nothing more than the Bible itself requires in Genesis 17. So, behind the quite intense conflict here is a clash of approaches to the scriptures. For Paul, God's new gift of unremitting love sets aside any demands which run contrary to its intention (as he reads it). Circumcision is an unnecessary barrier. It belongs to those commandments which Ephesians with extraordinary daring later calls a dividing wall of hostility which God has dismantled, an enemy of reconciliation (2:14).

Even worse is the taunt that they make their belly their god. This is not about overeating. It is about imposing their understanding of biblical food laws on Gentiles. It made Paul furious when Peter succumbed to such pressure in Antioch and, together with other Christian Jewish leaders, withdrew from shared meals with Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14). Paul declares that hankering after fulfilment of such laws (even though they are biblically based) is a form of idolatry: setting up a false god. This would certainly rile those whose zealous devotion centred upon exact obedience to scriptural law. Paul has been able to see that such devotion, which usually reveals itself in a fundamentalist way, is in fact the enemy of the good news of the gospel. Paul sees Christ as the heart of biblical tradition and sets all else in this perspective. Thus he is prepared to set those things aside which discriminate or do not deal with central issues of attitude and well being. We still struggle in the church with these competing approaches.

When Paul declares that as a Christian he belongs to a heavenly city, one can hardly miss the indirect reference to the earthly Jerusalem, which was so important for his opponents. For Paul faith could not be focused on Jerusalem, but has its home, origin and destination in the presence of God. Paul's hope was not a revived Jewish nation of the kind that some apparently espoused, but something much bigger and universal. His ultimate dream is community with Christ in the future, which he envisages as taking place in a transformed state of being. As in 1 Corinthians 15 he envisages a resurrection in the future when people will exist in the kind of state in which Christ exists since the resurrection. Paul is using the familiar language of Christian acclamation when he uses the language of subjugation from Ps 8:6 in 3:21. Paul's vision is that one day God will bring all things into proper control. It is another way of giving expression to Jesus' vision of the kingdom or reign of God. That was Jesus' hope, but also his agenda. It was also something he embodied in his life.

Paul is really an imitator of Christ (see 1 Cor 11:1!). He wants the Philippians to imitate him really only because he is an imitator of Christ. But this is much more than a loyalty strategy. For Paul understands Jesus and his own ministry - and ultimately God - in a very special way. Paul believes in the God of hope who already here and now is overcoming long held (and partly biblically based) prejudices and creating a new order of being . The dramatic images of future transformation function to fire up the present realities and possibilities for change. That passion spills over into affection (see how he addresses the Philippians in 4:1!) and engaged theology as he confronts what he sees as wayward religiosity which in its fundamentalism fails to apprehend the spirit of the scriptures. Paul's issues keep repeating themselves and his answers keep pointing us to what matters most.

Gospel: Lent 2: 17 March  Luke 13:31-35

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