St Paul, the apostle we love to hate. That’s the new book by Karen Armstrong which Patrick brought into my office a couple of days ago: – and we do love to hate St Paul, don’t we. He always seems able to say not quite the right thing: He gets all passionate about one thing – Christ being the head of the Church – and then he ends up saying that women with long hair should wear hats or else shave their heads because they might offend the angels. And yet sometimes he writes some of the loveliest and most spiritual passages in the New Testament. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love, I am nothing’ – ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think on these things.’
As someone who often puts his foot in it by saying more than I should or by getting excitable and making things more extreme than they are, I have a great deal of sympathy for St Paul. Not least because my mother was devoted to the old saint and was quite clear that I was named after him – In her mind, St Paul was strong, dashing, brave, faithful, – and a preacher with a bit of oomph in him. And although I may not have inherited the strong, dashing, and brave bits, I like to think of myself as faithful and as preaching with a bit of oomph from time to time.
And so I particularly sympathise with this morning’s passage from Philippians.
Because if anyone else in the Anglican Church has reason to be confident in the flesh, then I think I probably have more: baptised just a couple of weeks after I was born, an Anglican from birth, a member of the Church of England, a priest … as to zeal, a high churchman trained at the most anglo-catholic English theological college, and with a Masters degree in Theology from Oxford – as far as credentials are concerned – excellent. You see, if St Paul had all the right things on his CV to be a zealous high-pharisee, then I think I have all the right things on my CV to be a zealous anglo-catholic.
…. and yet it is all rubbish. St Paul uses a much stronger word than that, it’s just that no translator has ever had the guts to put the real word there … St Paul writes: I regard them as bull-shit so that I might gain Christ. – because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. These are strong words and – yes – they are meant to shock us.
Paul goes on to spell out what he is trying to say. ‘not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ’
I think Paul is saying that when we talk to God we have to put our CVs down. You see, everyone adds a bit of BS on their CV, stretching the good points and spinning the truth. Ask Ann Elbourne what I actually had to do to get my Oxford masters and you’ll see what I mean. On our CVs we try to make ourselves look as good, as intelligent, as reliable as we possibly can – we show all that we have achieved – we try to impress ourselves, of course, and we try to impress other people. It’s natural. In fact our CVs are designed to show precisely that we do have a righteousness of our own that comes from the law – or, as we might say today, that we are worth something because we have worked hard and we have the qualifications. Now that’s fine when we are applying for a job, but – and this is what St Paul is saying – it doesn’t work with God. God sees us differently.
However good our earthly CV might actually be – whatever qualifications, or personal skills, or good looks, or style or anything else we might have – God is simply not impressed. And the reverse is also true – whatever our lack of qualifications, our failures, our social mistakes and weaknesses, our sins and habits, and selfishness and all the rest – God is not unimpressed either. In this cathedral, when we stand before God, we are all equal. There is no righteousness of our own that some of us have and others do not have. It just doesn’t work like that in Christianity.
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.
Now for St Paul to say this: a one-time Hebrew of the Hebrews and a zealous pharisee is a turn-around indeed. – a blinding flash of truth which knocked him off his high-horse.
But none of this makes a world religion. Up until this point all that S Paul has said is that we are all the same when we stand before God. That all our attempts to impress are pointless. No gaining or failing university degrees can make us more or less loved by God, no nationality, race, colour, language, sexuality or anything else can make us more or less loved by God, no kosher rules or breaking kosher rules, no circumcision or sabbath laws or uncircumcision and breaking sabbath laws, can make us more or less loved by God. No Sunday morning masses, private confessions, or sacraments of the church can make us either more or less loved by God either – in fact no religion on earth – no righteousness of our own that comes from the law – can ever make any precious human being more or less loved by God – that’s the starting point – Its a dramatic starting point, I agree, because so much of the ancient world religions and modern superstitions are precisely about offering the right sacrifices, or doing the right thing, so that the gods will look more favourably on us – but Paul’s radical new starting point is only the starting point. St Paul then goes on to preach the Gospel – the new and unique way in which Christian disciples grow and live and find life:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Now this is an even more powerful statement than the realisation that God – or the gods – cannot be impressed by our qualifications or our actions. It is many ways more shocking than swearing from the pulpit. When we have favour with God – it is so that we can share Christ’s sufferings and become like him in his death. This might not be what we want to hear. It is certainly not why religions traditionally offered sacrifices or celebrated their rituals.
St Paul is writing this letter to the Christian Church in Philippi somewhere up near the border with modern day Turkey, while he is a prisoner in Rome. He has been imprisoned before and he probably knows that he will be imprisoned again. He has been flogged, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked … and I think he knew in his heart that he would eventually be executed for the sake of Christ. And so this is a very powerful statement indeed from the pen of St Paul – these are not just pious or idealised musings – St Paul understands what he means when he claims to want to share in the sufferings of Christ, and become like him in his death.
So how is this Good News? Why should Christians in Philippi two thousand years ago, or in Montreal in 2016 or anywhere else in the whole world be impressed and choose this religion which only promises resurrection from the dead, through sharing in Christ’s sufferings and becoming like him in his death? Even St Paul can see that that’s not an easy message: Not that I have already obtained this – he writes – or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own,… I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call
His answer, though, is, I believe, because he has fully understood who Jesus is, and what Jesus was about, and the way in which we, as disciples, must follow Jesus if we want the world to change.
Paul writes: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
At first when I studied this passage – I was surprised at the order of things.
The natural order in the life of Jesus would be: to know Christ, then to share his sufferings and death, then to know the power of his resurrection, and then we would attain it .. life – suffering – death – resurrection.
But St Paul is not writing about what Jesus went through, he is writing about his own faith, about what he has gone through – and he is writing about what we will go through if we want to be followers of Jesus.
Disciples of Jesus – I think St Paul is trying to tell us in this letter, begin their long journey of Christian discipleship first by finding out all they can about the life and teachings of Jesus – just as he did when he went off into the desert to learn. Jesus is a good teacher, and a wise prophet – we like what we read and hear and so we choose to follow him. We become disciples. Perhaps many good Christian disciples stay in this theological place – it’s not a bad place to be after all, – but many people go on to grapple with the next part of St Paul’s sentence – the extraordinary power of the Easter Day story – the resurrection of Jesus which we will celebrate with Christians around the world with bells and candles and noise and cloth of gold in just a couple of weeks time. Can this extraordinary tale be really true? – did Jesus actually come back to life, and was it really in flesh and bone? These are hard things to believe. For many people knowing ‘the power of the resurrection’ is a hard doctrine to swallow.
And yet St Paul did believe it. He wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but he certainly believed in its power:
how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? he writes – if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But St Paul did believe –he was convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And that made him strong.
Strong enough to share Christ’s sufferings – or what the Greek actually says to be in communion with Christ’s passions – to feel passionately about challenging the wickedness of power and abuse and oppression and greed, – whatever the personal cost – just as Christ himself had – and this would lead him to become like Christ in his death .. symmorphidzo – what a wonderful word – to be morphed into the same death with Christ.
Beginning next week we will act this faith out. We will share Christ’s sufferings in the entry into Jerusalem and the Passion Story of Palm Sunday. We will sit around in the darkness of Compline on Monday, Tuesday and the dereliction of Tenebrae on Wednesday. We will wash feet, break bread, and share in the betrayal and the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. We will gather on Friday for three long hours to be with Jesus as he cries out – and we will kneel at the foot of the cross. And then on Saturday evening the bells will ring, the darkened cathedral will burst into light and we will shout the A-word as an Easter people – we will proclaim that Christ is risen.
None of this is play acting. We do not do this because we have to, we do this because all of this is the very heart of our faith – this is the story which gives us the strength to confront the world, to feed the hungry, and care for those in need. We live it for one week of the year – in this intense and stylised way, so that we can live it every day of our lives; so that we may know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, so somehow we may attain the resurrection from the dead.
And so, as I always do, I commend you to join us on this extraordinary journey of faith. I ask you, if you can, to keep each day of Holy Week by prayer and by meditating on Christ – wherever and however you may be. This is our passover feast which makes us who we are, by remembering where we came from. This is our Ramadan fast which draws us closer to God. This is our great pilgrimage to the River Ganges where heaven touches earth and where we are reborn.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
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