Sunday, October 05, 2014

Pentecost 17A

One of the things they tell us in preaching class is to NOT use ourselves as positive examples of gospel living. The preacher should never be the spiritual superstar in the sermon.

It’s arrogant. It assumes that the preacher is on a higher spiritual plane than the listener. It suggests that it’s the preacher’s behaviour that the listener is supposed to model rather than Christ’s.

It puts the preacher in the centre of the sermon, rather than God. And the pulpit is not the place to show off the preacher’s spiritual prowess.

St. Paul would have failed that class. He wouldn’t have listened to instructions. He’s not afraid to plop himself down right in the middle of his proclamation. He inserts himself into a story that he did not create.

Just look at verses 4-6 in today’s second reading. That’s a killer resume Paul has, isn’t it? And he doesn’t hold back. It’s sounds like a humble brag; complaining about the great things in his life as they were bad things, as a way of bragging. If it were anyone else it would seem that Paul wanted the church in Philippi to know with cold clarity, just how awesome he was, and the cost he paid to be a Christian.

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he says, “I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

In other words:

“Yes, I was amazing at everything I tried. I was born into the right family. I went to the right schools. I graduated at the top of my class. I reached the top of my profession. And when I was at the height of my powers, I met Jesus, and gave it all away. And now I count all my former success as losses because I have gained Christ. So, I hope you realize the sacrifices I made to follow Jesus.”

Paul is clearly contrasting a “before” and “after” picture of his life. His “before” picture is his life as a religious leader, a protector of tradition, obedient to Jewish law, and a fully-fledged, card-carrying, enthusiastic member of the religious establishment.

His “after” picture was one of loss, loss of status, prestige, authority, and wealth. He renounces everything about his former life, content to live out his days as a wandering preacher, planting churches where ever he found himself.

He says he’s gained everything since receiving Christ. His old life is past. He just wants to forget about who he once was. 

That’s why, as you may recall from the Book of Acts, he changed his name from “Saul” to “Paul” when he met Jesus, to mark the birth of the new person in Christ. Saul was dead. Paul was alive.

But I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I’m not convinced that Paul’s life is as clearly marked as he would like us to believe. Paul was still deeply invested in his past, no matter what he says.

It’s not that I’m saying that Paul was lying, or was a fraud, or was somehow being disingenuous. I just see fingerprints of his old life all over this letter. And all over his other letters. I see his old life popping up everywhere in his new life. I see his old life underneath everything he writes.

Paul was DEEPLY schooled in greco-roman rhetoric. So, the literary forms he uses in his letters expose his educational past. He knew how to write in ways that educated, upper-class, Roman citizens could understand. His letters are masterpieces of an ancient literary tradition that he knew intimately.

For example, by using himself as an example of exemplary living he was employing an important device used in Roman persuasive arguments. 

That’s how people wrote, according to Roman literary tradition. He wasn’t being arrogant. He wasn’t inserting himself where he didn’t belong. He wasn’t putting himself at the centre of the sermon. He was outlining his credentials like he was supposed to do.

Paul was writing according to the tradition in which he was formed. So, without Saul, the zealous Pharisee, blameless under the law, there could be no Paul, the letter-writing, church-planting, rabble-rousing, evangelist, whose suffering for Christ counted as gain.

No matter how hard he tried to run from his past, it was always there. In his mind there may have been a clear mark between his past life and his present vocation, but in his work, his past is always present, even if he didn’t see it.

As Christians, we often have a difficult relationship with our pasts. We like the language of growth. We like to feel that we’re moving away from one thing (sin) toward another thing (a strong relationship with God).

We like to feel that we’re moving toward a spiritual goal, a deeper connection with God. A bolder proclamation of what God is doing in our lives. We want to know that our faith is growing, that we are somehow, getting better at following Jesus.

And those are worthy aspirations. Aristotle rightly noted that human beings are “teleological creatures” which is a fancy way of saying that we humans are goal-oriented, that we need a purpose for living, that we want to grab hold of something that is always in front of us.

And of course, Paul knew his Aristotle. That’s why Paul said that he “presses on toward the goal...” 

Paul needs something in front of him to keep himself going. He keeps looking for new challenges, new quests, new experiences. 

His feet never stay in one place for long, and his hands are always occupied. His eyes are persistently looking for the next opportunity, and his lips are forever singing a new song. 

Paul is in constant motion, running another lap in the race that has been set before him.

But if Paul is running this race to escape his past, then that is race that he’ll never win. Nor should he. God used his past to make him the great Christian thinker and preacher that he was. 

Without all those years in school, Paul wouldn’t have been able to share the gospel so effectively. 

Without persecuting Christians, Paul wouldn’t have learned the humility he needed to connect with other believers. 

Without his Jewish background, he couldn’t have understood what God was doing through Jesus.

The past is not something we can run away from. Nor should we. It was Paul’s past that made him into who he finally was.

And God uses YOUR past to create YOUR future in Christ. It doesn’t matter if your past is something to brag about or something to be ashamed of, God uses both the dirt and the splendor to build the kingdom of God.

That’s why YOU can run the race that has been set before you. YOU can press on because Christ Jesus has made you his own.

But that race is fraught with fits and starts, successes and failures, gains and losses. Triumphs and trials. 

We make our way up the mountain with skinned knees, calloused heels, and bloodied fingers, and just when we see how far we’ve come, just when the summit is within our line of vision, we find ourselves falling backwards and landing back on the spot where we started from. And then we begin again, tired. But stronger. And wiser.

Paul says to forget the past and push toward the future. And you may forget your past but your past does not forget you. Your past follows you, reminding you of who you were. 

Sometimes, it’s your past that pushes you backward down that mountain, because that’s where your eyes have been fixed.

And other times, it’s circumstances beyond your control that knock the breath right out of your body, the brokenness of human life and the messiness of human relationships, hit you so hard that you tumble backwards, grabbing hold of any branch that you find, but landing on your back, eyes looking at the sky, and seeing just how far you have to go just to get back to where you were.

That’s why God picks you up to begin again. God has as much faith in you as you have in God. God knows that you can stay in the race. God knows that you can keep moving. God knows that you can still put one foot in front of the other.

God redeems your past, and trains your eyes towards God’s future. Your past may have made you who you are, but your past will not make you into who you are becoming.

So you press on to what lies ahead.

You press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

You press on because Christ has put you on the path that leads to God.

You press on because God has given you the strength to meet the days ahead.

You press on because that’s all you can do, now that you have gained everything in Christ.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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