Next week, on Palm Sunday, it will be twenty years since I was baptized in this congregation and gave my baptismal testimony. On that day, I spoke of the inclusionary life offered by Christ in the gospels, the Christ who said, ‘come unto me you who are heavy laden, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ The Christ in whom there is neither male nor female, Jew nor gentile, free person nor slave. The Christ who is no respecter of persons, but invites everyone into the realm of God. This good news thrills me as much today as it did twenty years ago.
The following year, I stood at the pulpit again during Lent, this time speaking about war; about arriving in Jerusalem in my twenties; and about deepening our relationship with God, with one another, and with all of God’s creation. These issues continue to occupy my thoughts and prayers, although the war at that time was in Kuwait rather than Iraq and Afghanistan; I have come to a new understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict; and twenty years of living in Christian community have taught me more than I had ever imagined at the beginning of this journey.
Since then, I have brought the Word as I have heard it many times, and at various times of the year, but I have made it a particular practice to preach at some time during Lent, as a way to remember my new birth as a Christian. This year has been filled with travel and speaking engagements that often take me away from Seekers. So when I looked for an open date in the Lenten preaching calendar, it seemed important that it be when I would be in town all weekend, with time to prepare properly and not feel completely disconnected from the life of the congregation. And, indeed, I have been embedded in Seekers this weekend, coming here on Friday evening for the film and discussion and joining other Seekers last night for the sing-along.
So it was only after putting my name into the calendar for today that I looked at the lections, and when I did, all I could do was laugh, because I knew that this text, from Philippians 3:4b-14, was meant for me. I read:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised 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; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and 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, the righteousness from God based on faith. 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. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
As most of you already know, I, like Paul, can recite my Jewish credentials — brought up in a synagogue-going, intellectual Jewishfamily; well-schooled in Jewish customs and beliefs; observant of Jewish holidays; a Hebrew born of Hebrews who went up to Jerusalem in my twenty-second year and continues to pray regularly for the peace of that holy city.
But, like Paul, I finally discovered that all my Jewish credentials and practices did not bring me closer to the God that I longed to know. Perhaps it was my own failing, my own inability to accept a way that clearly worked for many others; perhaps it was my stubborn unwillingness to do things that I didn’t believe in and trust that in the doing of them I would find faith; perhaps it was simply a bad fit between what Judaism has to offer and what I seemed to need. I may never know why the more I tried to follow the path of my ancestors, the more Jesus called to me; why I felt so unable to find God as a Jew. But finally, one night, as I sat in darkness and silence, simply following my breath in the mind-emptying meditation technique I had learned would calm the anxiety-driven thoughts that ran circles in my head like a hamster on a wheel, Jesus was standing before me, welcoming with open arms, and asking, “well, are you coming or not?”
So I often feel very close to Paul. I wasn’t exactly knocked off my horse by a blinding light. But the light of Christ did come to me, shining out of the darkness and loneliness that filled my mind and soul. And, like Paul, I found that saying “no” to the Risen One was no longer an option. In that moment, I knew that, like Paul, the way for me to know God was to follow Christ.
Now, I know that a lot of folks, maybe even some of you sitting here today, have a hard time with Paul. And I’ll grant, he can be confusing, to say the least. In one breath, he can make the most thrilling, revolutionary statement of egalitarian principles, like the one from Galatians 3:27-28 that I quoted in my baptismal testimony:
for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [NIV]
when just a short while earlier, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, he was exhibiting the worst kind of male chauvinism, admonishing women to
remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. [NIV]
or the equally misogynist passage, Ephesians 5:22-24, in which he writes,
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. [NIV]
How are we to find our way out of this quagmire of mutually contradictory statements? Should we just call what we like ‘inspired’ and write off the objectionable bit as culturally conditioned? Or maybe we should throw Paul out altogether, and just stick to the stories about Jesus found in the gospel narratives. Of course the gospel writers present their own difficulties, but I don’t have time to get into that right now.
One route that is taken by some who have trouble with Paul is the idea that some of the letters attributed to him may have actually been written by someone else. Many scholars who have analyzed the sentence structure and vocabulary of the Pauline material suggest exactly that. But an appeal to the notion that Paul didn’t write all of th letters that bear his name won’t really help us, because there are plenty of contradictions in the letters that are indisputably his.
And it’s not just Paul’s opinions about women that are contradictory. As Mark Braverman pointed out a few weeks ago, Paul seems to contradict himself about all sorts of things: the relationship between grace and works; whether God’s covenant with Israel is still in force or has been superceded by the new covenant in Jesus; even whether celibacy or family life is the best way to live out one’s Christian calling. From letter to letter, and sometimes within a single letter, it is often difficult to know what Paul really thought about just about anything, except that Jesus is the Christ, and we are called to follow him.
In the face of such confusion, Christians have responded in equally contradictory ways. There are those who extol Paul as the inspired founder of Christianity as a world religion rather than a Jewish sect, bringing Christ’s message to the gentile Roman world and establishing churches in remote outposts as well as the imperial center. Others see troubling differences between the authentic message of Jesus that shines through the Gospels and the theoretical, theological, and moral constructs of Paul’s complex, subtle, Pharisaic mind.
It’s hard for me to enter these discussions. I am neither a biblical scholar nor a systematic theologian. Most of the time, I cannot cite chapter and verse. Nor can I say with any certainty which scholar has said what about him. And when I read Paul’s letters, I certainly find much of what he says impenetrable, and other parts that are perfectly plain, but impossible to swallow. But I also find it impossible to simply dismiss him, because he is so very human.
Maybe I’m fond of Paul because he reminds me of my father and his brothers. One uncle, my father’s twin, with whom I was very close, was actually named Paul, but that is a story for another day. What I remember, though, is that my uncles could, and often did, loudly and vociferously argue every side of any question, even switching sides in the middle of the discussion without any visible difficulty.
Even more than my uncles, however, Paul reminds me of myself, able to describe almost any situation in at least three or four mutually contradictory, ways. All too often, I, like Paul, find myself passionately arguing for one point of view, only to be just as passionate from another perspective the next month or day or hour. All too often, I, like Paul, write or say things that make no sense to some later version of me, or to anyone else. All too often, I, like Paul, can be judgmental, angry, and condemning, even when I am completely certain that Jesus calls me to a kinder, more generous way.
So when I am confronted by Paul’s contradictory, sexist, anti-Jewish, judgmental rants, I remember that he, like me, was overwhelmed by an astonishing, impossible-to-describe experience. And, like me, Paul spent the rest of his life trying to put into words what that experience means.
It is exceedingly difficult to put an encounter with the risen Christ into words. When Paul writes, as he does in today’s reading,
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.
I think that he is not putting himself down as a worthless worm, but rather trying to explain why he has given up power, privilege, and prestige in the Jewish community of his day in order to become an intinerant preacher with an uncertain income and a propensity to let himself be put into jail rather than stop telling people about that experience.
When he says
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. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
he is not parroting some ready-made formula about how to go to heaven, but rather trying to puzzle out for himself as much as for his readers how his experience is shaping his life at the moment and how his relationship with Jesus has transformed all of his previous notions.
And when Paul says
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
he is articulating the paradoxical nature of Christian life that salvation is by grace alone, yet we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Although the forgiveness that God offers us in Christ is a gift offered freely to all, we have to accept it, to own it, to live into it iminute by minute in order to experience the healing and wholeness of life in Christ.
When I was baptized, I was reborn as a Christian, dying to my old self in the baptismal waters and rising from them a new creation in Christ. But that was only a first step on a journey that I have now travelled for twenty years.
One of the things that I have learned along the way is that Paul and I are kindred spirits, each of us struggling to make sense of being called by the risen Christ to follow him when everything in our lives up to that moment pointed in another direction. Like Paul, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. And the strange paradox is that I can only know that power when – one day, one hour, one minute at a time – I surrender everything that I think is important. When – moment to moment, over and over again – I accept this invitation, Christ Jesus does, indeed, make me his own.