The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r157.htm
s157e04 Lockleys 28/3/04 Lent 5
"I have more - reason to be confident" Philippians 3.4
There is, in each of these lessons, an underlying theme of competitiveness.
St Paul, contending with opposition to his ministry, states his qualifications in no uncertain terms.
Martha and Mary again take different forms of ministry to Jesus, though this time it is not Martha who gets upset, but Judas Iscariot. It was the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" which first alerted me to the possibility that jealousy over the affections of Mary might have led Judas to betray Jesus. There is a good deal of biblical evidence for this. It would have been unusual in the extreme if persons of the female gender were not attracted physically to Jesus.
The jealousy is "dressed up" or hidden away by Judas' in a supposed concern for the poor - but we needn't take too much notice of this, even though it is reported in scripture. Self delusion is the most deadly sort.
And the first reading talks about God dealing with the "chariot and horse, army and warrior" which are humanity's implements of competition.
The difficulty with St Paul's words is that they can be taken as being still competitive. We might take his words to mean that it's a competition to see who can give up the most. As a good Jew perhaps he ought to have been content, just doing without his foreskin :-)
I remember vividly visiting a noted Anglican Secondary School many years ago where the competitive spirit of the establishment was promoted to strengthen the students in the Holy Spirit. This was particularly in the field of sport - and as one who is not naturally sporting, I cringed. I would have failed miserably there.
Again I remember witnessing one of the old stewardship campaigns, where people of means made what they were going to pledge to the Church public. Fortunately, today we recoil at such stirring up of competitive giving.
But while St Paul is indeed contending with opposition to his ministry, he continually focuses on what he himself does. He doesn't point the finger at others and tell them what they are not doing. It is his pilgrimage that he describes "in order that I may gain Christ ... I want to know Christ ... I press on towards the goal ..."
There are many ways toward this goal. For some the path may be through word or sacrament, through music or fellowship, through meditation or scientific study, through art, prayer or acts of charity. Whichever way we choose, Christ is faithful, and Christ will be found in each and every way individuals choose to take.
Christ could not be contained in a physical tomb or in a particular tradition. It was the blasphemy that Jesus committed, that God blessed the lives of people other than the religious, that had him killed - though, like Judas, they too would rationalised their opposition with more lofty motives.
Competition implicitly demands that some win and others lose - but with God everyone is meant to win. The only ones who are disqualified are those who disqualify themselves, because they want others to loose rather than sharing the winnings with others.
So for me competition is deadening rather than life giving - and for me when we are competitive we crucify the Lord Jesus anew.
St Paul describes the loss of all his religious credentials - for what is important is ourselves, not the number of religious qualifications we hold in our hands.
We are more important in God's eyes than ever what we have been able to do or give up for the kingdom - and everyone else is more important in God's eyes that ever what they have been able to do or to give up for the kingdom. There is no competition in God's eyes.
We also do not have to have the religious credentials of a large following of people. While St Paul contends with opposition to the message of non-competitiveness, St Paul does what he can to be faithful to that message, and lets others decide for themselves. Success or failure is immaterial. We are accepted, and this is the basis of our eucharist, our holy communion with God - for this is what God is like.
Each year in our confirmation classes I firstly talk about baptism, as our catechism commends, when as a little baby often, each of us were made members of Christ, children of God and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. I point out that we can't be anything more than this. The Pope in Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mother Theresa, even the Blessed Virgin Mary all are simply members of Christ, children of God and heirs of the kingdom of heaven, like each and every one of us.
Indeed of course it is important to say that God gives us baptism to assure us of these things, not to consign those who aren't baptised - labelling them children of Satan - to everlasting damnation. For again - baptism is not a religious credential we take in our hand, but an assurance that it is us and all people who are important. It is not a competition over which sort of baptism is more kosher, for God is into acceptance not competitiveness.
And so faith is not based on competitiveness. We are not accepted because of the faith we hold in our hand - whether we have the right faith or enough of the right faith - we are accepted when we accept ourselves and accept others too.
So with St Paul, we have reason to be confident, because we know that God is accepting, and we can only pray that we will be as accepting of others as is God. Our confidence is based on our desire to rejoice with others rather than weep and gnash the teeth because others are welcomed too.
St Paul regards all his former qualifications as rubbish - his circumcision, his nationality and tribal affiliation, his church-person-ship, his zealousness and his moral rectitude. All those things which 'separated' himself off from other people are contrary to what Christ is on about. So the baptism with which we are baptised is not to separate ourselves off from those who aren't similarly baptised. We cannot consider ourselves superior because of the colour of our skin, the gender with which we happen to born, or the football team for which we barrack. We cannot consider ourselves superior because we are "Anglicans" or Anglicans of a particular variety. We are not superior to others by virtue of our zeal or moral rectitude.
On the contrary we are invited to become like Paul, who says: "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (1 Co 9.22) and whose estimation of the ministry of Christ was that: "for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21)
St Paul, you and I have more reason to be confident, not because St Paul, you or I have any more reason for God to accept us personally than anyone else, but because we know that God accepts all people unconditionally - that there are no qualifications for anyone.
One of the classic texts of the last century (- what an odd concept - that part of my life belongs to the last century -) was the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M. Pirsig. One of the things that really intrigued me was the perception that each and every one of us knows what "quality" is - yet the author defies anyone to define what "quality" is. The word "qualification" is from the same root as "quality". Perhaps quality cannot be defined, only seen - and what is seen is inevitably a reflection of the viewer. If we look for quality we will see it. If we look for faults we will find them too - and they will be inevitably glaringly obvious. God looks and sees the quality in all of us, unable to be measured, but real nevertheless.
The choice is before us all - to choose to be in competition with others or to see the good in others. Neither of these will find their preconceptions challenged, but I know which viewpoint I personally want to take.
If perchance, and may heaven forbid, someone was to come to the Holy Communion in a spirit of competitiveness, their expectations will not be disappointed. They will commune with a competitive godlet (and here I must express my gratitude to Molly Wolf of "Sabbath Blessing" fame, for introducing me to this term) quite different from the God who sees the quality in all people. The competitive godlet will quietly lead people, if they let it, away from other people and away from the kingdom.
If the most important thing for us is how we are better than others, perhaps the God who tries to see the good in us can only see how we perceive ourselves to be better than others, rather than the real good which we devalue and hide away. Sad, but perhaps startlingly frequently, true.
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