The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s157e07 Lent 5 25/3/07
'I may attain the resurrection from the dead' Phil 3.11
I confess this is not the easiest of passages on which to preach. St Paul seems only to be concerned with his own personal salvation, and this has spawned the same sort of theology that Christianity and Jesus is all about my own personal salvation and .. anyone else can go to hell! I am grateful to one of my correspondents (thanks Jim!) who recently wrote: I never 'cease to be amazed at how common it is that folks use their religion primarily to seek advantage. Even the idea of faith being primarily a way to live forever after we die while others are 'left behind" (very popular books by that title abound..) has ingrained that kind of egocentric heart set into most forms of Christianity.'
As an aside, these words seem to negate anything St Paul ever said about 'justification by faith alone'.
I am not a New Testament theologian but today I must resort to using some academic insights, for otherwise we are left with a 'christianity' only concerned with personal salvation and, as I say, everyone else can go to hell. I have said before that this is worse than terrorism, because we are condemning others, not just to death, but to eternal damnation a rather more potent threat.
This particular passage is bracketed as it were, by verse 2: 'Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh' and verse 19 'their god is the belly .. their minds are set on earthly things'. L. E. Keck (The Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible p852) ponders if these are different groups, the first Judaisers and the second libertarians. Keck postulates one synthesis but I would another. 'Those who mutilate the flesh' are those who insist that others are circumcised, but they having been circumcised have their personal salvation assured, whether they are charitable or not - in which case 'their belly' is full. The essence of St Paul's denunciation is that these people insist on others following their own spiritual path rather than giving of themselves.
And hidden in St Paul's rebuttal are significant clues to support this like that he was 'a persecutor of the church', and then speaking of his own personal theology 'not that I have already attained this'.
The background to St Paul's conversion was that he was persecuting others in the name of his god, and the essence was that Jesus told him that he was persecuting the Lord when he persecuted others. This is only the logical extension of those who mutilate the flesh those who insist on circumcision for all and of course this really means all OTHERS because THEY had all been circumcised 'on the eighth day'.
But simultaneously this shows the libertarian side, that all things were now lawful for them, and that is a very comfortable place to be. They didn't actually have to concern themselves with anyone else.
Similarly those Paul opposed were people who, by their circumcision, considered themselves to have attained all that was necessary and what they did or did not do (towards others especially) was no longer relevant. Paul, by contrast, says that he has not attained it, so how he treats others remains important. Of course it defines the faith he actually held.
They assumed that faith and religion is reflected by what they did in church, synagogue, mosque or temple. But God isn't fooled that easily and is much more interested in what actually happens in the world. So if we support terrorism this speaks volumes about how much we value other people they are essentially expendable - and so reflects the faith we actually hold rather than the creed we recite during worship.
If our faith demands that others refrain from using the contraceptive pill and condoms, so that they suffer continuing poverty, illness and premature death this speaks volumes about how much we value other people they are essentially expendable - and so reflects the faith we actually hold rather than the creed we recite during worship.
If our faith marginalizes women and alienates gay people this speaks volumes about how much we value other people they are essentially expendable - and so reflects the faith we actually hold rather than the creed we recite during worship.
These doctrines seek to mutilate the flesh of others'.
I often recall two petitions in the prayers of confession I have used for Ash Wednesday (APBA p200,201): 'We lay open to you: the victims of violence whose only memorial is our anger; those whose suffering was sustained on our behalf; those whose continued oppression provides the ground we stand on. The remembrance of them is grievous to us: The burden of them is intolerable.'
And I ask this of the Church is our continuing marginalisation and alienation of others who don't call themselves Christians or worship and believe like us - 'the ground we stand on'.
and later 'We confess that we have sinned: we have used our power to dominate and our weakness to manipulate; we have evaded responsibility and failed to confront evil; we have denied dignity to ourselves and to each other, and fallen into despair.'
Similarly I ask this of the Church we often pretend to be weak and powerless, yet the power of 'the old school tie' network still is alive and well.
I was recently at a ministry conference and doing an exercise about the welcoming community, and the leader said that this was all linked to hospitality, and of course I immediately thought that this is the distinctive function of the hospital. Healing comes in being part of the community. In the past this truth has been understood to mean that ultimate health - the resurrection from the dead - comes only through being part of the Christian church in opposition to the community in general. But I want to affirm that ultimate health - the resurrection from the dead comes as the church and the community are identical.
So there is no personal resurrection apart from other people, either individualistically or for a corporate body apart from others. There is no personal salvation apart from other people and there is no body we can join that offers salvation to members apart from others.
We, like Paul, have put any and all our qualifications over others aside, considering them all 'rubbish', and want to know 'the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings'. The power of his resurrection is not to inflict sufferings on others and exclude others, but to raise others up and include them. We haven't attained this, because it can never be attained until all others are in fact included, but we 'press on toward the goal' as St Paul strived to do.
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