Proper Confidence -- A Lectionary Refection for Pentecost 18A (Philippians 3:4b-14)
4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 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 9 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. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
When we read this passage, it is good to remember that Paul is in prison and that he’s already comfortable with the possibility of his death. “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21 KJV). Nevertheless, he believes that it is right for him to go on living for the sake of the beloved community. So, status means nothing to him, or so it seems. To further ground that sentiment, Paul has made it clear that the way of Christ requires humility, for Christ, though in the form of God, thought it not necessary to hold on to that status, but instead took human form and died on the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). Nevertheless, no matter what happens to him, he holds on to the promise of resurrection, which is expressed in the hymn of praise to Christ, whom God exalted (Phil. 2:9-11). Whether alive or dead, what matters most is the gospel. In fact, Paul has made it clear that his current predicament (imprisonment) has helped spread the gospel (Phil. 1:12). Therefore, Paul has asked his readers to live lives worthy of the Gospel (Phil. 1:27).
Having made it clear that living for Jesus in a way that manifests the gospel is his greatest concern, Paul now moves on to the goal of life, and that would be the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). I titled this reflection “Proper Confidence,” because Paul makes it clear where he puts his confidence. Right at the beginning of the letter, Paul declares: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Here Paul follows his exposition of the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 but revealing the status he is willing to let go of to be a follower of Jesus. He puts no confidence in the flesh, or markers on the flesh, including circumcision (and he has been circumcised). He has the right to put his confidence in the flesh. After all, he can claim to have been circumcised on the eighth day, is a member of the nation of Israel, and more specifically the tribe of Benjamin. He’s a Hebrews of Hebrews. When it comes to the law, he’s a Pharisee. When it comes to zeal, he was a persecutor of the church. Not only is he a Pharisee when it comes to the law, but regarding the law he’s blameless. I take that to mean that he follows it closely. But, apparently, none of that matters to him now because he has found rest for his soul (to borrow a bit from Augustine) in Christ his Lord. In fact, that is all that matters to him, for in Christ Paul has found the culmination of the covenant promises that go back through Moses to Abraham.
In chapter 2, Paul broaches the concept of kenosis (emptying). Now, it appears that just as Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives, Paul is doing the same concerning his own status as a Hebrew among Hebrews in the cause of Christ. Though he’s ready to give up these symbols of his status as a Jew, that doesn’t mean he’s rejecting his origins or the covenant promises that are embedded in Judaism. Rather, he no longer puts his confidence in these identity markers. Thus, he lives by faith not by law, for his confidence is placed in Christ and not in his religious affiliations.
When we read a passage like this, it ought to cause us to examine our search for status. Paul has given up all the status markers that he had inherited and earned. What are mine—My education? My ordination? My gender? My race? My American citizenship? Here’s the thing, society accredits to me a certain status because I am a White male. That is true as well of my American citizenship. Then there’s my education and ordination. Letting go of these markers of status is not easy. Some of these markers are the accident of birth—my race and gender. Other markers are earned (education and ordination). However, if I understand Paul’s message here, none of that matters. I needn’t feel bad about my identity. I don’t have to reject or diminish my identity. However, in the end, what matters is Christ. He defines who I am as a human being.
That being said, I must add the caveat, because gender and my Whiteness do accrue to me certain benefits. I can try to let go of them, but because they are so rooted in systems, I will still be accorded benefits that persons are not White or male will not be automatically accorded. In other words, I don’t have to worry about being pulled over by the police simply because of race. So, to put it bluntly, while I can put my hope in the heavenly call of God, here on earth, I must acknowledge that all lives will not matter until Black lives matter.
That leads us back to Paul’s proper confidence, which he places in Christ, who is the hope of his own resurrection. He can let go of his privileges because he knows that he is alive in Christ. So, the hope of the resurrection defines his identity. But wait a minute, notice the way Paul phrases his declaration. He uses athletic imagery. He’s pressing forward, like a runner (I’d suggest a long-distance runner rather than a sprinter) in pursuit of the prize. The fact is, to be a good athlete one must make sacrifices. One has to train, and that means giving up certain things. Paul also understands that one cannot rest until the race is over. Thus, as John Chrysostom suggests:
Thus too we should act, we should forget our successes, and throw them behind us. For the runner reckons not up how many circuits he hath finished, but how many are left. We too should reckon up, not how far we are advanced in virtue, but how much remains for us. For what doth that which is finished profit us, when that which is deficient is not added?” [John Chrysostom, “Homily XII,” NPNF]
Image attribution: Resurrection of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56588 [retrieved September 27, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0000_Mosaics_of_Resurrection_of_Christ.JPG - Eugenio Hansen, OFS.