Pressing on to the Heavenly Goal - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5C (Philippians 3)

Philippians 3:4b-14 New Revised Standard Version

3:4b 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. 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.


                The word we heard the previous week is that to be in Christ means that the old has passed away and the new has come. Yes, we are a new creation in Christ because God has reconciled us through Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-21). This week we jump from 2 Corinthians 5 to Philippians 3. Once again, we are encouraged to let the past be in the past and to take hold of what God is doing out ahead of us. For Paul, everything revolves around the cross and resurrection. In these two events, which in many ways are one continuous event, the new age of God’s reign has begun. While we often think in individualistic terms, Paul, and early Christians, who drew upon the church’s Jewish roots, thought in more collective terms. We are as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12 members of the one body of Christ, and so our future is wrapped up in that collective reality.

                Paul begins this reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent from Philippians 3 by reflecting on his ancestry and religious roots. You might say that he engages in a bit of genealogical reflection here, which should resonate with many in the church today. After all, genealogical research is quite popular these days, especially since we can now trace our genetic roots through DNA studies. Nevertheless, I doubt that Paul would put much stock in these efforts. When it comes to confidence in the flesh, he knows where he came from. He knows his ancestry. He claims to be a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin (that was the tribe from which King Saul came). So, he can claim Jewish ancestry.  When it comes to circumcision, the mark of being part of Israel, well he was circumcised on the eighth day as prescribed by the Law. He’s a Hebrew of Hebrews. In fact, when it comes to the keeping of the Law, he’s a Pharisee. When it comes to zeal, well he persecuted the early Christians. He was ready to defend the faith from those considered to be heretics. Despite all of this commitment to his belief system and ethnic heritage, he confesses that none of this matters. Yes, he has strong roots within Judaism (I know, this is anachronistic, but it’s useful shorthand), but this is not what is ultimate for him. That makes for an effective Lenten message. What baggage might we let go of as we pursue our relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit? 

                Whatever gain came from his ancestry, none of it compares to what he has experienced in Jesus Christ. He writes: “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”(Phil. 3:8-9). In other words, once Paul encountered Jesus, he was all in. That meant he was ready and willing to suffer and die as Jesus did so that he might share in the resurrection. Whereas he had once shown his zeal by persecuting the followers of Jesus, now he was passionate about conforming his life to that of Christ, even if that led to suffering and death, as it did for Jesus. The past no longer mattered. His face was turned toward the future, and that future was defined by his faith in Jesus.

                When we read a passage like this, which can be read in a way that denigrates Judaism, I always feel the need to pause for a moment and remember that Paul never rejected his ancestry. He might not count his ancestry as ultimate, but he would be horrified by how his words have been used in anti-Jewish ways down through the centuries. This is why it is always important that we keep in mind the message of Romans 9-11, where Paul makes it clear that God’s covenant with Israel is unbreakable. What we read here needs to be read in tandem with that message.

                For Paul everything centered on the resurrection. He wanted to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul declares that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Not only is Jesus’ resurrection of first importance, but it is also the first fruit of the larger resurrection of all those who are in Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-28). The message we find here in Philippians 3 is briefer, but it has the same intent. To be in Christ is to share in his resurrection from the dead. To share in the resurrection is to become one with Christ.

                Once again, we encounter Paul’s apocalyptic message. He has a forward-looking vision in which he lets go of the past and embraces what is to come. As Lee H. Butler Jr. writes: “When we cling to a past as glory achieved, we fail to live into the beauty that God desires for us. Rather than allowing ourselves to be narrowly defined by the events of the past, we must press, struggle, or even strain for the heavenly prize in Christ that calls to us all” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 163].

                Paul reminds us that even though he is in prison with death perhaps imminent, and though he hasn’t yet tasted of the resurrection, he knows where he’s headed. He may not have reached his goal yet, which is the heavenly calling of God given to him by Jesus. However, he’s committed to following this path that involves conforming his life to the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is, according to Paul, the way of holiness. As he continues on this path, a path we can also tread, he moves toward full union with Christ, what some call theosis (deification).

                Vladimir Lossky speaks to this path that finds it culmination in the next life but begins in the present as we cooperate with God’s grace revealed in Christ. He writes: “The deification or θέωσις of the creature will be realized in its fullness only in the age to come, after the resurrection of the dead. This deifying union has, nevertheless, to be fulfilled ever more and more even in this present life, through the transformation of our corruptible and depraved nature and by its adaptation to eternal life.” He goes on to say that we have the means to this end, but it requires our cooperation. Thus, “It is in this synergy, in this co-operation of man with God, that the union is fulfilled.” This is the Christian life.  [Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 196]. As this is Lent, we are invited to reset our lives so we can stay on the path to union with Christ, which is our salvation.  


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