Confidence in Flesh and Spirit
(Monday in Holy Week)
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians was probably written before his Letter to the Romans, but reading it after Romans is quite striking. In today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary Paul gets into the oppositions of spirit and flesh, Jews and Greeks, and faith and law, but this time he doesn’t talk about how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
We get the tail end of a passage where Jesus exhorts the Philippians to rejoice. This is not because they are not already joyful, but because he wants them to continue in that joy. Then he goes on to offer warnings about Anti-Pauline Jewish Christians.
Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.
To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
Who are these dogs who wish to “mutilate the flesh” of the Gentile Christians, who do not understand that the Gentile Christians are not under the obligations of the law? From Paul’s Letter to the Galatians it sounds as though there is a spectrum of Christianity during Paul’s time.
At the radical end is Paul, who believes that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. He is a radical egalitarian in that respect, and at the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans lists many women who worked for the building up of the church, and at least one of whom he calls an apostle (Junia). He also, as discussed in past days, does not believe that Jewish Christians are bound by the Torah, although he knows quite well that there are many Jewish Christians who differ on that point, and when in Jerusalem (according to Acts and confirmed by what he says in 1Corinthians 9) he does observe the commandments, so as not to give scandal. What Paul objects to is those Torah observing Jewish Christians who want to make Jews out of Gentile Christians, as if observance of the Torah is required by Gentiles for salvation.
At the other end is the Jerusalem Church, led by James the Just, the brother of Jesus. It appears to be conservative, Torah observing, and men from James in Jerusalem are described by Paul as having come to the church in Antioch, Syria, and persuading the Jewish Christians to keep kosher and eating separately from the Gentile Christians. In the middle is Peter, who had led the church in Jerusalem but fled because of persecution, who is described in Galatians as having been happy to eat with Gentiles until the people from James came to Antioch. Even Barnabas, who had worked with Paul, was pulled over to the conservative side. Paul also points out that when he went to Jerusalem with Titus, a Gentile Christian, the leadership in Jerusalem did not require Titus to be circumcised, although there were some “false believers” who did advocate this.
Paul describes those who worship in the Spirit and do not rely on the flesh as being more truly “circumcised” than those who are circumcised in the flesh.
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 towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul believes he was an exemplary Jew and Pharisee, or unimpeachable ancestry and observance of the law. He describes himself as being righteous. However, he now knows that he saw the world the wrong way. He did not know what time it was, as the Jewish scholar of early Christianity Pamela Eisenbaum puts it. He thought that the coming of the Son of man and of the Messiah was still a long ways off. When Jesus appeared to him and called him to take the gospel to the Gentiles Paul realized that it already the end time, and that in Christ’s resurrection the judgement and re-creation of the world had begun. He gladly traded a righteousness that he might have under the law for the absolute certainty of righteousness by faith that he gains by knowing Christ and being known by him. He patterns his life on that of Christ, offering himself and desiring to share in his sufferings and death so that he might be raised from the dead. He wants to be found in Christ – he desires to be part of the body of Christ and integrated in him. This done through baptism, by service, and mystically by faith and grace.
My own faith feels quite certain; as Paul puts it in Romans, nothing will separate us from the love of God. The question for me is not who do I trust in, or where is my faith, but how do I respond to it? In Paul’s case it has been to preach the gospel to Gentiles. In my case it has been to be a baptised member of the church for fifty-four years, a husband for thirty, an ordained minister for twenty-eight, a father for twenty-four (and again for twenty), and a refugee coordinator for the past two. I have done none of these things perfectly, but I have been bold enough to act in the name of Christ, knowing that I would be forgiven for anything where I went astray. While I am not yet resurrected, the same power which raised Jesus from the dead is at work in me. As I get older I am less confident about anything that I might do in the flesh, but my spirit continues to grow, and in that I rest.