by James Nieman
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.
Even those who don’t like reading Paul usually like Philippians. Perhaps the most upbeat of his letters, it starts strong: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” Who doesn’t like being appreciated? And it ends strong, too: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul’s affection for these fellow Christians is palpable. Much of the letter is just the same, too—confident, encouraging, thoroughly upbeat—except for the third chapter, most of which we heard today. At the very heart of the letter, this reading is like a bump in the road, a wrinkle in an otherwise flawless garment. Naturally, I guess, we only have it inflicted on us during Lent.
This third chapter is regarded by many as an “interpolation,” a fancy term that means it was inserted from another source at another time. There are several good reasons to think this. At the start of the chapter are a few raggedy remarks that don’t really fit and look like sloppy editing. What’s more, the verses just before this reading include a string of stinging insults—Beware the dogs! Beware the evildoers! Beware the mutilators!—echoed by a similar series of harsh warnings at the end of the chapter. Such hostility seems quite at odds with the tender sentiments that saturate the rest of the letter. In other words, the style and focus of chapter three sound so inconsistent. Someone else must have inserted it later.
Well, maybe. It’s a bit of guesswork to impose todays’ standards for consistency on an ancient text. And would we even adopt this standard for ourselves? Think through a recent day, especially a difficult one. Did you act the same, speak the same, feel the same at every moment as that day unfolded? And if you blurted something unusual, did those closest to you wonder, “Now, where did that come from?” Stress has a way of doing that. And there’s little doubt that with this letter, Paul was under stress. Remember, he was imprisoned at the time, teetering between life and death. Reread that first chapter and you’ll hear the anguished tone of one drawing near his final gasp. Paul supposes this may be his last will and testament.
Under such conditions, what would you say? You’d probably start with thanksgiving for those you love, recalling with joy all that you’ve shared—and so did Paul. But sooner or later, you’d likely turn to yourself, what you’ve amounted to or stood for, and I think that’s what Paul is saying here in chapter three. It’s not brooding, introspective navel-gazing. Instead, with dear friends whose love is a gift and whose faith is a delight, he wants to be completely, ruthlessly honest about himself. He wants to offer an honest account of what he’s done, who he’s been, and what’s made the difference because, when it comes down to it, the only one about whom you can render such a testimony is yourself. It’s like the moving verses of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem, “Who Am I,” a candid cry uttered in the waning weeks of his life.
So if this is Paul’s own plaintive poem, it’s a composition set in two starkly different styles. He begins by contrasting himself from other religious leaders, reciting the credentials in which he had utmost confidence. Circumcised and covenantal; the right family, the right nation, the right piety; zealous in the extreme and pure to the core. One after another, he boasts of these seven traits. But listen closely and you sense Paul’s irony about this self-asserted confidence. For all the brio, his list is clipped and paratactic in style, just one thing piled atop the next like a lifeless, tasteless stack of pancakes. Immobilized now by chains in prison, Paul must look back at this sorry list like a string of moist footprints on hot pavement where you see how small and fleeting is your tread, and how vast the world still left untouched.
But once this dreary plodding stumbles to an end, the poem resumes with quickened pace and potent force. It shifts from paratactic list—this and this and this and this—to hypotactic gusher—for now this, because of that, in order that you may this, if somehow I may that. The phrases and sentences are much longer now, a torrent of words spilling one over another in an unstoppable stream of what surely matters much, much more to Paul than anything else that’s happened in his life so far. And that proud pile of credentials he recited with mock confidence? Now that’s all loss, he says, repeating it twice for emphasis—loss, loss. And in case you missed the point, Paul concludes that his past is now skubalon, which the NRSV politely calls “rubbish” but is better rendered with a word about three letters shorter.
How did he reach that kind of conclusion, that depth of self-judgment? Something must have happened, something big. And again, amidst this fresh torrent of words the answer is plainly repeated again and again. Whatever Paul once had is nothing because of Christ, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ, in order to gain Christ, so to be found in Christ. And it’s not like Paul was just switching brand loyalties, either. It’s not like yesterday it was Judaism but today it’s Jesus—new season, new team. No, instead the fully Jewish Paul was convicted at a far deeper level about the source of true righteousness. In meeting Christ, he found his life secured in God’s mercy even while his body was secured in chains and near the brink of death. His righteousness, his confidence, his hope for lasting life now and for whatever days might be ahead would come through trusting a promise tendered by Christ. Anything else, any other claim of security, was just—how do I say it delicately?—a pile of skubalon.
The net result was a complete shift in the account Paul gave of his life. While before, with that staccato list of attributes, it was all about Paul—now his new life was centered elsewhere: “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.” Now it’s not the lonely, dreary work of stacking one credential atop the next, praying that somehow it will ignite into a great critical mass of righteousness. Now it’s the joyful gift of getting yourself out of the way, being completely for another, sharing their plight as far as it may take you. And this you do not because of your own strength or will, but because Christ has made you his own, and in him you have a promise of lasting life through suffering, in community, for the sake of others, toward the resurrection.
This odd third chapter dangles between the thanksgiving at the start of Philippians and the rejoicing at its end. It is therefore just like this odd season of Lent, suspended between last year’s Christmas ornaments and the Easter lilies soon to come. Let Paul’s honest little account of who he was when left to himself, and who he has become in Christ, be a Lenten meditation on what really matters in these in lengthening days. On the cusp of papers and tests, internship and first call, assessment and accreditation and all the rest, it is perilously easy to imagine that it’s all up to us, our credentials, our self-generated worth. It’s so easy to become secured in a prison of your own design and decoration, with yourself as its sole occupant. Christ offers us instead a promise of life with him, for others, unto death, toward lasting life. This is the power of the resurrection that interrupts even during Lent, calling us to a new hope in Christ and with his companions, the humiliated of the world. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us therefore press on toward that goal, that prize, that call.