Lent 5—C, April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
So I finally made the decision to attend my 50th high school reunion in Atlanta the weekend after Easter. I attended Westminster School for Boys, the Girls school was up the hill at that time, and we had about 75 guys in the graduating class. My older brother Bob didn’t go to his 50th reunion there, because one of his friends who went to the 40th reunion said everyone just talked about all the money they had made. Bob taught Latin for 30 years in an Episcopal school in Fort Worth so he wasn’t going to be part of that conversation. I certainly wouldn’t last long in such a conversation either, so if that starts to happen I’ll go back to my sister’s.
But there are other conversations I could shine in: I could play the “Look how successful my children have become, and how cute my grandkids” are card”—with lots of pictures to back it up. I could also play the religion card and talk about my 40 years of ordained ministry.
Saint Paul reminds us today that he could also play this religion game. He writes, “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.”
Notice he calls this list of accomplishments as being “in the flesh”. In our culture we read the word “flesh” as a polite way to talk about lust and misbehaving. But for Paul “flesh” includes that, but it is so much bigger, encompassing all the human ways we seek to create self-worth and value apart from our oneness with God.
No one could surpass Paul’s accounting of a successful life according to the flesh, but Paul then says something remarkable: “I regard all this as rubbish”. The King James Version translates it this way: “I count them all as dung.”
Why is that? Except for that part about persecuting the church what in the world is wrong with being a faithful Jew who follows the Law and is a blessing to his family and friends. I mean is it garbage for us to talk about our years of faithfulness as a member of All Saints’ Church? Really?Or is it garbage to talk about one’s tribe and ethnicity with pride?
Growing up in the south it mattered a lot to some people who your people were, stretching back generations. If you could show you were connected to Robert E. Lee you were really somebody.
When I was getting ready to move to Massachusetts in 2005 one of my Yankee parishioners who had attended Williams College would often tell me I was going to “The Home Of The Bean And The Cod, Where Lowells Talk Only To Cabots, And Cabots Talk Only To God.”
Paul used to think his superlative Jewish pedigree made him different and better than others, but now he realizes bragging about his pedigree makes him exactly like others, who also uses ancestry, religion, tribe, and skin color to prove their superiority.
Paul calls all this kind of one-upmanship and pride in one’s ancestry rubbish. It is a lower level of consciousness that divides up humanity instead uniting it, and seeing our universal oneness in God.
But after his mind and heart are blown open by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, all this changes. Now Paul’s pedigree is found not in the flesh but in his new birth in God.
It’s not evil to be proud of being Jewish, Greek, or American, not at all, but compared to being born of God it isn’t very much.
It’s like the image C. S. Lewis uses when he says, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Paul’s consciousness has been blown open as Christ gives him a vision of how God sees the world, that is how the world really is. It is the vision Jesus provides us in Luke 6: “Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.”
After this encounter with the Risen Christ Paul has to go into Arabia to begin to sort out who he now is. He thought he knew perfectly well who he was, but no more. And please note no one, not even Paul, gets the whole ”mind of Christ download” at once, but it grows across the years in those who daily open themselves to Christ.
But we hear Paul years later say in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
But this is often a bridge too far! I’ve worked too hard to get where I am to call it rubbish and find my life reduced to that of everyone else. My ego needs to believe that my family, education, tribe, ethnicity, wealth, and country are much better than everyone else’s. So we see the spectacle, in others and even in ourselves, of even adding religion to this list of superlative achievements, making me not only better than others but holier too.
The apostles are not interested at first in this kind of oneness in Christ. James and John want the seats of power next to Jesus when he is enthroned as King and Messiah. And today, Judas can’t stand it to watch a woman get this close to Jesus, like she were a man or something. She’s also wasting money, just like a woman, he probably thinks.
But Jesus says to him, “Leave her alone.” Don’t you dare treat this daughter of God, my sister in God, as an object for your scorn or lust or anything else.
Leave her alone! Until you can see her as God sees her. A perfect word from Christ in this MeToo moment we’re in.
So the choice is clear: do we go on making mud pies in the slums or do ask Jesus to take us with him on his holiday to the sea?
Of course my deepest fear of going to the reunion is that I will fall back into being that 15 year old shy boy who is filled with feelings of inferiority in the presence of those smart, affable, rich boys who were so cool. So I will have a choice: let my old programming take charge and feel inferior and therefore play the religion card in order to imagine myself superior to all those doctors, lawyers, and business executives.
Or trust Christ that each of us, myself included, is a beloved child of God, in continuous union with God.
I suspect it will be a combination of both. Since Paul speaks for me and you and everyone else on the planet when he says: “I have not 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.”
So as always our faith is not in our faith, but in the one who has grasped us and made us his own—Jesus Christ.