Friday, March 19, 2010

Downward Mobility


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 manure, 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 the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the solidarity 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.
Philippians 3:8-14

All sufferers can find comfort in the solidarity of the Crucified; but only those who struggle against evil by following the example of the Crucified will discover him at their side. To claim the comfort of the Crucified while rejecting his way is to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (1996)

This week's Pauline lectionary passage comes from the letter to the little Christian community in Philippi, a Roman colony on the edge of the empire. A colony was bolstered by a minority population of Roman citizens (probably about 10%) who vigilantly pledged allegiance to the Roman Empire (probably a lot former soldiers) by transporting themselves from Rome to live in the foreign colony and advocate for Caesar's way of life. Paul, imprisoned by this very Roman Empire, crafted this piece to inspire and challenge Philippian followers of Christ (a really small minority of the population) to be a "colony of heaven" (3:20), extending God's reign into the pagan world. That Greek word for "colony" (politeuma) shows up in verbal form in 1:27 where Paul exhorts these Philippians to "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." Of course, "gospel" (euangelion) is also a rip-off from the Roman lexicon. Roman heralds, the forerunners to today's American media, would proclaim Caesar's greatness, announce his birthday or share "the good news" about a military victory that proved Roman exceptionalism. The message of Roman military dominance, the gospel of Caesar, was spread through fear and coercion all over the world. It was an intimidating and manipulating invitation to join the Empire...or else.

Paul, on the other hand was announcing the greatness of the long-awaited "reign of God," the day that was announced by the prophet Isaiah when God would someday receive universal worship: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ Paul quotes this passage at the end of the great Christ poem in Philippians 2:5-11, where Christ is exalted only because he embraced obedience to the will of God to the point of a brutal and scandalous death on the cross. This is how greatness is defined in the "reign of God:" humility, love and a ruthless trust in God's providence.

Paul's own conversion story comes into focus in Philippians 3:8-14 where the future saint abrasively considers the resume of his prior life as utter "shit" (it's true, check the Greek skubala) compared to his present vocation of "knowing" and transforming into Christ's way of obedient suffering. This is what 20th century prophet Martin Luther King was getting at when he would say (on several occasions) "the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear." Over and over and over in this letter, Paul refers to the "day of Christ" when the "savior" and "lord" Jesus will re-appear and "transform" (see 3:20-21) our humble bodies and broken world into something fantastic and triumphant.

Paul is attempting to make sense of the intense suffering that he has experienced since meeting the Messiah on the road to Damascus, percolating a deep sense of solidarity with the Philippian follower of Jesus who are experiencing their own trials and persecution (1:29-30). As Harvard professor of New Testament Krister Standahl proposes, this "conversion" is really a "calling" to preach the gospel of Christ, the real lord and savior of the world, to the non-Jewish population of the Roman Empire. Notice that Paul has the audacity to claim that his prior life of rigid adhering to the Jewish Torah was "blameless" (3:6). This shatters our traditional Protestant understanding of the apparently Jewish propensity to vainly attempt to work their way to heaven by trying to follow the law (this old understanding has been debunked by "new perspectives" on Paul from scholars like E.P. Sanders, Richard Hays and N.T. Wright). Of course, Paul did all that, but he still needed a savior. What, then, was the significance of Jesus the Jewish Messiah?

1. Jesus put a stamp on God's paradigm for greatness: humility. For Paul, this is the primary meaning for Jesus' death on the cross. It modeled and symbolized the divinely-ordained way-of-life. Only through suffering service can someone become great and really human. All this trifling in American culture about success and prestige and image and "getting props" from all the right folks and citing-celebrities-and-then-status-updating-it would be contrary to Paul's understanding of the Christian gospel. The modern reader should not miss the irony of Paul severely downgrading his old, prestigious identity as "shit" while joyfully praising his shitty life of imprisonment and discomfort to proclaim the gospel!

2. Jesus' life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection served as an appetizer to the banquet that would come someday soon. This hope infused everything Paul wrote about. When Jesus returned, we would all be transformed and everyone would see the whole truth and nothing but the truth (see Romans 8:18-25; I Corinthins 13:12; I Corinthians 15).

3. Jesus' messianic pattern is now reproduced by local communities who pledge allegiance to the "reign of God." Salvation is not only what happens to us when we die (1:21-23) or even what happens to us when Christ re-appears (3:20-21), but is a present challenge of working and striving to know Christ and "becoming like him in his death" (see also 2:12). To gain Christ is not to obtain the key to the gates of heaven in eternal life, but to discover the key to ultimate reality right now. Throughout the Philippian correspondence, Paul calls them to this highest form of living: intercessory prayer, the compassion of Christ, overflowing love, knowledge & full insight, constant joy, bold speech, seeking unity, serving the interests of others, displaying gentleness, rejecting anxiety, meditating on what is pure, true & good, and learning to be content in every situation life throws at us.

4. Ultimately, God changed the rules of "the Game" through Christ. Membership in the People Of God now came through the life and death of Jesus, not through symbolic boundary-markers like circumcision (3:1-3) and dietary regulations. Non-Jews were now invited to participate in God's Dream for the World without awkward surgeries or legalistic nutritionists. Their challenge was deeper and more confrontational: to reject the petty idol worship enmeshed in their culture (ie, the only time most Romans would eat meat was at idol-worshipping celebrations) and pledge allegiance to the gospel of the real lord and savior of the world (hint: not Caesar).

What now? I can think of all sorts of tendencies for me to boost my own identity in counterfeit ways: body image, finding comfort in consumer purchases, a resume of achievement, etc. Perhaps, the biggest source of my own false identity is the white privilege that gives me a false sense of security and worth in this society. Peggy MacIntosh has compiled a list of 50 ways that white folks have an edge...understanding these places us more soundly in Paul's frame of mind in Philippians 3: rejecting these for the downward-mobility in Christ. Any sort of socio-political-economic platform that attempts to hold on to this privilege, no matter how subconscious, pulls us away from the boundary-breaking revolution of Jesus the Messiah. This would certainly parallel Paul's own reflection on ethnicity, heavily downplaying his Jewish cred in regards to being a part of God's People in order to make way for the status his Gentile brothers and sisters. All these false identity markers are, indeed, "shit" compared to the adventure of knowing and living the power of resurrection life in solidarity with brothers and sisters suffering all over the world. Keeping up with these other counterfeit ventures is exhausting and anxiety-provoking, while pledging allegiance to the messianic way, although it may bring us imprisonment and other sorts of persecution, leads to "the peace that transcends all understanding" (4:5-6).

--Theological Autopilot

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