Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
This is what the LORD says –
he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.“
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter
and our tongue with songs of joy.
3 Then said they among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
4 The Lord has indeed done great things for us,
and therefore we rejoiced.
5 Restore again our fortunes, O Lord,
as the river beds of the desert.
6 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed,
will come back with shouts of joy,
bearing their sheaves with them.
If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “[It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.“
Sermon on Passion Sunday
The short commentary we have been given about the Epistle reads: ‘Paul has been captured by Jesus. The things that stood him in good stead in the past are now valueless. “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”’ I wonder if we can say the same for ourselves.
But I have a lot of questions – What does it mean that Paul has been captured by Jesus? Has he been whisked away by one of those cults which secrete their members in a remote location, never to be seen by family or friends in the world? Or –
Is this a general orientation to the figure of Jesus? Perhaps as at that time an assent to the deities of the nation, that pinch of incense devoted to the image of the divine emperor? Is it this devotion? Is this adoration? Is this obsession? Or is it brainwashing?
Our brief commentary says this capturing is a fact in Paul’s life, apparently “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” However, in our passage, in our translation, Paul never says this. Rather our translation reads,
I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
He reiterates that he approaches Christ –
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Much like Wesley in his hymn, Amazing Grace, Paul feels like he has been recovered from the wreckage of life so that he can live in all its fullness. There is no capturing in this, is there? It is always an approaching towards Jesus, never a possession as such. It is a laying claim to Paul, but I don’t think this has anything to do with any sort of possession of the person. Even the story of the Damascus Road does not describe an overwhelming of Paul so that he is subsumed by Christ, rather it is a calling out of himself. “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Is this the interrogation of a controlling deity? Does this God deny the individual for the sake of His own caprice?
I don’t think so.
Something has changed dramatically in Paul’s life. Instead of the Law being a guarantee of salvation, a way leading one through righteousness action, instead of the Law promising a full life, Paul no longer sees himself a Pharisee devoted to the jots and tittles of the Law, but he is on a royal road, a way that leads to a full life, one in which love fills everything – where the Spirit blows were it wills. This is a radically new life, not a possessed one, nor is life now restricted by a formal legalism.
In Isaiah we hear “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” This is what Paul is telling us about. And Paul concurs with Isaiah’s words, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul used to consider himself perfectly adapted to life within the tribe.
Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Paul had been a man who had bound up his life in the Torah. He was a Pharisee among the Pharisees. He had lived a perfectly faultless life in terms of Jewish legalism. He had a zeal which persecuted those who were different to him and his tribe.
In other words, Paul considered himself a model Jew by even the strictest of the orthodox, the Pharisees. What could possibly take him away from such a standing in his community? What would make Paul turn his back on everything he had known? Why did he abandon his past?
These are the usual questions we ask at any conversion, aren’t they? These are the evidence our evangelical brothers and sisters demand of anyone struck by the Spirit, aren’t they? How can I be a true believer if I still am interested in the model railways I used to play with as a child? I wonder, do we ever really turn our back on our lives so completely that they are to be “counted as loss” when “compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ”? Why would I consider my past as “rubbish”?
This is conversion of the most radical kind, conversion which is the stuff of legend, the stuff of the origin of our faith. The past is just that – done and dusted. However, we do carry it with us, even if we could consider it “rubbish”. Such detritus points us forward. Just like Paul, I am going on to something of “surpassing greatness”. What is the Law when compared with the knowledge of Christ, a saviour who has given his body and blood for my very own salvation? The letter of the Law, Paul says, is nothing.
Elsewhere Paul speaks about the Law yielding death. The Law does not give life, does it? Paul also speaks of the letter and the spirit of the Law, something our own legal system should consider (but that is another discussion). The Law entangles a person in what we would call red tape. Others would call it causuistry, legalistic scholasticism. The medieval period called it arguing about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin.
Paul, however, cuts through all that constricting entanglement. He has seen a freedom in the Spirit, that which has given him life in all its fullness, life which was purchased through the death of Jesus, whom Paul proclaims as the saviour of the world.
All those things he had – those things which ritually guaranteed righteousness – he now considers all that ritual perfection as rubbish. Why? Now he has an inner life so very different from the external legalism of his past. Now he is looking forward to a future, that new country.
I honestly don’t think Paul did change that much. I think he did change radically, but I don’t think he lost his devotion to the Law, but the revolution was that his Law of jots and tittles became a Law of love – the Law of faith which freed him for the service of others, a Law which disentangled him from the shackles that the past too often clamps around the human being. Paul prescribes a new spirit to the Law, because his Law does not grasp and control, rather the Law which Paul now knows is one which frees for the future, a Law which we should fulfill.