April 01, 2019
The Lent 5C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 12:1-8 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 43:16-21 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 126 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 3:4b – 14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60 (Lord’s Day 23)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of the characters keeps saying over and over to the character of Big Daddy that you can just smell “the mendacity in the air.” This was a play with many layers of deception and lying and it became so very nearly palpable to some of the characters that it was as though the air was filled with mendacity, with lies. You could smell the untruthfulness that was afoot.
In John 12 there may be a little mendacity in the air but mostly what is in the air—for those with noses finely tuned enough to sniff it out—was the smell of death.
True, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead and although his being raised on the fourth day caused some folks to fear that the tomb would be stinky, Lazarus emerged fresh and alive and unsmelly. Nevertheless, the stench of death hangs heavy here in John 12. Jesus’ grand miracle of raising up Lazarus has clinched the case against him as far as the religious authorities are concerned. If they let Jesus keep doing this kind of thing, there’d be no stopping him.
So at the end of John 11 we read of a plot to kill Jesus. Were we to read just a couple of verses beyond where the Lectionary stops this reading of John 12, we’d see that while they’re at it, the Pharisees plot to kill Lazarus, too. (This is a detail—a grim one—that we often overlook, so much so that years ago when I saw the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, when I saw a scene in which some thug kills the recently raised Lazarus by sticking a knife in his back, I thought to myself, “That never happened!” So I went to my Bible and found that, sure enough, although we have no account of their having pulled it off, there was indeed a plot to murder Lazarus as a way to cover up his having been raised. Terrible.)
Eventually in John 12 Jesus will have a few more overt things to say about also his own impending doom. But right in the middle of all that deathliness is this reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C. Mary and Martha are throwing a dinner party in Jesus’ honor. Considering what Jesus had recently done for their little family unit in raising a beloved brother back from the dead, you can understand why they maybe think Jesus is worth a little fuss! Yet the text is largely understated. We’re told (almost casually) that Lazarus is reclining at the table along with Jesus. Given that he’d been dead and buried only a short while earlier, this portrait of Lazarus sipping wine and munching on food is startling. It’s almost funny!
But we don’t linger over the fact that this recently deceased man is now back in circulation. We’re not made privy to any conversations about what Lazarus experienced between death and resuscitation. We have no ancient world equivalent of Anderson Cooper hovering around to interview Lazarus and asking questions like, “What did you see? Any bright lights? Bump into Moses or anybody we’d know?”
Instead the focus of the scene quickly shifts to Mary and to her anointing of Jesus’ feet with a highly expensive and fragrant perfume. It’s hard to know what was in Mary’s mind. The most likely scenario is that this was a token of moving, profound gratitude to Jesus for restoring her dear brother to life. As Judas finally notes, it was a costly gift. And as many of us know, there are always those who sneer at anything that smacks of the extravagant. Even on a wedding anniversary, why go out to that nice (but expensive) restaurant that will charge you $28 for chicken dijonnaise with new potatoes when the Family Diner over there has a perfectly good patty melt for $6.95? (And it comes with fries too yet!) Judas is chintzy in this way but he’s also a pilferer, as John notes in one of his many parenthetical comments.
But lavish or not, Mary anoints Jesus this way out of true affection. Jesus, however, sees it differently. He sees it as a pre-burial prepping of his corpse for the tomb. Jesus says that she should be left alone in that (and the Greek here is a little dicey) it was necessary for her to keep this for the day of his burial. It’s a powerfully difficult sentence to translate, much less make sense of.
First, that was not the day of his burial. Second, she could not keep the perfume in that she had just then already poured it out. It was gone. Third, therefore, she could not keep for the day of Jesus’ burial (some six days off) that which she had poured out on his feet on that very evening.
But maybe we are being too literal here. As noted above, death hangs heavy in the air here. So heavy, in fact, that perhaps it was true that to Jesus’ mind, there was no significant difference between everything happening in that final week of his life and the nitty-gritty details of his actual entombment. He was as good as dead already. He was, to borrow a phrase a “dead man walking.” So whatever Mary may have had in mind in pouring this onto Jesus, Jesus himself regarded it as yet another indication of death.
We are told in verse 3 that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” and no doubt most dinner guests regarded it as pleasant. Lazarus was alive again. Martha had, as usual, outdone herself in the kitchen and was serving up a dandy meal. Mary now honored the guest of honor with a traditional ritual of hospitality. What a fine evening!
Only Jesus seems to know that in this world, without someone’s being able to make the ultimate sacrifice for sins, even the finest evening is shot-through with death. Without the hope that Jesus’ death alone would make possible for this death-enthralled world, no amount of perfume, no amount of glitz, no amount of red-carpet gala events can ever escape the fact that we’re all on a collision course with death. Jesus alone seemed to know this that night. As latter-day followers of Jesus, we need to know it, too, and so do all we can to point our world to Jesus as our only hope.
Because even yet today, in the power citadels of Washington and London and Moscow, in the haute cuisine restaurants in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, along the runways of fashion shows in Paris and on the tony beaches in Cancun and Aruba where the rich and famous go to play, despite all that we try to do to escape this fact or cover it over with this-or-that costly perfume (or wine or flowers or chocolate or martinis) the fact is that death is everywhere.
The New York Times often fills its weekly Travel section with Spring Break ideas for families. The “budget” ideas might include going to Orlando where a family of four might expend a “mere” $5,000 or so. But there was also the option of renting a yacht with full crew for seven days to make seven Caribbean ports of call. A family of four for this jaunt could have the whole thing for a cool $1.06 million. (The blurb for this option even included a possible extra “Splurge” of taking advantage of the on-board masseuse. But can you speak meaningfully of “splurging” when spending over a million bucks for a one-week vacation???? Sometimes when I read the NY Times I wonder if it’s actually The Onion I am reading . . .)
We all try to escape and deny death. But it doesn’t work. Not finally and not for all the money in the world. Jesus knows it and knows what to do about it. If we are Jesus’ disciples, then we know what needs doing, too. That’s why in Lent, and always, we’re not ashamed to cling to that old rugged cross.
For us, when we smell the aroma of Mary’s perfume rising up off the biblical page, we know it has something to do with death but by faith and through grace, we also sense that there is a definite sweetness to this aroma—it actually feels like the kind of thing that might move right through death to arrive at a higher life.
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the CEP homepage, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
I would encourage anyone preaching on this lection to extend the reading to verse 11. It’s important to see that Jesus’ fame is spreading. It’s important to see that Lazarus had himself become (quite understandably) something of a curiosity. And it’s important to see how death roars back onto this otherwise happy scene when we read of the plot to kill Lazarus. As noted elsewhere in this sermon starter, we do not know if they succeeded in killing Lazarus the same way they did indeed succeed with killing Jesus but if they did . . . well, one can only imagine the sorrow of Mary and Martha if they lost their brother all over again. Of course, one day they lost him again anyway—he had been resuscitated, not yet raised to immortality. Either way, it is a reminder of why we needed Jesus to be anointed for burial and to later die the way he did. Death is everywhere. Only Christ proffers hope in the midst of all that.
In the fine story and film Babette’s Feast we see an example of sacrificial self-giving in action. We also see how such sacrifice can restore much that is broken in this world. Many of you know the story: one of the most talented chefs in the world, Babette, is banished from her native Paris due to political turmoil and persecution. She (almost literally) washes ashore in a small Danish fishing village whose small religious community is enduring a time of fractious bickering. The once tight-knit band of believers has taken to sniping and snipping, to the heartbreak of the spinster sisters who head up the community (their father had founded the church in the village) and who had taken in Babette to be a scullery maid and cook. Mostly the sisters ask Babette to prepare only the blandest of foods as that is what they were accustomed to eating.
But then one day Babette finds out she won the lottery in Paris and so offers to cook a true feast for the sisters and their whole little religious community. They agree and are eventually treated to a feast of rare delicacies, excellent vintages of wine, and just flat out some of the best gourmet fare anyone in the world could ever wish for.
The religious community has no idea what it’s consuming and yet through this meal they also find their community restored. Arguments are dropped. Past misdeeds are forgiven. And when the evening is finished, they join hands and sing the Doxology under the stars.
Only then do the sisters discover what Babette had really done: she had spent ALL the money she had won, not just a portion of it as they had thought. She had, in so doing, foreclosed her own options. She could never return to Paris, never take up any post as the chef at one of the world’s leading restaurants. She had wasted it all on the sisters and their community.
And this prodigal “waste” brought life.
Author: Stan Mast
All four of the Lectionary readings for this Fifth Sunday of Lent share a “past and future” theme. Psalm 126 talks about the restoration of Israel’s fortune in the past and calls on God to restore Israel’s fortunes in the future, so that those who “sow in tears can reap with shouts of joy.” In Philippians 3:4-14 Paul turns his back on his illustrious past so that he may gain a deeper knowledge of Christ in the future. So, he forgets what lies behind and presses forward for the prize that lies ahead. John 12:1-8 is based on the recent past of Lazarus’ resurrection and looks ahead to Jesus approaching death and resurrection, as Mary anoints Jesus’ body for the grave. This tension between the past and the future is something every Christian understands as we journey to the cross.
Here in Isaiah 43, a classic rehearsal of Israel’s redemption from Egyptian bondage is followed by the assurance that God is going to something so startling in the future that Israel is commanded to forget the former things. Right now, though, Isaiah 43 is addressed to Israel stuck between the past and the future, with little hope for the latter even though they know the former. Most scholars think Israel is somewhere between 550-538, midway through the Babylonian Exile. Until Isaiah begins his prophecies of hope in chapters 40-55, Israel has no hope of release from bondage.
They are hundreds of miles from home; some scholars say the distance was nearly 1700 miles, while others maintain that it was “only” 900 miles. The difference is probably between “as the crow flies” and “as the rivers flow.” If they followed the well-watered route of the Euphrates and other rivers, it would be the longer mileage. If they took the “short cut” straight across the Arabian Desert, there would be 900 miles of burning sand, and not a drop of water to drink apart from the occasional oasis.
But any escape route was nothing more than idle speculation for the Jewish captives, because Babylon was still firmly in control; Cyrus the Persian was still far off in the geographical and chronological distance. The recipients of these prophetic words were nowhere close to where they wanted to be, and they had no hope of ever getting there.
But then Yahweh spoke. For the second time in three verses we hear the classic prophetic introduction: “This is what the Lord says,” or as older translations used to put it, “Thus saith the Lord.” This is not the word of a prophet; heaven knows there were plenty of false prophets who gave their own predictions about the future. This is not that. This is Yahweh himself speaking.
In the previous verse, Yahweh has identified himself with three terms emphasizing that Yahweh can do and will do what he is about to promise. Yahweh is “the Holy One,” the Wholly Other who controls both nations and nature. He is Israel’s Creator who took a ragtag bunch of semi-nomads and turned them into the chosen nation. And he, not Nebuchadnezzar, is Israel’s King.
What does Yahweh say to his captive nation? He reminds them of the story of their birth as a nation. Verses 16-17 are Israel’s founding story, much like the story of the Pilgrims and the Revolutionary War form American’s founding story. Obviously referring back to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, God reminds Israel that he was the one “who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters.” And he was the one who lured the Egyptians into the middle of the dried up Red Sea and then let the towering walls of water come crashing down on Pharaoh’s armies. They all died, “extinguished, snuffed out like a wick.” All of Israel’s subsequent history and identity was based on that mighty act of redemption performed by their God. They would not exist were it not for that divine action.
That’s what makes the next words of Yahweh so astonishing. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” Wait a minute! Wasn’t forgetting God’s amazing redemption precisely the sin that led to the Exile? Psalm 106 is the classic description of Israel’s disastrous forgetting. Yahweh was always telling his people to remember. How, then, can Yahweh tell them to forget the former things in the past?
Well, God might be talking about the recent past of the Exile, the trouble they had been experiencing for the past 30 or so years. That’s possible, but the most obvious referent of “former things” is what God had just rehearsed, namely, their founding story.
But why would God tell them to forget that? Well, the story of those former things was complex, involving complaint, scarce resources, divine absence, and the judgement of death over an entire generation. Is this a call to forget the negative things of the past, even though the past was dominated by the miracle of the Exodus?
That’s possible, but the most likely reason for God’s call to forget the past is that God wanted them to concentrate on the future. “Forget the former things” was a hyperbolic way of calling Israel to hope in the future things God would do. Perhaps they had begun to think that salvation was only a thing of the past, that their best days were behind them, that God can’t act now, that there was no hope for another Exodus.
That is precisely what God promises them– another Exodus, but in reverse. The God “who made a way through the sea” will make “a way in the desert.” The God who dried up the Red Sea will make “streams in the wasteland.” The God who did the impossible when he led Israel out of Egypt will do another impossible thing by leading Israel out of Exile. He will make a way through all those miles of burning sand. He will provide water for his people, not just the fountain of water that gushed from the rock at Marah, but streams, even rivers, flowing through the wasteland. The desert will bloom, as Isaiah 35 prophesies, and the wild animals will join the people in praising God for this miracle.
As we preach on this text, it is important to point out that God does not deliver his people because they are good people. The very next verses point out that these people have burdened God with their sins and wearied him with their offenses. Even when they prayed and offered sacrifices, their religious activities were half-hearted. From the first days of Israel’s life to the present, they have not been faithful covenant partners. That’s why they are in exile.
So, God will deliver them again, not because they deserved it, but because he is a God of grace who forgives the undeserving. Verse 25 puts it pointedly, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” He will lead them out of Exile and provide water for their journey, so “that they may declare my praise (verse 21).” In other words, God redeems us again and again, not because he sees how good we are, but because he wants a people who become good and praise him for his grace.
God’s question for his exiles is a good question for us to press on our people. “Do you not perceive it?” “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Our answer is almost always, “No, I don’t perceive it. I don’t see the new thing God is doing in my life, in our world.” We walk by faith, not by sight.
So in our sermons on this text, on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we must call people to believe that God is doing a new thing even though we cannot see it. We haven’t finished our journey yet. The cross and empty tomb are before us in the liturgical year. God did an astonishing new thing there in the future on Good Friday and Easter, but we can’t see it. Thus, we must believe it. And the return of Christ is still before us. God will do a new thing then, redeeming and recreating a whole new world. But we can’t see that yet. Thus, we are called to believe it.
And even as we rehearse the founding story of the Christian faith and remind people of its future fulfillment, we must call our people to believe that the God who acted in the past can still do new things in their own personal futures. We will be preaching to people who are stuck, imprisoned by forces beyond their control, who cannot imagine that God can or will set them free, who have despaired of getting back home where peace and prosperity can be found again. We must remind them of The Story and assure them that God will send streams of mercy and rivers of grace into their lives, not because they deserve it, but because God is full of grace and faithful to his covenant. So, praise the Lord, even as you wait for God’s new thing.
The “past/future” dynamic in our text reminded me of all the “before and after” pictures we see each day. There are commercials for weight loss programs that show the “before” of a man who weighed 300 pounds and then the “after” of a man who followed the program and now weighs 185. Or a skin cream that clears up blemishes is demonstrated by one picture of a woman whose face is scarred by acne and a second picture of her with a clear complexion after 3 months on the treatment. Or we see the terrible contrast between the city of Paradise, California before the Camp Fire and that same city after the fire. Our text contrasts the before of the Exile with the after of God’s new thing.
I just finished reading Purple Hibiscus, a novel set in Nigeria during a time of political unrest. It centers on the family of a wealthy, sternly Catholic businessman who can’t do enough good for his church and community, or enough evil to his family. As he spreads the wealth around in the name of his Catholic faith, he also tyrannizes his children. He beats his wife for minor infractions of church law, causing her to have two miscarriages. Things get so bad that he beats his beloved daughter nearly to death because she treasured a painting of her pagan grandfather.
The family lives in a hell they cannot escape because their father does so much good in the community that no one would believe their story of family abuse. Their situation is hopeless, until suddenly this Christian version of Hannibal Lector is found dead in his office. It turns out that the downtrodden mother, after the beating of her daughter, had begun to incrementally poison the father. By her own hand, she set her family free. God set us free with his own hand, through the death of his Son.
Author: Scott Hoezee
For a Lenten selection, this psalm is pretty sunny-side up and cheerful. Maybe as Lent is coming to a close, we are supposed to see in this poem the promise of restoration beyond the cross toward which we are journeying this season. This is, after all, one of the “Songs of Ascent” in the Book of Psalms and so was among the songs the pilgrims sang en route to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s sacred festivals. As such, this song remembers a time of restoration even as it looks forward to still more such restoration in a future that will be rich with good food and verdant crops.
Whatever the precise restoration that is being envisioned here, it is clearly presented as a kind of dream come true. How often haven’t we seen it in films or in novels and in our own lives that when something beautiful happens—especially if there had been prior circumstances that made this wonderful thing seem unlikely ever to happen—somebody grins from ear to ear even as he or she says, “Wait, am I dreaming? Is this really happening? Can this be true?”
It reminds me of an iconic photo many of us have seen before of a family welcoming home their husband/father after he had been a POW for a long time in Vietnam. If you look closely at the picture below, you will notice that the elder daughter’s feet are quite literally not touching the ground as this picture was snapped. They never thought this day would come. And then it did.
“We were like people living in a dream” the psalmist writes. “Our mouths were filled with laughter.” Some things are so unexpected and yet so good they quite literally seem, as we say, “too good to be true.”
But the psalmist knows it is the Lord God of Israel that accomplished such wonders. No one else could have pulled it off. It was even described as a witness to other nations who were supposed to peer in on Israel’s restored fortunes and give the God of Israel the glory for his works. For its part, then, Israel also had to make clear the source of their wonderment: it was not sheer dumb luck, it was not a result of their own hard work, it was not something they deserved all things being equal. No, this was a divine gift and a divine intervention plain and simple.
So maybe we can understand the placement of this psalm so late in the Lenten Season after all. Because where we are headed is a cross and beyond that an empty tomb. Only the power of God could turn the dead-end of a cross into a gateway to new life. Only the power of God could raise a thoroughly dead man in a way that went beyond mere resuscitation but instead pointed to a whole new humanity, a whole new creation, a whole new modality of being in a life that would never end. To God be all the praise and glory!
And maybe we need to note another thing as well: we also need to savor these Gospel truths as being very nearly too good to be true. Perhaps for even us Christians we have become altogether too accustomed to Good Friday and Easter. Maybe we cannot imagine anymore running toward the risen Christ with such joy and abandon that our own feet very literally are not touching the ground. Are our own mouths filled with laughter? Do we feel like we are living out a dream come true in ways that thrill us beyond the telling of it? If not, we might need to re-check our own spiritual perceptions and what it is we truly believe is true about this universe now because of the singular saving work of Jesus the Christ.
When humanity’s fortunes are restored, may it be marvelous in our own eyes, may our mouths be filled with laughter, may we know that at the end of the cosmic day, our grandest dreams really have come true because, as it turns out, this was also God’s own dream for how things were supposed to go in his good cosmos.
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the CEP homepage, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
In addition to that POW photo in this sermon starter, the kind of delirious joy and laughter that Psalm 126 describes reminds me of one of the latter scenes in both the novel and the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The heroic Hobbits Frodo and Sam have finally accomplished their mission of destroying the evil Ring of Power that once belonged to the wicked and powerful Sauron. But for the last long while before they accomplished this, they were under the impression that their one-time mentor and friend, the wizard Gandalf the Gray, had died before their very eyes in the caverns of Moria and in the clutches of the terrible monster the Balrog. What they did not know was that Gandalf had been resurrected, restored, sent back to Middle Earth as now Gandalf the White, an even more powerful wizard than he had been before. But it is only after Frodo and Sam are rescued from their own peril and brought for a time of healing in the city of Minas Tirith that they encounter Gandalf again, very much alive.
For Frodo, this happens when he awakens as from a long and deep sleep only to see Gandalf alive and staring lovingly at him. The movie version skips this but in the book Frodo asks Gandalf, “Does this mean that all the sad things of this world will be unmade?” And the answer seems to be yes. Maybe even death itself.
Soon all of Frodo’s companions rush into the room too, all filled with joy, all their mouths filled with laughter. Because it was a dream come true, it was too good to be true. They survived. The world’s darkness had lifted and the light shined once more.
You can watch the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgtMW38vsUs
It is a moment of sheer joy and of great laughter, like the scene depicted in Psalm 126. Like the world made new on Easter morning.
Author: Doug Bratt
“Are you becoming perfect?” is the provocative question with which Carole Noren begins a fine sermon (Pulpit Resource, October, November, December, 2002, p. 5) on the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday. It is an appropriate question. After all, Jesus, in Matthew 5:48, calls us to “Be perfect . . . as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Paul, in II Corinthians 7:1, also challenges us to “perfect holiness out of reverence for God.”
Yet while God’s adopted sons and daughters sense that, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is making us more and more like Jesus Christ, few of us would claim that we’re “becoming perfect.” Thankfully, then, this fifth Sunday in Lent’s Epistolary Lesson helps us think in biblical ways about the kind of perfection toward which God is graciously moving God’s people.
This Lesson’s author is Paul, a Jewish man whose spiritual credentials were impeccable, as Earl Palmer, to whose commentary on this passage (The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 358ff.) I owe a great deal, notes. If anyone had a reason to be confident in his spirituality, it was that member of the high-ranking tribe of Benjamin. The apostle was also a faithful Pharisee and obedient keeper of Moses’ law.
Yet while being compared to Paul’s positive attributes may make some of those who proclaim Philippians 3 blush, some of us are, in fact, also very obedient to God’s law. Quite honestly, when we listen to and watch some fellow Christians, they remind us at least a bit of what Jesus Christ must have been like.
Yet even highly obedient Paul insists that no religious and moral credentials can compare with what the Spirit has shown him in the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, God has shown him what he calls a righteousness not based on keeping the law, but on God’s amazing grace. By comparison to that wonderful righteousness, Paul considers all his former accomplishments to be “loss” (7), literally, rubbish or manure.
The apostle, of course, doesn’t reject God’s law. Instead he rejects the confidence he had in himself because of his obedience to that law. God showed Paul that God accepted him only because God fulfilled that law in Christ. As a result, he would never again treasure his own righteousness that came through obeying the law.
Yet it sometimes seems as if the modern Church is still tempted to find its confidence in human righteousness. Most Christians no longer hope that God will save us because of our kindness or any other good work. Yet some of our siblings in Christ seem to have turned faith into a kind of new source of “confidence in the flesh” (4b), into a new righteousness of our own.
Under Satan’s constant pressure, it’s tempting for the Church to even subtly stray from the truth. The confidence that comes from faith is one example of heresy. Faith is, after all, a very central part of the Christian life. But faith can’t be the means by which God’s beloved children earn God’s grace. God’s grace is only and always a gift that God’s people simply receive with our faith.
Yet while we might expect the confidence that comes from such a generous gift to produce a kind of complacency, Paul displays none of that. In fact, his experience of God’s grace seems to energize him in ways that no legalism ever could. After all, the apostle goes on to compare the Christian life to that of athletes training for a race.
Two kinds of incentives, notes Palmer, motivate athletes. One is the pressure they feel in trying to make a team. The other pressure athletes feel is to excel because they’re on a team. Paul describes a motivation that comes being on some kind of team. God’s adopted sons and daughters run the race that is the Christian life, he writes, not to somehow make God’s “team,” but because, by God’s great grace, we’re on that team.
So neither guilt nor pride nor fear motivates the apostle to strive to be holy. Only his awareness of God’s unconditional acceptance motivates Paul. He responds to God’s justification of him by trying to fully make Christ “his own” because Christ has made him his own.
Paul’s awareness of God’s acceptance of him frees him, writes Palmer, to forget his human success and misplaced religious passion that lie behind him. God’s acceptance of Paul allows him to strain on toward the goal of becoming fully like Jesus Christ that is ahead of him.
In other words, God’s gracious acceptance of him allows Paul to intently focus on growing in his relationship with Jesus Christ. It allows him to seek to know Christ, gain Christ, be found in Christ, have righteousness in Christ, know the power of Christ’s resurrection and share Christ’s sufferings.
Of course, Paul is fully aware that he’s far from perfect. Twice, in fact, in verse 12 he admits that he has not yet “arrived.” Yet he doesn’t let his imperfection discourage him. With a delightful and memorable turn of a phrase, he insists that he presses on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of him.
Palmer suggests that Paul’s awareness of his imperfection comforts Christians who feel inadequate as Christians. Those who proclaim Philippians might explore how this greatest missionary of all time had not yet arrived. However, we also want to highlight how Paul’s awareness of his imperfection also implies a warning for Christians who may assume that we’ve arrived spiritually.
Later Paul insists, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (15). The word for “mature” comes from the same root as that for “perfect.” So it’s almost as if the apostle insists that if God’s adopted sons and daughters are mature, we know we aren’t perfect.
Here may be the key to understanding the perfection about which Paul writes and to which God calls God’s people. As Noren notes, we usually think of perfection in the Latin sense, which is flawlessness. Paul, however, writes in Greek whose word for perfection implies maturity and fullness.
God’s children know that no one can become flawless on this side of the new earth and heaven. Only Jesus Christ was perfect in that sense of the word. It is, however, reasonable, to hope for maturity in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus describes such maturity in his summary of the law in the gospel of Matthew. There he challenges his adopted brothers and sisters to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, as well as love each other as much as we love ourselves.
Our culture thinks little of the biblical understanding of perfection about which Paul writes. In fact, everything around God’s adopted sons and daughters urges you and me to love and take care of ourselves before we worry about others. Our culture encourages us to cultivate our self-esteem, not our love for God and each other.
In Philippians 3, however, Paul calls Jesus’ followers to set a different goal for ourselves, with the help of his Spirit. God’s beloved children strive to open ourselves completely to the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Only the Spirit, after all, can make you and me spiritually mature in our love for the Lord and each other.
Paul at least suggests, however, that attaining that goal requires that forgetting what’s behind us so that we can continue to press on toward the Christian maturity that lies ahead of us. Guilt about our past sometimes prevents Christians from fully enjoying God’s work and loving presence here and now. Our guilt over our failure to fully love God and each other may, in fact, prevent God’s children from striving to become more loving.
In the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday, however, Paul calls his readers forget the guilt of what lies behind. After all, because God has graciously forgiven us, our past sins, our past failure to love, doesn’t need to paralyze us. God’s forgiveness frees God’s adopted sons and daughters to “press on” (12). All of God’s people can strive be more loving because we’re confident that God’s grace has taken away the guilt of our past and our anxiety about the future.
Editors Tom Long and Neal Plantinga include Paul Tillich’s sermon, “You Are Accepted” in their book of sermons entitled, A Chorus of Witnesses. They introduce it by noting that Tillich states eloquently the nature of grace even though, as is often the case with him, he “generalizes up from a Christian particularity to an existential generality.”
At the key point where we would expect to read the name of God, Tillich gives us, instead, “that which is greater than you.” As a result, Christian preachers will have to Christianize Tillich’s passage. But it’s still eloquent, and is what Long and Plantinga call “one of the most famous passages in all of Tillich’s work.”
Grace, says Tillich, “strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness . . . It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged . . . It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, and the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted . . . by that which is greater than you, in this name of which you do not know.’ Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now. Perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything; do not intend anything.
“Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin [and] reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”