Monday, January 26, 2009
Paul's Wisdom: Gaining by Losing
Most people familiar with the Bible know the graphic story of the conversion of Saul/Paul of Tarsus as he travelled to the city of Damascus, recorded in Acts 9:1-19. The life-changing incident occurred around 34-35 C.E. Even more moving than the story itself is Paul's mature reflection on its meaning, recorded in his letter (3:1-16) to the Christians of Philippi in Macedonia. He wrote this some twenty years after his conversion, about seven years before he was executed in Rome.
The context in which he reflects, in Philippians, on his past is one of warning Christians there about false teachers trying to make inroads into the community: people boasting about circumcision, their sign in the flesh of being "God's chosen" under the Law; people stuck in the past, in their supposed "status" as descendants of Abraham. Paul reminds his foes that if it comes to a pissing contest over past achievements which make you "somebody", or over credentials, then he can beat them, hands down! As a devout Jew Paul was a spiritual aristocrat, a member of the elite Pharisee movement. That being said, however, Paul says that none of that counts in the now or in the future. "...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ."
Paul made an extraordinary sacrifice when he accepted Jesus: of position, of security, of respect in a community he dearly loved. All this, he says, counts little from his new perspective. In fact, he says, in comparison to a future with Christ it's all, in polite terms, "refuse": dung, garbage. Not that all the gifts with which Paul had been blessed were evil or bad per se. But in comparison with the incredible new worth he's discovered in the person of Jesus, those things are now empty and without value.
There's an important lesson for us here. Paul really paid a price for his Christian faith: not just the loss of a few privileges, but of his identity, as a rabbi and as a Jewish leader; of his parentage; of his inheritance; of his Pharasaic education; of his involvement in the Jewish community which meant much to him. "For His sake I have suffered the loss of everything...that I may gain Christ..."
Paul came to know Jesus in the deepest sense of being identified with Jesus in his own life. Even his dramatic conversion-experience in the past was, for Paul, only the beginning of a life-long transformation. There was so much more growing, deepening -- and suffering -- to do in the future. In describing the cost of coming to faith, Paul uses a metaphor from athletics: that of a runner. Marathon runners know from all their painful training how important steady effort is. Once the race begins, past achievements and past defeats don't matter an iota, just the motion forward, steady and maintained, as they stretch and strain toward the finish line. The prize in faithful living, as Paul understands it, is the "upward call of God in Christ Jesus...": the resurrection. "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..." He follows that with a word of wisdom to his readers/hearers: "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind..." Mature people can accept suffering and even death as part of the process because they realize that it's a natural part of the order of things. Out of death comes life.
It's a good word of wisdom for us, too, who tend to cling to the past, especially to our past achievements and perceived virtues, even to our past guilt, failures, and sicknesses. Twisted as it seems, these often represent security, stability, the known; sadly for many, it's their only source of identity. The trick is to learn how to eventually let go of the past, to accept what seems to be loss in order to accomplish real gain: the "rightness" which comes through setting our hearts on God alone. Julian of Norwich puts it this way: "God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough to me. And I can ask for nothing that is less that can be full honor to you; and if I ask for anything that is less, ever shall I be in want, for only in you have I all."