The Epistle Lesson for Second Sunday of Lent is Philippians 3:17-4:1.
Paul offers practical encouragement to the community of faith in the face of resistance.
Reflections and Invitations:
Usually when we think of Paul’s writings we get caught up in wrestling with complex systems of thought. His lines of argument are sometimes difficult to follow and to understand. Some of his conclusions still become sources of other strange ideas and ideologies.
What I appreciate most about Paul is that he is a practical theologian. He thinks deeply about God and grace, but wants us ultimately to connect our thoughts about God with our walk with others. This passage begins with the invitation to find and follow models to live out our faith.
When there is a disconnect between heart, mind, and body, even the most eloquent words and lofty ideas become just noise pollution. Integrity is the unification of all the dimensions of our lives. Paul reinforces that idea, first, in the invitation to find people of faith to imitate, and then through his warning to be wary of people whose actions do not reflect their faith.
How should we respond to those who live as “enemies of the cross?”
“Enemy” is a hot emotional word. When we label someone as an enemy we are no longer obligated, so we think, to relate to them as fellow human beings. They are the enemy and receive our hostility because they are hostile to our way of living and thinking. We experience this in our society: label someone a terrorist or an enemy combatant and we then can unleash our righteous anger and judgment upon them. We too often justify many kinds of abuses with the label.
But is that how Paul is viewing the people he writes about in Philippians 3:18?
I don’t think so, and the key is his emotional response: not anger but sorrow. I can even see him exhibiting a certain amount of care for them.
As I reflect on this curiosity, I feel we have mistranslated this passage. Instead of people living as an enemy of the cross, how about seeing him speaking about people who are resisting the power of the cross in their lives. It represents the same kinds of behavior in terms of not following the guidance of grace and pushing against the goodness of living God’s way without denying their basic humanity and that God’s grace is still offered to them.
By seeing Paul’s sorrow and care for those who are resisting God’s place in their lives we become open to see the ways we ourselves actively resist the work of God within us and the ways we might neglect to nurture this presence of grace. When we see that the resisters are just like us, we become diligent in seeking to not become lost in the resistance ourselves.
So what does this resistance look like?
A primary aspect of this resistance is self-absorption. We become focused on primarily serving our own appetites (our god is our stomach) rather than Creator.
Over the years spiritual seekers have identified things like the vices as avenues for serving our own short-term interests. The vices, or passions of our appetites, serve as the traps that turn us away from following the Essence of Life and turns us toward looking only toward our next bite or next swallow. The list I appreciate the most comes from the writings of Don Riso and Russ Hudson: resentment, pride, vanity, envy, avarice, faithlessness, gluttony, lust (excessiveness), and sloth.
With each one of those patterns of behavior we pursue things that only give us pleasure in the moment. This short-term focus is so easy for us to slip into without recognizing just how self-serving it is.
Where do you get caught up in only looking to advance your own interests?
Another way we get lost in our resistance to God’s presence is to focus only on things of earth. When we live only within the limits of our mortality all we have is materialism.
Part of the sadness of Paul is to realize that people who are stuck in this small view of reality are missing out on so much. They may seem to have it all, because they pursue the finer things in life or dive into the most exciting experiences, but for them that is all there is. There is no relevant reality outside of their small realm of experience. So they need to make the most of it.
Paul reminds us that we are citizens of the universe!
We belong to more than just this place and time. We don’t have to grab for the short-term pleasures and possessions that might lead us to do disgraceful things all in the name of experience. Instead we are open to experience the ever-expanding glory of love and joy that Christ’s presence unfolds through us.
It is a great loss when we confine existence to the limits of our mortality. This reduction fuels our resistance to the possibility of God’s abundance. If there is more to living in the presence of God then our serving the self-absorbed passions are revealed as foolishness.
God invites us to live this abundance, because we belong to a universe that transcends time and space yet also inhabits each moment. When we are stuck within the confines of mortality we need to face the truth that we are lost and also hear the truth that the God of love wants to pour upon us glory.
Where do you need to stand firm in the face of your own resistance to this transforming work? What do you need to let go of, confess, and receive forgiveness for in order to experience God’s fully dimensional life?