bible blog 537

SHOCK AND AWE-DECADE OF RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news

Philippians 3:1-16

3Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.

To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.

2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— 4even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More 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 rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 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. 13Beloved, 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, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

The HQ of a "Religion"

Paul’s use of the word “flesh” is confusing to a modern reader. First of all, it doesn’t mean the body as opposed to any other part of us. It means our human nature as mortal and unredeemed. But secondly, although sometimes it means simply that human nature, it often means “religion based on that human nature” as opposed to “faith which comes from God through Christ”, the former including the Jewish Torah with its regulations. That’s why the practice of circumcision is so offensive to Paul: not only does it tell his converts that they have to be Jews as well as Christians, it emphasises religion rather than faith.

Paul didn’t see his gospel as a religion. For him it was the astonishing possibility of relating to God without religion. All the trappings of religions down the ages, these could be thrown away when through Jesus people could trust God and receive his goodness.

Paul sees his status as a Jew and a Pharisee as “of the flesh” and therefore “rubbish” while his true life is through uniting himself with Jesus in trust towards God. He even makes a bitter pun: Christians, who leave their “flesh”, their old nature behind them, are the true circumcisers, whereas those who advocate circumcision are mere EXcisers!

The stunning message in Paul’s complex polemic is still relevant now: true Christianity is not a religion even if the churches often behave as if it were.

 Matthew 3:1-12

3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.” ’

4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

 

John the Baptist-not a very religious man

Perhaps John’s ministry was originally very separate from Jesus’ and some of his disciples continued after his death to see him as a greater prophet than Jesus. In any case, the Christian story always emphasises that he is subordinate to Jesus, as if that needed to be said.

The Jewish prophets had always been against religion. They’d seen the temple cult as a way of avoiding obedience to the God of Israel, as a distraction from faith. John is in this tradition. The religious status of the Pharisees, or even that of pious Jews who see themselves as children of Abraham counts for nothing with John-or even, he tells them, with God, who wants an obedient trust that produces goodness. Everything else is trash. God is about to come to his people, better repent, sharpish!

The language is different but the message is the same as that of Paul’s letter to Philippians: “religion”, Jewish or pagan, is a way by which human nature avoids God or asserts itself against God. Jesus didn’t bring a new religion.

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