Being Taken A Hold Of -- Sermon for Passion Sunday, A.D. MMXXII
“I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
St. Paul is the archetypal convert. After a dramatic encounter with the Lord, his life turned 180 degrees around and he went from persecuting the Church to being its greatest preacher. His words today to the Philippians remind us of this dramatic conversion and how he gave up absolutely everything for love of Christ. From what Paul says today, though, we could easily form a mistaken impression about him. “I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish.” These sound like the words of a person who has given up a worldly life of sin and dissipation to follow Christ’s teachings, finding greater happiness in following the Lord than pursuing pleasure in the world.
Except that that does not describe Saul of Tarsus at all! What he considers “so much rubbish” is not the allurements of the flesh, the devil, and the world, but a life that from the outside is marked first and foremost by a strict adherence to religious zealotry. He has just told them: “If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence … I have more: … of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, … as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Paul, seen from the perspective of his own time and his own people, was the furthest possible from being a terrible person. He was, they would have said, a really good person. And it is precisely this being a good person that Paul describes as rubbish.
This seems like a strange thing to say, that being a good person would be rubbish. And it would be easy to misinterpret what Paul says as supporting the Protestant notion of salvation by faith alone. So what does Paul really mean?
What Paul is condemning is not the Catholic notion that works done in grace contribute towards our salvation – that Christ’s grace increases in us when we perform good works. Indeed, he says that to know “the power of [Christ’s] resurrection” we need to share in “His sufferings by being conformed to his death.” This is the goal of the good works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the life of penance by which we atone for our sins – not earning Christ’s grace, but conforming our lives to His death in order to experience the power of His resurrection.
Rather, Paul condemns the notion present in the old, Jewish law that righteousness is found in us as such, that we can be said in a full and unequivocal sense to have earned our own righteousness. Paul makes clear that he has not taken hold of God’s righteousness, but rather, “I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.”
This makes clearer what happens in the Gospel today when the Pharisees bring the woman caught in adultery before the Lord. They believe that the righteousness they have earned through the law gives them the right to judge this woman, and more importantly, the right to judge Christ Himself.
It is likely that this whole episode is an elaborate ruse. The episode takes place “in the temple area,” under the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers who were perpetually guarding the Temple precinct as the most likely site of the beginning of any potential rebellion. This would especially have been the case around the feast of Passover, when this episode takes place. If Christ endorses the stoning of the woman, then He will be in trouble with the Romans, who reserved the right to enforce capital punishment to themselves. If He lets her off too easily, the Pharisees can sway the crowds against Him for His moral laxity.
Christ refuses to play this game and points out another precept of the Mosaic law: The one to execute the punishment must himself be blameless. Let’s be clear: These words of the Lord – let he who is without sin throw the first stone – in no way negate the law against adultery. They cannot be interpreted through a contemporary lens of moral relativism. Rather, Christ has turned the tables on the Pharisees. If they pick up stones, they will be the ones in trouble with the Romans. The elders are the first to go, because they are smart and know they have been fooled.
It’s quite possible that the woman caught in adultery was not committing adultery at all, but allowed herself to be used and manipulated by the Pharisees in this political ploy. (The man she was committing adultery with would be liable to the same punishment, but where is he? Other details about the story don’t line up either with Jewish practices of the time.) If anything, she has been “caught” by Christ.
The fact that the woman caught in adultery does not justify contemporary moral relativism (the kind typified by the all too easy response of, “Who am I to judge?”) does not in any way lessen the value of Christ’s extravagant forgiveness, though. What she has done is far worse. She has committed fraud, a sin of malice, and much graver than a sin of weakness like adultery. And against not her husband or her accomplice’s spouse but against God Himself! And yet Christ is willing to forgive her, lovingly admonishing her to sin no more.
What has motivated her to take this step? Maybe she is a partisan of the Pharisees, resentful of this man – Christ – who is disrupting in some way her own comfortable life by the convulsions gripping Hebrew society through His ministry. Maybe she’s convinced that He is a fraudster who is leading people astray from the right path of the Jewish religion. What she’s doing might be a lie, but isn’t it worth it to protect innocent people from this distorter of God’s law?
All of this changes, then, with the encounter with Christ Himself. When He ceases to be merely a stand-in for a religious system or an ethical code, and is seen as a person, as God made flesh, who is above and apart from the jockeying for power of the Pharisees and the Romans, then His words of loving forgiveness have the power to break through her and our preconceived notions of what it means to be a good and respectable person.
Today, we are invited to let those comforting words, “neither do I condemn you” echo in our own ears. I know, Christ tells us, that you have been caught up in this world, that you’ve been manipulated and made to choose sides in a debate whose terms are impossible to understand, where there seem to be no right answers and no way out.
But those words, “neither do I condemn you” will only penetrate our souls and be a truly healing balm if we are actually, like St. Paul, striving to be more fully taken ahold of by Him. Otherwise, especially when they are disconnected from the essential admonition to “sin no more,” they are cheap grace and moral laxity, which will only lead us to further misery.
To be “good” or respectable in the eyes of the world is certainly insufficient. But so is also the seeming dullness of believers. In the perception of the world, we have to choose between partying with the wicked or sulking with the pious. This is a false dichotomy. Rather than excusing behavior that is harmful to oneself and others, Christ forgives what is ultimately a sin against Him – a sin that treats Him as just another part of the struggle for power.
His words of forgiveness are a soothing balm to the soul who is striving to be a part of that “upward calling” of which St. Paul speaks today. Paul writes that he is “forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead.” Because we, doubtlessly even more so than St. Paul, “have [not] already attained perfect maturity,” there will be times when we come face to face with Christ like the woman in Gospel, caught in our own sins. As He says to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” the realization of her guilt and shame doubtlessly flooded her mind. Her simple response – “No one, sir.” – conveys far more than a simple awareness of her surroundings. “No one.” No one is left to condemn her. This is the moment where she can stop trying to take hold and is finally taken a hold of.
It is a thousand times better to be in her shoes than those of the Pharisees – to be the recipients of boundless mercy rather than those motivated by a false perception of their own goodness. Her story invites us to grow in humility, to recognize that God is the source of holiness, and that in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, He is in pursuit of us even more than we are of Him.
When we cease to think of Christ as yet another figure in pursuit of worldly power, and recognize Him as the goal of our upward striving, the source of all true righteousness beyond what we could ever achieve on our own, what we have gained up until now will indeed be so much rubbish, and there will be no one left to condemn us either.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Passion Sunday, A.D. MMXXII