ON Scripture-The Bible: Pressing on Toward Higher Goals: Phil. 3:4b-14 By Efrain Agosto
Pressing on Toward Higher Goals: Philippians 3:4b-14
By Efrain Agosto
I have often wondered about the trajectories my life has taken. I was raised a Latino Pentecostal in New York City but educated in a liberal arts tradition at Columbia University in Manhattan. I was exposed to evangelical and then liberal Protestant traditions in seminary and graduate school. My theological views have changed over the years. I have moved from Pentecostal to Baptist to Congregational (United Church of Christ) church traditions.
Yet at each step of the way, I have been able to build on the solid foundations of the past in moving to new understandings for the new circumstances in my life. These life transitions never started from "scratch." Some of these same tensions might have motivated Paul in considering, at least rhetorically, his past a "loss" in comparison to a new way of living and being in Philippians 3:4b-14.
Credentials Aside, What is Truly Important?
It is hard to imagine the Apostle Paul rejecting tradition and received knowledge, but that is what he does here in the middle of this letter. He writes from prison but doesn't seem to mind focusing on such values as joy, unity and perseverance, even when his circumstances should lead to desperation, fear and hopelessness.
At the beginning of the letter, Paul is clear that he might face death as a result of his confinement in a Roman prison. He writes, however, that he would rather survive and "continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith" (Phlp. 1:25 NRSV).
We are not sure if he is released after writing this, or if this is one of his final letters. Paul, however, understands that the nature of his ministry was such that suffering and hardship were always just around the corner. After all, he and his fellow believers follow a Christ who "humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Phlp. 2:8 NRSV). In many ways, Paul asserts, believers follow in Christ's footsteps and become willing to engage hardship for the cause of the gospel.
So putting aside worldly status and "earthly" credentials is not all that big a deal for Paul. He has always had high regard for the traditions that made him who he is and in fact depends on them. At the same time, his experience of Christ has led him to understand his past in a new light.
Paul has all the right credentials as a well-bred, well-educated product of the people of Israel. More than that, he identifies with one of the more highly regarded expressions of Judaism at the time, the Pharisaic tradition. He has always been faithful to the foundations of that historic religious tradition. He even pursued judgment against perceived usurpers to that tradition, the followers of a fellow Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Yet because of an encounter with that Jesus and how his teachings and memories lived on in a new life, through the resurrection of this Christ, Paul wants to put his past in proper perspective not negating it, but "counting it a loss" in comparison to the "surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phlp. 3:8). In Paul's mind, he is not turning his back on who he was but embracing a new perspective that makes him who he is. Many of us will relate well to this experience. After all, don't we find that our lives change in light of "new knowledge?"
What do we do with this "new Knowledge"?
In these days, what are the sources of such life-altering "new knowledge?" There are many places for us to turn. Though I grew up without guns, I was surrounded by plenty of gun violence in my inner city neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the aftermath of the tragic losses of our children and educators in Newtown, Connecticut, I wonder if we have gained any new knowledge. Apparently, we live in a country that values the freedom to own guns, even overly powerful ones like assault rifles. "Second Amendment rights" are invoked as if our founders could predict the kinds of weapons that would be available to regular Americans today, even with the "militia" (local police forces) that we also have available to us.
The Apostle Paul talks about "not having a righteousness" that is his "own" and "comes from the law," but rather one that is "righteousness [also translated 'justice'] from God based on faith" (Phlp. 3:9 NRSV). Further, Paul again acknowledges that he hopes one can learn from the experience of suffering, even as one experiences "resurrection" - new life - like Jesus Christ. And again, I ask, what new knowledge have we gained from the awful experience of suffering in Newtown? Can resurrection - new life - come of it with regard to how we think about guns and gun violence in this country? Can resurrection - new life - arise amidst our children, youth and families?
Paul does not end his exhortation to new life in light of suffering without reminding his readers - and us - that achieving new knowledge and new life is an ongoing process. None of us have "arrived" at our goals for life, but goals we must have. For Paul, the ultimate goal, which he calls the prize, is achieving "the heavenly call of God" that he perceives is available to him through what Christ Jesus has accomplished (Phlp 3:14 NRSV).
Where do we find a roadmap to a "higher calling?"
I was struck by President Obama's inaugural address and its focus on such critical goals for our nation in the years to come: climate change, immigration reform, economic justice, gay rights and, thankfully, gun control legislation. Just as the civil rights movement of a past generation (one that we are still working on today) had its "eyes on the prize" of civil and human rights, our generation needs to define the goals we will pursue with faith and determination, "straining forward to what lies ahead" (Phlp 3:13 NRSV). We Americans - old and new - have always prided ourselves on being peoples who set lofty goals and strive to achieve them. May we continue to do so - in light of "new knowledge" - with a roadmap to a higher calling.
Efraín Agosto is the Professor of New Testament Studies at New York Theological Seminary. Formerly, he taught at Hartford Seminary (1995-2011). He completed studies at Columbia University (B.A., 1977), Gordon-Conwell Seminary (M.Div., 1982) and Boston University (Ph.D., 1996). He is the author of two books: Servant Leadership: Jesus and Paul (Chalice Press, 2005) and Corintios (Fortress Press, 2008), a Spanish-language commentary on 1-2 Corinthians, in addition to numerous articles and book chapters, mostly in Pauline studies. Efraín is a Puerto Rican New Yorker, who currently resides with his wife Olga in West Hartford, Connecticut. They have two adult children, and are members of the United Church of Christ.
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