Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14
Crossing the Threshold
In an intense little book called Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom tells about a time during the Nazi occupation of Paris when he very nearly was caught by the Gestapo:
“During the German occupation of France I was in the resistance movement and, coming down into the Underground, I was caught by the police…. What took place at that moment was this: I had a past, I had a future, and I was moving out of one into the other by walking briskly down the steps. At a certain moment someone put a hand on my shoulder and said ‘Stop, give me your papers.’ At that moment . .. I realized that I had no past, because the real past I had was the thing for which I should be shot…. I found myself standing there like the lizard who had been caught by the tail and had run away leaving the tail somewhere behind, so that the lizard ended where the tail had been.”1
Something like this happens in the lesson for today. Paul had been walking briskly from his past into his future, so to speak, when God put a hand on his shoulder, and took him from a past and future that he thought he understood, to a previously unimaginable new life in Christ. The break is decisive. It is a matter of life and death, and having broken with his former identity, Paul doesn’t walk; he runs into the future that is his in union with Christ.
We, like Paul, live at the threshold between the past and the future. This threshold is cruciform, and it is both an exit and an entrance. We, like Paul, are no longer to find our life, our purpose, our worth, our identity, in the past, but only in the discovery of who we are in Christ. This is incredibly liberating good news. It also is scary, perhaps insulting, and certainly difficult to grasp and comprehend. God continually wrenches us from what is comfortable and familiar and tugs us into the glorious future of the children of God.
Paul narrates his past in terms of his family, nationality and faith, and in terms of his accomplishments. That is, his former identity was bound up in a set of given relationships, as well as personal achievements and failures. Indeed, his greatest achievement, perfection in relationship to the Law of Moses, accompanied his greatest failure, persecution of the church. In any case, having once considered his personal story as a kind of asset, now he considers it loss — even more, “garbage.” I wonder what his relatives would say about that value judgment!
We also have our personal stories, some of which we cherish, some of which we would gladly bury. In either case, we often feel that our identity is bound up in those stories; we want to tell them to each other, or at least parts of them. Like lizards, we trail our personal histories — our “tails”! — behind us. Becoming “tail-less” is a necessary part of being transformed in the image of Christ.
In practical terms, this means that we don’t own our past or our memories. Rather, access to the past is mediated by the judgment and mercy of God. This is part of what baptism signifies, and we see its effects in the profound freedom from the past in Paul’s personal narrative. He does not have amnesia. Rather, from the standpoint of the grace of God in Christ, he is no longer defined by that history, because only God can tell him who he is.
Unlike the past, therefore, Paul’s future is not primarily about him. It’s about God. Specifically, it’s about “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” That is, Jesus Christ is the threshold where our past and our future meet. Jesus is the one whose faithful obedience to death (Philippians 2:8) nullifies the power of our own history and liberates us for a new future. Paul puts it this way: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and 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” (3:8-9).
An alternative translation of verse 9 reads, “the faithfulness of Christ.” This divine faithfulness is the incarnate expression of God’s faithfulness throughout the history of Israel, now crystallized in Christ and decisively effective for the whole world. In other words, Christ himself makes us righteous and thereby brings us into the life-giving presence of God. When Paul yearns to “be found in” Christ, he is responding to the self-giving love of Christ who was “found in human form” (2:7).
Finally, Paul uses the image of a race to describe the Christian life. A runner who keeps glancing over his shoulder will not win the race. Rather, the one who keeps her “eyes on the prize” will stay on track. Similarly, the runner who mistakes the half-way marker for the goal and stops there, saying “I made it!” will drop out of the race.
So also, Paul says that he has not “already reached the goal” (3:12). The phrase is literally, “have already become perfect or mature.” Paul uses the same word in verse 15, when he says, “Let those of us who are mature be of the same mind.” Paradoxically, “mature thinking” means recognizing that we’re not yet mature! We’re not yet perfect, and if we think we are, we are deceiving ourselves. Rather, we are always in the midst of the race, carried forward from the past to the future in union with Christ.
1Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1970), 84.