Paul is not easy to understand. Last week I admitted to only having an educated guess about what he meant in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Before I look at this week’s passage, I should mention that my view of Paul is unconventional. I do not think Paul was trying to start a new religion. I think he was a full-fledged Jew. A key verse for me is 2 Corinthians 11:24 where he says that five time he was whipped according to the prescribed synagogue punishment of 39 lashes. This could only have happened to Paul if he had submitted himself to the authority of the synagogue.
He was a Roman citizen after all. He did not have to allow the Jewish authorities to discipline him. If he thought of himself as a member of a separate religion that rejected Jewish law, there is no reason for him to allow the synagogue to administer corporal punishment.
The epistle in the Revised Common Lectionary for the fifth Sunday of Lent is Philippians 3:4-14. Here he mentions the idea that he developed more thoroughly in Romans, that his righteousness (or right standing with God) is based on faith in (or perhaps the faith of) Christ.
This idea became the basis for the Lutheran/Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith. It says that God treats us as righteous when we have faith. To keep this from being too subjective and basing everything on our ability to conjure up an inner disposition of faith, the corollary is usually that faith is a gift from God, not something we conjure up.
There is a whole “new perspective” on this held by many recent students of Paul. The Lutheran /Protestant perspective has given way to a more Jewish perspective. Paul’s conflict with some synagogue authorities was not about adherence to the Torah, but about “covenant badges” like circumcision that tended to exclude those Gentiles who believed in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah from the people of God. Paul became an advocate for these excluded ones without rejecting Judaism.
For me, it is easier to talk about forgiveness than justification. It probably comes down to about the same thing, something that carries over from Joseph and his brothers to the thief on the next cross over.
In Philippians 3 Paul goes beyond all this to talk about the goal or prize that he reaches for:
My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11, NET Bible).
Paul believed that Jesus was the crucified and risen Jewish Messiah. Paul’s spirituality strove to participate in the Christ-event, the passion and glorification of Jesus. We know of Paul’s sense that he shared the sufferings of Christ. His experience of beatings, shipwrecks, illness, anxiety and rejection were physical and mental expressions of his solidarity with Jesus. But he also experienced the power of Jesus. The assemblies he founded in various cities like Philippi were likely experiential confirmation for him of resurrection power. Also Paul seems to have had mystical experiences such as visions, ability to heal others (but not himself), and ecstatic speech and prayer.
One of my difficulties in understanding Paul is that I am not anything like him. Oh, I have had troubles, hardships, disappointments and griefs in my life. So I get the part about sharing in the sufferings of Christ. In what ways have I experienced the power of the resurrection, though? There have been victories and accomplishments. But they fade in comparison with Paul’s achievements. Certainly I don’t have or want weird mystical experiences.
Even for Paul, the sufferings are more a present reality and the resurrection more a future attainment. He wants to share in the death of Christ now, so that he can fully share in the resurrection in the future.
Also I think it important to note that Paul admits that he is striving, stretching out like an athlete to cross the finish line and win a prize. Lent leads up to the Friday of darkness and the Sunday of new light. Christian spirituality seeks to share in both of these, not just inwardly, but in the real pains and joys of living. The outward quest is a quest for a prize that is out there–out there in history and out there in a future that has been promised.