Paul’s short letter to the Philippians is a textbook for those who are trying to build a relationship with the risen Jesus. Today and next week’s passages take us to the heart of what it means to be another Christ.
It’s essential to start by hearing Deutero-Isaiah’s oracle in our first reading. By doing so, we acquire the proper frame of mind to appreciate Paul’s insights in our second reading, and Luke’s message in our gospel.
Proclaiming Yahweh’s word to a people in Exile who believe they’ve already “heard it all before,” the prophet demonstrates that true faith isn’t just a verbal, ritual recitation of past events. Real faith revolves around recognizing God doing something in our present life that God’s never done before.
Notice that Deutero-Isaiah begins by speaking about the Exodus taking place in the present, not the past. “Thus says Yahweh, opening a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters leading out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together never to rise. . . .“ Then God gets to the heart of the message. “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Yahweh’s saving events aren’t “events of the past.” Though people of faith constantly experience them, they’re not happening exactly the way they once took place. God always saves, but always does so in new ways. Our faith leads us beyond the past to an ever-evolving present.
I’ve experienced lots of “new things” in my faith life. Like most Catholics, I originally was taught Jesus founded the Roman Catholic Church as we know it, with its hiererarchial structure, rituals, rules and regulations. He did this to guarantee all its members (after a required stay in purgatory) would eventually get into heaven. I was assured I’d achieve eternal glory by following the binding dictates of our church, no matter how minute. It took awhile before I realized the implications of something Raymond Brown said at our 1975 clergy conference: “Jesus of Nazareth had no intention of founding a church as we know it.”
We know from our Scriptures that the first Christians gave themselves over to a person - the risen Jesus among them - not to an institution. Paul summarizes the impact of such an ever-new faith in one sentence: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.”
I’ve frequently mentioned Semitic thinking persons truly know only what they experience. Theologians through the centuries have reminded us of organized religion’s purpose: to help its members know God in their lives. Organized religion was never created to provide us just with an experience of organized religion.
Mao Tse Tung once observed, “No one can swim in the same river twice.” Those who form a deep relationship with another constantly experience the “new.” The relationship is never the same two days in a row. Paul reveals the depth of his ever-changing faith when he speaks about his quest to attain resurrection from the dead. “. . . I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.” Thankfully the Apostle hasn’t been taken possession of by an institution.
Today’s gospel pericope wasn’t originally in John’s gospel. So why did some scribe put it there? Only one answer. As Teve, the hero of Fiddler on the Roof confidently states when challenged about one of his “Good Book” quotes, “If it isn’t in there, it should be in there!” Those whose faith springs from a deep relationship with Jesus aren’t limited even by Scripture. After all, Deutero-Isaiah’s convinced that God will still be doing new things long after the prophet’s new things are “things of the past.”