N.T. Wright – Anglican Bishop, professor, prolific New Testament scholar – has written more books than many of us have time to read. Happily, he often follows a major work with a shorter, more accessible book. This reflects his conviction that biblical scholarship is for the sake of the life of the Church, that the pastoral is not extracurricular, but the curriculum, the nourishing of the disciples on the Way.
Wright’s latest book (at least last I looked) is Paul: A Biography. In many ways it is the culmination of decades-long wrestling with the vision and mission of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Of particular significance is Wright’s concluding summary chapter: “The Challenge of Paul.” He is persuaded that the origin and goal of Paul’s life and mission was always Jesus.
Jesus as the shocking fulfillment of Israel’s hopes; Jesus as the genuinely human being, the true “image”; Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God – so that without leaving Jewish monotheism, one would worship and invoke Jesus as Lord within, not alongside the service of the “living and true God.” Jesus, the one for whose sake one would forsake all idols, all rival “lords.”
I cite this conviction because I think it offers a rich and needed context for the brief passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which serves as the second reading for this Second Sunday of Advent.
Paul never wrote an impersonal, dispassionate letter. But Philippians may well be his most personal and passionate. He tells them how he longs for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8), using the word for visceral emotion the Synoptics use in speaking of Jesus’s deep compassion. The whole of today’s reading expresses Paul’s joyful prayer for those who share communion of life with him in the Gospel. Indeed, the passage actually begins at verse 3 – inexplicably, omitted from the lectionary reading – with the crucial word: “Eucharistô”: “I give thanks to my God for my every memory of you!”
Paul’s bond with the Philippians is of the closest and most intimate because he and they are united in a shared common life in Christ Jesus. He himself exults, as he will confess later in the Letter, that “to live is Christ” (1:21), echoing his passionate cry in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
All this only confirms Wright’s contention that it is the person of Jesus who is the very heart of Paul’s life and proclamation, “not just as the label to put on an idea, a theological fact, if you like, but as the living, inspiring, consoling, warning, and encouraging presence, the one whose love ‘makes us press on,’ the one ‘who loved me and gave himself for me,’ the one whom to know was worth more than all the privileges that the world has to offer.”
Further, this new life in Christ Jesus is inexhaustible and unending. Thus Paul’s prayer for the Philippians (and for us) continues: “that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and discernment so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” (1:9-10)
Nor does Paul exclude himself from the imperative of continuing growth in the knowledge and love of him who is the source of their salvation and the goal of their striving. He will confess later in the Letter: “Not that I am myself yet perfected (teteleiômai))” (3:12); but he strives, as he exhorts them to do, to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection, to share in Christ’s suffering, becoming conformed (summorphizomenos) to his death, so as to attain the resurrection from the dead.” (3:10-11)
This new being, this new life, this ongoing transformation in Christ is the Apostle’s fervent desire for those whom he evangelized and for whom he prays unceasingly.
But, in all this, has Paul, perhaps unwittingly, substituted his own Gospel for the simple Good News of Jesus? Has he subverted Jesus’ radical message of social reform into an individualistic “mysticism” – pie-in-the-sky for the oppressed? Is Paul, in effect, the founder of “Christianity,” traducing thereby his ancestral faith?
The questions may seem to have about them the musty whiff of nineteenth-century German “higher criticism;” but, spruced up and re-packaged, they re-appear in various guises and disguises even at academic conferences and in “progressive” Catholic publications.
Aeons ago (that is, before Vatican II!), the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray gave a series of lectures at Yale, published under the title: The Problem of God. Perhaps to the surprise of his ecumenical audience, Murray stated that the really crucial question is: “What think ye of homoousion?” Guerilla sniping between advocates of “one in being” and partisans of “consubstantial” can be insouciant evasions of the decisive and defining question.
For underpinning all Paul’s prayers and desires is the absolute conviction that comes to expression in the Christological hymn he sings together with his beloved Philippians: “though he was in the form of God. . .Jesus took on human form. . .even to death on a cross. . .at the Name of Jesus every knee shall bend. . .Jesus Christ is Lord!” (Phil 2:6–11)
This hymn of praise and worship (together with the hymns in Colossians 1:15–20 and John 1:1–14) is far closer to Nicaea’s homoousion than we are often ready to admit. But, if we dare not confess it, whatever is Advent for? Whose coming do we truly, in wonder, await – if not Immanuel: God himself with us in the Father’s only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ?
*Image: Saint Paul by Adam Elsheimer, 1605 [Petworth House, West Sussex, Engliand]