But I Press On
Princeton University Chapel
October 5, 2008
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20 ~ Philippians 3: 4b-14
In my pastoral capacity I have the privilege of talking to many people about what they value, what they believe, what they practice, and also what they refuse to value, believe and practice. One attitude that I’ve certainly seen over the years in some people is a lack of interest in organized religious or spiritual communities because it’s thought that they come with rules – rules for personal behavior or moral opinions. Many people simply do not want willingly to sign on to be accountable to something. It feels binding. Who wants to add more accountabilities to their lives? The personal, professional, financial and legal relationships we already have come with as many restrictions and responsibilities as any person can take. Our spiritual lives are about the last place we really can feel like we have some freedom. Why put your spirit into a box? How impoverishing! Why make yourself accountable to yet one more stodgy set of rules that compromises your individuality?
In fact, the religious traditions of the world do indeed each have firm rules and moral codes by which to live. There is so much to be accountable to. I can only speak about Christianity – and then, only in part – but the essential thing to know is that Christianity is about a relationship, an elemental relationship with the members of the Trinity individually and together. Every (healthy) relationship we are in has its accountabilities. If you want to be my friend I require that you be respectful and honest towards me. In turn, I will be accountable for these things to you. The text we call The Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus is placed in the middle of exactly this kind of conversation. God is offering the Hebrews a relationship; a covenant is being offered, and these verses are what God requires of the people. I think of it (perhaps irreverently) as a kind of pre-nuptial agreement! Marriages are also covenants. Here God lays out, before the deal is sealed, what it will take for the Hebrews to be the people of God. The first four commandments are about God – or rather, how we relate to God, which is to say, exclusively. No worshipping of the golden calves of our neighbors; no spiritual cheating, only spiritual trustworthiness and integrity. The remaining six commandments issue from the first four – in being accountable to integrity towards God, we are simultaneously accountable for integrity toward all other people. If we are in a covenant relationship with God, it is understood, of course we will then treat all others with the same respect. We don’t slander them, dishonor their names, lie to or about them, cheat on them, steal from them, or kill them. Later, when asked which is the greatest commandment, Jesus summed it all up: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
These commandments aren’t very draconian, are they? They’re the way people in every society want to live with one another. We don’t get them right all the time – we may not commit murder, but we are sometimes dishonest with others, or our materialism gets in the way of our exclusive worship of God. I’ve come to think, though, that what is hard about these rules isn’t the relatively few restraints that they do put on us but rather the enormous freedom they offer us. If abiding by this handful of regulations is all that was required to be in covenant relationship with God, then wouldn’t we just check them off and be done with it? Paul writes to the believers in Philippi that he has checked them off – he’s got a perfect scorecard when it comes to the letter of the law. It‘s the freedom that surrounds these rules that is the challenge of faith. “Thou shalt not kill” leaves us free to nurture life everywhere – even obligated to do it. Children with distended bellies, prisoners who’ve lost all hope (or who face death), folks who just don’t know how they’re going to stay warm this winter, people struggling with mental illness. “Thou shalt not tell falsehoods about other people” – on the contrary, get out there and back them up! Join the people you think are standing up for the truth! Tell the truth yourself, rather than lies. Even if the cost to you would be high – tell the truth to the people you work with, the people you live with, the people who make decisions for your town, state and country. “You shall not steal” – while you’re proactively not taking what isn’t yours, give what you can to the people who don’t have what you do. Don’t steal – share! There are a lot of people near here who aren’t getting by. Don’t steal – stand up for people who’ve been cheated out of what they had by scam artists, predatory lenders, duplicitous relatives, or the makers of cheap or faulty goods. “You shall not covet the stuff that you see other people have and you don’t.” Help change the values and messages that tell all of us we should want – or that we need – certain material goods in our lives – that these things are the measure of our human worth. “Do not covet your neighbor’s house,” God says to Moses. We drive around and see houses we’d love to have. “Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife” – we see on TV and everywhere types of beautiful people we should want to have on our arms and become ourselves. “Don’t covet your neighbor’s slaves, ox or donkey” – this is about lifestyle, the kinds that jump off the pages of all those catalogues that come in the mail. “Don’t focus on stuff,” says the commandment. Free yourself to focus on a universe of other things – justice, beauty, truth, love. In the end, there’s such a small list of things we’re not allowed to do. What amazing pro-active things are we actually enabled to do. And what irony – the truly demanding part of a life of faith isn’t the bold-faced rules that inform it but the radical freedom that accompanies it. It’s not about the rules, but the freedom.
In his letter to the Philippians (as in other letters) Paul is talking to people who are hearing elsewhere that you need Christ plus something in order to be saved. Perhaps it is Jewish traditions (he addresses circumcision in his correspondence with the Galatians), or it may be Moses, or it may be angels (he writes about this to the Colossians). Paul does not dismiss or put down the law when writing to the Philippians. He keeps every commandment. But he is asking what makes a person a Christian, and his answer is, that relationship with Christ. Faith alone! It’s about that relationship.
It’s a relationship that he wants very badly but that he knows he hasn’t achieved. It’s not inappropriate, I think, to compare Paul’s experience with our own when we are desperately in love with another person – when we’re not sure we can breathe if we don’t see him or her in the next five minutes. “But I press on,” Paul says twice. He is reaching out so hard, straining with all his might. I appreciate the comments of one biblical scholar who says that our Bible’s translation “but I press on” does little justice to the fervor and strain of Paul’s quest for union with Christ. The poetry of Paul’s time uses the same Greek words to describe romantic pursuit, and a situation in which the one who cherishes another is both the pursuer and the pursued. Paul forges forward in his pursuit of Christ while all the while Christ is in hot pursuit of him, so eager to save. The words also suggest an animal hunt in hottest pursuit. This hunt is going two ways! And it will continue to do so until Paul can perfect his faith – can effect the relationship with Christ that he so infinitely desires. Only then will he find that he has not captured Christ, the subject of his longing, but in fact has been captured by him.
“But I press on” – these words don’t express the passion of Paul and also they suggest to our modern ears a personal quest for moral improvement. That is not what Paul wants. He keeps the commandments, after all. His letters are not a narrative about becoming a better person. They are about nothing short of union with Christ. It is we who would like to become a better person, and so we read this into Paul. There’s nothing wrong with becoming a better person – if you’re like me you could use a lot of improvement! This is, unfortunately, the reduction of religion that many people assume – it’s about becoming a better person. While we work on our own moral improvement, though, let us also consider Paul’s invitation to live not for the sake of meeting regulations or fulfilling self-improvement goals but for union with Christ.
Paul’s hope for that true communion in Christ he places in death, and in his hope of resurrection from the dead. He is in that liminal, middle place – dropping what is past and straining for what he hopes is to come. Straining, pressing on, in hot pursuit, living in faithful anticipation.
I think that if we pressed on in such a way as to seek union with Christ the whole topic of rules, regulations, commandments and accountabilities would recede into a faded backdrop, simply no longer an active issue. With our eyes so firmly set on the prize, our feet can only stay on the right path. “I want to know Christ,” Paul says. If the focus of our lives becomes the knowledge of Christ – oneness with him – our intention to become a better person is both irrelevant and essentially fulfilled. We’ll get it right. The law – rules – aren’t the goal of our living, but they are the foundation of a life of spiritual integrity. When the goal of our living is union with Christ we find, like Paul, that the commandments of our faith are common sense. They are the way we do live if our eyes are on the prize. They are no burden. They are a fact of life in the life of one who presses on, seeking union with Christ.
Like most people, I’ll admit that I truly am not looking for more regulations in my life, or boundaries around my spirit. I would, however, love to have union with Christ. I say that fearfully, wondering what it truly would cost me. Maybe Paul felt this way, too – maybe Paul just wanted to say, “It’s not the formal rules that are a problem, it’s all the freedom we have as lovers of God and followers of Christ. People of basic integrity can follow the rules. Let them have them if that’s all they’re looking for. The kicker is the rest – the way we structure our days, the ethic we live, the choices we make. The rule we have for that is to love God completely and so to love our neighbor as ourselves.” How infinitely more demanding, and unspecified. The only criterion is our own faith. But we press on.
David Frederickson, Workingpreacher.org, Oct. 5, 2008
Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation Series, WJK Press
Fred Craddock, Philippians, Interpretation Series, WJK Press
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