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Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ – The Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan

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Sunday 7 April 2019 – 10.00

The Revd Professor Oliver O’Donovan, Canon Provincial of York

Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7)

As we begin to read Paul’s memorable description of the total change of values that he underwent, it may seem to us that we can anticipate where it is going to end up.   Paul learned not to value external ritual, conformity, rigour, zealotry, a package of ideas which he wraps up in the name, “the flesh”, and he came to value something else.   That new thing he calls the knowledge of Christ, the power of Christ’s resurrection, the righteousness which God confers on faith.   Obviously enough, this change goes back to his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road, and we hear it as a before-and-after story:  Paul proving himself by the standards of the Jewish law in which he had been trained;  Paul delivered from the need to prove himself, embracing an objective goal of life which set him free.   When we get to the words, “to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings”, we reckon we have reached the end.

But then he goes on,  “Not as though I have already obtained this…but I am still in pursuit of it.”    All the time his goal was bring that transformation of twenty years before right up to the present day.    So on top of a Paul who arrived, back then, at his true spiritual orientation, we have to see a Paul who has not arrived, a Paul who is still not “mature”, not perfected in his Christian faith.    Both these Pauls are shown us, so that we can see the same Paul in both of them.   It is not, of course, that Paul could ever turn his back on what happened on the Damascus Road, as once he turned his back on his early training as a Pharisee.   He had been taken hold of by Jesus Christ, and that was a fait accompli.   But it still left him with the infinite task of taking hold of that for which he had been taken hold, the task he has pursued ever since.

Perhaps we have here a key to celebrating Holy Week and Easter.    The event that changed everything once and for all has to go on changing everything.    We shall recall the deeds that shaped the history of the world more than two thousand years ago, but each year we must come back to them, we must live through them again.   It is not something we can recall, and then put behind us.   Each year finds us needing to be “conformed to his death, that we may come to the resurrection of the dead”, and that experience takes on a new dimension each year and presents us with a new challenge.

And so Paul declares that he keeps looking forward.   If we take that idea seriously, and not as a familiar commonplace, it will present us with some difficult questions.   Is there no place for the moral virtues of consistency and stability of purpose?   Is there no place for memory in a life that “forgets what is behind and strains forward to what lies ahead?”

Consistency must be consistency with something.   The question Paul asks is,  with what?   For himself, he does not want the consistency that would come from measuring himself by his own idealised version of himself.   He wants to measure himself against the “upward call” he has received.   And the question about memory is not whether to remember, but how to remember well.   Paul, who never stopped remembering, did not want to dwell in the past, but to look on the past as a window through which to see the working of God, so that he could dwell confidently in the present.   That is why he so often tells us to give thanks, for thankfulness is the memory that sets past experience in its proper frame, makes it a foundation on which we can build.

So we are to go on living in transition, crossing over from what the past has given to what the future will demand.    But if we need to have the right frame for viewing the past, we need a frame for viewing the future, too.   “Not as though I have already obtained…”   The future cannot be “obtained”.   We cannot grasp hold of it.   It is undetermined, unknown, unrealised, wholly God’s.   We have glimpses of it from time to time, through anticipations, projections, promises, hopes and fears, but they are always tentative, given at moments of heightened awareness and then left for us to wonder about.   The danger of trying to grasp the future is that the future we grasp will be imagined.    Imaginary futures are available in every different shape and size to suit our changing moods:  a future of cherished plans and ambitions, a future of speculation governed by a big idea, a future of extrapolated trends, safely predictable, a nightmare future that embodies our worst fears.   All of them are easier to grasp than the future God has planned, because for that we have to wait and watch out.

The strangest feature of the story told in this morning’s Gospel is that Mary was said to have exercised a kind of anticipation of the future in anointing Jesus “for his burial”.   She did not do this consciously.   It was left to Jesus to point out that the ointment she poured over him was used for anointing the dead.   But simply by attending to Jesus in his great crisis Mary rose to the challenge of the moment.   And to rise to the moment was to move forward into the future, for the only way we can confront the future effectively is on the horizon of the present moment, where the future is taking form as it approaches us.   If we are wholly intent on what lies before our face, we can receive the future as it is given.   From the ring of a doorbell to the latest headline in an impenetrable political chaos, we can pray each day to recognise, not to overlook, the point at which God is calling us – upwards, and therefore also forwards.

Paul closes with a word for those who, like myself, have the longer part of their lives behind them, whose broad lines of personality, habit and achievement are fixed.   To us he spells out the great paradox of maturity:  “It is not as though I had attained, or were mature….As many of you as are mature, have this in your mind.”   Real maturity inovlves a sense of continuing incompleteness.   Whatever stocks of memory, principle, accomplishment our memory holds, we shall have to add this further discovery:  we are incomplete as human beings, still attending to new tasks, still looking for the way God will lead.

When we were younger, our minds were set on getting there, on the next big opportunity.     Those opportunities are now past;  but we have still to reap the fruit of them, to make sure that they will add up to a life of service fit to offer God.   When we were younger, we had lots of ideas which we wore like new clothes, strutting around.   As the challenges of life took hold of us, some of them were put away, others became part of our familiar way of functioning.   Now we may think we are all of a piece with our ideas;  we are what we have become.    But not at all! Paul tells us.   Crucial decisions that will make us what we are still lie before us.   We have to reach forward in response to God, for whom anything is possible.   We may never settle back.

O God and Father, who hast set our face toward the future, to weigh its opportunities and its uncertainties, grant that our hope may so reach out to the promise of thy Kingdom, and our purpose so bent to the task lying near at hand, that at thy Son’s coming we may be found upon his service.  For his name’ sake.


Oliver O’Donovan

York Minster

Lent 5,  7 April 2019

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