How to Gain Christ in the Pauline Perspective
Archbishop of Lanciano-Ortona, Italy
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"Gaining Christ": this expression, like that of "learning Christ" which we already analyzed in these pages some months ago (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 25 June 2008, p. 6), has something odd about it. It is generally said that something is gained, even a goal, but not a person.
If we consider the Greek verb katalambano, we might recognize in it a shade of aggression or, as it were, arrogance. So it is that some have translated: "I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil 3:12) .
To tell the truth, I have to say that I do not dislike the verb Paul chose for his translation, for the simple reason that something of his psychology is recognizable in it: the violence that Paul unleashed against the Christians and against Christ himself prior to his conversion he now puts at the service of the truth. Is it not true perhaps that Jesus also said: "from the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force" (Mt 11:12)?
Paul is of course alluding here to the great event of his conversion on the road to Damascus, when he suffered violence from Christ and was obliged to declare himself overcome by God's power. We know that Paul's whole life depended on that event, his whole theology and his whole spirituality. On it his whole pedagogy also depends, both for its content and its method.
To assess exactly where this surprising process of conversion led, Paul invites us first of all to consider what he calls "yesterday's gain". Let us listen to his testimony: "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse" (Phil 3:7-8).
Thus Paul recognized that he had fallen into a tremendous error; he realized he had espoused a wrong cause. Now, illuminated by the same light which in that first instance blinded him, he candidly confessed that it had been a false gain, indeed a damaging gain, alluding obviously to every privilege of birth and education, and every religions and moral endeavour.
Every time that Paul lashed out against those he stigmatized as "enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil 3:18) he did this always and only to affirm this feature — only apparently negative — of his pedagogical method, without which every human effort would generate disappointment and dejection.
We cannot fail to see in this "reinterpretation" or "revision of life" the fruit of healing grace that was released by Jesus' Passion and death. But we can also recognize the action of illuminating grace.
Challenged today by the huge problems associated with the task of education, one loses nothing by recalling what Paul learned from his own experience: having been violently thrown from his horse was only a faint sign of the paschal victory that Jesus won over him.
Paul's judgment of his past is extremely lucid: Christ the Lord brought him to formulate a new scale of values, inverting what had previously characterized his life. What had then seemed gain to him became loss, what had then seemed wealth became refuse, what had then seemed just became unjust.
Of course, this inversion of values also crucially influenced Paul's pedagogical method. He mustered his courage to ask of others what Christ had asked of him: a knowledge of Jesus that was not generic but rather experiential, subsequent to what was not a chance encounter but a providential meeting.
In this interpretive horizon we can bring together all the practical instructions with which Pauline pedagogy is strewn and understand them.
But what is most important is to define "today's gain", which Paul is now determined to safeguard at all costs. He says so with extreme clarity: "in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ".
Let us clarify that in the phrases "gain Christ" and "to be found in him": there is an active verb and a passive one, undoubtedly to indicate both God's anticipatory and unconditional action and man's response.
"Knowing Christ", "gaining Christ", "being found in Christ", means being introduced into past events whose presence remains active also today. Only on the basis of this certainty is it possible to give life to a serious and effective educational project, that is, which can produce that for which it has been conceived and planned.
The reference to the Apostle's Judaic past affords the opportunity for a definition of the two forms of justice: one that derives from the law and generates in man a sense of self-sufficiency and pride before God; and the other, which is a gift of God "for the faith of Christ".
How can the genitive "of Christ" be interpreted? It is important to know this not only to interpret Paul's thought correctly, and thus for a theological reason, but also for a better definition of his pedagogical method.
There are at least three possible meanings: one can understand faith in Jesus Christ (objective genitive); in this case Jesus is the object of faith. But it can also mean that faith has Jesus Christ as its origin (genitive of origin). Jesus is then understood as the source of our faith; he gives us belief.
Lastly, one can think of a subjective genitive: faith is Jesus' attitude towards his Father, a total faith, in the sense that Jesus entrusts himself to him, and obeys him with filial obedience: through this faith, Jesus justifies us before his Father and ours. For this faith, Jesus may be considered as the model of our faith.
It is not at all difficult to see the influence of these three meanings on Paul's pedagogical method, and their effect on the process of conversion and of every believer's full adherence to Christ, the object, cause and model of our faith.
We can certainly compare our own experience to Paul's. We are all urged by God's Word to enter this dynamism of the faith that saves. It is first and foremost a gift that flows from the heart of God and the side of Christ. But faith is also recognition of the work of salvation brought about by God through Christ's total and unconditional obedience to the Father's will.
Finally, faith is a free and conscious human act with which every person lets himself be attracted to the love of God that was manifested to us fully in Christ Jesus. No educator will ever be able to ignore these incontrovertible data or he will suffer the total inefficacy of his pedagogical method.
Lastly Paul spells out clearly "the future gain": what will this gain be? Let us listen again to Paul's words: "It is not that I have already reached it yet, or have already finished my course; but I am racing to grasp the prize if possible, since I have been grasped by Christ" (Phil 3:12-13).
Paul is aware that he has been an object of divine grace but also knows that this must not become a pretext for avoiding every effort. And if he, Paul, has not yet reached his goal, the Christians of Philippi should not delude themselves either (nor should we!).
Paul therefore invites them and us to continue onwards like him. Christian maturity — this is always in Paul's mind (3:15-16) — does not at all consist in the definitive acquisition of a presumed perfection but in being faithful to the given word, in persevering on the journey underway.
The transition that Paul brings about here moves from the "already" to the "not yet". Paul already belongs to Christ because Christ gained possession of him on the road to Damascus, but cannot yet say that he has totally fulfilled the vocation to which he has been called.
Paul is already running towards his goal, but cannot yet say that he has reached it.
Paul is already living the new life in Christ, but cannot yet say that he is living it in the fullness of light that will make him a perfect likeness of the Son of God (see also Col 3:3-4 and 1 Jn 3:1-2).
This vital tension is a notable characteristic of every journey of faith: all those whom Christ wants not only to be disciples but also to be his witnesses must measure themselves against it.
Paul hoped more precisely that he might personally "know him and the power of his Resurrection, and... share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the Resurrection from the dead".
Let us remember that the term "form" (morphe) should not be taken as a mere metaphor; it means something more than an appearance — it is the visible figure that expresses an invisible reality. In our case, Paul wanted to say that the believer truly participates in Christ's death (other translations are: "by being conformed to his death" (NAB Phil 3:10), or "to become like him in his death").
One might say that a Christian, to be able to say he truly is such, to say he was trained at the school of Jesus, must reproduce in himself the features of the Crucified Christ, he must even resemble the dead Jesus.
Let us remember that when Paul presented himself to the Christians of Corinth he advanced one claim: "I did in fact decide to teach you nothing other than Jesus Christ and Christ crucified". And in order not to preach empty words, he added "and I was with you in weakness and much fear and trembling" (Cor 2:2-3).
Once again, we must point out that Paul, as the excellent teacher he was, suggested to others what he had first experienced himself. Every educator knows that he cannot escape this rule, which binds him to the extent of a complete gift of self.
Paul offers us a marvellous synthesis of the whole of this journey at the end of his testimony: "Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:13-14).
For Paul, past, present and future are only three stages of a single journey which, in God's plan, has its own profound unity.
Weekly Edition in English
14 January 2009, page 16
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