Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, (Philippians 3:13 NASB)
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[Today I knew that because my youngest was quite ill, I wouldn’t get to Mass. But Thomas, who is 9, would. So when I read the Mass readings, and a theme immediately suggested itself, I thought I’d write something to keep him occupied while the grown-ups (including his dad) were listening to the priest. Here it is, my first-ever ‘homily’!]
A homily for Thomas
Gregory of Nyssa, who is one of my favourite theologians, would really have enjoyed the readings today. St Gregory lived a long time ago; he was born about 300 years after Jesus died (and rose again!!). Philippians 3:13, which we heard in the New Testament reading, was his favourite verse, and he mentioned it often in his writing. He wrote a lot of stuff–homilies, letters, and some longer things–and I haven’t read it all. But I’ve read a good bit, and I have read what he wrote about this verse in a few places in his writings. I want to tell you why it was one of his favourite verses, and it just so happens that the readings for today are all about that theme: redemption.
I bet you have learned that word in RE [religious education]. It means God’s saving work. All of the readings are about that, so I will tell you a little bit about each of them, and then I’ll tell you why Gregory liked Philippians 3:13 so much. If you read all the way to the end, you’ll see how it all fits together and why it’s so important that I wanted to tell you about it.
Today the Old Testament reading came from Isaiah. I especially liked the bit where Isaiah says (and it is the Lord who speaks) to forget the former things, and look to what the Lord is doing: a new thing. God is generous and creative. He made the world and all that is in it–the huge variety of animals and plants, the landscape and the weather, sun and snow and strong winds. But God hasn’t stopped. All that fruitful, loving power that is God keeps on moving, keeping the universe together, holding us and keeping us alive with his life-giving breath. God’s saving work is going on all the time.
It isn’t always easy to remember that. So in the psalm the people are calling out to God, asking God to rescue them, and at the same time, they’re remembering the right stuff: God’s faithfulness to them in the past. Remembering God’s faithfulness helps them to pray with trust in God. In Isaiah, what God wants the people to forget isn’t the good He has done for them, but their sin against God.
It’s kind of a strange thing to do during Lent, isn’t it? Here we are, having decided to give something up, or to do something extra, which we do to show that we know we’re sinful and also to show that we want to do better, with the help of the Holy Spirit. But it makes sense in light of the Gospel reading. Unlike the psalmist or the prophet Isaiah, we know what God’s Big New Thing was: Jesus. And the way God rescues day by day looks a lot like Jesus’ meeting with the scribes and the Pharisees and the woman they brought to him.
They wanted to stone her, because the law said that if you committed that particular sin, you should be put to death. St John the evangelist tells us that they brought her to Jesus to trick him into saying something that would get him into trouble–it wasn’t because they really didn’t know what to do. But Jesus doesn’t say anything to them about her, he just writes on the ground. Nobody knows what he wrote, just what he said then: let the one that is without sin among you cast the first stone. Whatever Jesus wrote made them realize that they were not without sin, so they all went away.
When they had all gone away, Jesus (you remember this from the Gospel reading, I’m sure!) asked her who was there to condemn her. ‘Nobody,’ she answered. Jesus said he wouldn’t condemn her either. Now Jesus was the only one who could have cast a stone–he was without sin! But he doesn’t. He forgives her.
We’re just like that woman. Obviously the things we’ve done wrong are different. But we’re caught out just the same, sometimes by others (parents, teachers, friends) and more often (I hope) by our own conscience. So what do we do? Well, here’s where the scribes and Pharisees got it right: we take it to Jesus. One really good way to do that is in confession. We hear the voice of Jesus, the one who alone can condemn us, saying, ‘I don’t condemn you; go and sin no more.’
I think this is why St Gregory liked that verse from Philippians so much. He knew that the right direction for us to be headed is always away from our past sin, and toward the future, which God is always making new–right in front of us. When we receive forgiveness, we are living in that new thing that God was doing, we are living in Christ Jesus.
Deo gratias. (That means ‘thanks be to God’ in Latin.)