Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr Austin Milner preaches on St Paul’s call to empty ourselves and be raised up with Christ.
We are preparing to celebrate the paschal mystery and in our preparation we have to try not only to come to a better understanding of this mystery but to enter into it. We can only enter into it by learning to think as Christ thought.
In the epistle to the Philippians Paul exhorts his converts to adopt this way of thinking:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In today’s second reading, from the third chapter of the same epistle, Paul encourages us by telling the story of how he himself has endeavoured to imitate Christ. Jesus did not count his identity with God a prize to be clung to: so Paul is abandoned his self-identity and his self righteousness as a born member of the people of God, a rabbi, and one who kept the law: ‘Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.’
Like Christ he empties himself; ‘indeed’, he says, ‘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, in order that I may gain Christ.’
He has renounced all his assets to trust solely in Christ and possess him alone — like that one beautiful pearl the merchant found. Paul empties himself of any claim on God’s favour he may have had and desired only to be found in Christ, to ‘be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on the keeping of the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith’.
Paul knows that Christ came to reconcile the world to God, by making us all one with himself. He wants only to be seen by God as a member of Christ through trust in him, and thus be clothed in the righteousness of Christ himself. But if this is to happen he needs, like Christ to ‘be obedient unto death’, a death to his old self. And so Paul wants to ‘share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’, in order that he ‘may know him and the power of his resurrection, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead’.
This is what our celebration of the Paschal Mystery is about. We celebrate it so that we may know Christ and the power of his resurrection. But let us not delude ourselves. What Paul says about himself must be a warning to us: ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’
Yes, we can be confident of this much, that Christ has made us his own, but if we are his own there is work to be done, there is a death to be undergone to all our false securities and self-righteousness. There is suffering to be willingly undergone so that we may share Christ’s sufferings. Then God will exalt us as he exalted his Son. So, therefore, like Paul, ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,’ we must ‘press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.