Go, for he [Saul/Paul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…And now look at Philippians 3:4b-6, written by Paul himself:
If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
I suppose the issue I’m teasing out is that of the mysteriousness of divine providence, that is, the ambivalent form it often takes when abstracted from a wider framework of divine providential action. In Philippians 3 as a whole, Paul doesn’t seem to believe that his background was established in any way to have an impact on his present: he’s more concerned with testifying to the greatness of Christ, especially in comparison with all that he’d known before. And so the implicit danger in trying to identify certain events in my life as those through which God has especially acted or as those that God especially brought about (however that’s to be understood) is that the focus is on me, and not on Christ. The mysteriousness of providence is that all too easily Christ, Lord of all things is displaced by the many things over which he is Lord.
In my view, it’s not enough merely to point to God’s action in our lives, for then it becomes tempting to regard the God revealed in Jesus Christ and active in the world today by the Holy Spirit merely as a genie or an overachieving personal assistant. What’s needed is a sense of perspective, an appreciation of a wider, biblical framework within which our various individual experiences can be placed and from which they can be interpreted. I dare say that each individual interpreter of Scripture (though what nonsense to suppose that there are individual interpreters of Scripture!) already operates from within some form of framework, reading Scripture with a theme or set of themes that he or she takes to make sense of its disparate texts. Mine is the idea that Scripture testifies to God’s promise that the world in its entirety will be the place of God’s intense presence; others will favour different frameworks, and usually for very good reasons. But lest I digress too far, let me return to Paul’s emphasis on the supremacy of Jesus Christ: Even if God in Christ doesn’t bring about or use our experiences, Jesus is certainly Lord of our pasts, Lord of our futures and will make sense of our presents. But this is a faith conviction that surely testifies, and ceaselessly so, to the mysteriousness of God’s providence.
who caused the light of the gospel
to shine throughout the world
through the preaching of your servant Saint Paul:
grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion
may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Common Worship Collect for 25 January