One of the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent includes this passage from Philippians 3: “…but this 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 heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (13b-14). Since 1927 (when the seminary decided it needed an iconic symbol), this text has been at the heart of Central Seminary’s self-understanding and mission. Emblazoned on the seminary seal, Paul’s testimony has encouraged seminary students, faculty, and leaders to focus their vocation in the service of Christ. We are able to run the race set before us because Christ Jesus has made us his own.
I have always been interested in what Paul needed to forget. Was it that he had been violently opposed to the Way of the early Christians? Was it his own skepticism about resurrection until he met the risen Christ on the way to Damascus? Was it his spiritual pride over his ethnic and religious pedigree? Was it his ongoing struggle with his “thorn in the flesh?” Surely he is offering more than simple instructions for a runner to look toward the goal. “Forgetting” is the Greek verb epilanthanomai which means “not to have remembrance of something.”
Forgetting is often linked with forgiveness in the biblical narratives. God chooses not to remember our transgressions, but rather removes them from us. I think Paul needed to allow the grace of God to relieve him of the burden of achieving righteousness. This had been his life’s compelling purpose until his transformative encounter with Jesus. We need the same divine assistance in our lives. Because Christ has taken hold of us, we can forget our failures and stumbling attempts to walk faithfully. Christ is our righteousness, and we are clothed with his life (another beloved Pauline metaphor.)
Another of Sunday’s readings is drawn from the “Book of Comfort,” that latter part of Isaiah. We are urged by the prophet to “remember not the former things” (43: 18) and to anticipate God’s new initiatives on behalf of the beloved people of God. Lent is, above all, about stripping away those things that keep us from following Christ’s call. Remembrance can be grounding and encouraging; remembrance can also be limiting as we feel bound to our past, with its weight of sin. “Forgetting what lies behind…” let us move toward what lies ahead, girded with the lightness of grace to run the race.
Molly T. Marshall
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