It ain't braggin'

Mar. 13, 2016

Is. 41.16-23; Phil. 3.4b-14; Jn 12.1-8

St Paul has been called the saint you love to hate...partly for the perceived misogyny (his issues about women), but also his bullishness (he seems to get into our face), and there's his incessant in today's letter to the Philippians. In fact, in the Greek NT the name given for this kind of talk about one's self is περιαυτολογια...which means literally "talking all around about one's self". And that's what he does...and frequently! He says right up front in this passage, "If anyone else has reason to be confident...I have more"! It's like Rogers and Hammerstein's song from their musical Annie get your gun, where Annie challenges her beau by saying, "Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you." περιαυτολογια...σαψσ, "It's all about ME!" Early in Muhammad Ali's career he was famous for boasting, "I am the greatest." Or "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." He always said he was the fastest, the prettiest, and the most powerful. In fact he said, "I'm so fast that last night when I turned off the lights in my bedroom, I was in bed before the room was dark." Or do you remember the old time movie actress Mae West? She used to say, "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better." περιαυτολογια...

There's a point...when this kind of bragging and boasting becomes insufferable. For example, the boorish character in many plays, movies, and fiction is called the "braggadocio"'s Italian meaning, the "annoying and exaggerated talk of someone who is trying to sound very proud or brave". But often it's disconnected from reality like a rooster believing it's crowing has made the sun come up!

But the most obnoxious part of a braggart is when not only can they talk the talk, but they can walk the walk. Mississippi baseball great "Dizzy" Dean used to say, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it." This is the case with St Paul's path all across the ancient world spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ from Palestine to Rome. It's been said that although St Paul's work is remembered in scripture, each of his three missionary trips was also written on his back by the whips and scars he suffered along the way.

OK, but still, why all this bravado from St Paul? Why go on with this relentless boasting? What are we supposed to do with it? Ignore it? It's been said that if you don't give it any oxygen to it, it'll quit. Or one could joke about it... "How many lashes does it take to become a real apostle, Paul?" Paul frequently overstates his case like "If anyone has reason to boast...I have more"!

I think we love some measure of this kind of talk. Politicians in America right now are a case in seems the only way a politician can get attention is to say or do something that's completely outrageous. Athletes do it too! But they're a little more honest about it, they call it "trash talk". It involves a considerable amount of strutting and boasting, but just like in politics, it doesn't resolve anything...resolution has to come on the playing field or at the ballot box.

But why does St Paul go on and on in this Philippians passage strutting and posturing against his opponents? Well, I think it's like a mother bear protecting her young. St Paul was opposing a group called "Judaizers"...who believed that if these gentile Philippians were to fully be members of the household of God, then they had to be circumcised in accordance with Jewish law, in other words they had to become fully Jewish before they could become fully Christian. Ironically, Paul does some of his own trash talk calling these adversaries "dogs," a name often used against gentiles by Jews. Dogs in those days were not the pampered and beloved pets we have today...they were a scurrilous lot who were scavengers and could be vicious as they fought over scraps. And Paul adds the term "evil doers" to his opponents because they fomented dissent, contentiousness, and tried to rob the gentiles of their place at the table with the Lord. So, St Paul does some trash talk in defense of his gentile converts.

But here's the thing about all this isn't done to benefit Paul, rather it's for his Philippian flock. If St Paul's adversaries brag about their heritage as children of Abraham, St Paul says, "Look, if you want to brag, I have more reason to brag than anybody"! I represent the best of the best of Judaism. I was a born an Israelite. I was circumcised on the eighth day...according to the law. I am a Pharisee...the most zealous of all the Jewish groups. I'm from the best tribe...Benjamin. And he adds, "I am the Hebrews' Hebrew"! But then he turns to his real point...but if I brag, I will only brag about the riches and the grace of the life in Jesus Christ my Lord.

You see, all this posturing by Paul is because something happened to him on the road to Damascus...something he wants for all other Christians as experience and know the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus made him a different man. In fact, he said "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." It reordered everything in his life. So, this isn't really Paul bragging about Paul, but he's trying to show he can speak (in the human sense) because he's qualified among men to brag, but he's also qualified spiritually because Christ intervened and made him a new person. And now he sees that everything that isn't godly...seems crass and common, in fact, like worthless garbage. Muhammad Ali, late in his boxing career, said "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound on the beach, and I beat people up." When all the bravado is silenced, and when all the boasting is done, then the greatness of the commonplace quickly pales against the vibrant presence of our truly awesome God. And the περιαυτολογια..."talking all about myself", is ended and the Name of the Lord is shouted in praise. And that's something to which I think we all can say, "AMEN!"

The Reverend WA Ray
St Thomas Church
Diamondhead, MS 03/13/16