There is a phrase from one of Paul’s letters that has stuck in my mind recently, not least as I take up a new role within the synod. The role title I have been given is long (Director of Education and Formation for Leadership and Head of Pilgrim Theological College, no easy acronym there!), so it’s kind of helpful to have a few words that provide some focus to my work. In sharing the phrase with you, we need to go on a bit of an exegetical journey, so bear with me for a few sentences.
It is pretty clear that the apostle Paul thought that love was important. You only need to attend a wedding or two to encounter his celebration of the centrality, the abiding nature, of love (1 Corinthians 13). If the message of Easter is about anything, it is about the way that God’s love ultimate triumphs over every hostile, unjust, death-dealing power. If the church is going to exist at all, it can only respond to and live out that love in every aspect of its life (see Romans 13:8–10).
But in his letter to the Philippians Paul writes that love is directly related not only to what we do but to how we think and believe. He prays for the church in these words: ‘I pray that your love will bring growth in your knowledge and understanding’ (Philippians 1:9). That is my translation of what it says. It is a better translation than most you will read, because it makes it clear that what Paul wants for the church at Philippi is growth in knowledge and understanding.
Paul doesn’t want love to grow, not here at least. He wants the love that already exists to ‘enhance our capacity’ (to use the language of strategic reviews and position descriptions) for perception and insight. Love is just assumed to be present in the church. But love (both God’s love for us and our love for God, each other, and the world) is supposed to produce certain ways of understanding God, ourselves, and our world. Love educates us, and directs us towards the truth.
This means Paul imagines a church that is learning to (and this is the phrase that has stuck with me) ‘identify the things that matter’ (Philippians 1:10 – again my translation). In Paul’s world, the quest for ‘the things that matter’ was familiar in some philosophical circles. The basic idea is that while there are all sorts of things that it might be useful to know, and all sorts of possible opportunities for learning, we should be focusing on the things that matter. And of course, that can’t be everything, because if everything matters equally then there is a sense in which nothing matters at all.
So the work of education in the church, whether it happens in the Bible study group or the theological college classroom, isn’t about learning the latest thing, or the most urgent thing, or the popular thing. We are invited to identify the important things, and to go deeper and deeper into our knowledge and understanding of them. In a world where the church faces any number of demands, we need to learn the skills of discernment. In a culture that thrives on distraction, we should be learning how to concentrate. In a time of change and transition, the challenge is to establish priorities that don’t just reflect the changing times, but that take us deeper into what really counts; the ‘things that matter’.
Easter is about as good a time as any to ask these kinds of questions. The Roman historian Tacitus once wrote that “sub Tiberio quies” (under the reign of Tiberius, it was quiet).
And so it would have looked to anyone who was walking around Jerusalem during the Feast of Passover around the year 30. Another criminal executed. Another group of women wailing and lamenting. Another group of religious weirdos making rash and unprovable claims about their leader. These things are distractions at best, ridiculous and dangerous at worst. There are much more important things to talk about.
Or perhaps not. The church only exists, and only lives by love for God and neighbour, because of those events. ‘Christ died’… that matters. ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’… that matters. ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself’… that matters.
If those things don’t matter, then let’s get on with finding what does, and stop wasting our time trying to be the people who love, and understand, and tell that good news.
If they do matter, then it’s only right that we let our love provoke us to deeper and deeper levels of knowledge and understanding. That is where our focus should be, and where our priorities lie.