Lynchburg First UMC
Oct. 5, 2014
Philippians 3:4b-14 (CEB)
4 … If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.
6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.
10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.
Many centuries ago, men thought that if you sailed far enough in any direction, you’d fall off the edge of the earth. Some of us were taught that people still believed that in Columbus’ day, and that part of Columbus’ heroism was that he believed the Earth was round and proved the naysayers wrong.
Columbus had great courage and initiative as an explorer, but you can’t give him any credit for the idea that the world was round. The educated people of Columbus’ day were already agreed on that fact, and had been for centuries.
Columbus did have one view that was in opposition to the scholars of the day – he thought the Earth was much smaller in diameter. Columbus thought that Japan was only 2,400 miles west of Spain – it’s actually more than 10,000 miles. That’s why Columbus thought he could sail to Asia in only a couple of months.
But Columbus was wrong – and the scholars of the day, using a figure that dated as far back as the third century B.C., were right. The big round Earth was much larger than Columbus believed it was, and if it had not been for the unknown continents of North and South America standing in the way, Columbus and his men would probably have perished. They would never have made it all the way to Japan, much less India, with the provisions they had on board.
Even though educated people have known the earth was round since hunderds of years before Jesus was born, there have been other people in many eras and cultures who have believed the myth of a flat Earth.
There’s a wonderful, low-budget South African movie from the 1980s called “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The movie actually has several different plots, all of which come together in the end, but the most famous plot of the movie tells the story of a remote tribe of bushmen, with no exposure to civilization or the outside world. This tribe encounters a strange and, to them, magical object which has been dropped into their village by a crop duster in an open cockpit biplane flying overhead. We recognize the object as an old-fashioned glass Coca-Cola bottle, but the bushmen have never seen anything like it, and assume it’s been dropped by the gods from heaven as some sort of gift.
At first, they’re amazed by this gift from the gods. It’s the hardest object they’ve ever touched, and they can use it to pulverize grain or vegetables. It does strange and interesting things to the light. It even makes a funny noise when you blow across the top of it.
But the trouble is, this special object is the only thing the village has ever had that there was only one of. They start fighting over it. The bottle causes them to experience greed, jealousy and violence, as the members of the tribe fight over this gift from the gods.
The tribal elders decide the bottle is evil and should be thrown off the edge of the Earth. So they send one of their tribesmen to do just that. After some misadventures over the course of the movie, he discovers a huge canyon, with the far side of the canyon hidden by mist and clouds. Our hero assumes the cliff on which he’s standing must be the edge of the earth, and so he throws the Coke bottle into the canyon – a happy ending for a very funny movie.
The Jewish leaders of Paul’s day thought that obedience to God’s law was a destination. And they thought, like the innocent bushman from “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” that they had arrived at that destination.
Paul had been one of those Jewish leaders, secure in his own piety and holiness. In this morning’s passage, he states his credentials.
Paul was a Jew by birth. That’s why he points out that he was circumcised on the eighth day. There were converts to the Jewish faith, who were circumcised at the time of their conversion. But the eighth day, as an infant, was when a natural-born Jew was circumcised.
Paul was not only a Jew, he was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. Now, if you think back to the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament, Joseph and Benjamin were special to their father Jacob because they were the sons of Rachel, the more favored of Jacob’s two wives. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah first. Jacob tended to favor Rachel and Rachel’s sons.
The tribe of Benjamin was the tribe that produced Saul, Israel’s first king. It’s possible that Saul of Tarsus’s parents named him in tribute to King Saul, who was respected even though his reign ended badly. So the tribe of Benjamin had a royal history.
David did not come from the tribe of Benjamin, but the tribe supported him as king, and was the only tribe other than Judah which remained faithful to David’s grandson Rehoboam when the land of Israel divided into northern and southern kingdoms. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin continued to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and thought of themselves as the true heirs of the Jewish faith, while the northern kingdom had to worship elsewhere.
Paul’s status as a member of the tribe of Benjamin connected him to Israelite history. The commentator William Barclay says that Paul boasting of being part of the tribe of Benjamin was a little like the people who boast that their family came over on the Mayflower, or the people who can trace their ancestors back to the time of the American Revolution.
Paul also says that he is a “Hebrew of the Hebrews.” This is not the same thing as just saying that he’s a Jew. What Paul is saying is that he knows and can use the Hebrew language, and can therefore read the Hebrew scriptures, as his parents did before him.
As the Jews became dispersed, many of them adopted the language of wherever they ended up living and some lost their ability to read, write, or speak the Hebrew tongue. But in order to be considered truly pious, you still had to be able to read the scriptures. Even though Paul was from Tarsus, a Gentile city, he and his parents before him had been careful to keep up their use of the Hebrew tongue, which is how Paul was able to read and understand the scriptures.
Lastly, of course, Paul could claim to have been a Pharisee. Now, today we remember the Pharisees as the opponents of Jesus. But for Jews in Paul’s day, the Pharisees were respected, admired, paragons of the faith. The Pharisees not only obeyed the laws of Moses, they obeyed a very detailed set of intepretations of the laws of Moses, interpretations that – as Jesus pointed out several times – went farther than what God had originally intended when those laws were given to Moses. The Pharisees believed that they were doing everything God expected of them and more. They thought they had achieved piety by their strict and complete obedience to the law.
Paul, when he was Saul, believed himself to be blameless – and, before his conversion, he thought that his persecution of the Christian church was one more feather in his cap, just more proof of his holiness and obedience.
But this isn’t Saul of Tarsus speaking – it’s Paul the Apostle. And the things he once considered his greatest assets he’s now written off as losses – distractions and delusions which kept him from seeing the truth about who he really was and about who God really is.
This reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 18:10-14 (CEB):
10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
The good things the Pharisee did weren’t bad in and of themselves. Fasting can be a good thing. Tithing is certainly a good thing. The laws that God gave to Moses were good, designed to bring the people of Israel together and reinforce their identity as God’s chosen people. They were meant to be helpful. But for the Pharisee, those good things had become obstacles. The laws of Moses, and the many layers of rules and regulations which the Pharisees had built on top of the Mosaic law, had stopped being ways to please God and had become ways for the Pharisee to feel superior to others.
Paul – Saul – had been the same way. His assets as a pious Jew had become liabilities, because they prevented him from seeing his own sin. You can’t repent if you don’t think you have anything to repent of.
Paul had to become like the sinner in that parable – he had to realize that his assets were worth nothing in comparison to the debt he owed. On the road to Damascus, Paul got that realization. Now, years later, he tells the Philippians that he has lost everything – but he realizes the things he lost were worthless, and he describes them with the Greek word skubala – which the Common English Bible describes, somewhat cryptically, as “sewer trash.” Some translations simply use the word “garbage.” But Paul was using much stronger language, and it would have been heard that way by the people of Philippi. A better translation, according to some sources, would be “feces,” or maybe even a more shocking word that it would be inappropriate for me to use here.
When compared to the amazing grace offered by Jesus, when compared to a real relationship with the creator of the universe, the fake holiness that Paul had enjoyed as a Pharisee was as worthless as something you flush down the toilet.
Christianity requires that we realize our own sin, our own need for forgiveness. Christianity requires that we be broken, like that tax collector in Jesus’ parable, throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.
Paul says, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.”
Paul recognizes that he would never be able to achieve righteousness through his own efforts. He must trust in the righteousness purchased for him through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
But God does not want us to stop there.
Paul says “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings.”
Christianity is a relationship. It is an ongoing process of knowing Christ and participating in Christ’s suffering and resurrection.
There was a heresy in Paul’s time which today’s scholars call antinomianism. It was the belief that, once you were saved through grace, that was the end of it; you could at that point willfully commit any sin you wanted and go forward doing anything and everything, and it would not matter, because you’d been forgiven.
But that’s not Paul’s understanding. He believes that his righteousness is part of a relationship, part of knowing Christ, and therefore it requires our ongoing participation.
“It’s not that I have already reached this goal,” writes Paul, “or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”
People once thought the edge of the Earth was a destination, someplace you could get to. In reality, of course, the edge of the Earth is just the horizon – and no matter how far you go, you can never, ever get to the horizon. In fact, when it comes to our relationship with God, the further we go, the more we understand our own shortcomings, and the more we realize how far we are from true perfection.
John Wesley used the word “perfection” to describe Christians, and this is sometimes misunderstood. Wesley knew better than to claim that he or any other Christian was without sin. He understood only too well this ongoing voyage, this never-ending trip toward the horizon. His use of “perfection” referred to a change in the Christian’s basic motivation. Wesley said that Christian perfection meant having a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
Our Christian walk is just that – a walk. It requires us to keep moving. There may be detours or delays, but if we’re truly in relationship with Christ that will keep us moving forward. Like Columbus, we may not wind up the exact place we thought was our destination. But like Columbus, we may find it’s someplace even better than our imagination.
We can’t boast about what we’ve accomplished, but we have to continue in our grateful response to the amazing gift God has given us.