Monday, October 3, 2011

confidence in the flesh

Here is the sermon I preached at St. Mark's yesterday. The text is Philippians 3:4b-14.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord,  our strength and our redeemer.”[1]

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.”[2]

At first glance, today’s reading from Philippians makes Paul seem—well, arrogant. As he rattles off his résumé, I can’t help but picture him sitting there at his desk, listing off his credentials with a smug expression on his face. He sits there with his chest all puffed out, thinking how fortunate the Philippians are to have him as their mentor. Frankly, the first few times I read the passage, it aggravated me to no end, causing me to roll my eyes and shake my head in frustration. “I know he’s Paul, but, seriously, who does this guy think he is?” Maybe some of you felt the same way when you heard it a few moments ago. 

Without the back story, Paul’s message can get lost in this seemingly egotistical writing style. But perhaps our view will shift if we try to see where Paul is coming from.

First of all, Paul is writing this letter from jail. A prisoner, he awaits his trial and sentence, unsure of the outcome. However, instead of moping around his cell feeling sorry for himself, he has taken the time to write to people very dear to him. Amazingly, despite his situation, this letter is full of joy, gratitude, and hope. 

The Philippians are part of a Roman colony, in the westernmost city that Paul has ever traveled to. The Christians there have a great relationship with Paul, and it is obvious that he cares for them deeply. Apparently, there has been some division in the community, and so Paul writes to encourage them to remain unified, setting aside their differences and focusing their eyes on Christ. 

In addition to struggles within the community, there are people outside the community trying to convince the Philippians that because they converted to Christianity from paganism, they need to adopt all of the Jewish customs and practices in order to be true followers of Christ.

It is to these people that Paul is speaking in the beginning of the passage. He starts by demonstrating that he has the authority to counter their argument. He, himself, is Jewish, through and through. He comes from the right family, has grown up in the tradition, and has followed the Law, or the Torah, to a “T”. Basically, he’s saying, “I’ve been there, done that, and I am better at it than you. If the only way to achieve righteousness—to have a right relationship with God—is to follow the Law, then I have already achieved it.” 

But everything in his past changes for Paul when, in a powerful experience on the road to Damascus, he encounters Jesus Christ. After this event, he comes to realize that humans aren’t able to be righteous on their own. It is only the grace of God that grants us righteousness. Paul says the Law is important, but when we put the Law above everything else, we are missing the point.
Here Paul provides a startling metaphor: he imagines his life as a balance sheet. On one side are gains, on the other, losses. According to the world’s standards, he had it all. But he takes everything that he’s counted as gain, as part of the plus side, and places it on the side of loss. Everything he has previously thought is important, everything he has been doing to try to become righteous is rubbish, literally “garbage” and doesn’t matter anymore. He has spent his life searching for God, but instead, God has found him. On the Road to Damascus, Christ makes Paul his own, and he responds to this in kind.

Paul “presses on” toward the goal. This phrase can better be translated as “pursuing” the goal. In the past he has pursued Christians, but Paul now pursues Christ. Like a hunter, he is patient and focused on the prize. While waiting in his jail cell he keeps his eyes trained on the hope of Resurrection.  What’s done is done. What’s past is past. He hasn’t yet reached the goal, and it will not be an easy road from here on out, but—as Paul says later on in the letter—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”[3]

So…how does this passage apply to us today? All of us are on different stages of our faith journeys. The thing about journeys is that the way is not always straight or easy. There will be hills, turns, delays, and—especially in this area—we’re going to hit traffic. Part of being people of faith means wrestling with what we believe and being willing to ask really tough questions. It means coming to worship together and supporting each other in the various stages of our journeys. Everyone’s journey is unique, and everyone’s journey is valid, whether we come to church twice a year or come regularly and serve on the vestry.   
Paul is telling us that regardless of what measures we take to achieve righteousness, God isn’t keeping score. God loves us and wants to cultivate a relationship with us, and because Jesus became human, humbled himself to the point of death, and then conquered death in his resurrection, we have been restored to right relationship with God. It is not because of anything we personally have done, but because Christ is faithful, that we have been made righteous.

Faced with this incredible Good News of God’s grace, how are we going to respond? In baptism we are united “with Christ in his death and resurrection,” born “into God’s family the Church,” promised “forgiveness of sins,” and are granted “new life in the Holy Spirit.”[4] When we take part in the Eucharist each week, our sins are once again forgiven, the union with Christ we received at Baptism is strengthened, and we are given “a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.”[5] Equipped with this “spiritual food,” we are sent out “to love and serve [God] as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”[6] We have been provided with everything we need, so “let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit!”[7]

[1] Adapted from today’s Psalm, 19:14 
[2] Phil. 3:4b
[3] Phil. 4:13 
[4] BCP 858 
[5] BCP 859-860
[6] BCP 366
[7] BCP 366

Images are a scrambling of my sermon from the site

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