What do you write in a letter from prison? If you’re innocent then perhaps there’s a fair bit of “help me get justice” and if you’re guilty, you’re possibly just pleased that you’ve got someone to write to! Sometimes they get published. Moving along the infamy spectrum you can read prison writings of the Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler and along the unjustly imprisoned spectrum there is Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela. Christians have such literature in the New Testament in the “captivity letters” of Paul. Our second reading – Philippians 3:8-14 – is part of one such letter from prison – probably in Rome.
Paul writes to the Philippians to thank the congregation for the gift of funds they had sent to help him and to commend Epaphroditus who had brought the gift to Paul but who had become seriously ill and nearly died but having recovered was now being sent back by Paul with the letter. It’s only 4 chapters – a joyous letter – full of thankfulness to God and to the Philippians – well worth a read this week – and in it we can sense Paul, the pastor, writing to a congregation he knows and for whom he still has concerns.
Our text is part of a lengthy “and finally” concluding section – telling them to watch out for those who come with the message that to be a Christian you have to be a Jew first. Now in prison I think Paul feels he has to give them clear and explicit details – more so than if he was there – precisely because he can’t be there but these Judaisers are – and so he reminds them of his Jewish past, his zealousness for the law, his pedigree – and that he could tick so many ‘righteous’ boxes in that regard – and our text picks the message up with …
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But 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 upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:8-14 ESV)
Paul opens the door to himself – to what made him tick in the past – and what makes him tick now. The law and the hope of self righteousness has given way to the gospel and the righteousness of Christ. This is so strong for him that he labels his past life and the things he has lost now that he no longer lives it – remember he’s imprisoned because of his testimony to Jesus – as σκύβαλα – rubbish or perhaps the King James Version has more of the earthy sense when it says ‘dung’. Compared to Jesus – meeting him, knowing him (not about him but personally relating to him) – everything on which he previously relied spiritually is muck of one form or another.
Here he’s giving ammunition to the Philippians to combat the false teachers who want to add to Jesus by cutting off a bit of skin. Been there, done that, it’s rubbish, says Paul – because the only righteousness that counts for him and for all followers of Jesus is the righteousness given to us through faith – imputed to us because of Jesus and what he did for us through his death and resurrection – and that is power – God rescuing and helping and comforting and never abandoning – even in prison – because if Jesus can bust out of the prison of death, what is there that this world can throw at us which will defeat us?! Seriously.
Paul then labels this life with Christ, the living under this verdict of righteousness with a phrase that we don’t expect – and perhaps people think (or hope?) that this only applied to Paul – “share his sufferings and become like him in his death”. Do you think we should repaint the Ascension sandwich board along those lines? (“Come in Lutheran service – share in Jesus’ sufferings and become like him in his death.”) How about the Redeemer notice board? Christ with all his power – mysteriously emptied of it – yet truly human and truly God – became as a servant and humbled himself even more by dying on a cross – hanging between earth and heaven – apparently weak and helpless and yet carrying the sins of the world – for you and me – and paying the full price for them – cancelling our debt so that we might be free. For Paul – as indeed for Luther – this theology of the cross – is critical for how the followers of Jesus approach life and live it, now that we, too, share in this power over death – we have eternal life – and the power of the keys to forgive sins or retain sins and thus open or close heaven in the lives of the people around us. The only attitude that uses such power, walks in Jesus’ footsteps, and seeks the best for others – even our enemies – is the attitude of Christ – for sacrificial love best embodies the gospel here on earth – this is not abusive love, doormat love, punching bag love – but a love that is freely given by someone who genuinely seeks the best for the other person – and who thus cannot be controlled, coerced, captured by others but who follows where Jesus leads – suffering and death of/by/and for the world – not as Saviour but as witness to that Saviour.
And then Paul writes some verses that seem to throw his salvation into doubt – Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But 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 upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Many writers conclude that Paul is not sure of his salvation but hopes to work at it – and people like Lutherans are simply wrong when they talk about salvation as a completed act. The world and indeed other Christians can say “sure Jesus has done his ‘bit’ but if you don’t grab hold of it and do your ‘bit’ you can’t be saved”. This view is logical and would make sense if correct but it is both incorrect and misreads Paul.
Paul is not talking about his justification but about the living out the relationship with Jesus in a sinful body, in a sinful world, among sinners, and still facing the demonic enemy. Of course he isn’t perfect – this side of the grave, no one is – but in faith he trusts God’s word over him of forgiveness and thus through faith – because Jesus said so – he is perfect and his daily life is living up to these words. But it’s a struggle – in fact Paul plays on the image of pressing on towards the prize which Jesus has won for him because Jesus pressed on and drank the cup to the dregs and the world responds to Jesus and anyone associated with Jesus by pressing on them which is experienced as persecution. Paul isn’t getting a wage or prize for endurance but rather he’s receiving a blessing. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:9).
When Paul talks about pressing on he is not assuming that his salvation, heaven, his eternal home is uncertain but he is reminding himself that he can lose it. We do not teach that once baptised, always saved. Baptism is not magic. Sadly people can reject God’s grace and free gifts but they don’t earn them to receive them – they are always gifts. Think of any relationship – if you presume it, neglect it, even abuse it, don’t be shocked if / when the relationship fractures or even ends. Someone who is married and who never works on their marriage is showing by such behaviour that both their spouse and marriage are not important. So Paul is talking about his lifestyle against complacency – not because his salvation is unsure or incomplete – but because we have a default position if left ‘idling’ or to our own devices that leads to death, eternal death, for our sinful self still rebels against God, we succumb to temptation, and we go our own way. Those who know God’s grace can even abuse it by presuming it to justify their spiritual slackness. So Paul reminds the Philippians not to coast along, no going with the flow, don’t hold onto self righteousness or turn faith into pious empty words – instead be “fair dinkum” in your faith! (Which for any non Australians here means reliable, genuine, fair play, true.)
Paul’s letter from prison talks about many things even though it’s only 4 chapters but today we have reflected on the Christian faith and its lifestyle – self righteousness is dung – only Jesus’ righteousness counts – Jesus’ power is seen in the cross and our faith is lived out serving the world and not being complacent about it because Jesus is simply so wonderful.
- Philippians 3:8 - 14