4b If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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 9 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 – 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:4b-14 ESV)
Our second reading is part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians and we have, in the way of our Sunday readings, come in part way through. It’s like we’ve walked into a 4 part TV series or documentary at Part 3. That works best if you know what’s gone before. Thank goodness for pause buttons and for people who will get us up to speed!
The letter to the Philippians is written by Paul to the congregation at Philippi when he was imprisoned – we’re not sure where – most people think Rome. Think of this imprisonment as more house arrest than shackles and chains and inner cells. So people could come and go and visit Paul with supplies and he could send things out and Paul was happy, it seems, to tell each new set of guards why he was being held – and so the word of Jesus was even being spread among the army. Paul could get news and he could send letters. But he couldn’t easily work – remember his trade is tent making – so imprisonment in the Roman Empire relies on others to help you – family, your guild – unless your crime was so serious that people no longer wanted to be associated with you. It is in this context of house arrest and needing support that Paul receives an offering – money – from the congregation at Philippi. This letter is his ‘thank you’ letter and one where he obviously, as a pastor, wants to share and teach the good news of Jesus to a congregation he and Silas saw established (read Acts 16 for that adventure!).
Time doesn’t stand still. Elections and referendum can change the direction of a country. People fall in love and relationships form that weren’t in existence a year ago. Military orders come and suddenly you’re on a different path in a direction you didn’t expect. Death can also come suddenly – we might of the tragedy in Las Vegas but it could be a car accident on the way home – and people’s life aren’t the same. Time doesn’t stand still. And in the Early Church because people are people – we are sinners and rebellious by nature to the true God and anything he does because deep down we want to be god – the issue that troubled the first and second generation Christians was the Jewish and Gentile relationship.
Christianity comes out of Judaism – Jesus was a Jew – but claims Jesus not just as the Messiah but as God incarnate – Immanuel – God with us. This claim – this cross and empty tomb story – is not just for people born into the right family or tribe – but for all people – and thus the first disciples had to battle hundreds of years of social conditioning and teaching of separateness and learn to see separateness in a new way. Now in Christ, it didn’t matter whether you were Jew or Greek, slave or
free, male and female – everyone was one in Christ – and separated from the world – and the world equals the people not Christian – those not in Christ.
What the Church is wrestling with today is whether and how the distinctions of Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female affect relationships in the Church in any way. Back then the matter was just getting started and the key focus was Jew and Gentile – could Gentiles bypass becoming Jews to be Christians? Many Jewish Christians said ‘No’. Paul – and the Council of Jerusalem – said ‘yes’. It is by grace we are all saved through in Christ and this is not our own doing but the gift of God so that no one can boast. This gift is received through faith. But that message – the Gospel – is counter intuitive to us – it doesn’t feel right – it seems too easy – and so Paul was for a long time fighting this false teaching of we have to do something to be saved.
Our reading is Paul’s list of Jewish ‘qualifications’ which he then says is rubbish – not clean like recycling – but here think more dung or manure – smell the rubbish – crinkle your nose – back away – because it doesn’t help him at all gain Christ. If his arms are full of his things – his stinky things – then he can’t receive what Jesus has to offer – Jesus’ own righteousness which he freely gives us. That’s what grace is about – Jesus taking our stink, our sin – and giving us his sweet perfume, his clean robes.
Paul goes onto to say that he has learnt that this life with Christ involves the certainty of the resurrection – he is going home one day and nothing this world can do can stop that – and so he no longer fears the world but instead recognises that following Christ may involve suffering as the world does its raging and stomping and gnashing at the message that the world isn’t god – the people of this world aren’t gods – but Jesus is God – Jesus is Lord. Go back into Chapter 2 and Paul says that this is what will happen on Planet Earth because Jesus was a slave for us all – even to the point of dying on a cross –9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11ESV)
Today people still struggle with Jesus all around the world. He is not seen for who he is – the perfect sacrifice for our sins – because that would make us see our sins and see ourselves as sinners. It is much better to see Jesus as teacher or guide which we can follow if and as much as we wish because deep down most people still believe that their actions and efforts have got to count before God. Humanity still prefers Law because it gives us more control.
But what Paul was saying again and again his letters – in this reading today – and if you met him – is that the Law only drives us to see our sins and never helps us to a right relationship with God. Only the Gospel can do that – hearing what Jesus has done for us – trusting that message – and then living in that relationship formed by that message. Only the Gospel gets us to see things as they truly are. Only the Gospel is faithful and true even when – especially when – time doesn’t stand still.
Only Jesus and his actions help us see ourselves as we truly are – loved by him and thus we thank God for our strengths and good points and we work on our weaknesses and sins – not for Jesus’ sake or to get to heaven – but our sakes and for the sakes of the people around us. Thus we try each day to get rid of the stench of sin and live in the fragrance of Christ’s righteousness – and that’s why each day Christians return to their baptism – the washing for a day out in a grimy world.
- Philippians 3:4b - 15