Before I read our scripture for today, I want to give a little background on its author. In our time together at Ormewood, we’ve read a lot from the Gospels, the first four books in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus’ life. And for simplicity’s sake, we just assume the author is the title of these books: The Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel according to Mark, the Gospel according to Luke and John. We also have read quite a bit from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, particularly Genesis and Exodus this fall.
We have not, however, read very much from Paul who wrote the passage we’re reading today. Paul was one of the earliest apostles after the disciples. He had a rough start, mainly he very much felt threatened by Christianity’s radical beliefs and tried to kill them. However, he had a transformation (which is a great story in the book of Acts) where God got his attention and set him off spreading the news about Jesus across the Mediterranean region.
It is thought that there are 7 undisputed letters in the New Testament written by Paul and then 6 additional letter that were either written by him or by disciples of his in later years. That means there are 13 letters in a 27 book canon of the New Testament written or affiliated with Paul and his ministry.
All that to say, he’s a big deal. A REALLY big deal. And today we are reading from one of the undisputed letters of Paul. The letter to a community in Philipi that he started and keeps in close communication with.
So listen now for a Word from God.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard 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 one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this 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 heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
How many of you, when I was reading through Paul’s lists of accomplishments, started to tally up your own? How many of you, when you heard Paul’s list of “things he’s got going for him” started to think about your own list of things you’ve got going for you? Do it, think about it, while I describe Paul’s list a little bit more.
First, Paul is circumcised on the eighth day--this means that from his very birth he’s done all the things right and he’s part of a family who have done all the things right according to their religious instructions.
And he’s a member of the people of Israel. He is not a convert. His parents are not gentile, either of them. He is a pureblood for my Harry Potter folks.
Not only is he a member of the people of Israel, he is part of the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin is the chosen child, the chosen tribe. If you want to belong to one of the twelve tribes of Israel, this is it. They are the Kennedys.
Paul is also a Hebrew of Hebrews--in a time where most folks have thoroughly gone through a process of Hellenization and are speaking other languages, he knows the language in which their sacred texts are written--Hebrew. Our resident New Testament scholar read this portion of my sermon and said “maybe” and told me that it actually means he was first in line of humanity for God’s favor and covenant promises. Take your pick.
Add the word Pharisee on to this list and you’ve got someone who knows all the rules of the community and follows all the rules--religious rules, social rules, all the rules.
And he’s not just a guy in his head--all books and rules. He’s got zeal too. He’s got so much passion and commitment to God’s law and rule and religion that he persecuted the Christian church. He is willing to defend passionately that which is good and right.
And finally, in Paul’s long, long list, he is BLAMELESS because he is so darn righteous. He’s full of being right under the law.
This is Paul’s list of all the gains in his community and society that he has. These are all the things that according to his time, his community, his religion, his family values, his psyche are his GAINS. They get him ahead if not on top in his first century world. It’s quite the impenetrable list.
So what is on your list? Have you been thinking about it? What is your list of gains? Of accomplishments or achievements or privileges that you have that gain you a better place and purpose in our world?
What is on your list? Where you were born? Are your parents still married? Have you loved God your whole life? Is your nation of origin, state, city, or neighborhood powerful? Wealthy? Do you have a great education? Better yet, did you get good grades with your education? How many languages do you know? Speak? Read? What organizations are you in? What nonprofits do you donate to or volunteer with? What causes are you passionate about?
Ok, now here is the hipster version: do you buy organic? Shop local? Plant native bushes? Use Apple products? Shop at thrift stores? Drink beer that costs more than $5/bottle? Cleanse with juices? Use alternative forms of transportation other than a personal vehicle? Do you doubt your faith in an authentic way? Do you challenge authority? Question privilege? Read books on mindfulness or happiness or poetry or changing the world? Listen to outlying musicians and attend their concerts in questionable parts of town?
What is on your list of gains? Of being right? Of doing right? According to our time, values, society, and structures how are you righteous? How are you full of what is right?
Or consider this faith community. What is on Ormewood Church’s list? Are we Inclusive? Creative? Neighborhood focused? Growing instead of declining? Hospitable? Open? Passionate? Do not think that we do not have a list just like Paul does.
Oh we have a list of all the good things we do, say, believe, and proclaim.
But in Philippians chapter 3 we get a big announcement from Paul: Our gains, our lists, don’t get us where we thought they’d get us. They do not mean what we thought they meant.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss...
Paul’s entire list--his list of the right things he is and does and has are counted as nothing. A trifling matter. Unimportant. Zero. Naught. Squat. Nothing. Chris would like me to add excrement to this list as well. They did not and do not mean what he thought they meant. The status, the regard, the security, the assurance of goodness. None of that. He is not who he is because of those things. He is not greater or less than because of those things. He is not in this world because of or for those things.
Listen. His list, our list, they are a bridge when we need a ladder. They are an English Dictionary when we need a Spanish one. They are a meal when we need a glass of water. They are a hammer when we need a wrench. This part of the scripture today reminds me of an older Wall Street Journal article that talked about how we can be “promoted to our misery.” All our promotions and accomplishments can actually get us not further ahead in life, but further on paths and projects that make us miserable. They become a loss, not a gain.
All of these things are loss because Paul has found the new defining point and person in his life.
Now we don’t always get all Jesus-y at this church. We pride ourselves on having lots of entry points to the Divine here. We try to be seeker friendly, acknowledging the many ways God draws us to God’s self. Today, however, we are getting Jesus-y. Today we are entering into the Apostle Paul’s testimony on the person who changed everything for him. Not only changed it, but turned it upside down so that the things he thought made him worthy are actually considered nonexistent in the face of his new life and newfound love. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Knowing Jesus Christ changed Paul’s perspective and purpose in such profound ways that the values of his old life became rubbish, literally trash, to him. What he found his value in and through became something he could easily set aside for something much greater.
So what does it mean to know Jesus Christ? Honestly, we cannot know and understand all of Paul’s full life in and with Christ. Paul has written a large portion of the New Testament and so we could just say “footnote all those letters.” To know Jesus Christ is a lifetime of work, commitment, faith, and prayer. It’s not a thing for one sermon.
But Paul gives us a brief synopsis--a “highlights” if you will and it is not going to surprise anyone what it involves if you know anything about the Christian faith. It certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone who is planning on celebrating Easter in two weeks. What surpasses Paul’s list of achievements? Knowing Jesus and walking with Jesus through death and resurrection.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Death and resurrection. These are the finer points of Paul’s total transformation. They are the highlights of a shift in his values. They are the new definition of a much shorter “list” of gains for him.
And I’m not sure I like it. Let’s be honest, our lists are pretty fun.
Achievements, status, accomplishments seem like a much lovelier way to live my life. Can all my enneagram 3s hear me? To trade this for knowing Christ and the power of Christ’s death and resurrection? And let’s be honest, Paul is not just talking about knowing the death and resurrection of Christ; Paul is talking about participating in it! Identifying with it. Having it happen in his own life. Death and resurrection. These are the only gains Paul now values in his own life.
This is not an easy pill to swallow. This is not a gospel that goes down smoothly. It is, as Paul says in another letter in the New Testament, a stumbling block to his Jewish friends and a whole lot of foolishness to his Greek friends.
It means death, with its loss of physical, religious, and social power, is a place where God shows up. It means that suffering, in its helplessness and confusion, is a place where God shows up. It means that the dark places and principalities of this world and where they have power are places where God shows up and dies. Dies to their power, priorities, and their refusal to value God’s ways in the world. There is death in knowing Jesus as our Christ and our Lord. Death to our lists. Death to our accomplishments. Death to the gains the world sells us. That’s a stumbling block and a whole lot of foolishness.
But in dying with Christ, Paul says there is also new life. There is resurrection. There is a new list we can begin to write down. Resurrection. Empty tombs. Seasons of spring. Kin-doms of God that replace kingdoms of this world.
We lay aside the call of our achievements for what Paul names is the “call of God” in verse 14. The call to set God and God’s priorities as our own and so live into Christ’s transformative life here on earth. It’s a call to count God, to count the life, example, and power of Jesus Christ, as your surpassing, joyful, defining, and consistent gain in your life--through death, through resurrection, and through whatever other adventure the life of God beckons us to join.