Grace Presbyterian Church
October 4, 2020, Pentecost 18A (recorded)
Honestly, there are times when Paul can be quite infuriating with his way of tossing off seemingly impossible challenges and instructions to his readers as if they were nothing.
Only two weeks ago, in the first chapter of this letter to the church at Philippi, we read Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel,” with Paul seeming to toss that off as if it were no big deal. The following instructions in chapters 1 and 2 continue in that vein, with Paul tossing out such instruction as “be of the same mind” and “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” remembering that “it is God who is at work in you.” Seriously, Paul, do you have any idea what you’re asking for?
As we come to the next step through this epistle, there is a slight shift in Paul’s address to this church. As would be expected in rhetorical practice of the time Paul puts himself forward as an exemplar of the instruction and exhortation he is giving. (Yes, in modern speech this would sound like pretty awful bragging, but not in first-century Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition.) One result is an answer to that last rhetorical question; to our exasperated do you have any idea what you’re asking for? comes the answer from Paul yes, yes I do, and here’s how it works.
A second, perhaps unintended result it that we get a moment of insight into Paul’s own view of his rather notorious past. Paul’s story takes up much of the book of Acts, including his first introduction as Saul, persecutor of those deceived followers of that scandalous crucified rabbi Jesus. The story of his Damascus road conversion into one of the most fervent of followers of that same scandalous crucified and resurrected Jesus and his subsequent life of missionary travel and preaching takes over Acts after a certain point. We can’t know for certain how much of this story the Philippians actually know by this time, but if they don’t already know they’re finding out.
What provokes this reflection is a warning from Paul about “the dogs … the evil workers … those who mutilate the flesh.” At this point in the church’s history one could say that this body of Christ-followers doesn’t even know what it is yet. Is it a subset of Judaism, which still required the ritual of circumcision for those men who became a part of it? Or is it something new and different, for which no such ritual act was or should be required?
There were plenty who held the first view that circumcision – that “mutilation of the flesh” to which Paul refers – was and should be required of all these new Gentile converts to the way of Jesus. Paul has had sharp disagreements with that party in different churches on his missionary circuit. His virulently negative response to them becomes an occasion to reflect on his own religious heritage, in which he was raised and trained, and at which – by his own account – he was quite successful:
- “circumcised on the eighth day” – raised and nurtured in the tradition from his birth;
- “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” – you might imagine someone in this country boasting that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower for a similar effect;
- “as to the law, a Pharisee” – not merely an average person, but sell-studied and well-taught in the whole corpus of Jewish law, and scrupulous about keeping it;
- “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” – he was so passionate about his faith that he sought to “correct” those who deviated from it (and “correct” is an extremely mild way to put it!); we have a lot of that going around today in the modern church…and;
- “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” – all that law he had so studied? He kept it, down to the letter.
Paul, in short, needed to defer to no one in terms of having “lived right” according to the law those claimed who insisted on the circumcision of converts. He had them beat. And to him, all of that was nothing anymore.
Verses 7 and 8 use a pair of different words in translating what Paul writes here. First we read Paul has “come to regard as loss” all of those things, and then that he counts all those things as “rubbish.” This is far too mild a word for what Paul actually says. This is one of those cases where the old familiar King James Version comes closer with its word choice: “dung.” Yes, Paul really does use a word for what we moderns flush down the toilet to describe all that old righteousness.
The only righteousness that matters anymore to Paul is the righteousness that is Paul’s strictly through faith in Christ. Paul has done nothing to earn it (it comes by grace, though the word is not used here). It is no less than the gift of God, manifested in the love of Christ and ministered through the working of the Holy Spirit. And that is all that counts to Paul. What matters is to know Christ, to share in the suffering of Christ, to become like Christ even unto death, and (by the grace of God) to share in the resurrection of Christ.
And to that end, Paul describes, “I press on to make it my own.” He’s not there yet and he knows that. He can only say even this, as he says, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Even that is not of his own doing; he wasn’t looking for anything like what happened when the risen Jesus accosted him on that road to Damascus. He freely acknowledges he can do none of this on his own. All he can do, he says again, is “press on towards the goal.”
Even as we can see that Paul is making this claim for himself, we can’t help but feel how challenging such a declared goal is. Particularly at this moment, the idea of “pressing on” feels perhaps more like a death sentence than a promise of life. Living in a pandemic that only seems to get worse every time we yearn for a glimmer of hope, when cries for justice are met repeatedly with violence and threats, when it can become impossible to keep track of what day of the week it is and when six months ago seems like six years ago, “pressing on” just feels brutal. I’ll be honest with you; it feels an awful lot of the time right now as if I’ve lost my mind just trying to keep up with the routine things.
But in the end, what else is there? Perhaps we’ve lived long enough to know that any righteousness we think we’ve earned is even less than the stuff we flush down the toilet. Perhaps we’ve been reminded how little our own efforts really mean in this time.
Perhaps, if nothing else, living in this moment reminds us that the righteousness we have in Christ, solely by the grace of God, is the only thing worth boasting about. Perhaps we can now understand that only in this righteousness that is in Christ is the means to live even in this seemingly endless and mind-numbing season of out-of-the- ordinary Ordinary Time.
Still, it’s hard. Giving up on the idea that our own efforts – anything we can earn – will save us is frankly offensive, if we’re honest about it. But that is the challenge that is laid before us. Still, to learn to count it all as loss and to seek only Christ? That is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #450, Be Thou My Vision; #223, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross