Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - (The One in Which Paul Calls BS)

Oct 04, 2020

Passage:Philippians 3:4-14

Preacher: The Rev. E. Courtney Jones

Series: Philippians

Category: Discipleship


We’ve reached our third week of our series in Philippians.  
Last week, Paul was singing us a song about Christ’s humility, and encouraged us to imitate Christ in not thinking too highly of ourselves.  
So, naturally, this week he’s telling us “If anybody has a reason to be confident in the flesh, hey, I have more.”  
I don’t know about you, but to me this seems like scriptural whiplash.  It would appear that Paul goes immediately from“Be humble” to,  “and also . . .have I mentioned that I have no flaws?”
“As to righteousness before the law, blameless.”  
This is one of those spots where our lectionary, our cycle of readings in the Church, does us a disservice.  Because it cuts out a few verses that provide some important backstory behind Paul’s seemingly arrogant comments.
You see, just before today’s reading, Paul addresses a problem that the Philippians are having:  there’s a group of people in a nearby city who are telling them that they aren’t truly Christians, because they aren’t doing this and this and this.  
Their main point of contention was that Paul wasn’t making the Gentile Christians at Philippi convert to Judaism and uphold its cultural practices to be followers of the Way.   Which now seems like it shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it was a pretty big deal in the early church — enough of a big deal that if you search, for instance, for “circumcision” in the Epistles you’ll find it is talked about more than twenty times!
Now, before you think “Wow, what a silly thing to get worked up about,” let me suggest to you that if you’ve been on social media any time in the past decade or so, you know that people will accuse each other of not being “Real” ChristiansTM for far far less.  
“Oh, you have come to a different conclusion than I have about something?  You must not be a real Christian.”
“You’re going to vote for someone different than who I’m going to vote for?  Well, that’s because you’re not actually a Christian.”
“You belong to a different denomination that has slightly different doctrinal positions than I do?  I’m sorry, but you’re not a Christian.”
There is a term for people who believe that they are morally superior because they believe or act more perfectly than others:  self-righteous.1
It’s that kind of self-righteousness that Paul is addressing in today’s reading from the letter to the Philippians.  
But before we engage in our own self-righteousness about not being self-righteous, let’s look at the WHY behind it.  Why does everyone, on some level, engage in self-righteousness?  Why is it so important to us to be right?
Life can be unpredictable, often confusing, and marked with bouts of suffering.  Life was chaotic in the first century.  Life is chaotic now.   As much as we try to be in complete control over our lives — we are NOT.
And so, as finite and fearful humans we tell ourselves, if I can just do everything right, if I can just believe all of the right things, follow all of the rules  — I can stay safe.  I can avoid suffering. 
It’s human nature.  For the most part, it’s foolishness.  But unchecked,  this way of thinking can also lead to other forms of wickedness.  It can rob us of our God-given compassion for others, and fill us with a smug sense of superiority.   We may go so far as to assume that when something bad happens TO someone, THEY — the victim — must have done something wrong.
You know what I’m talking about.  
I think we’ve all experienced this in some form or another, but for sure I know that many of the women listening know what I’m talking about.  Every time we hear that in the news woman has been randomly and violently attacked, inevitably all of HER actions preceding the attack are dissected.  Why was she out of her house after dark?  Why as she NOT carrying mace or walking with her keys between her fingers?   What was she wearing that attracted the attention of the attacker in the first place?
It’s as if we believe         if we can just                check off all of the right safety boxes, we can be spared from anything bad ever happening.  
And this anxiety bleeds over into our spiritual lives.  If I do this and this and this — then everything is going to be okay.  If I believe the right things, and do the right things, and check all of the boxes I’ll be #blessed and nothing bad will ever happen to me or to the people I love.  
In today’s passage, Paul calls this out for what it is:  SELF-RIGHTOUSNESS.  
Paul says to the critics of the Philippians, “Look.  I’ve got the pedigree you’re looking for.  Everything you’re asking people to do?  I’ve done it.  I’ve followed the rules perfectly, and in YOUR system, I am blameless.  
Paul adds:  "And guess what?  It’s all rubbish compared to knowing Christ."  The NRSV uses “rubbish” but in the Greek what Paul says is that all of our attempts at perfection — all of the things that we pat ourselves on the back for — are animal excrement.  
Paul essentially says “This other stuff has all been a bunch of crap because none of it has helped me to know Jesus or the power of his resurrection.
To paraphrase Paul:
"The rules themselves aren't going to save you.  Knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection is what's going to save you.”
Paul reminds the Philippians and their critics that Jesus suffered.  That the one person to come along and do everything ostensibly perfectly was still violently lynched by religious authorities and agents of the state.  
BUT — and this is key — THAT WASN’T THE END.  
(Because of the resurrection.)
Paul says “these knife-happy circumcisers2 can keep the rules all they want.  I want to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection.”  
What does that mean, what is the “power of the resurrection”?  
In Jesus’ resurrection we see that suffering will not get the last word.  Death will not have the last word. 
The resurrection is powerful because it shows us that God can take tragedy and turn it into triumph. 
The promise of Resurrection gives us the freedom to know, deep in our bones, that — in God’s time —  It’s going to be okay.  In God’s time, what is wrong will be made right. What’s sick will be made well. 
And the more we know that, the more we know the righteousness OF God, the less we have to rely on our own right-doing.
What a relief.  Knowing that it doesn’t all depend on us.  There’s freedom in that.  There’s hope in that.  
But our ability to trust GOD — our ability to trust that God is eventually going to turn everything “rightside up”3 doesn’t happen instantaneously.  Which is why I think it's apt that Paul closes today’s passage by comparing the spiritual life             
not to rule following, 
not to an instantaneous conversion experience, 
but to running.  
And I love this metaphor, because I run.  Now, if you hate running, just hang on with me a second.  I don’t run because running is always just the-most-fun-thing-in-the world.  If you run, you know that there are good miles and bad miles.  There are times when it’s easy and times when it’s just a grind. Running can be too early. Too hot. Too cold.  Too hard on my knees.  And, no matter how fast or how far one runs, there is literally no such thing as a perfect run.   Every day of running is a new day of running.  It’s just a matter of getting up putting one foot in front of the other.   
RUNNING IS A DISCIPLINE.  So why run?  Well, for me, on the days when I run, I have more energy and I’m in a better mood.   I run because over time, running makes me feel strong and fit.  
The discipline of running produces good fruit in my life.  
And that’s what Paul is saying about the spiritual life.  We don’t engage in spiritual practice or cultivate spiritual disciplines because if we do it perfectly we can magically manage to avoid chaos and evil and suffering.  We’re not just over here checking off boxes on the way to Heaven.  
INSTEAD, things like:  Personal prayer.  Sharing our faith in small groups.  Worshipping together like this.  These are things are disciplines that, over time, lead to good fruit in our lives.  Like running, in our spiritual lives there are good days and bad days, but overall:  These disciplines lead to trusting God’s faithfulness to turn everything around for good.  These practices lead to our progress and our joy.  
“Not that I have already obtained this    //  or have already reached the goal   //      but I press on to make it my own     //      because Jesus Christ has made me his own."
We can’t do the Christian life perfectly.  But we CAN press on toward the goal of knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection.  
We can keep getting up and running our own race.  
We can keep putting one foot in front of the other.  
1 - Merriam Webster "Self-Righteous"
2 -  "knife-happy circumcisers" appears in the Message, not NRSV
3 - "Rightside up" is NT Wright's language about God's action in the Resurrection