Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
...even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
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 towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
The Goal: Philippians 3:4b-14 and Matthew 21:33-46
I have heard that some people think that the apostle Paul is being arrogant in today's reading from Philippians. They think his list of all the ways that he could be "confident in the flesh" is far too near to bragging to be appropriate for such an esteemed apostle. Why on earth would he need to outline his privileges so frankly? It's... unseemly. Like talking about religion and money with strangers. Oh, wait... Paul probably did those things, too. But, why does he outline his privileges like this? Why, in a letter of encouragement to his friends, would he need to talk about the aspects of his life that bring him a certain amount honor and power in their community? Does he have a point, or is he just bragging?
I'll go ahead and tell you, I think Paul is not just bragging to get attention. I mean, you may recall that he's writing this letter from a Roman jail... little more than a pit in the ground. The Romans who imprisoned him gave very few provisions to those in jail. Paul may have been relying on his friend who had traveled to visit him from Philippi to provide for his most basic needs for food and water. Also, Paul may have been imprisoned for disturbing the peace. He was hardly in a position to strut around bragging. And, if you remember from the last time we talked about Philippians at any length, Paul seems to really be hoping to offer encouragement to his friends with this letter. It hardly makes sense that a good friend, which Paul seems to have been, would spend precious time writing a letter of encouragement that was filled with a list of his own accomplishments. If he's listing things that bring him honor, either because of things he's done or because of honor he's inherited, he's hoping to use this information to help his friends. Here's how I think he's using this list of privilege.
We should remember a couple important things about this early Christian movement. First, membership in the churches was often drawn from the margins of society. Slaves, the very poor, women, and children were all granted membership in these communities. There were wealthy members, to be certain. Wealthy women benefactors, like Lydia who you can read about in the book of Acts, often supported these early missions. They were also a place where people from different ethnic backgrounds could worship together. Gentiles and Jews, citizens and non-citizens, were to be of equal status in these communities. And, increasingly, Christian public preaching was being understood as disruptive of good social order. That may be why Paul was arrested. Paul knew that something was different about his community. So many of the typical rules of their various cultures were being bent for people to come together in Christian communities. It can be hard to live a life that runs counter to prevailing cultural expectations.
Paul wanted to encourage his friends to continue to live this countercultural life, even if it could be a strain. In order to do so, he had to demonstrate that he understood just what was at stake and that he himself was willing to give up certain privileges in order to better follow Christ. So, he names the ways he is privileged in his own ethnic community: Some of these privileges are ones he earned; some simply came to him by virtue of his honorable family and religious lineage. He is from a devout Jewish family that chose to have him circumcised according to their religious practice. He can trace his ancestry through the tribe of Benjamin. He was devout in his adherence to a particularly rigorous branch of Judaism. In fact, he had spent a good amount of time holding heretics accountable for the ways they were flouting the law. He declared that his personal commitment to his faith was so complete that he could even be called blameless. When he encouraged his friends to follow Christ, he doesn't do so as someone who has fallen well outside of the bounds of propriety. In discussing his history and accomplishments, he's reminding them that he is deeply rooted in a religious and ethnic community. He is reminding them of just exactly how much he has to lose.
Had Paul been willing to continue to judge his life by these standards, one could argue that he had already reached a perfectly respectable life goal: Righteousness in his community. Many people would never be able to achieve what he had through both luck and intense discipline. But, once he had a vision of Jesus and came to understand his interpretation of their shared faith to be authoritative, he realized that he no longer valued what was once deeply important to him. He looked at his life, a life which many would call successful, and realized he know considered to be rubbish compared what his life could be with Christ. So, he became willing to give up his previous markers of success in order to be more like Christ. It did not make his life easier. In fact, in made it harder. But, the difficulty was worth the pain. Paul told his friends the story of the change in his life to show them that they could change their lives this way, too, not because it would be easy, but because they would do so with Christ. And, living with Christ would be worth the struggle.
A minister named Corey Fields recently shared a powerful story in an article in Baptist News Global. He spoke of a pastor named Brian Zahnd, who served in Missouri. Rev. Zahnd was a popular and successful pastor, known for starting new congregations. One of his churches grew to be particularly large and well attended, typical marks of success in the Christian world. In his article, Fields reported that in the midst of his ministry with that congregation, Zahnd began to discern that something was missing in the communal life of their church. He returned to the works of early Christian writers and mystics. He studied and studied the Bible. He prayed a lot. He grew to believe that he had actually been missing the real depth of the Jesus' teaching and ministry.
Like Paul after his conversion experience, Zahnd began to live differently. He did an extended sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount (You've probably heard it before: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted). It appears that he understood this to be the core of Jesus' message. I'm inclined to agree. He encouraged the leadership of the church to re-examine their vision for their ministry and reorganize their time together so that it might better reflect Jesus' priorities as found in this piece of scripture. Their common life would no longer be centered around what Fields called "attending a worship concert once a week and maybe meeting in small groups at home over fatty snacks and lackluster curriculum." Zahnd had returned to Jesus and had found something radical and life-changing. He was more than willing to consider his previous success as rubbish to discarded in favor of following this radical Christ. He asked his followers to examine their own priorities and do the same. Not everyone could. People began to leave. They had seen what was at risk... comfort, fun, an easier life... and they weren't willing to lose it, even in if their pastor was.
I don't share this story to simply critique the folks to left that church in Missouri. People go to church for a lot of reasons and often being challenged isn't really one of them. I know that it is mighty hard to examine one's own life, one's accomplishments, and one's good fortune and find it wanting. That's why Paul wrote this letter, so people like me, and you, and folks in a church down in Missouri don't think that this life of faith is supposed to be without struggle... that we're supposed to follow Jesus and suddenly have an easy way opened in front of us. No, the strain of individual and communal examination has always been part of following Jesus. So, we don't shy away from the difficult questions: Are our priorities in line with Christ's? Do our ideas about freedom inhibit the safety and livelihoods of our neighbors? Are we truly tending to the needs of the lonely, hungry, and meek? When we call ourselves peacemakers, is this peace grounded in love and accountability or in coercion and resistance to dissent? These questions are hard, but they are necessary. Paul doesn't use the word "strive" lightly. Our faith is always striving to be more like Christ. What Paul wants us to remember that is that we don't do this striving alone.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing her sermon:
Troy Troftgruben: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3440
Christian Eberhardt: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2147
Susan Eastman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1010
Efrain Agosto: https://www.onscripture.com/pressing-toward-higher-goals
Sarah Henrich: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2776
Corey Fields: https://baptistnews.com/article/careful-close-let-jesus-get-real-life/#.WfHo0WhSzIX
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.