Philippians 3:4b–14 (NRSV)
4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 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 9 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. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Pressing toward the Goal
12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Why do we meet together for Worship? Why is there an assembly we call the Church? Am I the only one that wrestles with these things? These are questions that many have been asking over the years. Every generation that passes wrestles with them in their own ways. Every generation sees what has gone on in the past and hopes to improve. Each generation is turned away from Christ in some way and within each generation there is some sort of internal revival that takes place. At times these revivals seem to be large gathering a great deal of attention at other times they quietly move within with very little recognition. But within each generation from the dawn of time God has drawn people to himself in some manner. I have mentioned these cycle often while I have been a minister among you, because I hope that we are able to recognize that God is working even though it seems as if the world outside is veering off the path. I want us to consider something every generation has thought that the generation that follows is worse than their own.
Paul is speaking to the people of Philippi, a church that has gotten very involved with the ministry but as they have grown, they have begun to lose focus of what is truly important. For most new believers there is a time where we eagerly learn as much as possible about our new faith. We receive a taste of the gospel and we dive head first into it. This is part of our nature, we are a creature that is driven by passion and when something excites us we grasp hold and let it take us where it may. So imagine these new followers of Christ, eager to learn all they can, hungry for truth and filled with the desire to spread the kingdom throughout their land. They go to the only places that they know to hear scripture, they go to the Jewish scribes among them that have also recognized Jesus as their messiah.
They go to these people because they have the words of truth, the scriptures that Jesus and the Apostles used in their ministry. They learn all about the people of Israel, they learn about the prophet and the law, they learn as much as they can. They are growing in knowledge but something is amiss or Paul would not be writing them a letter. They are losing focus on the grace given by Christ and becoming more focused on the legalistic aspects of religion.
For most of us we do not see this as being a bad thing, many would actually say it is quite good that they have grown in knowledge and have turned from lifestyles of the past and entered into one that is more righteous. In Ephesians Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, shoes of peace, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit which is the word of God. These people of Philippi are doing exactly what Paul encouraged the people of Ephesus to do. The issue is with the Sword they are swinging around, the word or collection of sayings of God.
There is a difference between the word that Paul uses to describe scripture and the word John uses to describe Christ, even though both are translated into English as word. One is a collection of sayings and the other is the source of wisdom. The difference may be lost in translation. I say that, tongue in cheek, because the difference is that word used to describe scripture is a collection, it is the sayings of Christ along with other prophets, that mankind was encouraged to gather under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Scripture is holy because it was compiled under the guidance of God, but it is a collection written through the faculties of man so that humanity can read it. But what happens if scripture is not read under the same guidance as it was written? We begin to have interpretations of sayings inspired by mankind that may or may not fully reflect the wisdom of the Source.
Scripture can be dangerous, it must be handled carefully. It is sharp just like any blade, if not used with care unintended consequences might occur. I am aware of what damage a blade can do. I remember very clearly one day when I was in the second grade after I received my very own pocket knife. I was so excited that my dad thought I was mature and responsible enough to have my very own blade. I carried it with pride and would look for opportunities to use it. Well this one morning as I was getting ready to go to school I encountered something that needed cutting, I pulled out my pocket knife and got to work. The blade was not working, so I added greater force only to find out that the blade was not working because I was using the wrong side. As you might expect when someone adds force to the wrong side of a pocket knife the blade folds back. To make a long story shorter, I cut my figure deeply the scar still remains and my dad took my first pocket knife from me because I was irresponsible.
Scripture can be like a blade in the hands of a second grade child, we might understand practical uses but we may not always know how to wield them properly. Paul knows that the people of Philippi have learned a great deal of scripture they are beginning to connect the sayings of Moses and the prophets with the teaching that have been passed down from Christ and they are growing. But at times they are missing something they are looking at the law and suddenly they are using these passages to prove to one another their righteousness.
Paul tells them, if anyone one can boast in this way it is me. Paul is a Hebrew of Hebrews, and he lists off the reasons why. His resume is perfect, by any standard we would say yes this man is more pious than any of us. But Paul then says that all of that is a pile of dung. He says, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Profit or gains are an interesting concept. Even though we live in a cultural system that is driven by profits we misunderstand the true nature of it. The true meaning of profit is mutual benefit. If I am selling a good or service to someone and they pay for that service the amount they pay should cover the cost and there should be a mutual benefit of on both sides. On the seller’s side it can be measured in the amount of income left after we remove the cost of production. The benefit on the other side of the transaction is more difficult to quantify because how do you measure pleasure. I mention this because these are the terms that Paul is talking about.
If you could measure righteousness like profit he would be wealthy, but with the great accumulation of wealth that he has through his own righteousness he is at a loss because of Christ. He had all this righteousness but it was worthless because it was lacking mutual benefit.
Self-righteousness is often like that. It focuses primarily on one side or the other and is ultimately unsustainable because eventually the side that gains no benefit stops participating. This was the righteousness of the law. This is the very activity that Jesus spoke out against. The most righteous people of the first century were the Pharisees, they had righteousness down to precision science. They knew exactly how far one could travel without actually exerting oneself to the degree of work, they knew the precise value of all their possessions so that they could accurately report their tithe. They knew the law and were very willing to let you know if you did not measure up. The problem with this self-righteousness is that there is very little room for anyone or anything else. Where do you draw the line? What happens if the only place you can afford to live is one step to far from the synagogue? What happens when the assistance needed exceeds the tithe? There is no gray areas in a self-righteous mindset, so what happens if an aspect of your life falls in that area where black and white meet? You end up getting cut by the blade, no longer acceptable.
Paul lived in that type of life, he excelled in that lifestyle, yet he said it is loss. All he gained was a pile of rubbish, trash or quite literally a smelly dung heap. Why? Because there is no room for mistakes. You are either in or out, right or wrong, and eventually if we were to keep it up the largest majority would find themselves on the wrong side of the line, cut off. This is not what Jesus the source of wisdom of which scripture speaks intends. The commandments are there to teach us and encourage us. They are there to show us the way to a more abundant life. They were given as weapons but pruning shears.
Paul says his self-righteousness and ours is nothing. But there is something of value to be had. “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.” I have spoken of the day that I personally felt the calling from God to become a minister, but I have not shared with many where that began. I received the calling from God while listening to a sermon on the radio while I was sitting in my vehicle eating lunch. After I ate lunch and that sermon was over I entered into my personal time of bible study, which was a discipline I got into while I was in Ukraine. They taught us a bible study method and I was eager to put it to use when I got back to life at home. I began studying Ephesians together with all the others in my group in Ukraine and the first book of scripture I studied when I got home was Philippians. This verse is one that pushed me over the edge. Jesus called me through the words he spoke to Peter, Paul encouraged me with this. “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.” It is a beautiful passage, because it is void of self-righteousness. It is focused only on Christ. Self-righteousness is rubbish, decomposing, and rotting death, where Jesus is life. There is no hope in trash, and there is nothing but hope in Christ. If all he lived for and experienced ends in life why do we seek anything else?
We look at our community, we look at those leaving the church, and those not in church and what do we see? Do we see opportunities to spread life or are we caught up in patting ourselves on our backs for being more righteous than them? Jesus looked out at the people of his day and was moved to tears because they were lost. I began today with a question why do we meet for worship and why is there an assembly called the Church? We come together to be encouraged to keep our eyes on Christ and not on our own understandings. We come together to seek the spirit of God so that we can understand how to use these words of scripture in ways that will bring life and not death. We come because so often we get distracted and begin to focus on the trash instead of on life. Christ came to give us life, and he gives it to us so that we can encourage others to walk toward him as well. As we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us allow Christ to take out the trash so that we can begin to live for life.