Saturday, October 11, 2014


Philippians 3:4-14[1]
I’m going to share with you another aspect of myself today. When I was growing up, I was considered the “golden boy.” I didn’t think of myself that way, but apparently a lot of other people did. I was always at the top of my class. I never really excelled at sports, but in pretty much everything else, school, music, scouts, church, I was a rising star. And I continued to rise through college and seminary. After my Ph. D., I had a Fulbright scholarship to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, with one of the most famous New Testament scholars in the world. When I started teaching at the age of 31 as one of the youngest professors at the largest seminary in the United States, my Dean remarked that I single-handedly raised the IQ of the faculty. I really doubt that, but that’s what he said.
And yet, for all the appearance of success, I was incredibly unhappy. There were lots of reasons for that, none of which had to do with the goals I had set for myself. They were worthy goals, they were honorable achievements. But they were my achievements. I think it’s common for people who strive to achieve all they can to find that when they reach their goal, it leaves them feeling profoundly empty. And like me, when we experience that shocking emptiness we tend to go into panic mode. We try to “make” things work out the way we expected. We try to “fix” whatever may have gone wrong with the plan, which was that when we succeeded at achieving our goals, we would be happy. But no matter how hard we try, when we place all of our worth into what we achieve in this life, we usually find ourselves emotionally and spiritually bankrupt.
I think Paul was reflecting something of that experience in our lesson for today. It may be hard for us to understand his list of all his achievements, because they belong to a different day and time. But in essence, Paul was saying he came from an elite family, he attended the finest prep school, he knocked the top out of his test scores, made it into an Ivy League school, and graduated at the top of his class. He was a “golden boy” to those who watched him grow up. And among the leadership of the Jewish people, he was known as a rising star.[2]
It’s important for us also to recognize that there was nothing inherently wrong with Paul’s achievements. They were all noble and honorable as well. But they were his achievements. [3] When he met Christ everything changed; in comparison with the amazing gift of new life through faith in Jesus Christ, Paul says that he counted everything he once saw as an advantage as a loss.[4] In fact he uses much stronger language than that. The holy Apostle himself says that in comparison with knowing Christ his previous achievements he now considered as refuse, filth, or as the KJV so bluntly translates it, as dung!
Part of what we have to understand here is that Paul is in the middle of a serious debate about what constitutes true faith. Other Christian preachers in Paul’s day were demanding that Gentile converts first had to convert to Judaism before they could truly embrace the Christian faith. To some, that might have seemed logical. After all, the Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets served as the foundation not only for the teachings of the Apostles, but also of Jesus himself.
And yet, I think Paul knew by personal experience the major pitfall with that kind of approach. As one contemporary preacher puts it: “salvation does not rest with us but with God.”[5] Paul does not disparage the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, neither here nor anywhere else. But I think Paul knew what it was to do one’s best to fulfill all the expectations and yet to find that seeking your life in those self-achievements is ultimately a hollow victory.
The reason he knew this was because he had discovered a whole new way of life centered in faith in Christ. In this new relationship he found the fulfillment he could never find on his own. And it came to him purely as a gift from God, not as something he had reach for or work hard enough to achieve. In comparison with the incalculable gain he found in Christ, Paul could write the word “bankrupt” across his whole previous history of achievements, as worthy as they may have been.[6]
That’s the way life works. When we accept it as a gift, we find the joy and peace we’ve always been looking for. When we go out and try to force life to work out the way we planned, we only make ourselves miserable (and perhaps those around us). To some extent, this Scripture lesson cuts against the grain of what we’re taught. We’re supposed to do our best, to rise as high as we can. And in fact, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to do well. but we have to understand that if we derive our sense of worth in life from what we achieve by our own efforts, we will find ourselves just as bankrupt as St. Paul did.
That especially includes the notion that we somehow “earn” God’s favor by our diligence in the Church.[7] We cannot make our service in the Church into our own “stairway to heaven.” Only God’s gift of life through faith in Jesus Christ can truly satisfy the emptiness and the longing we all experience at times. Only the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit can heal our spiritual bankruptcy. And the good news is that all we have to do is to let go our pipe dreams and accept that wonderful gift of new life to find the peace and joy we’ve always wanted.[8]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm  on 10/5/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, “Eyes On the Prize,” The Christian Century (Mar 11, 1992): 293.
[3] Cf. Fred Craddock, Philippians, 55: Paul does not disparage his Jewish heritage; in fact, in  many cases he speaks positively about it. But as good as it all was, “the law was not intended to be and is not the means by which one stands acceptable before God.”
[4] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 58: “Paul does not extol the virtues of his new life in Christ by a deprecating description of his life in Judaism. ... Paul does not say Judaism is worthless, that it is refuse (garbage, excrement), that intrinsically that way of life is of no value. What he is describing is his consuming desire to know Jesus Christ, to be in Jesus Christ, to have that righteousness which is God’s gift to the one who believes; and for the surpassing worth of that, he counts gain as loss.”
[5] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 55: “Justification by law would annul the grace of God and put the spotlight on human achievement ... . The point is, salvation does not rest with us but with God.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:531-32.
[6] Since Krister Stendahl’s article, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963) 199-215, many scholars have debated whether Paul had a “conversion” at all. As Katherine Grieb points out in “‘The One Who Called You ...’ Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature,” Interpretation 59 (Apr 2005): 157-58, Paul did indeed experience a conversion, if not in the same manner we may have imagined it. She says, “Violently zealous prophets like Moses, Elijah and Phinehas may have been role models for Paul prior to his conversion. ... Everything of which he had been so certain now had to be reconfigured in light of the crucified and risen Messiah. ... Paul's own vocation or call to be an "apostle to the Gentiles" introduced him to a deeper and more challenging way of being Israel among the nations. This way renounced violence and worked to build intentional communities that followed the pattern of the crucified and risen Lord who had commissioned Paul to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul is still very much within the prophetic tradition—but now he is following the model of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.”
[7] Cf. Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:531: “In spite of Paul's contrast between the righteousness of his own that he has abandoned and the righteousness that comes in Christ, it is all too easy for Christians to cling to what they regard as their own righteousness. We assume that our faithful attendance at church, our Christian conduct and adherence to moral principles, deserve some special consideration from God and constitute some special claim on God.”
[8] Cf. Ellen Babinsky, “Philippians 3:7-15,” Interpretation 49 (Jan 1995): 71: “Paul tells us that we are in Christ in whom, through faith, is our only righteousness, God's righteousness. Indeed, Christ Jesus has already made us his own through his death and resurrection. We can be found in Christ because Christ has bound us to himself. Because Christ has already made us his, we can struggle to live with God.”

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