Monday, March 8, 2010

No Comparison (Really)

What do you seriously believe will get you through this life, not to mention beyond it? Is it your professional or academic accomplishments? Is it your good grades, your degrees, or your excellent job? Is it your family background, your good genetics, or your social position? Perhaps it's who you know, or who you can schmooze? Paul says in Philippians 3: 3 that he has absolutely "no confidence in the flesh." That is, no confidence in unredeemed human nature and what it can ultimately accomplish. He considers it nothing more than dog ---- (Well, we'll get to that later.) His confidence, he says, is not in what he might rightfully brag are his personal accomplishments (which were considerable), but in what God has accomplished through his Son; and his words echo those of the prophet Jeremiah:

This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let those who boast, boast about this: that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight" (Jeremiah 9: 22-24). Along these lines, Paul gives us three strong words of exhortation...

First, be careful what you trust in: put your credentials in the trash (Phil. 3: 1-8). Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh I have more" (4). When it came to religious passion, Paul -- speaking of his former life -- was the top dog! He was a “Hebrew born of Hebrews” (5) with all the ethnic credentials of a genuine Israelite. And he wasn’t just a keeper of Torah, he was a Pharisee, the strictest of the strict. "As for zeal," Paul says, I was “a persecutor of the church” (6). In his letter to the Galatians (1: 14ff.) he speaks of his former life in unvarnished terms: “For I thoroughly ravaged the church of God and tried to destroy it…being exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Understand that in the first century zeal was not something one did on one’s knees, in evangelism or works of charity, but with a knife. In other words, at one time Paul was willing to do violence to hasten God’s kingdom, and vindicate his people.

Back then, Paul put his confidence “in the flesh” (4) in his credentials, his racial purity, his strict adherence to Torah, his fierce opposition to the church, and his so-called good works (Phil. 3: 4-6). Now let me ask you again: What do you really trust in…to get you through life? Perhaps it's your professional or academic accomplishments, your social status and position...or perhaps it’s your spirituality: your prayer life and early morning bible studies, or your zeal for social justice? Perhaps these things will get God’s attention and the attention of other people. But Paul’s personal conclusion? “For whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss….because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (4, 7-8). The Greek word skubalon, which the NRSV translates as “rubbish” (Who in America uses that word anymore?!) is actually a much more vulgar term. It means human or animal excrement. It means something like (are you ready for this?) “dog crap” and it would have sounded at least that shocking to the Philippians when they read it.

For the sake of Christ, Paul says "I have suffered the loss of all things" (Phil. 1: 8), all my titles and credentials, my standing as a religious professional; my colleagues and associates now want to kill me, my reputation is shot and I’m sitting in jail possibly awaiting execution for telling people about Jesus…but it’s all worth it. Why? Because compared with knowing Jesus…everything else is “dog crap.” So put your credentials and everything you’ve ever done to try to earn God’s love and the applause of people in a plastic bag (or similarly recyclable material), throw it in the trash and…

Be confident in Christ: place your faith in him alone (Phil. 3: 9) I met with a couple of guys one day from another religious faith. One was an endocrinologist…and the fact that I was a diabetic came up in the conversation. He remarked that in his tradition, having an affliction like mine earns me favor with God. God looks at it as though I had done many good works. I saw the kindness in his eyes…and his desire to encourage me with that idea. It was a holy moment because I had the opportunity to share about what suffering mean as a Christian…that yes suffering is part of our fallen world, that yes God draws near to the afflicted, but that it was his suffering and his sacrifice (not mine) that makes me right with God. For as Paul says, our confidence comes not from suffering for God, nor from our excellent credentials and zealous religiosity…it comes from “being 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 (Phil. 3: 9).

In Paul's day, like our own, there were those who wanted to put a plus-sign after Jesus' name. In particular, Paul wanted to warn the Philippians about the "Judaizers," those who said that Gentile followers of Jesus must first fulfill all the requirements of the Hebrew Torah (law) before they could become a part of God's family -- especially the ritual of circumcision (which was an outward physical sign of belonging to Israel). Paul, like Jeremiah, argued that it was not these outward signs that make us part of God's family, it is trusting in what God has done for us. It is not the outward circumcision that is essential, but rather to be "circumcised in the heart" (Jeremiah 9: 26).

The good news of the gospel is that it's not Jesus plus suffering. It’s not Jesus plus circumcision It’s not Jesus plus ritual purity. It’s not Jesus plus daily bible study, or Jesus plus long skirts in church; or Jesus plus small groups, or Jesus plus speaking in tongues, or Jesus plus listening to Christian radio or Jesus plus raising my hands in worship or Jesus plus my favorite social justice cause….that make me really OK before God. None of these things is bad, indeed they may be very helpful spiritual disciplines, but they are not conditions for salvation nor do they earn us God's favor: we do them "in him" or to put it differently, "in the hug."

Let me say it again. The hug comes for free! Imagine your child or grandchild coming home from school, looking for some sign of your love, a confirmation of your all children need. But on this particular day, instead of embracing your child or even welcoming your child home, you fold your arms sternly and say, "No hugs...until you clean your room perfectly, or until you finish your home work, or until you get a better grade on your next math test." Their performance is now a condition of your love and, sadly, many children grow up in that kind of environment. But what Paul is saying about the nature of God is quite different. The hug comes for free! Indeed, the hug must come for free! Why? Because there is no way we will ever be able to earn that hug, no way we will ever be able to merit it with our performance. We must receive it with thanksgiving, by God's grace through faith, or not at all.

It’s Jesus plus nothing that makes me acceptable to God! Anything I do for God as a follower of Jesus I do in the hug. I already have God’s acceptance, so the God-honoring works that I do are in response to his love, not something I do to earn it. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not because of works, that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2: 8-9). So forget any kind of do-it-yourself righteousness, which is impossible (since we all fall short of the glory of God), and embrace instead, "the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith (9). When we place our faith in him, God looks at you and me, and instead of our failures and failings, instead of all the things we have done wrong, he sees the righteousness of his Son. He sees not just the person we have been, but the person we are and will be by his grace and power. Again, does this mean that God cares nothing about "good works"? Not at all! But even our so-called "good works" must be redeemed by him. They are a response to what he has done for us in his Son, not a means of winning God's gift of salvation. And so, Paul concludes:

Be clear about the goal: to know Christ above all - the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his sufferings! (Phil. 3: 10-11) For, says Paul, “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” (Phil. 3: 10-11). Paul’s primary goal is to know Christ. Remember that when the Bible speaks of “knowing” it is not speaking of a mere intellectual knowledge. Paul is not saying that he wants to study and read more books about Jesus (not that there is anything wrong with that). To know someone, biblically, is to know them intimately, personally, on a daily basis. But what is involved in knowing Christ?

Paul says that it's the power of his resurrection, and then the sharing of his sufferings. Note the order, because we might conclude that Paul has it backwards. After all, shouldn't we have to share in his sufferings before we get to know the power of his resurrection? No! Because the overwhelming fact that transformed Paul’s life was the resurrection of Jesus. It was the Risen Lord who met Paul on the Damascus road when he was lost in a miserable pit of hatred and do-it-yourself religiosity (see the incredible story beginning in Acts 9); and it's the Risen Lord who lives and who gives us power to make it through whatever suffering or hardships may come to us in the life. Notice that Paul says I want to know the sharing of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death if somehow (or some way) I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Here is the word koinonia again, "sharing" or “fellowship.” Paul’s point is that as we bear our own cross, our own hardships and trials in this life as his disciples, we do not do so alone. We have the promise of his fellowship, his companionship, not only through hardship or as we pass through death, but in the resurrection life to come.

Nowhere is that fellowship more powerfully represented than when Jesus' followers share the bread and drink the cup that he first shared with his disciples on the night of his arrest. "This is my body that is broken for you," Jesus said, "do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me." At his table, we're invited to stop living a miserable life of do-it-yourself religiosity; to confess the sin of our pride and all our efforts to earn God’s approval and the approval of others; and to accept his grace through faith. At his table we declare that it is Jesus plus nothing that makes us acceptable to God; and that when it comes to the love, joy, peace, and power offered to us in God’s Son -- there is really and comparison.

Gracious God, I never want to fall back into trying to accumulate credits with You. In the past I’ve foolishly boasted in my accomplishments and my ‘good works’. I’ve boasted about my credentials, my titles and my special awards. I’ve boasted in my good grades and my degrees, my family and my social position; I’ve taken pride in my religiosity and the justice of my causes. I’ve even taken pride in my humility! Forgive me for not trusting in the certainty of your love. Please cleanse and forgive me as I stand on the truth of your word: that I am saved from sin and death by your grace through faith; the gift of faith in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Fill me now with your Holy Spirit that my life might be a living testimony to all you have done for me, through Jesus Christ my Savior and my Lord. Amen.

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