Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spiritual Resumes and Rubbish

Philippians 3:4b-14, Lectionary 27 A, October 5, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

If you had to make a “spiritual resume,” what would you include? Maybe the date that you were born, baptized, and confirmed? You might include how long you have been a member of this church and what committees and task forces you have served on. You also might include in a spiritual resume how you are living out your vocation through your job, your hobbies, and your friendships. 

Maybe you would even include how you are passing on your faith to the next generation.
In our second lesson today, Paul provides his own spiritual resume. He was, “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.” (NRSV)

So, Paul was born into the right group. His parents raised him to be a good Jew. He chose to work for the church. He followed all the laws. He looked like the perfect Jew. For his time, he had a pretty impressive spiritual resume. But he wasn’t using this list of achievements to boast. Instead, he says, 

“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.” 

In his way, Paul is saying that his spiritual resume is meaningless because all that matters is Jesus Christ. Or, as Carolyn Brown writes, “Paul says his impressive life resume isn’t worth poop when compared to God’s love for him.” Jesus loves Paul. That is what matters. 

When you read Philippians, is that what you discover? An intelligent man once told me after worship, “I love the Bible. I read it everyday. But the Psalms and the Epistles? I can’t understand them.” So, he never tried to. Can you relate? Do you ever truly understand Paul’s letters? Maybe. Maybe not.

There are tidbits of these letters that we know and love. Yet overall, Paul’s writing is often too dense for most of us. Even the class in seminary about Paul’s letters didn’t help. Although the professor revealed many great truths to me in that class, he also made everything more complicated and technical. You may not care whether a letter is judicial, deliberative, or epideictic, but my professor certainly did!

The conference that I attended this past week brought Paul alive for me. They used the letter to the Philippians as their focus. Paul may occasionally use dense language, yet in this book, his care for the Philippians comes alive. 

At the time of this letter, Paul is under house arrest in Rome, the prison of that day. He has already met the Philippians and worked with them to form the church at Philippi. This group of house churches has responded with more care for the larger church through financial offerings and other gifts. 

Paul is so kind to the Philippians he shares many words of gratitude and is constantly talking about his joy in the Lord. He didn’t just send a paper copy of his letter to them, though. He sent Timothy and Epaphroditus with the letter. The two of them gathered all of the house churches in Philippi together for a special event. Then, with everyone in one room, Epaphroditus performed the letter for them.

The Philippians already knew this man and were fond of him. When they heard that Epaphroditus was gravely ill, they sent word of their concern to Paul. So, seeing Epaphroditus before them was their first joy. Then to hear Paul’s careful words was their second joy. Yet the only true joy that matters is the joy they have in the Lord. 

This joy in the Lord is a joy that endures suffering. It is like a mother who cares for her baby even when he won’t stop crying. Joy in the Lord is like a son who regularly visits his mother even though she doesn’t know who he is anymore. It is like standing up for a cause even if you make enemies in the process. Joy in the Lord is like spending your time under house arrest sharing the gospel with your jailers. 

This joy is what Paul expresses throughout his letter to the Philippians. In the four short chapters of Philippians, Paul uses “joy” or “rejoice” fourteen times! Even though he does not use this in our lesson for today, this joy penetrates this passage. In this lesson, we hear from Paul how he fits into the larger picture.

Paul embodies this when he wrote the hymn in chapter 2: 
8 Christ was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—
    his death on the cross.
9 For this reason God raised him to the highest place above
    and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.
10 And so, in honor of the name of Jesus
    all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below[b]
    will fall on their knees,
11 and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Good News Bible)

This Christ hymn is the center of the letter and the center of the good news. With this as our focus, we can see how Paul’s spiritual resume means nothing in the end because Christ means everything. If you consider Paul’s credentials, he seems to have done everything right. He was born into a Jewish family and circumcised on the eighth day. He became a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church. He was blameless before the law.

Like Paul, I seem to have a pretty good spiritual resume. I was baptized as an infant and raised in the Lutheran Church. As early as high school, I decided to be a pastor. I carefully studied the Bible and my faith while rarely making any serious errors. But does Jesus care? No! At the end, my spiritual resume is rubbish just as much as Paul’s is. 

Sometimes caring so much about the details of faith blocks us from seeing the truth. We can step back and say, “None of this matters. Nothing matters except Jesus.” Now, even to Christians, Paul’s circumcision and his previous life as a Jew do not matter. What matters is that he knows Jesus. He knows that Jesus died for him and the world. His faith in Christ is all that matters. 

And so with us. Jesus does not care whether we are baptized as infants or as adults. Jesus doesn’t care whether we perfectly follow the law or not. Jesus cares that we are his. Christ has chosen us, given his life for us, so that our spiritual resumes do not matter. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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