Yr C ~ Lent 2 ~ Philippians 3:4b-14
This is going to be uncomfortable for a while. Oh, we’ll land in a good place, but first we’re going to wade through some nasty business. We’re looking at Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi today and next week. Paul is writing from prison, and he’s laying it on pretty thick. (Yeah, I know, Paul always tends to lay it on pretty thick. Let’s call it the preacher’s prerogative!)
The lectionary has us start at verse 4 of Philippians 3. Why not start at verse 1? It’s probably because it’s a bit nasty – and confusing. This whole chapter must’ve been hard to translate from the Greek because it’s all quite convoluted, but the core message is actually pretty straightforward. Paul begins by talking about ‘the world’, and how most people put all their confidence in ‘the ways of the world’. Last week we talked about how the voice of temptation enticed Jesus to worship power, and money, and fame, and ambition, and how Jesus responded, “You’re worshipping the wrong things.” Paul is saying the same thing here. I’ve been calling it ‘the world’. Paul’s catchword for all that is ‘the flesh’. I believe he means the things of the world as opposed to the things of Spirit.
Paul says that people of faith don’t need to have confidence in the flesh – and then he immediately says, “But if we did, I’d have the most!” Like I said – confusing. But let’s think it through. He’s laying out his credentials. He’s showing the Philippians that in the eyes of the world, especially the known religious world (which in this case is Judaism), that Paul is the epitome of it – the poster child. If you want to critique a system you have to have some cred. If I walked into the quilting group one morning and started to tell them that they’re doing it all wrong they’d laugh me out of the room. Deservedly! I have no cred there.
But here, in this space, in this pulpit, I have significant cred. I’ve even got the fancy degrees and a collar to prove it! I can authentically stand here and critique scripture, church, and faith. So too could Paul. And so he stood there – well, wrote there, I guess, and in the finest tradition of his saviour he turns it all on its head. He says that whatever gains he may have made in the world’s eyes, whatever success he may have achieved, whatever clout he may have accrued, whatever status and privilege he may have ‘earned’ – it was nothing, less than nothing, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. (Philippians 3:8)
According to Paul, the world says we should be chasing all manner of things – and Paul tells us exactly what he thinks of those things. He says it’s all rubbish. Well, that’s the polite translation. It’s a remarkably salty Greek word. It literally means garbage. Dung. In today’s terms I guess you could say Paul is calling BS on ‘the ways of the world’.
(If you’d like to substitute that every time I say ‘rubbishness’, be my guest!)
We are constantly being drawn into, and tempted by, and distracted by, and conned by…rubbishness.
We are up to our eyeballs in rubbishness.
Tune into the news and you’ll be inundated with the fallout from all our rubbishness.
The big lie – the one that has undone our world – the one that the tempter sadly succeeded in – is getting everyone to think that they themselves are the centre of the universe. That what I think I want and need is more important than what you may want or need.
We’ve seen this play out in too many ways lately. I think the stress of living through two years of pandemic has blown off everyone’s filters and all the stuff that was lurking beneath the surface had exploded into view.
“I don’t want to wear a mask because it’s uncomfortable.”
“I shouldn’t have to get vaccinated or limit my participation in things because I’m healthy and there’s less than .1% of a chance that I’ll die from Covid.”
“I did my own research.”
It’s pure rubbishness! It says that me and my perceived place in the world is paramount. “You’re not the boss of me. I’m fine, why should I care about you?” Yikes!
Rampant selfishness is ugly, and disheartening, but when it’s just one person it doesn’t really cause that much trouble. Well, it certainly does for them, and their immediate circle of influence (the people who have to deal with them), and that’s not at all good. But it’s limited. However, if you put a whole bunch of ‘rubbish’ together it tends to smell worse!
Or, when you give that self-obsessed person a lot of power it can lead to unimaginable tragedy.
Why does corruption happen? Rubbishness.
Why does racism happen? Rubbishness.
Why do wars happen? Rubbishness!
When people have power they tend to use it over people. I’m sure you can think of dozens of horrifying examples. But it can even happen in seemingly good places, or organizations. Like even churches.
Church history is littered with rubbishness. The use of power in self-serving and unloving ways.
‘The ways of the world’ are pervasive, and it’s incredibly hard to turn away from them. One big reason is that even though we say we want to leave the world behind, we really can’t. We have to live in the world. Hopefully we’ll remember that Jesus said we’re to be “in the world, but not of the world.” (John 17)
This turning away from the world is Paul’s big message here. Letting go of the rubbishness of ‘the ways of the world’, and trading them in for the ways of God. They really are two completely different worlds. And they’re at war. Or perhaps maybe it would be better to say they’re two different world-views. Two different paradigms of what is important, or even real.
The world says your status and worth come from what you achieve, or acquire, or accomplish. Paul says your status and worth are already settled. You’re beloved. And you don’t need to score points by getting gold stars, even in matters of faith. That’s ‘the way of the world’. You don’t need to earn God’s love. You’re already beloved. God already has your picture on the fridge! And it’s not because of what you did or didn’t do – it’s because of who you know, who you’re in relationship with. (whisper) That means Jesus. And no, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love people who don’t know Jesus – it means that those people don’t get the benefit of knowing how beloved they really are! But we do. And that matters more than any amount of rubbishness one could imagine.
So, it’s settled then, right? We know ‘the ways of the world’ are rubbish, and that God’s ways are love, and light, and life, so we’ll just automatically live in that love, and light, and life all the time. Right? Sadly, no. If only it were that easy. Even Paul struggled with this.
Philippians 3:12 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.
Christian faith is not a ‘one and done’. The goal is the ideal of the Kingdom of God fully revealed and realized in the here and now. The goal is trusting that God really does love me. The goal is living a Christlike life. Paul says he’s not there yet. And no, he didn’t arrive there a few months later. We can never fully arrive and finish because the goal is ever-deepening fullness and that has no end, and no limit. ‘Achieving’ the goal and checking it off this list? That sounds like ‘the ways of the world’ to me.
Instead, Paul invites us into the never-ending quest. Together we press on, and press on, and press on, yearning to make that picture of fullness, sacredness, loving-kindness ever more clearly focused and consistently practiced.
Why? Why should we press on and make it our own? Paul just told us: because Christ Jesus has made (us) his own.
Such a goal, for such a reason, will forever confound ‘the ways of the world’.
Such a goal, for such a reason, will forever be scorned by those who cannot understand power-with, and cannot perceive that power-over is rubbishness.
Such a goal, for such a reason, will forever be rejected by those who have been taught that the ‘other’ is a threat, rather than an extension of ourselves.
Rubbishness is inescapable. It is broad, and deep, and wide. We cannot elude it, or ignore it. We can only seek to transform it. How? In the same way that we have been transformed. By hearing God’s message of love, and light, and life – living it, and sharing it. All of us tuned in today have heard Paul’s message and his plea. A plea from a person with worldly cred by the bucketful, but who chooses instead to run a different kind of race – walk a different path – make a different way.
Philippians 3:14 Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.
Such a goal (embodying God’s love, living a Christlike life, growing ever-deeper in love, love, love) – for such a reason (because Christ Jesus has made me his own, because I’m God’s beloved) is our purpose in faith.
Despite all the rubbishness, press on. Press on. Press on!