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When we hear the invitation to gather around this table in a little while we’ll hear these word in the invitation – “Not because any righteousness of your own gives you the right to come, but because you desire mercy and help.”
Not because any righteousness of your own gives you the right to come. This is the warning that Paul writes to his sisters and brothers in Philippi as we begin the third chapter in our summer long series in this excellent letter. Beware. Be aware. Watch out for this, because it can be a thing. It can become a thing. It’s not troublesome for me to repeat myself, Paul writes – “To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.” We don’t know how big a problem the Philippian church is having, but Paul wants them (and always by extension us) to be aware of it.
So what is the problem?
There are those in Philippi who are teaching that in order to be a follower of Christ, there are things you must do. This was a question in the early church, which began with a group of Jewish people, including Paul himself. The question was, do Gentile followers of Christ have to follow the laws of the Torah in order to be righteous – in order to be in a right relationship with God, including circumcision. This was an issue that the church dealt with in Acts 15, in the first church council. Whenever we have an ordination council I like to remind people that we are continuing a church tradition that goes all the way back to Acts 15. There it was decided that Gentile converts would not have to be circumcised because the grace of Christ was sufficient.
The grace of Christ is sufficient. This is our message.
The thing is, the sufficiency of Christ can be a hard one to come to terms with. In Paul’s time it was people who taught that there had to be a little something more to do. The problem with this is that it sets up two groups of people – those who are doing the right things and those who are not. In some circles, the people one the outside not doing the right things were referred to as dogs. Dogs weren’t the beloved household pets in those days that they are now. They were outsiders. Scavengers. Roamed in packs and so on. Paul uses the same strong language to describe those teaching the insufficiency of grace - they were workers of evil, dogs – in other words their work was not of God because any teaching that causes divisions among people is not of God. Paul writes that such people are not the circumcision but rather the mutilation, and I won’t say anything more about that.
We’re talking about the sufficiency being in Christ. The sufficiency of grace. The sufficiency of the cross. We’ve been saying throughout this series that much of the message we have received runs very much counter to the messaging we are bombarded with constantly. Our culture is one of achievement. You need to go out and make a name for yourself. You need to make sure you children get into the best schools, that you eat the right foods, that you look a certain way, that you are in the know, that you keep up with trends, the latest books, films, and whatever else our culture says you need to be doing to be on the inside. This is where we find fulfillment, this is where we find honour.
There was a book recently released called “Life at Home in the 21st Century” which was a study of families in CA over 10 years. One writer describes it like this – “Apparently things are worse than we thought. We are surrounded by our belongings, our children are staring at screens, and no one is going outside. Also it turns out everyone is eating chicken nuggets.” The author talks about reaction to the book – “Some people read this stuff and feel the weight of their sin, and some people read this stuff and feel very shiny in their self-righteousness. I used to see self-righteousness as a kind of earned right.” We get this right? When we are basing our lives on our own striving, our own ability to keep it together, it becomes very easy to look down on those who appear to not be keeping it together. The author concludes – “A decade in ministry alongside my husband has ruined that fantasy. The more ‘together’ people want to tell me they are, the more I just assume (actually know) that their lives are falling apart.”
This is life friends.
What do we have to watch for in our church? I don’t think many of us think that one has to act a certain way, do certain things, and look a certain way to be accepted into our faith community. I may be wrong but I don’t think I am. I think the danger for us is a reliance on our own competencies when it comes to our status before God and what God is calling us to do here. Do we serve together on the strength of our charm, our intelligence or good looks? On our education, on our experience in church? None of these things are bad things, any more than Paul thought his own background and training was a bad thing. They become bad things (evil works?) when they become the necessary thing.
The message is the sufficiency of Christ. Boasting in Christ, finding honour in Christ and not primarily in what we achieve. There is nothing wrong with achievements of course, but we’re talking about in what we ultimately trust. I was at Mount Pleasant Cemetery recently, and questions of ultimate meaning are always very much on my mind in a cemetery. There was a sign talking about how Mount Pleasant was founded and when. It also talked about some of the famous people who are buried there – “Since 1876 this well-known green space has provided the final resting place for many prominent people, including a Canadian prime minster and several of Ontario’s premiers and lieutenant governors.” I remember thinking how meaningless it was in the face of death, the great leveller. We are called not to trust in what we achieve but in what Christ achieved – the undoing of death – and to worship in the Spirit of God. Those who do so are the circumcision, writes Paul, because circumcision was always a symbol pointing forward to Moses’ words “Circumcise your hearts” and pointing forward to the one who would enable us to fulfill this command and put a heart of flesh within us. The one who would remove the barrier, as it were, between us and God.
Paul goes into some autobiography at this point. If anyone has any reason to boast in himself, to have confidence in the flesh, it was me writes Paul. An Israelite’s Israelite, circumcised on the 8th day (no convert, born into it), of the tribe of Benjamin (the tribe that remained loyal to the Davidic line through the split), a Pharisee (a religious professional whose job was to help people figure out how to keep the law in the middle of tumultuous times, as to righteousness under the law blameless (I fulfilled that stuff), a persecutor of the church.
This is where Paul was led ultimately. The ultimate insider/outsider paradigm, in which those who were on the outside actually needed to be killed. Where self-justification ultimately leads is to a sense of better-than. Jesus told a story about this once. Two men go up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee – a dedicated keeper of the law - one is a tax collector – a reviled Roman collaborator likely on the take. The Pharisee prays “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues adulterers, or even like that tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income (pre-tax!).” The tax collector wouldn’t even look up to heaven but beat his chest and simply prayed “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted just like the one who emptied himself and has been exalted by God and given the name that is above every name.
The sufficiency of grace. It’s not about what you do. At the same time it’s about what you do. Grace is not a license to do whatever we like or to boast about how we don’t need to be beholden to any laws because we are so filled with the concept of grace. We are called to get down on our knees and beat our chests and plead for mercy from our God who is merciful and faithful and just.
His background, his upbringing, they were not bad things for Paul. He came to regard them as loss. As garbage.
Because he met Christ. He met Christ on the road to Damascus and was met not with condemnation but a question – “Why do you persecute me?” He answered with his own question – “Who are you Lord?” And was told that he would have a job to do, a calling. This question “Who are you Lord?” became the question of Paul’s life. He came to regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. Not simply a head knowledge or a knowing about Christ but being in a relationship with the risen Christ. In this relationship Paul was ever more coming to know what it meant to call the risen and exalted Christ his Lord.
This is our calling friends. If you have met Christ, this is your calling. If you have not met Christ, meet him today. Tell him “I want to know you Lord. I want to know you and be found in you, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from my own striving but one that come through faith in Christ – the faith of Christ – the righteousness from God based on faith.” Where else would we go at that point? We say along with Peter “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The one who is sufficient. The one who is Life.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. It is through Christ’s resurrection that we are coming to see all things. It is through Christ’s resurrection that we see new life now. And the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. This is not a wish for suffering or martyrdom, though as we have seen this has often been the case for followers of Christ. This is a great paradox friends. That it is in dying to self that we find life. This is a lifelong process. Dying to self-glory, to dependence on striving, on achievement, and finding life in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it so well – “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” What kind of message is this? The message of life. It’s a paradox. Someone has called paradox “lived truth”. You need to experience it to understand it. The quote is “Paradox is the least inadequate vehicle for catching that quality of truth, because it can hold in tension two opposites and simultaneously point to a resolution of those opposites that includes them but transcends them.” The centre point of this paradox – of finding life in dying to self, is Christ.
The centre point is Christ.
“If somehow I should attain the resurrection from the dead.” This is how Paul finishes this wonderful section of his letter. Paul is talking about the Day of Christ. The new heaven and new earth. New bodies. Look, I am making all things new. This is our hope in Christ friends. This is the destination to which we are travelling together. The destination toward which we press on, which we will look at next week.
We gather around this table to acknowledge our need for God, our dependence on the crucified and risen and exalted Christ, our unity in the Holy Spirit. We gather around this table to come to know Christ more, to share in his sufferings and be like him in his death, so that we may know life. May these truths be ever clearer to our hearts.