“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 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. 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. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be 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.
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. 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. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Phil. 3:4b-14
This August, I took 28 youth from Ebenezer Lutheran Church and 4 other Edgewater congregations to Iowa for a mission/service and learning trip. We had so many wonderful experiences, and I really hope you will stop by the fellowship hall today at 12:00pm to hear more stories from our youth and to see some pictures from the trip.
However, while we had many great experiences on the trip, there was one experience that was not as wonderful as the rest. I like to say it was a frustrating and yet good life lesson and learning opportunity for our youth. While in Iowa, we stayed at a congregation during the week that did not have showers, so we went to the local YMCA/YWCA to clean up after our service projects every day. Unfortunately, the girls locker room did not have any enclosed showers with doors on them and only had one large open, shared shower. Since I knew this would not be a very comfortable situation for our girls, I asked the manager months in advance if he would allow our girls to shower in the women’s locker room (where there were a few enclosed showers with doors) with the supervision of myself or one of our other women chaperones.
The manager had no problem with this.
Unfortunately, while we were on our trip, some of the women in the locker room did…
And what was even more unfortunate was that the manager was out of town that week…
Let’s just say there were a few women who were not very kind to our girls when they walked out of the showers in the women’s locker room. Or to me (or the rest of the YMCA staff) when we explained to these women that we had received permission because the Y was our only access to showers for the week…
In my conversation with these women, I heard a lot of: “I’ve been a member here for 22 years and you are only guests…” “This is the way we have always done it and this is the way it will always be.” And my favorite: “I don’t care if you got permission, this is the rule, and if you don’t like it, then you can find somewhere else to shower.”
After talking later on in the week with the YMCA staff and a few other members who overheard these complaints, we found out that we were far from the only ones these women had been snippy with or had thrown a fit about.
Apparently, these women had been members for many years and had recently been upset about new members joining the YMCA because they thought the Y was getting too crowded, they had complained about other groups of kids using the pool during their swimming hours, and they had snapped at a few other women for dripping a little water on the locker room floor.
They were long-term members, had established a set of “rules” – both written and unwritten – about the way things needed to be, and believed that they had the right to enforce those rules because of their seniority. Newcomers and visitors needed to abide by their rules, and there were no exceptions. Period.
This sort of reminds me of the situation Paul is addressing in his letter to the Philippian church. The city of Philippi was in the center of Macedonia, and yet since it was considered a colony of the Roman Empire, all residents had Roman citizenship and therefore received the benefits that were awarded to the citizens of Rome, such as property rights, exemption from taxes that were enforced upon non-citizens of Rome, and civil and legal protections. Because of this, most citizens of Philippi were very proud of their Roman citizenship, viewed themselves as the elite residents of the preeminent city in the center of Macedonia, and often boasted about their status.
In addition to this, as with a few other churches Paul communicated with, within the church at Philippi there were some Jewish and Gentile Christians who were insisting that any converts to Christianity must first take on the Jewish identity, such as observing the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws and being circumcised, a practice that was viewed by many Greeks as revolting. In some instances where non-Jewish Christians did not observe such laws and chose not to be circumcised, they were deemed as “un-savable,” inferior to those who were “saved,” and were even excluded from meals and other gatherings.
So, as we can see, the members of the church of Philippi inherited privileges (that many other Christians in Macedonia lacked) and were proud because these privileges elevated their social status above others. And it is possible that they were using some of those privileges to exclude others from their community, unless these “others” first gave up their own identities and became like “one of them.”
Now I can imagine many of us here have encountered some modern-day prideful Philippians at least at one point in our lives. I imagine many of us at one time or another have either known someone who has been excluded from a group or discriminated against because of their identities or lack of social status – or have even experienced this ourselves.
And yet, I wonder if any of us here can also see ourselves in the Philippian Christians. I wonder if we – too – have inherited privileges that allow us to enjoy benefits and opportunities that others around us cannot enjoy: whether we benefit from the privileges of being white, male, heterosexual, or having socially accepted body weight and abilities – where we have never felt unsafe, been shamed by others, or discriminated against because of our identities. Or whether we benefit from the privileges of being educated, employed, economically stable, or a U.S. citizen – where we are granted the rights of these statuses and never have to worry about putting food on our tables, losing our homes, or being deported back to very dangerous situations.
And within the Church, some of us may even have the privilege of growing up in a Christian congregation and knowing the Christian lingo, being involved in the Lutheran denomination for as long as we can remember and knowing its rituals, or even worshipping here at Ebenezer Lutheran Church for years and knowing its expectations and unwritten rules that newcomers do not know.
And there may be some of us here who know what it is like to work really hard throughout our education process and our careers, have been involved in our communities, and are pleased at how far we have come. And so it’s no wonder that there might be times when we feel so proud about our resumes and status that we can’t help but boast about our achievements.
It’s easy and very tempting when things go well in our lives to look at ourselves as better than those whose situations are not like our own and to look at those “others” with judgment… That they are lazy or not smart enough or just didn’t do things the “right way” like we did them and therefore “got themselves into this mess.” And as we point fingers in these ways while uplifting our own choices, we do so without recognizing our inherited privileges – that so many others lack – and yet that have enabled us (maybe even with a lot of hard work) to get to where we are now.
And yet, for Paul, there is no room for finger pointing and boasting. No matter how impressive one’s resume or achievements are, no matter what community or “club” one is a member – or citizen – of, and no matter if one makes all sorts of the “right choices” that have gotten him or her to a comfortable and elevated place in society– according to Paul, this all counts for nothing.
Of all people, Paul knows this. At the beginning of our passage, Paul states that if anyone has the right to have confidence in the flesh (meaning confidence in one’s circumcision or Jewish identity markers, human achievements, or social status) – if anyone has the right to be prideful of and boast about such things – it is Paul, himself, who has more. For it is Paul who has quite the extensive resume: as one who was circumcised when he was eight days old and was therefore a lifelong Jew, a member of the highly regarded tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of Hebrews (or a full-blooded Jew: one whose parents were both Jewish, who spoke Hebrew, and who practiced Jewish traditions that were not Hellenized). And it is Paul who had once been a Pharisee – a zealous religious leader who was seen as having the authority to interpret the Mosaic Law, determine who was “in” or “out” of the faith community based on his interpretations, and persecute those who challenged it, and who – for most of his life – had so meticulously followed the Mosaic Law that he had been seen as righteous and blameless before God.
Of all people, Paul had the reason to be confident in the flesh.
And yet, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges his privilege that enabled him to reach such a worldly status and he says whatever societal and religious “gains” he once had, he now regards as loss because of Christ. These “gains” no longer matter. They are rubbish.
Or in a more accurate translation and more crude terms: they are dung.
Or whatever other four letter word that comes to your mind.
Contrary to his old understanding, Paul has not gained righteousness by making the “right choices” determined by the law that elevated his worldly status. Righteousness does not come from anything he has done to achieve it. Rather, Paul says in our text in verse 9 that righteousness comes through “faith in Christ” – or, as some translators suggest is a better translation: it comes through “the faithfulness of Christ.”
In other words, righteousness comes through the faith in or faithfulness of the One who came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free.
It comes through and because of the One who challenged the unjust hierarchical structures – both in Rome and the Temple – that created class systems of privilege, which elevated some while marginalizing others.
It comes through and because of the One who boldly and loudly proclaimed justice on behalf of the “least of these,” even though his radical teachings and actions ultimately led him to his arrest and eventual death on the cross.
It comes through and because of the One who – through his resurrection – conquers injustice and death and brings forth new life, which is both that which is to come and that which liberates us from all the isms and phobias that cause us to experience death here and now.
Righteousness comes through the One who calls all of his followers to choose this resurrection life that proclaims love, peace, and life-giving justice for all of God’s children.
And so counter to what the world says, it no longer matters what our resume looks like, how much education we might or might not have, what our heritage, identity, or worldly status is, how long we have been in or out of the faith community, or whether or not we know the Christian lingo and rituals.
In Christ and because of Christ, we are all invited to the Table.
Now – according to Paul – what does matter is the way we live. And the way we love. That we become like Christ in his death. That we come to know him and the power of his resurrection. Knowing not just by acknowledging his existence with our lips and believing in his resurrection with our minds, but rather knowing Christ by truly experiencing his powerful and all-surpassing love for and through all humanity – no matter one’s identity or worldly status – and then being transformed by that love so that we might emulate and share it with all we encounter.
What does matter is that we continue to learn about and acknowledge our privileges that have helped us get to where we are today and allow that acknowledgement of our privilege to shape the way we look at, love, and stand in solidarity with others who walk through this world differently than we do. That we begin to listen to those voices around us that are not being heard or represented. That we begin to use our privilege to help right wrongs so that Christ’s liberating resurrection may not just be experienced in the future, but that it will also begin to be experienced by all in the here and now.
This is not an easy task, and we cannot just reach our goal with the snap of our fingers. It’s a process. It’s a life-long race that we cannot run on our own: it’s one we must pursue together.
And as we do, we must remember – as Paul explains in our text – that we may never quite reach the finish line and obtain the prize at the end of the race. But, as we continue to learn how to take our eyes off the worldly values of our past, learn from our mistakes when we stumble or fall off the path, and let go of the guilt that sometimes weighs us down when we begin to acknowledge our privilege, we must press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Or, as rapper Travie McCoy says: we “gotta keep on keepin on.”
Benediction from this week’s devotion on d365.org:
It’s easy to only think about things from our one, limited perspective. Jesus pushes us to see differently.
Allow yourself to be challenged. Allow your eyes to be opened. Allow your life to be changed.
Go now, and let the value of knowing Jesus change the lens through which you see the world.