Sunday, 29 November 2020

Loss and Crap: A Sermon on Philippians 3:1-16

Luke 9:18-27; Philippians 3:1-16

Then Jesus said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’ (Luke 9:23-25)

We’ve all heard these words before, I’m sure; but how should we hear them? What does it mean to save our life by losing it? What does Jesus mean when he talks about gaining the whole world but losing ourselves? And why does all this matter, anyway? Our reading from Philippians offers us some clues on how we could hear Jesus’s words today.

Let’s begin by looking at the language of gains and losses, which is found in both our readings. ‘Whatever gains I had,’ Paul writes, ‘these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that,’ Paul continues; ‘more than that, I regard everything—everything—as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Phil. 3:7-8). This language of gains and losses comes from the world of business and commerce. It conjures up images of balancing scales used to weigh items of different values to make a fair exchange. Paul’s idea is that he has loaded everything he holds of value on one side of the scales and then positions the risen Lord Jesus Christ on the other side. Which side of the scale plunges towards the tabletop? Which side flings its contents into the air because of the sheer weight and value of the other? You’d be right to think that the risen Lord Jesus far outweighs everything for Paul: the risen Lord Jesus outweighs everything Paul has, everything Paul is, everything Paul has ever done or achieved. In fact, we go on to read in Philippians that Paul regards everything as ‘rubbish’ (3:8)—a word we can translate as literal crap—so that he can focus on gaining Christ and having an intimate relationship with him. Paul sees what the risen Lord Jesus is worth and the value intimacy with him brings. Thus Paul is not afraid to lose absolutely everything if it means the scales tip in favour of Jesus.

This all sounds very pious, but putting it like this is a little vague and even corny: Of course we have to give up everything to follow Jesus! Who doesn’t know that? And so we need to look more closely at precisely what Paul regards as loss—and this is where things get interesting and challenge how we see ourselves.

First of all, let’s remember that Paul, at this point in his life, has lost his freedom: he is in prison because he just can’t stop going on and on about the risen Lord Jesus! Paul has also lost Epaphroditus, his ‘brother and co-worker and fellow soldier’ (2:25), whom he sent back to Philippi. He is about to lose Timothy, Paul’s ‘beloved and faithful child in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 4:17) as well. So even though Paul hoped for an imminent release from prison, at the time of his writing to the Philippians he was most definitely incarcerated and quite possibly suffering from the effects of near-isolation from his friends. These are the sorts of losses I’m sure we can all identify with at the moment, as the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions have made it almost impossible for us to carry on with our normal lives and meet with our nearest and dearest.

Paul also spells out his other losses; verses four to six:

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. (Phil. 3:4-6)

We might be inclined to see Paul being arrogant here, but we should keep two things in mind before leaping to this conclusion: first, that all these things Paul mentions are exactly the things he now regards as loss and even crap; and second, that Paul wants to persuade the Philippian believers that his impressive credentials nonetheless make him worth hearing. But why does he need to do this?

Some people—Paul calls them ‘the dogs’, the ‘evil workers’, ‘those who mutilate the flesh’ (3:2)—some people were teaching the believers in Philippi to submit to certain Jewish practices in order to be fully integrated into God’s holy people. These practices included circumcision, which, if you recall, is the sign of the covenant God made for Abraham way back in Genesis 17. And as circumcision was an important identity marker for Jews, it should come as no surprise to hear that many of the earliest Christians who had been born into Judaism sought to circumcise non-Jewish believers in Jesus of Nazareth. Through the act of circumcision, non-Jewish believers in Jesus would find themselves welcomed into God’s covenant people for sure. But Paul is not convinced by this kind of theology: non-Jewish believers such as the Philippians did not need to adopt the practices and customs of a different ethnic people in order to be part of God’s covenant people. And why? It’s because the risen Lord Jesus is enough!

Look again at what Paul says in verses four to six. Notice first of all that Paul highlights his heritage and ethnicity. He was circumcised on the eighth day exactly in accordance with Jewish practices. He was not a convert to Judaism but a Jew by birth to Jewish parents and part of the tribe of Benjamin. But despite all this, Paul is convinced that his heritage and ethnic identity, as well as everything these entail, count as loss compared to the gain of his intimacy with the risen Lord Jesus.

Notice that Paul lessens the importance of his past decisions and achievements as well. As a Pharisee, Paul would have been well-educated and knowledgeable about many things relating to the Law of Moses and the practices of Judaism. He also claims to have kept the Law of Moses and probably sought to make sure other (shall we say?) less enthusiastic Jews kept the Law as well. Lest we miss this point, we should also note that Paul would have chosen to join the Pharisees and chosen the particular path of righteousness he walked. Paul’s choices were for him good choices, even though for us they look like a kind of religious fundamentalism. But Paul’s point is that despite all the effort he put into his religious development, into his education, into his lifestyle choices—all these things, along with his Jewish heritage and ethnicity, amount to no more than loss or crap compared to his intimacy with the risen Lord Jesus.

In short, then, Paul is saying that everything he had, everything he was, every he had done and achieved—his heritage and ethnicity, his education, his piety—everything is loss, everything is crap, compared to knowing the risen Lord Jesus and experiencing the intimacy he now finds with him. Paul’s identity is now in the risen Jesus; nothing else has any value in comparison. And Paul is saying all this to persuade the believers in Philippi that they should stick with the good news about the risen Jesus and not submit to circumcision or any other practice or custom that might cause them to stumble in their faith.

At this point, we might just say this is Paul being his usual intense self—but I can’t disentangle what Paul says here from what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says, ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it’ (Luke 9:24); Paul says, ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Phil. 3:8). We have already seen what this meant for Paul—but what does it mean for us? For me, at least, this means regarding my education, my Whiteness, my gender identity; whatever skills and abilities I have, whatever choices I have made, whatever I have done or achieved; anything and everything that has formed my identity I must come to regard as loss, as crap, compared to knowing the risen Lord Jesus. The point emphatically is not that these things are unimportant, but that their worth is limited and can become idols that need toppling. What we see in Philippians 3, then, is Paul encouraging us to reframe and re-evaluate everything we have, everything we are, everything we’ve ever done or achieved—every single thing!—in light of the risen Lord Jesus and the intimacy we now share with him.

There is much more that could be said about today’s passage from Philippians if we were to dig deeper into the details, but instead I’ll conclude with a final observation that hopefully builds on what I’ve already said. One of the significant matters dealt with in both Philippians 3 and in our Gospel reading is the matter of human identity and what or who defines it. If what I have said about these passages is in any way truthful, then as people who claim to follow Jesus alone, it is Jesus alone—and more specifically, the risen Lord Jesus himself and not our impoverished ideas about Jesus—who defines us. God’s Holy Spirit breaks down the identities we have made for ourselves and derived from others in order to remodel us into the image of the risen Jesus. This is why the Christian life is often a struggle and sometimes even a life of suffering: the Spirit’s act of conforming us to the image of the risen Jesus dismantles piece by piece the false and fragile identities we have received and built over time. But despite the pain, it’s worth it. Listen again to Paul:

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (3:13-14)

Paul says here that the Christian life is like a race where dedication and discipline help you towards the finish line where the risen Jesus himself is waiting with open arms to welcome you. And the more you run towards Jesus, step by aching step, but with eyes fixed firmly on him, the more you will want to run towards Jesus, and, by God’s Spirit, the more you will become like Jesus; like him, having lost your life, only to have saved it and regained it through him.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Christ Among the Disciplines: Online Conference, 18–25 November 2020

I’m sure most people who’d be interested in a conference like this have already heard about it and probably signed up, but I’d like to share the details just in case. Note well that you don’t actually have to watch the sessions ‘live’, either: delegates will have access to video recordings of each one.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Faithfulness Despite Suffering: A Sermon on Philippians 2:19-30

My church is going through Philippians at the moment and I was asked to preach on Philippians 2:19-30. (I will also be preaching on most of Philippians 3 (the exact passage evades my memory at the moment), but not until the end of the month/beginning of December.) When preparing for the sermon, I noticed that a few scholars suggest that all was not entirely well with Epaphroditus and so I sought to play around with that, leading me to the plausible, however unlikely, conclusion that Epaphroditus’s near death could have been a failed suicide attempt. None of the commentaries I looked at suggested this possibility, though I’d be interested to know if anyone else has floated the idea. And please note I do not argue for the possibility, though I might, if I can pluck up the courage to do so, write a brief article on it. Anyway . . . enjoy!

Matthew 5:1-12; Philippians 2:19-30

Other brands are available

Today’s New Testament reading from Philippians isn’t terribly exciting, is it? When Nick told me which passage I’d be preaching from, I must admit I was rather underwhelmed. This part of Philippians sounds a little like a Christmas letter—you know, the sort of letter you send with a Christmas card to people you haven’t seen for a while telling them news they probably don’t want to hear: ‘Tarquin has had a good year: he opened his ninth corned beef processing plant, this time in Greenland, and his boils have finally cleared up.’ Not very exciting at all, really. So what can we do with a Bible passage like today’s one from Philippians?

First of all, let’s remind ourselves that Paul’s letter to the Philippians . . . is a letter written by Paul to the believers at Philippi! It was written by a particular person to a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time. It is not surprising that occasionally there are names and situations hinted at in the letter that mean almost nothing to us. It’s like we’re listening in on matters that don’t concern us. As a result, it’s tempting to think that today’s passage has nothing to say to us: in a world where Covid-19 has the upper hand, in a country where children are going without meals and people are losing jobs, in a situation where so many are struggling with physical and mental and emotional health, it’s tempting to think that a passage like this one from Philippians has nothing relevant or important to say to us.

Well, that’s the temptation. But if we truly believe that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (2 Tim. 3:16 niv), as Paul writes elsewhere, then we probably shouldn’t rush through today’s passage to skip to the good bits. And actually, there’s a lot we can say about this part of Philippians.

Let’s begin at the surface level of the passage. As we know, Paul is writing from prison to the believers in Philippi. In his letter, he notifies the believers about his intention to send a man called Timothy to them. Timothy is like Paul’s son: he thinks the same way as Paul and has the same love for the Lord Jesus: he is therefore the perfect person to go ahead of Paul and represent him to the congregation. And as they have already met Timothy, the Philippians know that what Paul writes here is true. Paul needs Timothy to run a few more errands for him, but Timothy will leave for Philippi as soon as he is ready.

And what of Epaphroditus? Epaphroditus was a Philippian believer sent to work alongside Paul in his ministry. Epaphroditus became seriously ill at some point—so ill, Paul notes, that he almost died. It seems Epaphroditus is now well on the way to recovery but needs to rest back home in Philippi. Paul wants the Philippians to know that despite his illness, Epaphroditus did all he needed to do. The believers at Philippi should therefore welcome Epaphroditus back with open arms.

This is the surface level of the passage: all well and good, but still not very exciting. But what happens if we dig a little deeper and make connections with other Bible passages or tease out possible implications of the words Paul uses? What lies buried just beneath the surface of Philippians 2?

Let’s look first at Timothy. Paul doesn’t say too much about Timothy in his letter to the Philippians other than Timothy shares Paul’s vision and passion for the gospel of Jesus. But other Bible passages do say more about him. The book of Acts, for example, notes that Timothy is of mixed heritage: his mother is a believing Jew and his father is Greek (Acts 16:1-3). It’s quite possible that Timothy might have grown up in a household with religious tensions, tensions which may have affected the way he handles conflict as an adult. And elsewhere, in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, we can infer that Timothy is a young man (1 Tim. 4:12), possibly in his early-to-mid 30s, and that he had recurring stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23). We don’t know precisely what these problems were, but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t see these as aggravated or even caused by the stresses of his adult ministry. Perhaps Timothy suffered from irritable bowel syndrome! But even if Timothy’s delicate constitution wasn’t affected too much by stress and his ability to handle it, we are nonetheless left with the impression that he was a young man with some obvious physical health issues.

And what of Epaphroditus? We know Epaphroditus was so sick he almost died, but Paul doesn’t say anything else about this other than God had mercy on Epaphroditus and, by extension, on Paul himself. But it’s possible that Epaphroditus had some serious mental and/or emotional health issues. Notice the words Paul uses: Epaphroditus ‘has been longing for all of you’—perhaps no more than a bout of homesickness; but coupled with the word ‘distressed’ in verse twenty-six and his apparent concern with what the folks back home were thinking, I think it’s quite possible to hold that Epaphroditus’s poor health had led him into depression, or even that the illness itself was depression and that his near death could have been a failed suicide attempt. We just don’t know. But Paul commends Epaphroditus all the same: he doesn’t write Epaphroditus off as a failure, but instead is concerned that he should be received with joy and honour.

So when we dig just beneath the surface of this part of Philippians 2, we see that Paul is commending two people who haven’t had it easy despite being faithful Christians and being involved in Christian ministry. Timothy is perhaps prone to stress-related illnesses; Epaphroditus perhaps struggles with depression or other kinds of mental health or emotional health issues. And as someone who has been on anti-depressants for years and who has often been disillusioned by his experiences of Christian ministry, I find Paul’s attitude here fairly encouraging. Paul neither hinders Timothy from doing his ministerial duties nor abandons Epaphroditus or puts him down when things get on top of him. Instead, Paul praises them both despite their troubles and holds each up as a role model for Christians at all times and in all places, including for us today. And why is this? It’s because by remaining faithful through suffering, Timothy and Epaphroditus are actively following in the steps of the Lord Jesus Christ who himself remained faithful to his Father even at the cost of his own life. Timothy and Epaphroditus aren’t role models because they are successful, living-the-victory Christians; rather, Paul holds them up as role models because they are ordinary Christians faithfully serving an extraordinary God—and more than this, an extraordinary God who knows in and through Jesus precisely what it means to be an ordinary and suffering human person.

Today happens to be All Saints’ Day, the day when the Church remembers anyone who has lived and died as a faithful Christian. One of the traditional readings for All Saints’ Day is Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, which was our Gospel reading today. The Beatitudes—‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, ‘blessed are those who mourn’, ‘blessed are the meek’, and so on—these are not descriptions of people living ‘successful’ Christian lives. The Beatitudes indicate that those who remain faithful to Jesus in the face of suffering, whatever this means in reality, are blessed—not because their troubles are over, but because their troubles will be over, and they trust God now for this future. And by this, I don’t mean to say merely that everything will be alright in the end, though I suppose there is an element of that. What I mean is that the future God has for us because of Jesus has the potential to shape our lives now so that no matter what we have to deal with, we can fix our eyes firmly on the risen Jesus and know for sure that his present is our future, even as in some sense that future is already the present for Wendy and for Jean and for anyone else who has died trusting in Jesus.

To conclude: If you have found the past few months difficult for whatever reason, Covid-related or not; if you have health concerns, physical or mental or emotional; if you are worried about how you will make ends meet; if you despair over the state of this world in any way; let Timothy and Epaphroditus—and Paul as well—remind you and convince you that no matter what this world throws at you, no matter how you cope or struggle to cope with it all, Jesus is Lord and by God’s Spirit will strengthen you and strengthen me to follow him every day until God in Christ makes everything new.