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.