03.13.2016 Preaching Text: “For his sake I have suffered loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 8b)
Paul’s no shrinking violet. Which has duly earned him an unfavorable reputation in some quarters. He doesn’t mince words. He “tells it like it is,” as a politician today might put it. He doesn’t stand on ceremony. And he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s outspoken and takes no prisoners.
In our reading this morning from Philippians, as a case in point, he famously takes on the elites of his day. What’s perhaps most peculiar about his critique is that he’s going after the very group he himself once played such a prominent role in!
Paul, you see, had been the ultimate insider. Don’t believe him? Here he lists his credentials:
Good family? His ancestors were from the tribe of Benjamin, considered the aristocrats of Israel. Its earliest kings came from this tribe, which had its roots in the union of the inestimable Jacob (otherwise known as Israel) and Rachel. His family roots might be considered the equivalent of, for us, the earliest settlers who came over on the Mayflower.
Religiously pure? He had been a Pharisee, the most respected and pious group in Israel. His zeal, he says, was second to none. As proof he reminds his hearers that he had persecuted the heretical, upstart Christian movement with unquestioned enthusiasm. As for the law? He was “blameless.”
What about his education? In order to qualify as a Pharisee, he had to possess one of the finest minds in the nation. He went to the very best schools, the equivalent of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all rolled into one.
He was, in short, the cream of the crop, the best and the brightest. And he commanded unquestioned respect.
Yet, as he states here, he regards all of this, every last bit of it, as mere “rubbish” in light of the “surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.”
All his credentials, all his accomplishments, all his status and the respect it accorded him, he now considers worthless trash!
It’s important to note that he frames this discussion in terms of “loss.” His loss is profound. It has cost him dearly. He’s left behind a successful career, all his friends, and most likely his family as well. He’s closed himself off to the ‘commanding heights,’ to the highest echelons of society in order to take up with a bunch of misfits and outsiders.
He has, in effect, given up his whole identity, not only in terms of how he sees himself but how he’s seen by others. He’s thrown off his whole way of being and embraced something completely different. Talk about loss!
In the process he’s also made powerful enemies. After all, he knows their secrets, what makes them tick. He’s got their number. And they’re not particularly happy about it.
In light of this new life, he now admits that he used to see everything “according to the flesh.” He is not here referring to the body. Rather, “flesh” is simply shorthand for describing how we interpret the world around us. “Flesh” is the opposite of “spirit.”
When we understand people, events, and the ‘truths’ of this world without God – and not through the lens of spiritual revelation – we see according to the “flesh.” This is an interpretation of life seen from a purely secular or worldly point of view. It’s reality drained of the “spirit.”
In light of Christ’s revelation, Paul now considers that to which he once aspired as drearily human, blinkered, mundane. His past religious perspective, once all consuming, seems but earthly, fleshly, worldly, and not of God.
He recognizes his former zeal as a blind pursuit of Self. As if mimicking Jesus’ earlier pointed critiques of the Pharisees, Paul understands his former life as one of self-aggrandizement and status-seeking.
Obeying the Law had become an exercise in outperforming others, of attaining success, of gaining favor, of fitting in, of holding to the right views and meeting the unquestioned standards as defined by societal elites.
What he had forgotten amidst his many legalistic pursuits was that it is the spirit of the law, not its letter, that matters. He came to see in a new way that God judges the heart, not outward words and deeds. It is the intent of the heart that defines spiritual truth.
Two people can say the very same thing, or perform the very same deed, but for entirely different reasons. The one person seeks the good of the other, while a second person betrays an ulterior motive, one that benefits him or her.
Newly enlightened, Paul is eager to let go of the things our world considers most important, the often hidden sins of power, status, superiority, self-righteousness, and self-importance. Such things, for the regenerate Paul, are now mere trash or “rubbish.”
In I Corinthians 13, he emphasizes this. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,” he warns, “but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The same goes for “prophetic powers,” “knowledge,” “all faith,” even “giving away all my possessions” and handing over “by body so that I may boast.”
Paul here makes clear that everything in life should be said and done in the service of agape love, a selfless, God-centered kind of love.
In Proverbs 10:12 we are told, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” Centuries later, 1 Peter 4:8 picks up this same theme, “Above all,” it reads, “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
Having once dedicated his entire life in enervating obedience to the letter the Law, Paul is now free to love by means of the Holy Spirit in a way that both baffles and defies the conventions and expectations of our sad, disenchanted world. All has been made new.
And in this newborn freedom, Paul finds the freedom to love as boundlessly as Christ loves us. All else, he assures, is a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Rubbish, even. Amen.