Thursday, October 12, 2017

Good or Best?


This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church on Sunday, 10/8/17. The text is Philippians 3:4b-14.
This passage begins with a recitation of Paul’s pedigree. He came from the best stock. Paul goes into great detail about his heritage. He not only speaks of his lineage by birth, but that which made him tower head and shoulders above other men by virtue of his accomplishments.
Today, DNA testing kits and family lineage sites like Ancestry.com are becoming more and more popular and accessible. We like knowing where we come from. It helps to give us perspective on where we came from and who we are now. Paul’s point in reflecting on his own personal history is that his personal history and even his historical religious identity did not define him in the same way as his relationship with Christ. (Sundaysandseasons.com).

In the second paragraph, the great exchange Paul is referring to is exchanging good for the best. Paul’s pedigree and accomplishments pale in comparison to the life he’s found in Jesus Christ. Some versions of the Bible are far too mild in their translation of the word Paul uses to compare his past life with his life in Christ. They use garbage or trash. In the Greek, the word that is used here is the Greek word skubala, which is much stronger than the word trash. It means human excrement— poop—and it’s in the plural—lots of poop.

When someone ages, he or she may reflect on their past—their parents and siblings and all the things they had and did. If the person was particularly successful in the world’s eyes, they may mention that—whether they were able to make lots of money or accomplish many things—good things. But even these good and wonderful things are like poop when you compare them to Jesus. The high privilege of knowing Christ and his riches comes first and comes to us in such a way that the rest falls away like the leaves fall from the trees.

What makes all other things poop compared to Christ is the element of whose work it was due to. Paul said that his accomplishments were things he could take credit for. We cannot take credit for what God in Christ has done for us. Christ surpasses everything of worth to Paul. As he told the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). To be rich in Christ means being rich in him alone, not Christ plus something else. Paul fully expected to “get in on the resurrection from the dead” (v. 11) because he already was in Christ.

Paul was willing to give up everything that was once so important to him just to know Christ. What does knowing Christ mean? Have you ever had anyone come up to you and ask you if you know Jesus? It’s hard to know how to respond to such a question. For Paul, Christ was the ultimate goal of being in right relationship with God. Knowing Christ had two components—a present one and a future one—the now and the not yet. Because of Christ’s righteousness, we know him now—both the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings. The ultimate prize, to have this knowledge fully realized face to face awaits resurrection.

Paul does not simply intend for us to know three things: 1. to know Christ personally, 2. experience his resurrection power and 3. be a partner in his suffering. Rather, the resurrection power and sharing Christ’s sufferings spell out what knowing Christ entails. Knowing Christ begins with the power of the resurrection, the power that believers experience because of Christ’s resurrection. Without the power and guarantee we have in Christ’s resurrection the suffering experienced in this life can be both harsh and senseless.

Last week we once again heard of such harsh and senseless behavior in Las Vegas that resulted in many deaths and injuries. This hit home a bit for Ray and me because we had been there in the past. Our son, Christian, got married in 2009 at the Wynn Hotel, not far from Mandalay Bay. As the horror seems to continually happen, we have far more questions than answers.

Christ’s resurrection gave Paul a unique lens through which he viewed present suffering as well as the empowering presence to transform such suffering into intimate fellowship with Christ himself. Through our own suffering, the significance of Christ’s death is demonstrated to the world. People ask how you could go on in spite of such hard times. The answer is through our relationship with Christ.

In the final verses of today’s reading, Paul uses the metaphor of a race to get his point across. These verses look back to the earlier ones about forgetting the past (vv. 4-8), embracing the present and looking forward to the future. Paul has not yet gone all the way with Jesus to death, nor has he reached his goal, (vv. 10-11).The image is one of being in the home stretch and leaning forward to break the tape at the finish line. Persistence is key to a successful finish.
My son, Christian ran track from middle school through college. One of his favorite events was the 4 X 8 relay, meaning four guys each ran 800 meters, which is just under half a mile. A crucial element of a relay is the handoff, when the baton is passed from one runner to the next. How this transition occurs can make or break a race. For a handoff to be successful, the one receiving the baton sticks his arm behind him with his hand open as the runner draws near. The runner receiving the baton does not look behind him at this point, but starts moving forward as the baton is put into his hand.
If you look back when you need to be moving ahead, you not only lose crucial time, but you can stumble and fall or get injured. Paul knew the dangers of looking back. Dwelling on past achievements could make one complacent, while dwelling on past failures can be paralyzing—creating fear and despondency. For Paul, both are best forgotten in the interest of pressing on toward the goal.
What Paul is saying here is more than a mere self-help slogan like “See you at the top.” It takes more than being pumped full of positivity to keep us faithful until we reach the goal. It is impossible to accomplish this by positive thinking or by following motivational speakers. We are unable keep our eyes on the prize in our own strength. I love the way Paul explains that he was “reaching out for Christ, who so wondrously reached out for [him]” (v. 12). God takes the initiative and we can respond in love because of what God has done for us. Elsewhere in scripture we read, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It’s that simple. Paul sees all of life in terms of God’s calling.
When I was around 50 years old, God sent me kicking and screaming back to school to get my undergraduate degree. The hardest course for me was math. That was the time I wondered what in the world I was doing back in school at MY age. One Sunday I related all this to my pastor in Rhode Island. I will never forget what he told me and how these words have kept me going in many circumstances since.  He simply said, “Keep your eyes on the prize,” so I did. I got a B in the course and went on to complete my bachelor’s degree and on to seminary.     
The goal and prize for the Apostle Paul, was to live a life of faithful service to the Lord Jesus and to “get in on the resurrection from the dead” (v. 11). Paul had a cruciform, cross-shaped lifestyle as his present goal and resurrection as his final goal (vv. 10-11). It was not a matter of simply knowing Christ, but “Christ Jesus...my Master” (v. 8). Do you hear the intimacy and devotion of Paul? Normally Paul used “our” instead of “my.” This was very personal for Paul. After all, he was the former persecutor of the church who had become Christ’s emissary to the Gentiles.
What prize do we have our eyes on? Is it to bring in more people so we can have more money so we can keep our doors open? If that’s the case, we’re looking the wrong way. We’re looking inward instead of outward. “The power of the gospel is combining the life-changing message with selfless service” (http://www.missionamerica.org/Brix?pageID=13539).
If we are not feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, housing the orphan, educating children, caring for the sick, visiting and helping the elderly, or impacting the community in which we live, we are not fulfilling our obligation as a Christian congregation. There is a lot that happens through this congregation collectively and individually to accomplish such things. Ray and I experienced it personally through the many cards, visits and phone calls we received in the months following my surgery. I have been overwhelmed with the concern and care of this community of faith. We must continue to learn how to combine the good news with good deeds. We must engage in conversation to see how else we can best use our time, talent and treasures to impact the community of Bemus Point/Mayville. How can we help those who live next to the church, down the street or across town?  Is  “...all of [our] Christian life ... stamped with the divine imprint of the cross as we live out the gospel in the present age and await the hope of resurrection?” (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series). Is everything else, even the good stuff we love, poop compared to the surpassing greatness of belonging to and serving our Lord Jesus Christ? “Giving ourselves up to God is total trust, having no claims, seeking no advantage, but in service to one another leaving our status before God entirely in God’s hands” (Craddock and Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary).
Amen.
Resources:
The Inter-Varsity Press New Testament Commentary Series.
Fred B. Craddock and M. Eugene Boring, The Peoples New Testament Commentary
Sundaysandseasons.com

Thursday, October 5, 2017

If and If and If

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 10/1/17 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church. The scripture text is Philippians 2:1-13

Pauls letter to the Philippians is one of my favorites. It is full of positive, uplifting theology, like Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice (Phil. 4:4 ). Its a feel-good kind of letter. Todays passage from Philippians is chock full of great stuff and I could get at least 10 sermons out of it, however I will settle on one. 

The first four verses, in which Paul piles up the ifs, are one long conditional sentence in Greek. When we hear if, we think then. We are much more linear in our thinking than were the early Christians. If could be translated since. Another way to look at these verses is If youve gotten anything at all out of following Christ (and you have), if his love has made any difference in your life (and it has) and so forth. This makes for a more persuasive argument. The focus of these four verses is to agree with each other. Everything that follows is how that can be accomplished.  

Lets put each if and then together to make it a bit easier to follow. 

If youve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, then agree with one another.  
If his love has made any difference in your life, then love each other. 
If being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, then be deep-spirited friends. 
If you have a heart, then dont push your way to the front and dont and dont sweet-talk your way to the top. 
If you care, then put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Dont be obsessed with getting your own advantage, but forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. 

If this sounds repetitious, it is. Paul is hammering away, using various expressions to make his point. Based on your relationship with God and me, live in harmony as the people of God in community. Their Christian community life should be characterized by unity of mind and love.  

The content of Pauls appeal to the Philippians is found in our thens or dos. First are expressions of our human fallenness that conspire against unity in the church; pushing your way to the front and sweet-talking your way to the top (V. 3). Secondly, we have the virtues necessary for unity in the Spirit to happen: putting self aside and helping others, humility, thinking of others more than ourselves.  

The basis of Pauls appeal is the Philippiansrelationship with God, shared by Paul and the Philippians together and secondly Pauls and their relationship to each other. In this way, Paul begs these people that he loves so much, to keep on doing what they had been doing. They are to have the same love for one another that they have already experienced in Gods love for them. The Philippians had love for one another, but there was the danger of it being eroded by internal friction. 

The thing is, this was not a brand new church, but a well established one. Initially, everyone gets along well with each other. But over time, the better we know each other, the more likely we are to have disagreements. The congregational enemy of internal dissent raised its ugly head. Here Paul is concerned with internal harmony, which can be insured through humility. Humility is not false modesty or putting yourself down. To be truly humble means awareness of ones weaknesses and ones strengths while making neither too much nor too little of either. It is not self-focused, but rather forgets oneself long enough to lend a helping hand (v. 4). The accent rests on the community: it is only as the people of God together that Gods people fulfill the divine purposes(IVP New Testament Commentary Series). 

In the middle of todays reading, we have what is referred to as the Christ hymn. It may have been used as song in the worship of the early church, but we dont know for sure. Here we have a poetic way of Paul telling us Christs own story as the model of what he urged in the first part of todays reading.   

Jesus willingly put aside his life in heaven and became truly human,as we confess in the Creed. As the Message expresses this process, He didnt claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death…” 

Because of being brought low, God exalted Jesus. All will acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ to the glory of the Father. Such worship comes from love because Jesus showed humanity a love that they could not resist.  

In most translations, near the end of todays reading of Philippians, we hear “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” (v. 12). Oh my, I thought we were saved by grace through faith. After all, isn't that what the Reformation was all about?  

The way the Message translates it expresses the essence of Pauls message, Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God.But even if we used one of the other translations, we need to keep reading and not take those words in isolation. If we read far enough, we find out that it is Gods work in us that accomplishes everything. 

We are great at hands on activities that demonstrate our care for humanity. But when it comes to verbally sharing our story of Gods work in our lives, we clam up. We shy Lutherans can have the boldness and power we need to share our faith and invite people to come to know Jesus and his people, the church. 

God calls us by the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and with the community of faith to seek and do Gods will. In baptism, we are empowered and equipped to accomplish that which pleases the Almighty. Fear has been replaced by faith, trembling by power, aloneness by community and death be life(devotion by Dave Westphal).  

May God grant us the grace to live our lives together so that the whole world may know of Jesus and his love through us. 

Amen. 

Resources: 
NET notes 
The IVP New Testament Commentary Series