Philippians 3:4b-11 (NRSV)
The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi:
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.
The Apostle Paul was not a man clinging to religion for solace or validation after failing to find such comfort elsewhere. By human measures, Paul was a success long before he believed in Jesus Christ as Savior.
He was born to the right people, in the right kind of family. He had both a solid trade, and he also was a scholar. In the Jewish world where religion and politics were one and the same, he was a rising star, a great future ahead of him.
But having been confronted by the power and reality of Christ, Paul threw his resume and the benefits he had accrued away, calling them all “rubbish.” Such is the life-altering experience that can occur when we truly understand who Christ is.
This message should resonate in profound ways―perhaps even disconcerting ways―in a congregation like ours. We are a people who are, on average, better educated than most. We are a people who are, on average, better off financially than most. Many of us have track records of success.
That means we also are a people susceptible to the same trap that ensnared Paul until God whacked him with the heavenly equivalent of a Louisville Slugger. If you’re among the people here today who are thinking, “Hey, the preacher’s not talking to me―I’ve never felt like a success,” then consider yourself blessed, perhaps for the first time. As Christ told us, the meek shall inherit the earth.
“What trap?” the rest of you may be asking yourselves. It’s simple: the trap of self-reliance, of overconfidence. We are a people constantly in danger of believing that because we were smart enough to figure a few things out, we have figured everything out, including God.
Not so, Paul tells us. There is something new to learn. We worship a God who has turned the world upside through Jesus Christ, a God who places the last first, who gives hope to the hopeless, who transforms slaves into rulers in the kingdom of heaven.
The only way the strangeness of God can be grasped is if we first let go of the idea that we have everything figured out. No undergraduate or even graduate degree can save us. Faith is the only way to salvation.
I suppose the one comfort for the targets of this text is God clearly needs Christians with backgrounds like Paul, strategic thinkers with successful records. God did go to great lengths to make Paul his own. I wonder why?
Well, first of all, because God loves everyone, including the self-reliant and even the self-absorbed. He draws us all toward a relationship with him.
There’s a close second, I think: In this time in-between the cross and the final, general resurrection, the church still has to navigate a broken world. Jesus said his followers would have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
For now, there’s a need for strategic thinkers, for planners, for people who can match wits with evil. Paul stood and fought brilliantly, enduring great harm to his body.
There is just an equal need, it seems, for those who do such work to do it with great humility, understanding that God’s wisdom, not our own, must be our guide. This is why we pray for guidance. This is why we submit to what we find revealed in Scripture, even when what we find troubles us.
Worldly success is fleeting. We are fragile creatures; wisdom and cunning can vanish with one blow to the head. We use our gifts, our talents and our blessings while we can in God’s service, but humble faith is what will sustain us for eternity.