Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 13, 2016

Philippians 3:4b-14 Commentary

When the cross of Christ was on the line, Paul’s language was blunt, direct, raw. As Paul begins what we call Philippians 3, it quickly becomes apparent that like so many of the congregations in the early church, so also the congregation in Philippi had come into contact with a group of Jewish teachers who were proclaiming that salvation would come only to those who followed certain strict rules, the chief one of which was that all males had to be circumcised.

Since the Philippian church was made up primarily of Gentiles, it is likely that very few of the Christians there had ever been circumcised. And yet Paul says in verse 3—and the Lectionary’s insistence that this reading begin at verse 3b makes no sense since it just takes away this all-important contextual point–that the Philippians have already been circumcised. What these other teachers were offering, therefore, was not salvation but mutilation–a mutilation not just of their bodies but even worse of their faith. “These other teachers want to carve up not just your body but your faith. They want to make you believe that what they can do to your bodies with their scalpels is better than what God can do to your hearts with his Son.”

These are strong words. After all, for at least two millennia circumcision had been a sacred, biblically mandated sacrament for God’s people. All his life Paul had also been raised to see this as a sign of God’s covenant–a sign that began already with Abraham. And yet now Paul calls it “mutilation!” Just imagine if one day you heard of a pastor somewhere describing the Lord’s Supper as a nauseating display of gross cannibalism. How shocked you would be to hear a once-cherished sacrament described as disgusting.

So why does Paul say this? Because he knows that in the light of Jesus, circumcision had become a way to displace grace. And in order to make this point as powerful as possible, Paul makes clear that he is speaking from experience. After all, suppose that I said to you, “My friends, let me tell you something: money doesn’t mean a thing in life. As a matter of fact, the life of the rich is typically an empty existence.” Now if I were to say such things, you might be skeptical because you’d know that I am not talking from experience. But if a millionaire were to stand here and talk about the emptiness of the wealthy life, then we’d all pay much closer attention. Here’s someone who knows what he’s talking about.

That’s why in Philippians 3 Paul takes pains to point out that he also knows what he’s talking about. Starting in verse 4 Paul says, “I know how futile it is to pin your salvation on outward ceremonies and laws because I spent most of my life doing it all right: I kept all the rules, I had an excellent religious pedigree, I was so convinced that keeping the law was the only way to heaven that I persecuted the Christians who thought otherwise. But then I met Jesus and I knew in an instant that all my shining religious accomplishments were no more than a pile of manure!”

The word translated as “rubbish” in verse 8 is a very strong word. This is the only place in the entire Bible where it occurs, and small wonder: most commentators say that it is a raw, gross, barnyard-type word that refers to excrement. The revelation that God’s own Son had to die in order to secure salvation turned Paul’s world upside-down. “And to think,” Paul writes, “that at one time I thought handing God this pile of manure was going to be my entrance ticket to the kingdom!”

Paul then goes on to say that now the only thing he wants to do is to know more about Jesus. “What’s important is not that God knows what you’ve done but that you know what God has done!!” For most of his life Paul had been saying to God, “Look at me! Look at me! See what I’ve done.” But now all Paul can say is “Look at Jesus! Look at Jesus! See what he’s done!”

Paul knew for sure that salvation is by grace alone. Because at one time Paul had actually beaten up, arrested, belittled and even killed Jesus’ followers. If Paul were to meet those folks now, he’d hug and kiss them as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. But Paul could never forget that once in his life, he kicked those brothers in the ribs and dragged those sisters to jail by their hair. What horrible memories! So if Paul seems a bit vehement in proclaiming grace, it’s only because he knows from his own sordid experience how destructive it is to believe that you can pay your own way to heaven. He wanted nothing more to do with talk about what we must do in order to make God love us.

Or does he? Because Paul no sooner finishes this stellar passage on salvation as only a gift, and he instantly launches into verses 12-17 (again, the Lectionary would have us stop at verse 14 but keep reading) in which he writes about the need to press on, sprinting like a runner for the finish line in order to attain the goal of getting a better grip on Jesus. Suddenly it seems like we’re right back to square one in talking about all the things that we need to do for our salvation. But I thought Paul had just dispensed with that kind of talk by chalking up salvation to the sheer gift of God! How could Paul so quickly pivot from talking about the end of human striving to talking about human striving all over again?

Well, we actually can’t answer that question until we first leap-frog down to the end of chapter 3. There Paul tearfully reminds the Philippians that there are some people in this world who live as the enemies of the cross. These are people whose god is their bellies and who glory in their shame. To whom is Paul referring here? If you take these words in isolation from the rest of Philippians 3, then you could conclude that Paul is talking about gluttons and sexually immoral people. It sounds like Paul is saying that there are some people who are so caught up in worldly pleasures like eating, drinking, and sex that they don’t have room for God in their lives.

But actually that’s not what Paul means at all. Instead, it seems that he is still talking about the Jewish legalists. So Paul’s reference to the stomach no doubt refers to strict food laws and his reference to sexual parts is probably a continuation of the circumcision theme from earlier in the chapter. Paul is saying that anyone who thinks he can get into the kingdom by observing the laws about food and circumcision is just plain wrong–so wrong in fact that this mind set makes you into an enemy of the cross.

How so? Because it means you think that you don’t need Jesus to die for you to get into the kingdom–you can do it on your own. You can pay for your own sin. You can write your own ticket. You can repair this fallen creation by yourself.

It all comes down to the cross. If we Christians are right in what we’ve been saying about Good Friday for the past two millennia, then we know for sure how deeply, deeply broken this world is because of sin and how desperately, desperately snarled this business of evil really is. If even Almighty God himself had to go that far to salvage this universe, then it is obvious this is not a problem we could have ever solved ourselves!

In so much of life our goal is to become as independent as possible. We want to be able to do our jobs well without much help or supervision because those are the kinds of people who get noticed and promoted. But in the Christian life the goal is not independence but an ever-increasing dependence. We want to know ever more keenly how much we rely on that cross to help us live for God.

We Christians have long been a peculiar bunch, celebrating and singing about the death of our leader and God. To take a horrid and bloody instrument of capital punishment and turn it into jewelry and logos for church stationary is profoundly odd. If you saw some teenager walking down the sidewalk dressed in black with a necklace featuring an electric chair and earrings in the shape of a man dangling at the end of a hangman’s noose, you’d cross over the other side of the street! And probably most of us are sickened by the folks who hold parties outside of a prison on the night some well-known criminal is executed.

Yet for centuries we’ve done the same thing, turning the Friday of Jesus’ death into a day we call “good” and making the instrument of his execution a rallying point of joy and celebration. We’ve not lost sight of the bane and sorrow of the cross, but with Paul we now know it’s a precious bane and a liberating sorrow.

Illustration Idea

Fred Craddock tells the story of a missionary family in China who was forced to leave the country sometime after the communists took over. One day a band of soldiers knocked on the door and told this missionary, his wife, and children that they had two hours to pack up before these troops would escort them to the train station. They would be permitted to take with them only two hundred pounds of stuff. Thus began two hours of family wrangling and bickering–what should they take? What about this vase? It’s a family heirloom, so we’ve got to take the vase. Well, maybe so, but this typewriter is brand new and we’re not about to leave that behind. What about some books? Got to take a few of them along. On and on it went, putting stuff on the bathroom scale and taking it off until finally they had a pile of possessions that totaled two hundred pounds on the dot.

At the appointed hour the soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked. “Yes.” “Did you weigh your stuff?” “Yes, we did.” “Two hundred pounds?” “Yes, two hundred pounds on the dot.” “Did you weigh the kids?” “Um, . . . no.” “Weigh the kids!” And in an instant the vase, the typewriter, and the books all became trash. Trash! None of it meant anything compared to the surpassing value of the children.

Craddock has used this story to illustrate the power of what he calls “the moment of truth.” Sometimes events crash into our lives in so shocking a way that we are instantly forced to view all of life in a new light. Suddenly what had previously been of value to us comes to mean absolutely nothing–we’re only too happy to leave it behind.


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