Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 7, 2019
Philippians 3:4b-14 Commentary
“Are you becoming perfect?” is the provocative question with which Carole Noren begins a fine sermon (Pulpit Resource, October, November, December, 2002, p. 5) on the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday. It is an appropriate question. After all, Jesus, in Matthew 5:48, calls us to “Be perfect . . . as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Paul, in II Corinthians 7:1, also challenges us to “perfect holiness out of reverence for God.”
Yet while God’s adopted sons and daughters sense that, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is making us more and more like Jesus Christ, few of us would claim that we’re “becoming perfect.” Thankfully, then, this fifth Sunday in Lent’s Epistolary Lesson helps us think in biblical ways about the kind of perfection toward which God is graciously moving God’s people.
This Lesson’s author is Paul, a Jewish man whose spiritual credentials were impeccable, as Earl Palmer, to whose commentary on this passage (The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 358ff.) I owe a great deal, notes. If anyone had a reason to be confident in his spirituality, it was that member of the high-ranking tribe of Benjamin. The apostle was also a faithful Pharisee and obedient keeper of Moses’ law.
Yet while being compared to Paul’s positive attributes may make some of those who proclaim Philippians 3 blush, some of us are, in fact, also very obedient to God’s law. Quite honestly, when we listen to and watch some fellow Christians, they remind us at least a bit of what Jesus Christ must have been like.
Yet even highly obedient Paul insists that no religious and moral credentials can compare with what the Spirit has shown him in the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, God has shown him what he calls a righteousness not based on keeping the law, but on God’s amazing grace. By comparison to that wonderful righteousness, Paul considers all his former accomplishments to be “loss” (7), literally, rubbish or manure.
The apostle, of course, doesn’t reject God’s law. Instead he rejects the confidence he had in himself because of his obedience to that law. God showed Paul that God accepted him only because God fulfilled that law in Christ. As a result, he would never again treasure his own righteousness that came through obeying the law.
Yet it sometimes seems as if the modern Church is still tempted to find its confidence in human righteousness. Most Christians no longer hope that God will save us because of our kindness or any other good work. Yet some of our siblings in Christ seem to have turned faith into a kind of new source of “confidence in the flesh” (4b), into a new righteousness of our own.
Under Satan’s constant pressure, it’s tempting for the Church to even subtly stray from the truth. The confidence that comes from faith is one example of heresy. Faith is, after all, a very central part of the Christian life. But faith can’t be the means by which God’s beloved children earn God’s grace. God’s grace is only and always a gift that God’s people simply receive with our faith.
Yet while we might expect the confidence that comes from such a generous gift to produce a kind of complacency, Paul displays none of that. In fact, his experience of God’s grace seems to energize him in ways that no legalism ever could. After all, the apostle goes on to compare the Christian life to that of athletes training for a race.
Two kinds of incentives, notes Palmer, motivate athletes. One is the pressure they feel in trying to make a team. The other pressure athletes feel is to excel because they’re on a team. Paul describes a motivation that comes being on some kind of team. God’s adopted sons and daughters run the race that is the Christian life, he writes, not to somehow make God’s “team,” but because, by God’s great grace, we’re on that team.
So neither guilt nor pride nor fear motivates the apostle to strive to be holy. Only his awareness of God’s unconditional acceptance motivates Paul. He responds to God’s justification of him by trying to fully make Christ “his own” because Christ has made him his own.
Paul’s awareness of God’s acceptance of him frees him, writes Palmer, to forget his human success and misplaced religious passion that lie behind him. God’s acceptance of Paul allows him to strain on toward the goal of becoming fully like Jesus Christ that is ahead of him.
In other words, God’s gracious acceptance of him allows Paul to intently focus on growing in his relationship with Jesus Christ. It allows him to seek to know Christ, gain Christ, be found in Christ, have righteousness in Christ, know the power of Christ’s resurrection and share Christ’s sufferings.
Of course, Paul is fully aware that he’s far from perfect. Twice, in fact, in verse 12 he admits that he has not yet “arrived.” Yet he doesn’t let his imperfection discourage him. With a delightful and memorable turn of a phrase, he insists that he presses on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of him.
Palmer suggests that Paul’s awareness of his imperfection comforts Christians who feel inadequate as Christians. Those who proclaim Philippians might explore how this greatest missionary of all time had not yet arrived. However, we also want to highlight how Paul’s awareness of his imperfection also implies a warning for Christians who may assume that we’ve arrived spiritually.
Later Paul insists, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (15). The word for “mature” comes from the same root as that for “perfect.” So it’s almost as if the apostle insists that if God’s adopted sons and daughters are mature, we know we aren’t perfect.
Here may be the key to understanding the perfection about which Paul writes and to which God calls God’s people. As Noren notes, we usually think of perfection in the Latin sense, which is flawlessness. Paul, however, writes in Greek whose word for perfection implies maturity and fullness.
God’s children know that no one can become flawless on this side of the new earth and heaven. Only Jesus Christ was perfect in that sense of the word. It is, however, reasonable, to hope for maturity in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus describes such maturity in his summary of the law in the gospel of Matthew. There he challenges his adopted brothers and sisters to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, as well as love each other as much as we love ourselves.
Our culture thinks little of the biblical understanding of perfection about which Paul writes. In fact, everything around God’s adopted sons and daughters urges you and me to love and take care of ourselves before we worry about others. Our culture encourages us to cultivate our self-esteem, not our love for God and each other.
In Philippians 3, however, Paul calls Jesus’ followers to set a different goal for ourselves, with the help of his Spirit. God’s beloved children strive to open ourselves completely to the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Only the Spirit, after all, can make you and me spiritually mature in our love for the Lord and each other.
Paul at least suggests, however, that attaining that goal requires that forgetting what’s behind us so that we can continue to press on toward the Christian maturity that lies ahead of us. Guilt about our past sometimes prevents Christians from fully enjoying God’s work and loving presence here and now. Our guilt over our failure to fully love God and each other may, in fact, prevent God’s children from striving to become more loving.
In the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday, however, Paul calls his readers forget the guilt of what lies behind. After all, because God has graciously forgiven us, our past sins, our past failure to love, doesn’t need to paralyze us. God’s forgiveness frees God’s adopted sons and daughters to “press on” (12). All of God’s people can strive be more loving because we’re confident that God’s grace has taken away the guilt of our past and our anxiety about the future.
Editors Tom Long and Neal Plantinga include Paul Tillich’s sermon, “You Are Accepted” in their book of sermons entitled, A Chorus of Witnesses. They introduce it by noting that Tillich states eloquently the nature of grace even though, as is often the case with him, he “generalizes up from a Christian particularity to an existential generality.”
At the key point where we would expect to read the name of God, Tillich gives us, instead, “that which is greater than you.” As a result, Christian preachers will have to Christianize Tillich’s passage. But it’s still eloquent, and is what Long and Plantinga call “one of the most famous passages in all of Tillich’s work.”
Grace, says Tillich, “strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness . . . It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged . . . It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, and the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted . . . by that which is greater than you, in this name of which you do not know.’ Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now. Perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything; do not intend anything.
“Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin [and] reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”
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