Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 3, 2022
Philippians 3:4b-13 Commentary
Good gospel preaching, like faithful Christian living, always leans forward rather than backwards. While some Christians long for “the good old days,” this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson expresses the Apostle Paul’s longing for the good coming days.
Of course, Philippians 3 says quite a bit about that on what Paul can look back. But the apostle reflects on those things in the context of Philippian opposition to the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone.
It seems that “dogs … who do evil” (2) have somehow gotten access to the Philippians and their young church. My colleague Scott Hoezee suggests that those heretics are insisting that the way to salvation runs through obedience to a set of rules, including that all Christian men must be circumcised.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, Paul announces that he has, to use an old cliché, “been there and done that.” He, in fact, had been a rule keeper extraordinaire. While he has a “past,” that claim isn’t shaded by the kind of moral failure that such a phrase traditionally carries in the English vernacular. The apostle was an accomplished Hebrew God-worshiper.
The biblical scholar Susan Eastman writes, “his former identity was bound up in a set of given relationships, as well as personal achievements.” Paul’s past was that of someone who successfully lived his life on the basis of Torah.
Little of 21st century culture uses words like “faultless” (6) to label its idea of morality. But we have standards of “righteousness” (6) anyway. This Sunday Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers may want to identify how various kinds of works righteousness manifest themselves in their own particular context.
People who, for example, think the West should do more to defend Ukraine are confident that their position is more “faultless” than those who disagree with them. People who drive electric or hybrid cars sometimes consider themselves more “righteous” than those whose cars burn only fossil fuels. Some baseball fans consider their loyalty to the Toronto Blue Jays to be superior to that of fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While few of our contemporaries would label such things as salvation by good works or “confident” obedience to God, some of their responses to people with whom they disagree point to the natural human tendency to praise virtue and condemn shamefulness. They help uncover our longing not only to be righteous, but to also have others recognize our righteousness.
Philippians 3’s Paul is familiar with such categories of righteousness. However, God has graciously brought him to a different place. While the apostle once thought of his religious activity as profitable (7), he now thinks of it as “loss” (7, 8a) “rubbish” (8b) or perhaps more starkly, “garbage” for Jesus’ sake.
We perceive both grief and joy in Paul’s reflections in the first part of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. We sense that he laments the amount of time he wasted in trying to enter and stay in a relationship with God by getting circumcised and strictly adhering to God’s commandments. The apostle seems to grieve that life to which he’d completely given himself that turned out to be rubbish.
Yet we also sense deep wonder in the apostle’s comparison of that on which he once wasted his time to “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord” (8b). He has lost so very much. However, Paul marvels that God has graced him with so much more than he lost. As a result, he has exchanged things like diligent faithfulness to Torah for the “righteousness … which is through faith in Christ [and] comes from God” (9).
Freed from his historic burden of trying to enter and stay in relationship with God by observing Torah, the apostle can lean forward, both in his life and in Philippians 3. Especially beginning with verse 10, he expresses a deep sense of anticipation and longing in his desire to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.” Paul passionately yearns to “become like Christ in his death and, so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul’s linkage of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection here is striking. He sees Christ’s sufferings and resurrection as tied together, not just in history, but also in their ongoing significance and power.
This is no Christian triumphalism that hurdles Jesus’ suffering and death in its race to Jesus’ empty tomb. Paul wants to somehow be part of “the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” So doesn’t merely want to imitate the glorious, risen Christ. The apostle also wants to somehow imitate the suffering, dying Christ.
Fred Craddock (Philippians, John Knox Press, 60) notes, however, the perhaps unusual order of Paul description of the most important days in world history. He both begins and ends his expressions of his yearning with Christ’s resurrection. Because God raised Christ from the dead, a new life of sharing in both Christ’s suffering and resurrection was possible for the apostle.
“In terms of the Christian calendar,” writes Craddock (ibid), “Paul puts Easter before Good Friday, or to be more precise, in verses 10-11 he speaks of Easter, Good Friday, Easter. For Paul, the resurrection interprets the cross, planting it centrally not only in his faith but also in his life and ministry. Rather than erasing Good Friday, he recognizes Easter as God’s vindication of Good Friday as the definition of God’s way in the world and for the world: obedience, suffering and death.”
By expressing his hope to more fully know and experience both Christ’s suffering and resurrection, Paul counters both extremes towards which Christians are sometimes tempted. While some Christians almost exclusively focus on Christ’s suffering, Paul reminds us that if God didn’t set God’s seal of approval of Christ’s suffering by raising Jesus from the dead, Jesus is nothing but a heroic martyr. And while, on the other hand, some Christians focus almost strictly on Jesus’ resurrection, if Christ is alive after having somehow avoided suffering on our behalf, Christians are still God’s enemies.
The Apostle Paul wants to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering. He understands, after all, that all of Jesus’ friends need both Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. In fact, in other places Paul writes of participating in Christ’s death by allowing the Spirit to kill his disobedient self and then participating in Christ’s resurrection by allowing the Spirit to raise to life in him a life of obedience.
Such a new life allows Paul’s Philippian and other Christian readers to join him in pressing on toward “the goal to win the prize for which God has called” us “heavenward in Christ Jesus.” We seek to grab hold of that for which Christ grabbed hold of us.
The imagery the apostle uses here is that of a runner. I’ve lost my fair share of races to figurative tortoises. But I’ve watched enough of others’ races to know that runners who look over their shoulders often get into trouble. In fact, if they look back, they sometimes signal their weakness.
Perhaps that’s why Paul insists that he wants to forget what (and perhaps who) is behind him. He, instead, wants to press on with his race. The apostle knows where the finish line is. It’s not his relative goodness or Christlikeness. That’s, after all, only a kind of halfway point in his race. He doesn’t yet fully know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering.
Yet while Paul hasn’t yet reached his race’s finish line, his awareness of how far he still has to go doesn’t somehow stop or even slow him. He, instead, “presses on” (12b). As he runs the race that is his life in the power of Christ’s resurrection, he leans not backward, but forward. After all, Paul’s destination is his reception of “the prize for which God has called” him “heavenward in Christ Jesus” (14).
Of course, the apostle doesn’t explicitly identify the nature of that “prize” in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. Christians sometimes think of our “finish line” as what N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press, 123) calls “the place ‘up there’ where Christians aim to go at the end.”
But Wright goes on to suggest that the “prize” to which Paul strives to receive is the resurrection life. It’s that new life to which God calls God’s adopted sons and daughters and for which the Spirit equips us. The prize is the resurrection life that God’s dearly beloved people already experience now, but will most full live and experience in the new creation.
Few stories of competitive runners are more compelling than of those who help their competitors finish their race. During the 2017 London Marathon, Matthew Rees stopped 300 meters short of the finish line to help David Wyeth. While they were strangers, when Rees saw that his competitor was on the verge of collapse, he helped him complete the race.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that Rees acted somewhat like the Holy Spirit when he helped a weakened Wyeth finish their race. The Spirit, after all, helps to cross the finish line those who tire as we run the “race” that is the Christian life.
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