Portions of this sermon are similar to this sermon I wrote on internship three years ago, although this year I focused exclusively on the Philippians text, not the vineyard imagery in the other readings.
Have you ever shown up for something thinking you were all prepared, and then you suddenly realized that what you had prepared didn’t matter?
It’s not a good feeling. At least once in both college and seminary, I had classes where I diligently did all the reading, finished all my homework, and then when I got to class, I realized I’d read the wrong thing, or I’d done the wrong assignment.
Back at my internship congregation, we changed the worship service times for the fall, including for the Saturday service. All week, I kept reminding myself that Saturday worship was moving from 5:30 to 4:30. It worked. I remembered, and I showed up on time, prepared for the service.
And then the next day, on Sunday morning, I pulled into the parking lot and wondered why there were so many cars there already. I was so focused on Saturday that I completely forgot the Sunday service time had also moved up by an hour! In that case, I was all prepared, but I was an hour late.
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul describes something kind of like this. He describes all this stuff he’s done to prepare himself for God, only to realize that none of it mattered.
The issue Paul’s addressing here is that the Philippians are divided about who’s prepared to be a Christian. How much work do you need to do to be counted as part of the church?
We have similar questions today. Are you in if you’ve taken communion within the last year? What if you were baptized in the church, but only show up on Christmas or Easter?
Are you in if you mail in a check once a year, but haven’t come to worship in 5 years? What if you’ve never been to church, but you show up asking to have your baby baptized? How much do you need to know before you can join? We like to set these kinds of boundaries, don’t we?
In Philippi, the specific issue is about circumcision.
Christians today don’t have a physical mark to distinguish who’s in or out, but for the Jewish people, circumcision was a primary marker that set them apart. Circumcision let everyone else know they were God’s chosen people. It reminded them of who they were.
At first, of course, all the Christians were circumcised too, because they were all Jewish. But the good news spread to Gentiles, people who had never been Jewish. Did they need to get circumcised to be part of the new church? Did they need to become Jewish to become followers of Jesus? How much preparation did they need to do to be counted as part of the community?
The circumcised believers, the ones who were Jewish before becoming Christian, the ones who knew all the stories of faith, who knew about God’s work throughout history, they wanted their effort to count for something. They’d done everything right.
And Paul gets it. He’s done everything right too. In this section we just heard, he lays out all his credentials, all his accomplishments. Listen to what he says: “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.”
Everything tradition says he needs to do, he’s done. For those who think circumcision and Jewish tradition are important, Paul is a super-Christian.
And of course, these are good things to have done (well, not the persecuting the church, but the enthusiasm he has for his faith is good). God gave the laws to the Jewish people as a gift, as a way to live as God’s chosen people. The things Paul’s done are not bad. He didn’t even have control over most of them, like being circumcised as an infant or what tribe he was born into.
The problem was that Paul took great pride in all this. He was convinced that because of all the stuff he’d done, because of who he was born as, because of all these credentials, he was worthy and valuable to God.
And then he encountered Jesus. For Paul, meeting Jesus was this big, dramatic moment, the flash of light on the road to Damascus, Jesus’ voice literally speaking to him. And as he learned about God’s love for him through Jesus, as he learned about God’s grace, as he grew in relationship with God, Paul realized that he’d prepared for the wrong thing. God is doing a new thing, and all Paul’s religious credentials are worthless.
And so, after he lays out all of his credentials to the Philippians, he says that none of it matters. Our translation has him saying, “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.”
The word “rubbish” there isn’t really strong enough. The word there actually means manure or dung, so there are other words you could come up with.
Everything Paul’s worked for is useless, worse than garbage. He’d spent his whole life preparing for one thing, then discovered all his work was ultimately useless, compared to Christ.
It’s God’s work that matters, not Paul’s, or ours. God came and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ, dying for us and rising again. That’s the important part. God does the work.
Our righteousness, our right relationship with God, comes through faith in Christ. It does not come from what we do, or who our parents were, or whether we’ve been born on the right side of a border, or whether we come to church enough or give enough.
Of course, as a legal organization, our congregation needs a way of determining who our members are, and that’s important. That’s why we have these questions about defining “membership.” But that has nothing to do with who belongs in God’s kingdom. God is not bound by the boundaries we set.
This lesson is challenging for me, because I like my credentials. I spent a lot of money and a long time in school so I can write some letters after my name if I want to. I secretly kind of enjoy when letters come addressed to “the reverend.” Of course, usually letters addressed that way are fundraising or trying to get me to buy something, but it still feels kind of nice.
I liked being the kid in Sunday School who knew the Bible stories. I suspect some of you are similar. We like being part of a nice, well-kept, visible church. Some of us like that we’re following in the tradition of our parents and grandparents, that we know how things work. We can easily fall into the same trap as the Philippians.
Rather than relying on our credentials, we are called to rely on Christ. When we start relying on our credentials, on our knowledge, on our good deeds for life instead of relying on Jesus Christ, that’s idolatry. It’s breaking the first commandment, putting something else or ourselves above God.
All the stuff Paul lists that he used to value he now recognizes is worthless, but it’s worthless for a reason. It’s worthless because God has a better plan. Paul loses everything to gain Christ. When he gives up relying on himself, he can rely on Christ. He loses himself, and God finds him. In his brokenness, Jesus meets him.
Paul continues, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” All the good accomplishments we do, all the giving, and the showing up to worship services, and the good deeds that we ought to be doing as Christians, all of that is because of what Jesus has already done for us.
This week, in the midst of a chaotic, broken, hurting world, may you recognize that Christ Jesus has made you his own. Rather than fearing being unprepared, may you recognize that Jesus has prepared you. And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen