Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
In 1949, the Communist People’s party took over in China. Soon after, Christian missionaries were forced to leave.
The preacher Fred Craddock knew one such missionary family. It happened one morning that this family of four heard a knock at their door. It was a band of soldiers. “You have two hours to pack your things,” the soldiers said. “You’re allowed to bring 200 pounds of possessions with you.”
Immediately, this family began to sift through their belongings.“What should we take?” they asked each other. 200 pounds adds up quickly.
“We just bought this typewriter,” the husband said. “It’s heavy, but I paid a lot of money for it.”
“We can always buy another typewriter,” the wife responded. What we need to pack is our photo albums and family heirlooms.”
After some heated debate, the family finally managed to agree on what to take and what to leave. And 2 hours later they had 198 pounds of their most beloved belongings packed in suitcases.
The soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked.
“Yes. We’re ready.” The family said.
“Have you weighed your possessions?”
“Yes we did. Here it is.”
“Did you include your kids in that 200 pounds?”
“Uh… no. The kids need to be weighed too?”
The mother and the father looked at each other, and without a word of argument, they dropped their bags and scooped up their young children.
“We’re ready,” they said.
Craddock uses this story to talk about what he refers to as the “moment of truth”. There are moments in our life, where everything comes into focus. Moments when a new reality crashes in upon us and overturns our world. The things we once held dear become worthless. The things we once built out lives upon, we leave behind, without thinking twice.
Something like this happened to the merchant, in one of Jesus’s parables. When he saw the pearl of great value in the marketplace, all else faded away. And in his joy, he went home and sold all of his possessions, just to gain that single pearl.
The Kingdom of God is like this, says Jesus.
Well I think its safe to say that Paul had such an experience, a moment a truth, the day Christ came knocking on the door of his life.
Before this, Paul was merrily filling his suitcases with religious deeds and blameless living. He was a top prospect in seminary. A rising star in the Sanhedrin.
His pedigree was pristine. A Hebrew of Hebrews. Circumcised on the 8th day.
And Paul didn’t just talk the talk. He lived out his faith with zeal. He rightly saw that the Jesus movement was a threat to the Jewish Community, and so he actively resisted it.
Yes, Paul was building up quite a name for himself. And he felt proud about the life that he was building.
But that all changed on the road to Damascus
Some of you know the story. Paul was travelling to Damascus because the Jesus movement had spread there. And he wanted to arrest those who were preaching Christ.
But along the way, the resurrected Jesus, appeared to Paul—whose name at the time was Saul. “Saul, Saul, Jesus said, why are you persecuting me?”
And thus began Saul’s transformation.
And the change was radical. Saul went from being the chief persecutor of the faith to the chief promoter of the faith. The former things that he had built his life upon: His name, his pedigree, his moral record. All this stuff became nothing. Rubbish. In comparison to the gain of knowing Christ, and being found in him. Paul had found the pearl of great price.
In chapter three of his letter to the Philippians, Paul shares his testimony. His hope, in doing so, is that the Church will join him in rejoicing in the Lord. And that they too would follow him in living in Christ’s Victory and in the hope of the resurrection.
You know, the early Church had a number of thorny theological problems they needed to wrestle through. The most significant one revolved around how to classify gentile believers who came to be followers of Jesus.
Were they now members of God’s Holy People? Didn’t they at least need to be circumcised in order to participate in the covenant?
The Old Testament seems to be pretty clear on this point. In Genesis 17, for instance, God makes an everlasting covenant with Abraham. And the sign of that covenant is circumcision.
This is what God says this to Abraham. “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you… 10 This is my covenant with you… the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Genesis 17:9-14
So… there it is. Chapter and verse. All natural born Jews, and all foreigners who are brought into the family, are to be circumcised. This is an everlasting covenant. Chop it off, or be chopped off.
The in house conversation on this issue was fierce. This was such a hot topic, that Paul even circumcised his ministry partner, Timothy, just so Timothy wouldn’t be a stumbling block to the Jewish people they were ministering too. Now that’s what I call “taking one for the team”.
One wonders if Paul would have done things differently, however, if he would have met Timothy later on. For Paul’s thinking on circumcision crystallizes pretty quickly.
For Paul, the external sign of the covenant is not the thing itself. What matters is not having a mark on your body, but having a heart that is consecrated to the Lord. “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh…” (Philippians 3:2)
Paul’s thinking on this subject won the day. It was adopted by the council of Jerusalem and became official teaching.
But the Judaizers—those mutilators of the flesh—didn’t go away. So Paul kept warning the Church about them.
“What’s the big deal?” We might ask. “Why fuss over a square inch of flesh? Why not let each individual Church decide how to handle this.”
To this, Paul would say “no way”. No way. For at stake is more than a bit of flesh. At stake is the power of the gospel itself.
The good news that causes great rejoicing is not that we meet God halfway; that our acts in the flesh somehow fill in what is lacking in Christ. The good news that leads to rejoicing, is that in Christ, nothing is lacking.
He fulfilled the law. Entirely. He was without sin. Completely.
And yet he, out of love, fully gave himself. Laid down his life. Suffered on the cross. Endured hell and exclusion from God. So that we, the ungodly who deserved such a fate, could be made righteous, and be welcomed home.
This he did for us, while we were yet sinners. And this he gives to us, through faith. Period.
Faith alone. Not faith and “circumcision”. Faith alone. Not faith, and “the right sorts of good deeds.” Faith alone. The good news of the gospel is that it doesn’t depend upon me or my performance in the flesh. I bring nothing. My comfort in life and in death is not me. But Jesus!
And the Church enters into dangerous territory, whenever we teach or even hint that something needs to be added to Christ in order to shore up our status before the Father. For that takes away from the glory that Jesus is due, and introduces unnecessary anxiety into our life with God.
I mean, who’s to say that circumcision is the only holdover from the OT. What about the other feasts and festivals. The passover wasn’t optional for Jews? Do gentile disciples need to keep it too?
Or what if the doctor had a wobbly hand the day of your circumcision. And 10% of your foreskin was left intact. Is that good enough? Are you in? Or do you have to go in for a redo just to be sure?
And what about women? If circumcision is necessary boundary marker, then what’s your status, ladies? Do you need to be married to a circumcised man, in order to “belong” to God’s family.
What if you’re married to an uncircumcised man who isn’t a believer?
All this produces fear? And anxiety. And that’s not the point of the gospel. Jesus is our all sufficient saviour.
Paul shares his testimony to describe the difference between the luggage he used to carry and the joy he now has in Christ.
If anyone had reason to be confident in himself, it was Paul. But all the fancy feathers he was gathering in his cap turned to dust the day he came to know Christ.
Paul’s words are so good here, that they are worth repeating:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:7-9)
The things he formerly thought of as profit, he now considers loss. The things he used to hold onto at night, and rely on for security and purpose. All that is garbage now, in comparison to the pearl. Knowing Christ my Lord.
You know, we spend so much of our lives trying to measure up. Trying to prove to the universe that we are worthy of love and acceptance. We carefully cover over our flaws with stories and accessories; we do what we need to do to please the crowd we want to belong to. We evaluate ourselves in comparison to others. When they fall, we feel a little better about our own lovableness. When we fall, it feels like the world is ending. We’re deathly afraid that people will come to know the real me. So we hide from God, and we hide behind the things that shore up our shaky identity. We cross our fingers that that will be enough.
But that’s a game that never ends. And its leaves us feeling isolated and anxious.
Brittney and I have been watching “The Good Place” on Netflix, over the last few months. “The Good Place” is a show about the after life. There’s a heaven and there’s a hell. Heaven is the “the good place”. Hell is “the bad place.”
What determines a human’s final destination is their performance on earth. In order to track that performance, there’s an office building in a neutral place filled with robot like accountants who are tracking the thoughts, words, and deeds of everyone on earth. Everything gets recorded. Everything gets weighed and is given either or a positive or a negative number. Those who finish life with a positive number go to the good place. Those with a negative number go to the bad place.
God is more or less absent from the plot of the good place. The justice system is a cold algorithm.
I haven’t finished the show yet. So I don’t know if God, or some sort of “grace” ends up breaking through.
But I’m sure glad that the true story of the world is much different that the narrative laid out in the good place.
There is a heaven and a hell in the true story of the world. Justice too. Our thoughts, words, action and inactions are all known. But, and here’s the difference, they are known by the one who comes to save in Christ Jesus. For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son. Jesus suffered hell for our sakes. He cleans our record with his precious blood. And then he clothes us with his righteousness.
The Heidelberg Catechism, one of our confessions of faith, spells this out in a powerful way:
Question 60 asks:
Qu. How are you righteous before God?
Ans. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.
Even though my conscience accuses me
of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them,
and of still being inclined toward all evil,
nevertheless, without any merit of my own,
out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me
the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,
as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
and as if I had been as perfectly obedient
as Christ was obedient for me.
All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.
Let that settle in for a moment.
The last part gets me every time. “Nevertheless…. Without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God credits me with righteousness, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.”
The German bible scholar, Martin Luther, spent much of life wrestling and wondering about his status before God. He felt the weight of his sins. He had nightmares about it. He tried to take comfort in the patterns and practices of the Church. But no amount of time in the confessional booth ever gave him the assurance he so desperately craved. Then it hit him, while studying the book of Romans. He read the verse: “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” That day, gospel joy flooded Luther’s heart. He came to see that God had credited Jesus righteousness to his account. In Luther’s own words: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
On Friday morning, I woke up feeling tired. Physically tired. But also just tired of myself, if you know what I mean. So I pulled out my phone, and hit play on a song we sung last week:
Lost are saved, find their way, at the sound of Your great name
All condemned, feel no shame, at the sound of Your great name
Every fear, has no place, at the sound of Your great name
The enemy, he has to leave, at the sound of Your great name
Jesus, worthy is the lamb that was slain for us, son of God and man
You are high and lifted up, that all the world will praise Your great name.
We need to remind ourselves of this. Soak in it. Rejoice in it. Keep singing it. Keep reading it. Keep confessing it. And not allow any philosophy, tradition, or person, to sway us away from it.
How easy it is to forget.
We long for something concrete to put our confidence in. We long to prove ourselves to be worthy of love. To feel like we’re making progress towards the good place. Maybe if I volunteer enough or give enough money. Maybe if I say and do all right things. Get baptized, make profession for faith. Then, I’ll have something tangible. Something I can hold onto.
But the only thing we need to hold onto is the pearl. The rest God calls us to drop.
Rest in my grace, child. The gospel says to us. Allow Jesus to bestow upon you everything that is needed.
Paul’s former passion was to be as blameless a Jew that he could be. He thought this was the pathway to God. But that all became garbage when he came to know Christ.
And now Paul has a new passion. He wants to know this Jesus as deeply as possible. To live in the power of his resurrection. To know him in his sufferings.
Some of the words and phrases that Paul uses in this chapter are difficult. But the point is simple, I think. Like the merchant who forsook all for the pearl, Paul is now all in on the one whose righteousness is his through faith. He’s wants to be where Christ is, dedicate himself to Christ’s cause. To follow after his risen saviour on the road that moves from death to life.
Sometimes it seems like Paul is just transferring his former Jewish zeal over to Christ. Sometimes we just want to say, Relax Paul. Enjoy the grace of God for a moment and stop all this striving.
But that misses the point too. Paul’s not running to make the team anymore. Rather, he’s pressing forward
simply because he wants to experience all the riches of life with Christ.
I read a Dallas Willard quote a few days ago. I think it aptly describes what we see in Paul.
“The path of spiritual growth in the riches of Christ is not a passive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude. You have never seen people more active than those who have been set on fire by the grace of God.” ~ Dallas Willard
Isn’t that Paul? He’s been set on fire by the grace of God.
And what he wants for the Church in Philippi and the Church of all ages is for us to follow after him, as he follows Christ. That we would know Jesus and the joy of being found in him. And experience the freedom of his righteousness. To live in the power of the resurrection. And we press on, in the face of suffering, towards the prize.
Stand firm in the Lord. Brothers and sisters. Let us rejoice in Christ.
And set on fire by his grace, let us press on. Dropping the luggage that no longer matters. And taking hold of the that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us.