So here we have the apostle Paul in a really interesting letter. The people of Philippi are Roman citizens. They’re Gentiles. They’ve been supportive of Paul. And for the most part this is a pretty happy letter.
Now Paul can be rather irritable in some of the Epistles. Like in Galatians, he’s flat out angry. But in this letter, there’s a fair amount of talk of joy. He’s examining how we create a community where people gather in faith to equip themselves to live out this incredible message of Jesus, this vision of justice that Jesus embodied.
Paul’s in jail while he’s writing this letter. This is years after the death of Jesus, whom Paul never actually knew. Christianity has spread among small communities of people and Paul is giving them counsel. He actually sees the potential for good to come out of the whole situation because the word is spreading about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
Paul has hope. He is in the empire’s jail, but in his own fashion, he has hope. He’s always improvising. Not a big doctrine guy. He deals with the problems of the moment, in the greater service of the promise of Jesus message.
When we get to these passages, however, Paul does give voice to some frustration. We don’t know exactly what’s been going on, but it sounds like some people have been imposing conditions on participation in the vision of Jesus.
They’re saying you have to do this to be sacred to be a part of the group- it probably has somehow to do with circumcision and other elements of traditional law. Paul is frustrated because here they are, missing the point.
They are taking their eyes off of what’s important – making manifest Jesus’ dramatic justice – and worrying about who belongs.
Isn’t that what we so often do? Wherever we have a community, we have some people who are going to create boundaries, right?
Well, we know there’s something ain’t right about you.
Jump through this hoop. Hmmm . . . . Insider. Outsider.
(I do have to say – this church does a mighty good job of avoiding that – maybe better than anywhere else that I’ve ever been a part of. But even we have to watch ourselves about it. And we sure all have to watch it when we get back out there in the world).
So here’s Paul — 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.
He’s listing his credentials here – his qualifications to be counted for insider status. From his past life, before he fell out on the Damascus Road and found Jesus. He’s got all the right stuff. Listen at all this again:
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.
His. resume. is. tight. Flawless according to the ways of the world – the flesh, the culture, the law. You got a condition. Paul can meet it.
But then –
whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, 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, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Here it is.
All that other stuff isn’t the stuff that matters.
Here when Paul is talking about flesh, he’s talking about the human ways that we divide ourselves. These traditional laws, our customs, our institutions, these hoops we make people jump through.
That’s the stuff that these early Christians were using to draw lines between themselves, to impose conditions on participation. And Paul is saying No. All of this stuff falls away.
What matters is a path of following Jesus. Those are earthly distinctions and we just need to keep our focus on God’s justice.
For Paul, faith means imitating Jesus. It means trying to live the life Jesus lived – one that stared in the face of the Roman empire and in the face of religious authorities devoted to self-promotion, to the preservation of their own power.
It is NOT a life without suffering. It’s life that leads straight to the cross. There is brokenness all along the way. But to get to the resurrection, to get to the promise of God’s vision, the enactment of God’s vision? You have to get there by way of the cross.
For the early Christians, that often meant a real cross. This is the church of the martyrs. These people were dying on behalf of Christ dying because of their loyalty to the messiah’s vision. Paul’s like, if that happens, you’ll be with the messiah.
And while we’re here, we’re going to keep the faith.
We keep that in mind as we deal with the empires of today. We are not typically called to literally die. But following in the path of Jesus – setting aside the conditions and definitions of our world and culture – this is not easy.
It is an empire of commercialism.
We commodify and we discriminate.
We bomb – how many countries have we bombed just in the 21st century?
We set conditions on belonging – white enough, rich enough, thin enough (but not too thin), young enough, straight enough.
We’re going to decide if you have an able body or an able mind.
Or you know what, you might just be so rich and white and ornery that I believe you ought to be excluded. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Paul isn’t saying anything goes. He’s calling people to live their lives in imitation of Jesus. But no one gets judged by some arbitrary markers of belonging assigned by the world.
Paul is trying to help the Philippians nurture a sense of community – to establish relationships with one another that enable them to follow this path of Jesus with insight and courage. It is an active path – one that we can follow – there are no preconditions that keep us from belonging. We belong because we walk the path. And we see our brokenness. And we see the brokenness of the world around us. The sacred is everywhere we look. We just have to look. Holy ground is all around us. We just have to realize that’s what it is. And we have to keep going. This faith of Paul is one of movement, of action. It’s not stale belief or tired platitudes. It’s active.
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. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Finding the sacred is an active path. We do it together. We push back against commodification and conditions of our contemporary world and continue forward together.
Sunday morning – 6-7 am – radio program on WBHM called With Heart and Voice – program of sacred classical music – lot of chamber music and pipe organs and lilting vocals – I love that stuff – wake up – listen – trees outside window – changing light – right after that – news program called Weekend Edition – some of y’all might listen to it – go from this rich beauty, this deep sense of the sacred – wham – right into the problems of the world – but you know what – it’s all sacred.
There are no conditions that make one thing sacred and not another.
The sacred is personal devotion and public justice. If you follow Jesus you will find both heaven and hell right here on earth. It is a part of the Christian journey.
This table is sacred in part because we come around it together. On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus blessed this table for all of us. ALL of US. No conditions. It is a meal for all. This is World Communion Sunday, so today we all share the reverence of the Spirit as a part of a worldwide, incredibly diverse community of faith. We join with our brothers and sisters around this table – and in this church the table is open to all.