03 October 2011

Losses and Gains

Philippians 3:4b-14

World Communion Sunday/ 2 October 2011

Paul is perfectly candid in his letter to the Philippians.  He’s tired, frustrated with their hubris, with their arrogance, in their over-confidence in the things of this world and short on trust in the things that last, in their reluctance to change.  The editors of the NRSV helpfully entitled this section “Breaking with the Past.”  This, Paul tells us, is what occurs when Christ calls us. This, Paul insists, is what happens when God’s extends a call in our lives. This, Paul implores, is what has already occurred in him and everyone who finds oneself “in Christ.”  A break is made with “the flesh.”  A change occurs.

            First, we need to keep in mind that when Paul refers to “flesh” he does not mean our physical bodies.  “Flesh” is Paul’s term for that which is human, as opposed to that which is of God.  It refers to things of this world, to be worldly, to be shaped and influenced and defined by the things of this world, the prevailing values and attitudes of the world, of the culture, to be over-identified with these structures and systems. That’s the flesh.  It’s the flesh that is opposed to God’s will, it resists the movement of the Spirit, it laughs at Jesus Christ, hinders the coming of God’s Reign.  That’s the flesh.  And before Jesus knocked him off his high-horse while traveling on the Damascus Road, Paul was up to his ears in flesh.

            If the flesh really, ultimately mattered, then he would have every reason to boast with confidence in it.  Before meeting Christ, he defined his world and himself by circumstances of his birth and upbringing.  After all, Paul was a Jew above all Jews – circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people Israel – by birth, born into the prestigious tribe of Benjamin. “A Hebrew born of Hebrews.”  He was a follower of the Law, a Pharisee, with power and influence, with “zeal” he persecuted the church, and as to living up to the standards of the law:  blameless.

            These are the things he valued, cherished, placed stock in.  These were the assets of his life.  All of these things defined Paul’s identity.  These were the values that shaped his world, influenced his decisions.  We’re not all that different from Paul – just think of the way you define yourself, think of your values, the things and people you cherish, place stock in.  Think of your assets.  Think of all the things that we use to define who we are:  our place of birth, family, heritage, church membership, being a Presbyterian, status, influence, education, experience, our credentials, our degrees, our resources.   Paul had a lot of assets; he had every reason to boast, to have confidence in himself because of these.  Paul also came to say that all of this is “flesh,” worldly, human, earthly values, attitudes, the way of culture. And he probably wouldn’t have considered all of this “of the flesh” but for the encounter with someone who questioned his life and put everything in his life in a different perspective.

            Paul writes, “Yet 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 comes through the faith of Christ,….”

            When one is in Christ our relationship to the world, “to the flesh,” changes, our orientation toward the world changes, our values change, our identities change. That’s what Paul knew and he was eager to share what took place in his life.  He considered all the gains he made in his life; in the estimation of most people, he did all the right things, achieved much, had power and influence.  His mother must have been very proud indeed.  But then all heaven broke lose and the bottom fell out from under his feet and everything gave way.  When he faced Jesus Christ – when he encountered God’s grace in the face of Christ bestowing a righteousness apart from the law – everything changed.  He discovered that the very things he considered assets might actually be liabilities.  Indeed, because of his knowledge of God in Christ, because he came to know the surpassing value of knowing Christ, he was willing to lose everything, to reject those gains, in order to gain Christ.  Because of his knowledge of Christ, the grip all these things had on his life was loosened and he was set free. The gain far outweighs everything else.  Indeed, Paul says “I regard them as rubbish” – skybala – which does not mean rubbish, by the way, that’s the Bible being presentable, but stronger.  In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates the word as “dog dung.”  You can come up with your own translation of the word.

            This is not to say that birth, wealth, family, status, education, etc. are in and of themselves “rubbish,” because they’re not. The trouble comes when we allow all of these things, these externals, to define who we are, to shape our values, and decisions.  When we are in Christ we find that our relationship to all of these things change, they are transformed, they are transvalued.[1]  They might even lose their importance or defining significance in your life.  In fact, through the relationship with Christ, through his call and claim upon our lives, we might even find ourselves giving them up or chaning our relationship or association to these externals. 

            Sometimes it requires leaving home, moving out of one’s comfort zone, traveling to a different culture for us to see all the ways we are being shaped by the culture around us. We think we’re independent thinkers, but only up to a point. We are being shaped by the world all the time. 

            What defines you?  Your place of birth, your ethnicity, your wealth, your values, your education, your faith?  How much are all of these merely accidentals, the result of being born in a particular time and place?  I thought about these things a lot when I was in the Congo recently.  Pulled out of my comfort zone (the Congo has a way of doing this), I saw myself and my world from a different angle.  I wondered, how would my life be different if I had been born in the Congo?  I see how much I define myself by the externals of my culture and less by claiming who I am in Christ – and sometimes, I confess, these two ways of being are worlds apart.  What really defines you and me?  For Paul, we know ourselves best when we are found in Christ, when in our relationship with him we come to see what matters most in the world and what doesn’t, we come to see what we are called to do and what we are called not to do, we come to see what hinders our walk with Christ and what strengthens it. 

            The upward call that Christ extends to us, as Paul knew, runs through the way of grief and loss.  This is a difficult thing to hear, I know, but it’s the truth.  For with the upward call toward the future that Christ is preparing for us comes the realization that we have to leave some things behind, we have give up, we have to set aside these things.

            Jean Vanier writes, “Grief and loss are inseparable from the call.”[2]  He should know. Vanier is founder of  L’Arche, the founder of communities around the world with and for people with severe disabilities. He gave up a career in the Navy to fulfill his call.  “If we accept the call but not the loss we will live in a contradiction,” he writes. Vanier’s way of linking call and loss is very insightful and reflects, I think, Paul’s own experience.[3]    Vanier says it so beautifully:  “When we discover and welcome God’s call, something beautiful happens in us:  we experience the love of God for us and a whole new world opens up inside us. We also realize that it is a very demanding call. We are invited to leave our former, familiar world, and let go of what we used to know and hold on to; and this implies loss.  We receive something new but at the same time we must let go of something else.”[4]

            In the Reformed tradition we believe, by virtue of our baptisms, that each of has a calling from God. To be baptized is to be called by God to be and become different people and to do something profound with our lives for the sake of the wake of the world.  “God’s call is different for each of one of us,” Vanier insists, “and yet it is the same.  “It is a call to grow in love, in wisdom and in inner freedom, and thus to bring greater love, peace and freedom into the world.”[5]  Greater love, peace, freed – into the world.  For the world, with the hope that the world itself might be transformed, that even “the flesh” might be redeemed and restored to become the bearer of God’s love and grace.

[1] The use of “transvalue” here refers to “the revaluation of all values” or “transvaluation of all values” (Umwertung aller Werte), a concept developed by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in The Antichrist (1895). It was a phrase he used against Christianity, however; he considered Christianity as the transvaluation of nature and was therefore “hostile to life.”
[2] Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 26.
[3] Vanier, 20.
[4] Vanier, 19.
[5] Vanier, 18.  For more about the L’Arche Community, see:  www.larcheusa.org.

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