I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
Years ago, on one particular Good Friday, I took a large cross, lifted it onto my shoulder, and I walked around town for a few hours. It has been a habit of mine ever since I entered the ministry and it is part of my desire to bring the Lord to the people outside the church. I want people to see the sign that we see every Sunday morning in order to be reminded about what we did, and what the Lord has done for us.
Anyway, on that Good Friday I set out for my cross carrying venture and I received a variety of reactions. Some people honked their horns as they drove past. There was a man who offered me water because it was a particularly hot spring day. I even had someone spit at my feet. But mostly, people just stared at the strange sight of a man in all black carrying a cross around town.
I had almost finished my loop when I spotted a woman on the other side of the road with a perplexed look on her face. She was glaring at the cross and then she inexplicably crossed the street and demanded to know what in the world I was doing.
I calmly explained that I was carrying the cross because that’s exactly what Jesus did on Good Friday before he was crucified. And then she said something I, sadly, was completely unprepared to hear: “Who in the world is Jesus?”
I know that I, for one, take for granted the ubiquity of Christianity. That is, I assume that even people who never step foot in a church have, at least, some semblance of an idea about Jesus. But there, on that Good Friday, I encountered someone who knew nothing of the Lord.
Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Even on the other side of his Damascus experience, his desire to know the Lord was at the forefront of the apostle’s heart and mind. Even for as much as I know the Lord, from encountering God in the strange new world of the Bible, in the sacraments, in the still small silences, I too desire to know the Lord and the power of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of the church’s gathering is a willingness to proclaim the wonders of God so that all of us come to know who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ.
But what about those outside the church?
Or, to put it another way, how would you respond to someone who said, “Who in the world is Jesus?”
Faith is an exciting adventure not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. Here, at the tail end of Lent, with the cross hovering on the horizon, we are compelled to confront the incarnate truth. That truth has a name: Jesus. Jesus cannot be explained from a pulpit or from a book. Jesus defies all of our expectations and often leaves us scratching our heads.
But that’s the point. God is God and we are not. The best we can do is tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that we’ve been telling throughout the centuries. The rest is up to God.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including record breakers, timelessness, keeping Easter in Lent, Makoto Fujimura, laughing in church, terrible testimonies, tremendous transformation, clarity (or the lack thereof), authorial soliloquies, and John Daker. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Narding Out
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange new worlds, Encanto, covenants, righteousness, living in church, narrative preaching, memorizing scripture, waiting on the Lord, the Apostles’ Creed, Mississippi, and the status quo. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [C] (Zephaniah 3.14-20, Isaiah 12.2-6, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interesting introductions, Tom Waits, grace, The Muppets Christmas Carol, singing with singers, advent questions, problematic language, bad timing, the wells of salvation, the longest night of the year, Christmas trees, and the order of operations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Come On Up To The House
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Love is terrible. It hurts, it’s scary. It makes us do all sorts of things we shouldn’t – it leads to judgment and pain and doubt. Love makes us weird and selfish and annoying. It keeps us awake at night, it distracts us from the rhythms of life, it stings.
Love is the one thing everyone wants and we’ll go through hell to get it.
Love isn’t easy. It requires a commitment that goes beyond what anyone would consider normal. We enter into love knowing full and well that we know nothing of what we are doing. Love is hard work.
And love requires a tremendous amount of hope.
It requires hope because none of us really know what we’re doing when we enter into it – it’s something we have to figure out along the way.
Love is terrible. And yet, love is just about the most important thing in the world.
Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is full of love. I mean, listen to how he butters up the budding little community of faith: I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
Translation: You’re just the most special little church I ever did see.
Paul writes with confidence that the Lord will bring to fruition all of the Good News made manifest in their community because (and this is the key) God is the one who does the work.
Sure, Paul will praise the people for keeping him in their prayers while he, himself, is imprisoned. He will boast of their faith in the midst of tribulation. He will even long to be reunited with all of them. But only because the compassion of Jesus Christ has changed them and him forever.
And then Paul has the gall to write: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
I love Paul, I love his epistles, I love his theology, I even love his language. But reading this makes me wonder if Paul really knew what it was like to be among the people called church.
I mean: A church with love that overflows? That sounds great to me, but the only problem is the fact that church is filled with sinners like you and me.
Our slogan might be open hearts, open minds, open doors, but we definitely keep the doors locked, we’re pretty stuck in our ways of thinking, and we certainly have a penchant for judgment even though someone once told us: Judge not, lest ye be judged.
The church isn’t a bunch of good people getting better – instead, we’re a bunch of bad people dealing with our inability to be good.
And, of course, this can become manifest in a number of ways. A preacher like me can stand in a place like this only to wax lyrical about how badly you all need to stop being so bad. I can end every sermon with a list of exhortations on how to finally become the best versions of yourselves. And, should the occasion call for it, I could drop some of that good ol fire and brimstone to whip you all into shape.
But here’s the rub: that kind of church stuff never ever works. At least, not really.
A buddy of mine tells this story about how, when he was a teenager, he went to a church youth conference. Big stage with musicians and altar calls and all that. And on the final night of the conference, right at the pinnacle of the final worship service, the fire alarm off. A brief terror ensued as those in charge frantically ushered a bunch of screaming teenagers out of the building and the streamed out in the parking lot. And there, scattered among the spaces were life boats.
Any rational human being might pause and wonder why, but not a bunch of frightened youth. The adults started yelling at the kids to get into the lifeboats. And a moment later the alarm stopped, and someone shouted from a loudspeaker: “Look around, there aren’t enough spaces in the lifeboats for everyone… Are you ready to really give yourselves to Jesus?”
The fear of that moment might’ve led some of the teenagers to something, but it certainly wasn’t the Jesus revealed in the strange new world of the Bible.
Shame is a powerful thing. Like love, it can make us do all sorts of crazy things.
But the church doesn’t exist to bring more shame into the world. In fact, the church exists to proclaim grace, which is the antidote to shame.
Shame teaches us that love is only for those who deserve it and earn it. Shame is the burden of perfection whether it is moral, spiritual, or something in between. Shame destroys us, it eats away at the very fabric of our being because it’s always dangling in front of our eyes, like a carrot on a string, telling us that we are never enough.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same, nor does Jesus comes to bring us shame; Jesus comes full of grace. His very being in the world, born as a baby in Bethlehem, runs completely counter to the idea that only when we get it right do we get to see the Lord. The grace of our Lord is given freely before we have a chance to earn it or deserve it because we never will.
According to the strange new world of the Bible the beginning of the Christianity journey is receiving love.
Think about that for a moment. Faith doesn’t begin when we make some sort of change, or public affirmation. Faith doesn’t kick in when we finally get our acts together.
Faith begins when we begin to see that God’s love precedes all things.
And yet, sometimes even God’s love is terrible. God’s love is terrible because it compels us to look at ourselves hard enough to see how wild it is that God would love us at all.
Or, to put it another way, if God loves us as we are, then we (on some level) have to come to grips with who we really are, and that’s not really anyone’s idea of a good time.
Consider the desire to take a holiday picture of your family, or the outfit you want to wear to a holiday party, or any other number of examples from this time of year – it’s all about making sure only the best of us is seen, and the worst of us is hidden. At least, that’s true on a physical level, but we also do similar things with our conversations, in our relationships, in our work.
We are all experts at wearing the masks of our own making such that we, and everyone else, don’t have to see us for who we really are.
But God knows exactly who we are and God loves us anyway.
How odd of God!
In the life of faith we flourish not because we love, but because we are loved.
When we begin to see, and experience, the divine love called Jesus Christ that never ever stops, that never runs dry, that endures all things (to borrow another line from Paul) then we encounter the building blocks of the faith and the cosmos.
We are made to be loved.
In my line of work, you always have to keep your eyes and ears open for the ways the Spirit moves in the world. Whether it’s a show, or a book, or a painting, or a conversation, it’s all about tuning in to God’s frequencies because you never know what you can use in a moment like this.
Well, it’s Advent time which, for most people, means it’s Christmas time. And one of the joys of this time of year is returning to movies about this time of year.
And one of my all time favorites, is Home Alone.
I know that, while growing up, I loved Home Alone because I rejoiced in the ways that Kevin McAllister was able to booby trap his house, the holiday soundtrack was perfect, and because it had the perfect amount of 90’s humor.
But now I love the film because it’s all about grace.
Whether or not you are actually doing it, I can sense the furrowed brows among the congregation, so let me attempt to prove my point…
For those of you unaware of the cultural phenomenon that was, and is, Home Alone, here’s a brief synopsis:
Kevin is a the youngest sibling in a family that fights and argues the night before flying to Paris for the holidays. In the scuffle to make the flight in time, Kevin is left home alone, and his parents don’t notice their mistake until their halfway over the Atlantic.
Kevin rejoices in the freedom from his family but discovers that the neighborhood is under the threat of two criminals who are casing houses for a little B&E.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s mother frantically seeks out ways to return to her abandoned child and the usual Christmas chaos ensues.
Kevin defends his home with booby traps and works to have the criminals arrested.
And then, perfectly, on Christmas morning, the mother returns home and the two reconcile and embrace.
And here’s the grace:
There is a short scene right before the climax of the film when, on Christmas Eve, Kevin enters a nearby church (which, for those of you keeping score, is a United Methodist Church!). He sits and listens to a children’s choir practicing for their evening performance when his spooky neighbor Old Man Marley approaches him.
Kevin, terrified, shrinks in his pew, but the man wishes Kevin a merry Christmas.
They talk about why each of them are there.
Kevin feels bad about how he treated his family.
Old Man Marley feels bad about how he is estranged from his own son, and how the only way he can hear his granddaughter sing is to come to this practice, but that he’s not welcome later.
And then he says: “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing… deep down you will always love them, but you can forget that you love them. You can hurt them, and they can hurt you.”
To which Kevin replies, “You should call your son.”
“What if he won’t talk to me?”
“At least you’ll know. Then you could stop worrying about it. Then you won’t have to be afraid anymore. Will you do it?”
“We’ll see what happens. Merry Christmas.”
It’s so short, and I’m sure its not the scene that everyone remembers most, but to me it’s the most important. These two strangers, reeling from the overwhelming power of love to hurt and heal, heal one another with offerings of grace.
And, recognizing that it is a movie, Kevin is reconciled with his mother and family and then looks out the window to see Old Man Marley doing the same thing with his own family. It’s beautiful stuff.
And yet, life isn’t a movie. Sometimes that hoped for reconciliation doesn’t happen.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
The church exists in the time in between, the time being, as the poet Auden put it. We keep watch for the ways in which God’s love might overflow even for us such that God’s love might flow out from us to others. But even when we don’t experience the kind of love we yearn for, we also have this promise: There is a place where God will always meet us.
God is present in this sacrament. God meets us here, where we are, in the midst of our sins, not in our successes. God knows our mistakes and our short-comings. And in that knowledge God says, I am giving myself for you. For you!
And this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more!
Because God love us! We are made to be loved. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [C] (Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent disciplines, Handel’s Messiah, The Muppets, Christmas unicorns, Home Alone, prodigal love, J the B, the refiner’s fire, the Daily Office, darkness, God’s grace, missional moments, the Lord’s Table, and universalism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Joyful Obedience
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“Stand firm,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi. “Don’t give in to the pressures that surround you. Don’t be like other people with their judgments and their hostilities. Remember: You’re Christians. So act like it. Try being gentle. Don’t sweat the small stuff. God is close by. God listens to your prayers. And, in the end, if you find anything, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent, think about those things. Do what you learned and received from me and the God of peace will be with you.”
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.
Thanks for the advice Paul.
But, have you seen the world recently?
It feels like the ground is crumbling under our feet, from police brutality, to a never-ending Presidential Election season, to the fact the the Coronavirus has infected some of the most powerful people in the country who work in the White House.
So, Paul, we appreciate your not-so-subtle nudges here at the end of your letter. But gentleness, and a spirit of non-anxiety, just doesn’t quite cut it right now.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves from loving these suggestive lines from the apostle. Perhaps some of us even have them on perfectly crafted Etsy prints adorning our living room walls.
They all sound like pretty good ideas. After all, who wouldn’t want Christians to be more gentle and less anxious?
Particularly in the moment we find ourselves in!
Just take a gander at the evening news sometime and note how those who call themselves Christians often comport themselves. Generally, they’re either the ones pointing out the signs of the times as God’s wrathful judgments falling down upon all of us, or they’re spending their time calling into question the behavior, words, and actions of other Christians for not being faithful enough.
So, if you’re like me, living in moderate comfort, usually surrounded by like-minded people, gentleness sounds not only like a nice idea, but a needed one.
Maybe, then, Paul was on to something. That, considering the condition of our current conditions, the best thing Christians can and should do is be gentle toward others.
Thanks Pauly! We’ll get to work on it right away.
Furthermore, we hear Paul’s recommendations of gentleness as a confirmation that whatever it means to be Christian is pretty much the same thing as being a good person.
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all more gentle, regardless of whether or not we confess Jesus as our Lord?
And this line of thought makes sense considering that among the many Christianities that exist, the majority of them don’t like to highlight any differences between those who are, and those who are not, Christian.
Its why, on more occasions that I can count, when I’ve asked parents about why they’re choosing to have their respective children baptized they almost always respond with, “We want to raise them in the church so they know what it means to be a good person.”
Which is fine. Except, there’s a teeny tiny little problem with assuming that, in the end, Christianity is just about being nice.
And the problem is this: Paul wrote this letter from behind bars!
If we want to assume that what Paul writes about gentleness is generally recognized as a good thing, something that would make all of us and the world a better place, then how the hell did Paul get himself arrested?
The same question can be asked of Martin Luther King Jr. For, if what Dr. King really wanted was a world where we all just got a long, where we shared a little more love and cared more about the content of character than the color of skin, then why did somebody murder him?
The same question can also be asked of Jesus: For, if Jesus just wanted us to merely love our neighbors as ourselves, and spread a little more kindness in the world, then why did we nail him to the cross?
That Paul writes these words, these admonitions, from jail challenges our manifold presumptions about gentleness being as innocent as we might assume it is.
Many years ago in a small Southern town a meeting was held among the white folk in the community about the fears of integration. The small auditorium was packed to the brim with all of the well-regarded types, the business owners and country club members, and they focused their entire conversation on how to save our schools, how do we keep them out of our schools? One by one angry speakers rose to call for a boycott, or resistance, or even a show of force against the changing times in order to protect ours from theirs.
In the back of the audition stood an old, half-broken Baptist preacher who had baptized, married, or buried just about every one in the town at one time or another. He came late to the meeting that night and listened intently to the unrest among the present community.
After a hour or so of the crowd’s racist tirades, he raised his hand and asked for the microphone. The crowd made way for their beloved pastor as he, with dignity, made his way to the podium. He stood before the microphone and let his eyes slowly sweep across the room before saying, rather boldly, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
The crowd sat in nervous silence until a man in the first row shouted, “Well, that’s not very Christian of you, Reverend.”
To which the preacher lowered his head an said, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Go home and read your damn Bibles!”
Again, there was silence.
He continued, “Looking over this assembly, looking at your faces, I this night have realized that I am the worst preacher in the world.”
A muffled gasp came forth from the gathering.
“If you think that anything in our faith justifies your presences here, that the sentiments expressed tonight are in any way exemplary of the way of Jesus, then I have failed miserably in my work as a preacher. I have poured out my life for nothing.”
Then, with the auditorium reduced to stunned and uncomfortable silence, the preacher walked to the back of the room and slammed the door as he left.
The presider over the meeting made a rather awkward attempt to resume, but for all intents and purposes the evening was over. Slowly, people drifted out.
A few months later the school integrated without incident.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
Paul, writing across the centuries to us today, continues on after his apparent call to kindness with this: Keep on doing the things that you have learn and received and heard and seen in me.
To be honest, gentleness is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking about Paul. Paul was a frenetic ball of Spirit-filled energy who never backed away from a theological fight that he thought needed to be fought.
And neither is gentleness the first thing that comes to mind when considering Jesus.
Of course we have these images of a gentle Jesus in our mind, going after the one lost sheep, and of gathering the children close, and sharing one last meal with his friends.
But in order to save the one lost sheep Jesus leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves, before gathering the children close he had overturned all of the tables at the temple, and after eating bread and drinking wine with his friends he was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and left to die.
To be fair – Christians are those called to gentleness, but our gentleness must be true. And truth often requires conflict and confrontation.
Notice: Paul doesn’t recommend that the Philippians should try to be gentle. Rather, he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Those who follow the Lord do not become gentle, but rather are formed into gentleness by being made citizens of heaven, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.
That citizenship, the truest any of us will ever have, means that Christians are a people bound and consisted by the Lord and not by the powers and principalities of this life.
Christian gentleness is not letting your crazy uncle get away with his racist rambling without calling into question his behavior and the institutions that formed him in that way.
Christian gentleness is taking the time and making the effort to make sure that all voices are being lifted rather than just those that already hold all the power even if it means calling into question those who hold the power, how they got it, and why they’re unwilling to let it go.
Christian gentleness is showing up the the first and the last, the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, that all might come to know there is a better way not in us, but in Jesus.
Paul calls the readers of his letter to imitate him and the Paul we are called to imitate was baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit. That baptism means that death, and the fear of it, no longer ruled Paul’s life. What mattered to Paul, more than anything else, was knowing Jesus Christ.
And knowing Jesus makes all the difference.
Knowing Jesus is knowing that all the stuff of this world crumbles away when compared with the glory of God.
Knowing Jesus is knowing a willingness to be combative about the things that really matter.
Knowing Jesus is knowing a truth about ourselves and the world that other would rather ignore.
In the end, there is no good in us. In spite of our attempts to be gentle, we mostly rest contented to do nothing or we take it too far and use our faith as a bludgeon against others. But the gentleness Paul writes of does not begin or come from us alone – It’s from Jesus.
As the Christ Hymn at the beginning of the letter goes: God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That is exactly the gentleness Paul believes has re-formed the Christian community in Philippi and across the world. Gentleness first comes from God.
Consider, Paul ends this section with another laundry list not of things to do, but things to consider. For, it is Jesus who determines our understandings of truth, honor, justice, and purity.
Jesus’ truth is known in the silence that refuses to accept the empire’s power in the person of Pontius Pilate.
Jesus’ honor is made known in the humiliation of his cross.
Jesus’ justice is found in the refusal to abandon the least of these to their own devices.
Jesus’ purity is discovered in the joy of the resurrection of the dead.
Paul commended these things to the Philippians, so that they (and we today) might live in peace, rejoicing always, and resting in the Good News even in a world that knows no peace, joy, or rest.
We are formed not by being or trying to be better people, but instead we are formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus might’ve been as gentle as a lamb, but he was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And what could be gentle about that? Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 32.1-14, Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fall peaking, Ghostbusters, contemporary golden calves, justified happiness, rectification, gear grinding, twitter burns, wedding garments, and partying like Jesus. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Condition Our Condition Is In
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. 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 faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 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.
A young man was singular in his focus – He wanted nothing more than to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He woke up every morning for years to exercise, he maintained a perfect Grade Point Average, and he wrote letters to his political representatives asking for their endorsements for the Air Force Academy.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he went for his annual physical as a senior in high school he learned that he was colorblind which meant his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were gone. Forever.
A man worked tirelessly for years starting as a dishwasher and eventually made his way up through the restaurant ladder. He did all of this with the hope and dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He saved every single penny he could, crafted the perfect business plan, and finally, after years of hard work, received the bank loan he would need to make his dream come true.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he finally got the new restaurant ready to open, the grand opening happened to fall on the same day that the Governor required all restaurants to close because of the Coronavirus and within a few week his line of credit was gone and the restaurant was forced to close before it ever opened.
A woman lived for her family. She brought her children to church every week, sat with them night after night helping with homework, and was even happy to be a listening ear to her ever-complaining husband. She did all of the right things and was the envy of all her peers.
And, all was well until it wasn’t. In spite of her living for others, putting their needs in front of her own, her husband still ran off with his secretary leaving her, and their children, behind.
The truth of the matter is, sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off.
Life is not nearly as simple as we would like it to be, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no guarantee that we can make our wishes come true.
Paul continues his letter to the church in Philippi from behind bars with a reference to those who might offer counter-interpretations to the Gospel as he had delivered it. Like we still do today, he rolls out his resume that those reading might know who they should really trust.
“Look,” he writes, “If you should be listening to anyone, it should be me! Check this: I have more reason to be confident than any of these false teachers you may of encountered. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, I’m a member of the people Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews – I’ve never given into the temptation to assimilate to the ways of the others around me. I kept the faith of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob. And even more than that, I was Pharasiac in my observance of the Law doing all of the right things and avoiding all of the wrongs. But wait, there’s more! I persecuted the church! I made sure they knew they were wrong while the rest of us were right. I was completely and totally blameless under the Law!”
Notably, of Paul laundry list of qualifications, the majority were given to Paul at birth. That is: none of them were achieved by personal effort nor could they be taken away. They are marks of prestige that came simply because Paul was born in the right place to the right people.
He was born, we might say, with a religious silver spoon in his mouth.
But then he comes to the Law – A Pharisee. This, unlike all the previous qualifications, was not something given to him at birth but rather something he chose and worked tirelessly toward. Being a Pharisee meant observing all of the commandments, it required unending commitment, and it was all about maintaining purity by staying away from anything deemed unclean.
And still, Paul has more to add: A persecutor of the church. Not only did Paul separate himself from all the bad in the world, he attempted to eradicate uncleanness whenever he found it, particularly in the early gathering of people called the church.
As a Pharisee, as someone under the weight of the Law, Paul undoubtedly would’ve looked on the idea of a crucified Messiah as an unspeakable offense, something remarkable scandalous. So much so, that it provoked him to launch a campaign of terror in hopes of rooting out the would-be followers of the one who died on the cross.
And then comes the cherry on top – Blameless under the law. This, for Paul, was more important than anything else. All that he had done, all the rules and dietary restrictions and zealous violence, was done in the name of righteousness, of cleanliness, of religiosity.
“But,” and this is a very big but, Paul says, “whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul’s world was completely upended by God in Christ.
Everything he thought he knew about what was right and true and good and beautiful was turned on its head because of the one on the cross.
Perhaps it was an instantaneous and miraculous deliverance wrought on the road to Damascus, or maybe it took Paul years of re-education to learn the truth, but nothing would ever be the same.
In Christ, Paul discovered that righteousness through ritual observance, or moral purity, don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God.
For, Jesus, as God in the flesh, delighted in eating and drinking and having fun with sinners.
Jesus, as God in the flesh, regularly and routinely went to be with the people Paul only saw as unclean.
Jesus, as God in the flesh, mounted the hard wood of the cross to take away the sins of the world, the very sins Paul was using to judge who was in and who was out.
Paul, with his entire religious resume, was bombarded with a delightful truth: every alternation means to perfection, or salvation, or righteousness crumbles because, on our own, we can’t save ourselves.
Now, on the other side, only one thing matters to Paul – knowing Jesus Christ.
This is a truth that some of us come to discover whether we want to or not. Because all of our righteousness, all of our good works, don’t lead to much of anything in the end. If we could fix ourselves and the world, if we could right all of the wrongs, we would’ve done it a long long time ago.
However, as it stands, we’re still stuck in the land of the dead.
And yet, that where Jesus does his best work.
The Good News of the Gospel, spoken to us today through the apostle Paul, is that no matter how hard to we try to rework ourselves, no matter how worried we are about getting into heaven because of our choices, and our commitments, and our convictions, we are saved and already home free before we had a chance to get started.
Or, to put it another way, God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ will always and forever be greater than our own.
And knowing Jesus Christ, him crucified and resurrected, is the name of the game. To confess Jesus as Lord is to know God in all of God’s humility, coming to dwell among us, to die because of us, and to rise for us.
Knowing Jesus Christ is discovering that all other means to salvation, whether explicitly biblical or not, pale in comparison to what God has already done for us.
Knowing Jesus Christ is resting in the Good News, the best news, that grace is not expensive, its not even cheap, its free.
Paul, writing to the early church, reminds those who want to follow Jesus that we all fall prey to the temptation to see one another through our efforts and our failures. That, when left to our own devices, we delight in measuring the worth of others through outward signs of religiosity, spiritual disciplines, and moral observances.
For, that’s exactly what Paul’s life was all about until Jesus showed up. He relied on the Law to show him what was right and wrong, and therefore who was worthy and unworthy.
It’s akin to how, today, we determine everything we think we need to know about someone else by the kind of job they have, or the car they drive, or by the name of a political candidate stretching across a bumper sticker on the aforementioned automobile.
What Paul was unable to see, that is until Christ blinded him and gave him new vision, was that, under the Law, all of us are unworthy, all of us are in need of help, all of us are sinners in the hands of God.
And, AND, that no matter how hard we try on our own, all of our effort will be like sinking sand when compared with the actual condition of our condition. Our righteousness cannot make up for our sinfulness.
Paul, then, writes to the Philippians because he nows lives in a world constituted by grace and not by works. He encourages them to rest in and rely on Christ’s faithfulness because that’s the only thing they really need to do. All the outward signs of sanctimonious piety don’t mean much when the Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world.
Notice: the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or the select few who manage to accuse a CV as detailed and glowing as Paul’s.
The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!
The Cross is God’s great and forever declaration that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus which, because he died for the sins of the world, includes each and every single one of us.
In another letter, to another church, Paul reminds the people of God that the Law exists to accuse us, to demonstrate to us what we’re really like until, while we are still sinners, grace comes and liberates us from the curse of sin without a single condition attached.
Or, to put it another way, there are no “ifs” in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, while hanging on the cross, did not demand improvement.
Jesus, while hanging out in the tomb, doesn’t wait to break free until we all get out acts together.
Jesus, while hanging out by the right hand of the Father, doesn’t guilt trip us into more moral obligations in order to get a ticket into the Supper of the Lamb.
Instead Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in order to rectify and redeem the world, including us, in spite of us.
And the best news of all, Paul reminds us, that even if we continue to rebel, even if we do everything in our power to keep making a mess of things, Jesus Christ has already made us his own!
No mistake, no sin, no disappointment, no failure, and no rebellion can hold a candle to the love of God in Jesus Christ that draws us home and refuses to let us go.
So, maybe you’ve got reason to be confident in the flesh, perhaps you’ve done all the right things at all the right times in all the right places. But all of that is rubbish in the end. The Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3.4b-14, Matthew 21.33-46). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including robust theology, circuity, abundant coffee, God’s Top 10, sinful clergy, Karl Barth’s Gottingen Dogmatics, sabbath observance, Pauline swagger, parabolic utterances, and enjoying the fruit of the vine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Like God Is Speaking