Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Philippians 3:4-14

In his letter to the Church at Philippi, St Paul has referred so far to both the joy the Philippians bring him and to the joy he personally experiences in the Lord, despite his imprisonment and suffering for the Gospel. As we have seen previously, joy is one of the key themes in Philippians. Now having urged them to stop thinking too highly of themselves, St Paul begins chapter three by telling them to ‘rejoice in the Lord’. Or, to put it another way, to have ‘joy in the Lord’. The obvious question, then, is, ‘What is joy?’

The problem is that ‘joy’, in English, is often seen as synonymous with happiness. And the dictionaries often define it this way. Oxford, for example, offers: ‘A feeling of great pleasure and happiness’. The Oxford definition identifies another issue, that is, thinking of ‘joy’ as an emotion. Happiness and feelings are highly subjective and circumstantial. They are emotions that can be induced or suppressed by a whole variety of stimulants.

When St Paul speaks of his joy and tells believers to have it, he is not thinking primarily in these terms. Rather ‘joy in the Lord’ is something that transcends feelings and circumstances. This is why St Paul can still have joy and rejoice even when he is suffering and things are not going well. Joy, for St Paul, is an inner peace, confidence, and security that comes from a relationship with God in Christ. A relationship so important and central to his life that nothing else matters in comparison.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when St Paul feels happy being a believer. Of course, there are. But he can have joy even when he doesn’t feel happy and, indeed, when he feels anything but. Joy is about a sense of well-being that comes from knowing who we belong to, and that nothing and no-one can take it away. It is based not on our ability to feel, but on the love of God for us. As St Paul explains to the Roman believers, nothing in all creation can separate us from this love of God for us ‘in Christ Jesus our Lord’(Romans 8:38-39).

St Paul begins this part of the letter by telling the Philippian believers to ‘rejoice in the Lord’. He concludes it by telling them:

‘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.’ (Philippian 4:1)

Nehemiah in the Old Testament said: the ‘joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10). Joy is the sense of security that comes from the knowledge that God loves us unconditionally. It gives us the strength us to face what happens to us in this world with confidence and without fear. It enables us to tackle the difficult problems that inevitably come our way and the pain that we frequently experience because of them. Our Lord said:

‘In the world you will have trouble; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33)

It is as we look to the Lord for meaning and purpose in life that we discover the resources we need to stand firm and live lives of obedience in this world.

In between telling them to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ and to ‘stand firm’ in the Lord, St Paul has some important things to say to help them to do just this. What he writes immediately after telling them to rejoice in the Lord, however, comes as a bit of a surprise. He writes:

‘Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!’ (Philippians 3:2)

St Paul is referring here to people in the Church who profoundly disagreed with St Paul’s understanding and explanation of the Gospel. There was much in which they were in agreement with St Paul. Like St Paul, they too believed in Jesus. They would have agreed enthusiastically with the famous passage in Philippians chapter two about our Lord taking the ‘form of a slave’ and becoming ‘obedient unto death’. They too would have preached that Christ had been raised from the dead and exalted by God. This amazing passage about our Lord is often described as a hymn that St Paul is quoting. Those St Paul is warning the Philippian believers to beware of may originally even have been from among those who wrote it!

So, what was the problem? The problem was that those St Paul warns against thought that having faith in Christ and being obedient to him also meant keeping God’s Law. That, you might think, is not an unreasonable argument. Many Gentiles who had become believers through St Paul’s ministry certainly thought it was a reasonable argument, and were willing to accept it, often enthusiastically. These ‘dogs’ as St Paul describes them felt that St Paul was leaving stuff out of his presentation of the Gospel that should be in it. And they followed him around like dogs telling people in his Churches that they should not only have faith in Christ, but keep God’s Law as well. They worked hard to persuade the believers of the truth of their understanding of the Gospel.

St Paul doesn’t dispute their conscientiousness; they do indeed work hard, but, in his mind, they are ‘evil workers’. And what they say is dangerous, so dangerous that St Paul gives this strong warning: ‘Beware!’ He writes this, he tells them, as a ‘safeguard’, like a warning sign erected when there is danger of some sort.

‘Evil workers’ for telling people to keep God’s Law? How can obeying God’s Law threaten the Philippian believers in any way? St Paul explains the answer to this question more fully in his letter to the Roman believers. [It just so happens that I have been going through Romans in the past few weeks and, if you are interested, the sermons are still all available on YouTube!] In his letter to the Roman believers, St Paul gives a detailed explanation and answer. Here, he answers the question by describing his own experience.

This is a very important passage as it is one of the few where St Paul gives us some autobiographical details. What St Paul tells us about himself fits well with what we know of him from the Book of Acts. He was born a Jew and circumcised as a baby, as all male Jews are. He could trace his ancestry back to an exclusive tribe of Israel, and he spoke Hebrew, the original language of the Jewish people. All this was decided for him by his parents, but he had, personally, fully and consciously embraced it. He was a Pharisee, a sect within Judaism committed to keeping God’s Law just as the ‘dogs’ were. In fact, he was blameless in keeping it. As to zeal, he was a persecutor of the Church. What he means by this is that his commitment to God’s Law was such that he was prepared to use violence against anyone whom he saw as threatening it.

While we may agree that St Paul got it wrong in persecuting the Church, what was wrong, we may ask, with being circumcised as all God’s people, if they were men, including our Lord, had been in the past? What was wrong with speaking the language of the Scriptures and keeping God’s Law? Put like this, it is hard to see what was wrong. And that is how the ‘dogs’ did put it to believers in St Paul’s Churches. And many of believers didn’t see what was wrong with it, which is why St Paul is so worried.

What is so wrong with it, St Paul explains from his own experience, is that it is all about putting ‘confidence in the flesh’. St Paul knew that what the ‘dogs’ were asking was for believers to believe in themselves. St Paul recites his autobiography not because he wants to tell the Philippian believers about himself, but to show that his opposition to the ‘dogs’ isn’t out jealousy because he didn’t have what they had. He had everything they had and more.

Sometimes, we dismiss people and their achievements because secretly we are jealous that they have had more privileges and have achieved more than we have. St Paul wants to make plain that this is not the case with him and his opponents. When it came to the things that his opponents valued, he had more of them than they did.

If anyone could be proud of themselves and their achievements, it was St Paul. Instead, he writes, not only has he lost all he had, he has lost it willingly, and he has come to regard everything he has lost as rubbish. He describes what has led to such a dramatic re-evaluation of his life as the ‘surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8). His goal in life now is all about Christ and not about himself. He writes:

‘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.’ (Philippians 3:10-11)

This sort of language is alien to us. The sentiment it expresses sounds extreme. Perhaps it is appropriate for those few who are particularly holy or those who have nothing else to worry about in life, but for the rest of us, it all sounds very remote and unrealistic. And yet, St Paul tells the Philippian believers:

‘Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.’ (Philippians 3:17)

It may seem remote and unrealistic, but St Paul writes not for few, but for all believers to encourage us to have the same goals and aims in life as he does. For St Paul, ‘rejoicing in the Lord’, as he urges us to do, means prioritizing our relationship with the Lord; and prioritizing our relationship with the Lord means letting go of anything that jeopardizes it or is incompatible with it. It also means being aware of anyone who threatens it.

When it comes to what the ‘dogs’ were advocating, we have, today, rejected their demands and followed St Paul. We don’t think men should be circumcised; we don’t only eat food that is kosher; we don’t follow many of the rules and regulations of God’s Law in the Scriptures. We don’t even keep the ten commandments; I, for one, was certainly working yesterday on the sabbath.

So, because of this, we might be tempted to think that how St Paul tells us to live is not only unrealistic, but that what he warns against is of little relevance to us as we are no longer in danger of doing what the dogs demanded. His warning is, however, highly relevant.

The problem with what the dogs were advocating then and with what their present day successors are advocating now is that they put their ‘confidence in the flesh’, that is in themselves, and they want us to do so too.

For those in the Church in St Paul’s day, ‘confidence in the flesh’ took the form of pride in their possession of God’s law and in their own ability to keep it. They were proud of the identity that being Jews and keeping God’s Law gave them. They believed in God; they believed also in themselves.

So too in the Church today. We believe in God - most of the time; we believe also in ourselves. We want to see ourselves as fundamentally good people. We are proud of our background; of our education and achievements; of our status in society. Increasingly, we are proud of our various individual and social identities. We are increasingly encouraged to take pride in who we are and celebrate the person we are, whoever and whatever that may be. Going to Church, in many cases, has become as much about celebrating our individual identities as it has about worshipping God.

St Paul tells us to ‘rejoice in the Lord’. This is the precise opposite to rejoicing in ourselves. We rejoice in who the Lord is and what he has done for us despite who we are and what we have done. Having become his followers, we rejoice in him not in our ethnic, racial, or sexual identity. Instead, we count these as loss.

We rejoice in the Lord and seek to know him and his power in our life conforming us to his death as we learn to place no confidence in ourselves and our abilities. We don’t follow our dreams; we follow Christ, and it is him and our relationship with him that gives our life meaning.

St Paul writes in Galatians:

‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:27-28)

When we hear this today, we hear it as telling us that we are all equal and that we are not to allow racial, social, and gender and sexuality barriers to divide people. What St Paul is saying is far more radical and fundamental than that. He is talking about what it means to ‘have put on Christ’. It means that our identity now lies in Christ and not in our racial background, social status, gender or sexual orientation. It is being ‘in Christ’, and being sons and daughters of God as a consequence, that defines us and who we are. Our union with Christ unites us with those who share an identity in Christ. It is an identity that depends solely on Christ and who he is and what he has done, not on who we are and what we have done.

We have just had National Day. A day that, for obvious reasons has become controversial. Church members are urged to take sides: to support the motherland as good patriots or to fight for democracy as if our life depended on it. Ultimately, as followers of Christ we are to do neither. We obey the authorities for that is what the Bible tells us to do, but we do so because we know there is a higher authority to which all in authority must bend the knee. We don’t seek freedom in political systems; our freedom is in Christ.

St Paul writes of his opponents:

‘… their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:19-20)

St Paul’s opponents were too focused on themselves. This is why St Paul describes them as ‘enemies of the Cross of Christ’. The Cross of Christ means death to self not confidence in our-self. Not only that, in their self-centredness, those St Paul warns against, were also too concerned with this world. Their worldview was limited. Our citizenship, the City we belong to as believers, is in heaven. This is why St Paul urges the Colossian believers:

‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.’ (Colossians 3:2)

Even though we are ‘expecting a Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ’ from heaven in the future, even now in the present we can have a relationship with him here on earth. Our relationship with him puts everything into perspective, it defines who we are, and it gives meaning to our lives.

Central to being a follower of Christ is this relationship with Christ: not what we believe, not what we do, not where we worship. It’s not believing, behaving, or belonging that matters, but knowing, not knowing as in what we know, but knowing in the sense of whom we know: I want to know him and knowing him I rejoice in him and in him alone.

Let us pray:

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


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