Sometimes you need to lose your religion in order to gain Christ. It sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. Sometimes you have to lose your religion, your view of God, the world, you. Sometimes you have to drop dead to all your preconceptions and funny notions of how God should be and what rules He should play by. The apostle Paul lost his religion. Big time. He had reason to boast. He enumerates the reasons: circumcised on the 8th day of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew among Hebrews. You couldn’t get more Jewish than Saul of Tarsus. He was a card-carrying, life-long member Israelite. A lifer, we call them. Like “lifer-Lutherans” and “cradle-Catholics.” There was not a conscious moment of Paul’s life when he wasn’t a Jew.
With regard to the law, a Pharisee. We tend to hear the word “pharisee” and think “bad guy,” but these were bragging right for Paul. The Pharisees were the do-gooders, the practical, purpose-driven guys who broke the Torah down into 613 positive and negative principles. They were helping people keep the commandments. They took their Bibles seriously; they ran the synagogues, the place were the Torah was taught. Paul had studied under a rabbi named Gamaliel, who also makes a cameo appearance in the book of Acts. Gamaliel was considered one of the leading rabbis of his day who only took the best for his students. Paul was top of the class in Hebrew school.
As to zeal, a persecutor of the church. Clearly a case of “zeal without knowledge,” but zeal nonetheless. He thought he was doing God a favor by going through the synagogues and rounding up followers of Jesus and having them interrogated and beaten and even killed. He thought he was doing God’s work, until that fateful day on the road to Damascus where he was struck blind by the risen Lord Jesus. God said, “I can use that zeal, but he’s going to need a bit of retooling.” And so this Hebrew of Hebrews, this trained Pharisee was led around blind for three days, baptized by Ananias with a new set of marching orders. Instead of going to the synagogue to persecute Christians, Paul shows up in the Damascus synagogue preaching Jesus as Christ and Savior. Talk about losing one’s religion!
As to righteousness under the law, blameless. He means it. Viewed through the lens of the Pharisees 613 dos and donts, Paul could say he was blameless. He kept the Torah, or so he thought. Until the scales fell from his eyes and he began to see what a wretched man he was, how nothing good dwelt in his flesh, how even an actionless commandment like “Do no covet” produced all sorts of covetous thoughts and desires in him. And then he realized what we all must realize. It’s all a pile of garbage these religions we invent for ourselves. It’s all a heap of rubbish these ways we invent to do the righteousness of God.
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as skubala, (literally a “pile of crap”), in order that I may gain Christ and be found in HIm, not having a righteousness of my own that come from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” That’s right. Without Christ, all the religion in the world amounts to nothing more than a pile of crap.
We make so much about faith, but without Christ faith is nothing. We make so much about religious knowledge, but without Christ that knowledge is worthless. We make so much about doing good and behaving right, but apart from Christ and His righteousness there is no doing good for the sinner. For Paul, and for us, to be found in Christ. To be joined to Him in HIs death and look forward in faith to our resurrection. To be found clothed with Christ in our Baptism, wearing His righteousness like the robe. To be found sharing, yes, even in the suffering of Christ, so that whatever it takes, he might attain to the resurrection of the dead.
I want you to notice what Paul says here and take that to heart. The goal, the finish line, is the resurrection of the body. That’s why we say it that way in the Creed – we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We do not believe in an eternal life without some sort of body. Anything in-between is just that, in-between, and there is very little to say about it. Asleep in the Lord is probably the best we have. But Paul isn’t into speculations about disembodied souls. He understands, as we need to understand, that Christ has led the way for humanity to come through death and make it out alive. He suffered, He died, He rose, and then He disappeared and ascended. Jesus didn’t “die and go heaven.” He died and rose, and then He sat down at the right hand of God.
The goal is resurrection and eternal life in a new creation. That’s what Paul is saying he has not yet attained. He has the full forgiveness of his sins. He has the promise of eternal life in Christ. He stands, as we stand, justified before God through faith in Christ. What he doesn’t have, and what he strains forward to like a runner straining across the finish line, is the resurrection of his body. Paul knew the aches and pains, not only of aging, but of the beatings and imprisonments he endured. Some say he suffered from bad eyesight or perhaps debilitating headaches. Life on the road was hard in the first century. Those three missionary journeys plus a near death shipwreck on the way to Rome would have had to take their toll on Paul.
Yet he says to us here, “Never mind all that. That’s all past and gone. Everything. Runners don’t look behind themselves, or they’ll trip over the own two feet. I look forward, straining with ever fiber of my being toward the prize, that crown of life Jesus holds in His hands that He won for me and will give me as my own on the day of resurrection.
We are a resurrection people. We are oriented toward eternal life. We are drawn to it, strain for it, long for it, expect it. You are baptized into the death and life of Jesus. You have an eternal destiny set before you, and though the race is hard, and you may grow tired along the way, you keep your eyes on the prize, past the finish line. Not your death. We too quickly think of death here. But your resurrection. Who knows? Jesus may appear before you die, so don’t rush things along unnecessarily. You have a race to run.
Paul goes on to say, with sadness and tears, that some have dropped out of the race, some have stumbled and fallen. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” I draw a certain sense of comfort in reading that when I consider the many sons and daughter of this congregation who live the same way. These are the apostle Paul’s people, people who came to believe on account of Paul’s preaching. And now they’ve turned away. They no longer worship. They no longer hunger and thirst for the gifts of salvation. They now live as enemies of the cross to which they too were nailed. They set their minds on things temporal and lost the things eternal. They traded God for their belly, their endless appetites, their pursuits of pleasure. The end isn’t good.: Destruction.
How can you expect to run a race without food or drink?
You are people of the resurrection, citizens of God’s city. Yes, we live in the earthly city, we have our homes, we pay taxes, we fret over the city’s faltering economy. We live in the earthly city but that’s not the place of our citizenship. The Philippians were proud of the Roman citizenship. Philippi was a Roman free city. They were proud to be Philippians. Yet Paul says, “Our commonwealth is in heaven.” That’s home for us. Where Christ is. Remember always the name of the earthly city – Babylon. Babylon, the drunken whore of the Revelation. That’s man’s city. God’s city is Zion, the Bride of Christ, the Church. That’s your citizenship, and when we lose sight of that, when we take the eyes of faith off of Jesus, our feet will wander the streets of Babylon to our ruin.
There is nothing in man’s city that can raise you from the dead. Only from God’s city. Only Christ. “Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.” We are a heavenly minded, resurrection oriented people. That’s how Luther can say, “Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.” That’s what being heavenly-minded, resurrection-oriented sounds like. “I count it all as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
In the name of Jesus,