Philippians 3:4b-14 / Proper 22A / 02 October 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
In the increasingly silly world of religion and popular Christianity, today has been declared “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in some circles. This is supposed to be a Sunday dedicated to our freedom to use the pulpit for political speech in defiance of the IRS and in view of our tax exempt privileges as a 501c3 non-profit religious entity. The organizers would have us review the qualifications of the candidates in view of the Scriptures and declare which ones are the godly choice. Suffice it to say that our churches in the LCMS do not participate in such stunts. Oh we are perfectly free to criticize the government on Scriptural grounds on any given Sunday and all the other days in between. And we are also free to pray for those in government office. And, if we were to evaluate all the candidates in the basis of Scripture, we’d have to toss the whole lot of them and get a new batch.
Instead, we will use our freedom in the pulpit this Sunday to speak about freedom, the freedom we have in Christ. Whether that is legal or illegal in this country, or whether it jeopardizes our tax-exempt status with the IRS or not, I really could not care less.
I’m drawn to the epistle this morning from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote this letter during one of the many times Paul was in prison. The Philippian congregation, which Paul had founded, had sent a nice gift to Paul by a man named Epaphroditus, and now Paul was sending back a letter of thanks and encouragement. The letter to the Philippians. It’s a joyful letter, probably one of Paul’s most upbeat and joyous letters we have. The word “rejoice” occurs over and over again, Paul can’t seem to say it enough. Aside from a couple of women who are arguing over something, there doesn’t seem to be any major problems in the congregation. Hence, a joyful letter.
Chapter 3, our reading this morning, has been victimized by the hack and slash of the editors who have unceremoniously lopped off the first three verses, so let me fill them in for you. Phil. 3:1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. (There’s that “rejoicing” word again.) To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
Phil. 3:2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also.
And so you see what the danger is. There are those lurking around the congregations telling people that they must be circumcised in order to be true blue Christians. Baptism was nice but not enough. Now if you were a Jewish believer, no problem. Circumcision was taken care of before you knew any better. On the eighth day of your life as a baby boy in Israel. But if you were a Gentile, one of the goyim, now that’s another story. And so Paul refers rather derisively to those “mutilators,” hardly a nice politically correct way of referring to things. And he goes on to say that we, baptized believers, whether circumcised or not, are the true circumcision, that is, God’s true Israel, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh.
“Confidence in the flesh” refers to the things we do, because what we do happens “in the flesh.” Those who live by the Spirit live by faith and not by works, they glorify in Christ and not in themselves and what they do, no matter how good and religious it might be.
And then Paul engages in what amounts to quite a rhetorical flourish, calling up his entire past in Judaism, and what a past it was. If you want to put confidence in the flesh, well Paul would have even more reason. He was a card-carrying Israelite. Circumcised on the 8th day of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin. In a day when people’s genealogical records were a bit muddy, Paul had the papers to prove it. He was a certified “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a son of the covenant, the real deal. As to Torah, a Pharisee. And what a Pharisee he was, trained at the feet of the great Rabbi Gamaliel, advancing far ahead of his class. And talk about zeal, he was a persecutor of the church. When Jesus found him on the road to Damascus, he was going with arrest warrants to round up Christians in the synagogues and haul them back to Jerusalem. As to righteousness under the law, blameless, he says. He kept Torah, at least the Pharisaical version of it with its 613 dos and donts. He was a good man, a zealous man, a religious man.
And now listen to this: “What gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” His whole past – his training, his religion, his upbringing, his education, everything, the feast, the fasts, the festivals, everything he had as a pharisaical Jew he counted as loss for the sake of Christ. “Indeed,” he goes on, “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 rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Torah, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith and not on works, on what God does and not on what we do, on what Jesus has done for us and not on what we do for Jesus.
I’m not sure that those of us who were born into Christian families, even nominally Christian families, can begin to appreciate what Paul is saying much less what he went through. This man lost his religion. He lost everything he had that defined him. He thought he was doing the will of God by rounding up people who confessed Jesus to be the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. He thought he was doing the will of God by keeping the rules and regulations that the Pharisees extracted from the Torah. He thought he was an upstanding, card-carrying, obedient son of Israel and that God was pleased with him. And he discovered on the road to Damascus that he was persecuting his Lord and Savior. He was wrong. His religious beliefs were wrong. His worldview was wrong. No wonder he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The Lord wanted to show him just how blind he was.
Paul’s life was changed. He was being groomed for the highest rank among the rabbis. He was one of the promising young up and coming teachers of the Torah. He was going to be big, maybe as big as Gamaliel himself. And now he sits in prison and has people coming to him with gifts. This Hebrew of Hebrew, this Pharisee of Pharisees was now a prisoner for Jesus. And he counts it all as rubbish, dung, garbage, that colorful Greek word skubala, which was likely a word that you taught your kids not to say.
That’s what all the religion in the world amounts to. Garbage. Dung. The raw sewage of our attempts to justify ourselves. The effluent of our attempts to atone for our own sins and be right with God on our terms. It’s not about what we accomplish but what Christ has accomplished. It’s not about us covering ourselves, but our being clothed with Christ, with His righteousness that He won for us by His perfect obedience, His suffering and His death. It’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him, of knowing the power of His resurrection, knowing that not even death itself can separate us from God’s love in Christ. It’s about sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like Him in His death. Forget all this nonsense you hear about living the “victorious life.” This is the victorious life, that you share in the sufferings of Christ and become like Him in His shameful and despised death.
In our Gospel parable this morning, the wicked tenants killed the son in the hope of inheriting the land. The tenants represent religious Israel. They rejected their messiah, the cornerstone God had laid for His temple. And so they also lost their land to other tenants. And have you noticed? Even today, the Jewish people cannot maintain their hold on the land. It’s been let out to other tenants including some Palestinian Christians. And no amount of political maneuvering and military might and US dollars are going change that. Hmmm. I seem to have made a political point. Oh well, it’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday, isn’t it?
It’s hard to lose your religion. To shed your cherished beliefs. Think of how upset we get when we find out that one of our favorite religious songs is full of bad theology. Or that one of our fine and venerable traditions is off the mark and in need of reformation. Imagine Paul. He believed the Torah was a Torah of works by which you became righteous before God. He discovered that it is a Torah of faith and that we uphold the law not by doing but by believing, not by our works but by our faith in the atoning, sacrificial blood of Jesus.
Now Paul could have wallowed in the past. He could have beat himself up. He could have agonized over all those people he had unjustly arrested thinking he was doing the will of God. But instead, he simply leaves the past behind. He’s like a runner pressing on toward the finish line. Runners don’t look back over the shoulder to see where they’ve gone. If they do, they’ll trip over their own two feet. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
How many of us here today are chained by our past? Past sins, past failings, past grievances. To let the past rule the present is a harsh form of slavery. Paul may have been in prison, but he was a free man in Christ because Christ freed him from his past, not only the shackles of his religion but the chains of Sin and Death. We all have a past. Wrongs we have done. Injuries inflicted on us, injuries we have inflicted on others. Our Sin in so many indescribably ways. We have things in our past that we are ashamed of, that we avoid talking about, that we never want even brought to the light of day.
But running the race of faith is not running away from the past. It’s letting go of the past. Forgetting what lies behind because God in Christ has forgiven it and remember it no more. You are free from your past in Jesus. That’s what His death and life have done for you. You are free from everything of your past. You are not defined by who you were or what you did. You are free to live in Christ, to be found in Him, to know the power of His resurrection, to share in His suffering, to be like Him in His death, and finally to attain to the one thing that holds forever: the resurrection of the dead.
That’s finish line. You are free in Christ to run the race that is set before you, not looking behind, not running away from your past, but running toward a sure and certain future filled with resurrection and life. Don’t let your past define your present. Let the future define your present. And the future is defined by the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Leave the past for what it is – a big steaming pile of skubala. Instead, press forward, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of your faith. You won’t go wrong and you won’t stray off course with your eyes fixed on dead and risen Jesus. And that’s not Jesus in your thoughts, feelings, and prayers. But Jesus in the preached Word, in the sacrament, in the gathering of His church, where two or three are gathered in His name. That’s what you can see and hear. Keep your eyes and ears fixed on that Jesus.
To know Christ, to know power of His resurrection, to share in His sufferings and be like Him in His death, that’s true freedom. True pulpit freedom. And compared to Jesus Christ, everything we do amounts to so much skubala.
In the name of Jesus,