Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 13th of Third Month, 2022
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Philippians 3:7-14
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 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 9 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. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
When I was a child we lived in Chicago for a few years, on the city’s south side, and one of the many treasures of our neighborhood was the Museum of Science and Industry. That museum had (and still has) many wondrous things, especially to a child of six or seven, as any of you who have been there can probably also testify. What I am remembering today, though, was something relatively small and commonplace.The museum had a display of a small hologram, a laser-generated image that was projected onto a short child-height pedestal, so that it seemed to be a solid object, floating a few inches above the pedestal’s surface. I think I remember that it would rotate slowly, but I don’t really remember what the image was, what the object appeared to be. What I do remember was that it looked convincing enough that people my age tried to reach out and grab it. We were, of course, always frustrated. It was an odd feeling, to close your fingers around something that looked like it was solid, that should have been there, but clearly wasn’t. It was an odd-enough feeling that I would often go back to that display on later museum visits, to try again, even though I knew that my effort would be for naught.
At times, I feel like the life of the spirit is like standing at that hologram display: an experience of continual grasping that is never satisfied. I reach towards something that I think I can close my fingers around, and then find that the reality that I thought was there actually originates somewhere else—that what I can sense is actually just an indicator of something greater and more complex beyond it, as a hologram is to the laser that generates it. (And it’s probably a good thing that children like me never found that laser; it was probably safely tucked away in the ceiling, or somewhere like that...)
The Apostle Paul, in today’s passage from his letter to the Philippians, tells us something about this process of reaching out, or of pressing on, as he puts it, to make spiritual knowledge his own. But where we began reading, he’s talking about loss, about losing things, about letting them fall away: “...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ...” (v7). In fact, he says, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (v8). Now, Paul was not a rich man, at least not by the time he wrote this letter; in fact, he wrote this letter from prison, possibly in Rome, possibly elsewhere, which he mentions in chap. 1 (vv12–14). But the loss that he’s speaking of here is not primarily the loss of riches or any other material thing; those may have been included, but if we had started reading a little earlier in chap. 3, we would see that he mentions what he calls a “confidence in the flesh” (v4), a confidence in outward righteousness: these were things that were his as an observant and righteous Jew. He had spiritual status and privilege that came to him by his position in the tradition to which he was born. And we know from various New Testament sources that his zeal for this tradition was such that he actually persecuted the Jesus movement before God blinded him and knocked him down on the road to Damascus. All of those spiritual possessions, all of the outward righteousness that Paul knew before his encounter with Christ, are rubbish, he says here.
And in place of those things, there's a new way of being that he is testifying to in this passage. All of that loss comes with the gain of a new relationship with God in Christ. He goes on to say that he wants to be “found in [Christ], 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” (v9).
In my recent messages I’ve been trying to center on faith and faithfulness, what it means for God to be faithful, and what it means for us to be faithful. Remembering that, I want to focus for a little while on what Paul says about faith in v9. The central phrase there is “faith in Christ,” a phrase that occurs a number of times in Paul’s letters, mostly in Romans and Galatians, but also here. In the Greek, there are just two words, the word for faith and the word for Christ, and so translators have to infer the preposition that connects them for it to make sense to us in English. Usually, it’s translated “faith in Christ”, as we read it this morning, so we are meant to think of the faith of the individual believer in Christ; it is the faith that we have, that any one of us may have, that confers an inward righteousness, a “righteousness from God”, as Paul writes. But in recent years a number of interpreters have suggested that instead of “faith in Christ,” it may be more fitting to read here the “faith of Christ.” Read that way, the focus is not on my faith in God as the important factor, but rather on Christ’s faith, on what God does to confer righteousness. (And when I say, “confer righteousness”, that’s maybe a bit too hoity toity. When I say confer righteousness, I simply mean, make one with God. Take away the barriers that we have in our hearts or in our lives that keep us from being in unity with God. That's what I mean by conferring righteousness.)
So if we read it, “the faith of Christ”, the focus is not on my faith in God, but rather on Christ's faith, on what God does, rather than what I can do for myself. And here is where faithfulness comes back into the picture: we know the faith of Christ primarily through Christ’s faith-full-ness. Remember the last time I spoke, when we read the story of Jesus praying at the Mount of Olives from the Gospel of Luke: he kneels there and asks his Father, “if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Remember that “yet,” the fulcrum on which Jesus balances and then turns towards God’s will being done. In Jesus turning his own will towards God, becoming fully willing to go to the cross, we see the faithfulness of Christ; this faithfulness, I think, is what Paul is naming as “the righteousness from God based on faith”.
Emphasizing the faith of Christ over an individual faith in Christ fits with other parts of the New Testament witness. I think of the first letter of John: “We love because he first loved us” (4:19). John testifies that God makes the first move, while we are perhaps even unaware of that movement, while we are still absorbed with self and sin; God, in a motion of merciful love, makes us God’s own. And then we grow into that relationship by learning to love as God loves, by learning to trust as Christ trusts; the faith that we hope to acquire is modeled on Christ’s faithfulness, rather than anything righteous that might come from us.
On the cover of this morning’s bulletin, we put v12 from this passage, where Paul speaks of “mak[ing] it my own” and “being made his own”, being made Christ’s own. This language put me in mind of a story that I remember Patrick Nugent telling about Ann Miller. Some of you may remember Ann, who once taught at ESR, during which time she and her husband John were members here. As Patrick tells it, there was a Sunday morning at West Richmond when the choir had sung the African song, “He Is Mine.” (Some of you probably remember this song; in English, it goes, “He is mine / He is mine / He is mine / Jesus is mine...”)So the choir sang that song, and then later that morning, Ann stood in open worship to say that she was not easy with the claim of the song, because it evoked for her a privatistic kind of piety, something self-centered, as if any of us could possess God. So she wasn’t comfortable testifying, “He is mine.” But, she went on, “with the help of God, I am his.”
So: with the help of God, we belong to God. God is not our own, we are God’s own. We love because God first loved us. It is not our faith in Christ that is decisive, it is the faith of Christ that enables us to grow into righteousness; that enables us to move past whatever barriers there may be in our hearts, or in our lives , or in our situations, to be more fully united with God.
Now, one thing that is still not settled for me, and perhaps not for you either (and not for Paul —Paul says, “I press on towards this, I have not made it there yet, I'm still working on this. ” We're all still working on this!) So the question for me is, “how much of this is mine to do, and how much of this is God’s, if it really is about Christ's faith and not my faith in Christ?”
Paul’s language in the second half of the passage evokes tremendous effort: he speaks of “reach[ing] the goal... press[ing] on... straining forward to what lies ahead... [again] press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God...” (vv12–14). There’s a lot of doing in that second part of the passage. But even with all that, I wonder how much of this involves such strain?
Because I think there is a paradox at the heart of this matter, and that is that the more we strive to possess spiritual knowledge, this knowledge, as Paul puts it, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings”; the more we strain for that, the more we will miss it. The paradox is that we do not come into the faith of Christ by grasping at it like a child grasping at a hologram. The faith of Christ is not a possession that we can acquire if we just try hard enough. Rather, we make the faith of Christ our own by following the pattern of Christ’s faithfulness. We do this by letting go.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we do nothing, and God will do everything. Just this week, I had someone come to talk to me because they really wanted to spend more time learning Scripture, spend more time with various parts of the Bible, and absorbing that into their own spiritual practice. And we spent a good hour talking about how they might do that. I didn't say, “Well, you know, don't worry about it, because God will do it for you,” because that's not how it works! Spiritual disciplines, prayer, Scripture, regular practice are important for us in our spiritual lives. So it's not that we do nothing; it has to do with the the attitude with which we engage in these practices. We're not doing any of these things to build up something in ourselves that we can claim to credit. We need to do things that will be for our spiritual benefit with the same self-emptying that is the faithfulness of Christ.
And this self-emptying is shown in the previous chapter of Philippians; in chap. 2, Paul describes this process of Jesus pouring himself out—again, on the fulcrum of “not my will, but thine be done…” Paul writes of Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [or something to be grasped at] but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8)
This process, while it does not result in death on a cross for us, is yet the pattern for knowing the faith of Christ.
This process requires empty hands that are done with grasping.
This process requires a quiet heart, ready to let go of whatever God asks us to let go.
This process requires a will poised on the fulcrum of “yet,” ready to tip towards “thy will, and not mine”, being done.
In the quiet that lies before us, God invites us to this process of self-emptying. In the quiet that lies before us, God invites us to know the faith and the faithfulness of Christ. Let us offer our empty hands, our quiet hearts, and our poised wills to God in the quiet.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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