Is the Apostle Paul bragging? Just listen to him! “If anyone else has reason to boast, I have more.” There’s that comparison word again! The reason that Paul has any basis for boasting is by comparing himself to others and considering himself better than others. If I were to do that, my confidence in the flesh would go something like this: I was baptized as an infant, a member of the Lutheran Church, of the Protestant tradition, a Christian born of Christians, a pastor, as to zeal, an advocate for justice, as to being in right relationships, blameless. This last bit of information is a little exaggerated, but being blameless sounds good—almost as good as being perfect.
Well, you and I both know that none of us is perfect or complete on our own. Paul also is quick to acknowledge this reality for himself. For as much as he has every reason to boast, he considers everything as a loss because what is important to him is knowing Christ Jesus as the One who rules in his life. His trusting relationship with Jesus Christ supersedes anything else about his identity and takes precedence over anything that he does that might contribute to his righteousness before God. According to Paul, everything about which he has cause to brag in his life is rubbish. Now, I am not so sure that I am ready to go that far, but I get Paul’s point that compared to his trusting relationship with Jesus, the importance of everything else in his life pales in comparison.
This insight is closely aligned with God’s first commandment to the people of Israel and Judah: You shall have no other gods before me. Yes, you may have all kinds of loyalties in your life—your family, your country, your church, your financial security, your favorite sports team, or your freedom—but remember that your first and foremost loyalty is to God, and more specifically if you have decided to follow Jesus, to Jesus himself. Just as God initiated and entered into a covenant relationship with Israel and Judah, so also Jesus is the one who has made us his own in our baptism and has accepted us into a right relationship under God’s grace—which is another description for God’s salvation. Therefore, our salvation is a given, and all that we have to do in response is work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul stated in our second lesson for last Sunday.
In our second lesson for today, Paul continues to use similar language about what our role and responsibility might be in response to God’s gift of grace. All of this language about gaining Christ, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, attaining the resurrection from the dead, straining forward to what lies ahead, and pressing on toward the goal and prize of our heavenly call makes it sound like we have to do so much to achieve our own heavenly reward. How does this language jive with what we have been taught since our childhood about being saved by God’s grace alone and being able to do nothing to earn God’s favor or our salvation?
Perhaps this lesson for today is a perfect example about how reading a passage in the middle of one of Paul’s letters without connecting it to what has been written at the beginning of the letter can be a cause for some misunderstanding. You see, this letter to the Philippians begins with an emphasis on God’s grace and all that God has done for us and through us before we ever have an opportunity to respond. According to Paul, God is the one who has begun a good work among us, and who will bring this good work to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. God is the one who will present us pure and blameless on the day of Jesus Christ. God is the one who has graciously granted us the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but also of suffering for him.
Throughout our lifetime, Paul affirms that God’s grace is sufficient and that our salvation is secure. How then are we to respond? What then do we do to make sure that God’s grace and salvation are not in vain? If we are grateful for this bountiful gift, then how do we express and demonstrate our gratitude? What can we do to carry on with Jesus’ testimony and witness to the good news of God’s reign on this earth? How do we extend God’s salvation in the form of justice, righteousness, reconciliation, and peace to the rest of the world without being deterred by the cost of such faithful discipleship?
One statement in this passage that speaks to me most strongly and gives me the greatest amount of hope in this regard is Paul’s declaration, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” The conviction that Jesus had been raised by God from the dead—whether taken literally or spiritually—was the basis for the disciples’ radical transformation and their willingness to lay down their swords and shields by the lakeside and take the word of God and the cross of Jesus Christ into all the world with the message of God’s inclusive love, God’s gracious forgiveness, God’s equitable justice, and God’s abiding peace. There is power in Jesus’ resurrection, and Paul knows that whatever suffering he might endure in this life as a direct result of his witness to Jesus will be more palatable if he can trust that he will attain the resurrection from the dead just as Jesus was raised by God from the dead.
You and I—we already have received the power of this resurrection in our baptism. As infants we may not have felt this power because at the time we had no cognitive awareness of what was happening to us except for feeling a few drops of water being splashed on our forehead. However, now that we have faith in Christ and have grown to trust in the presence of Jesus’ Spirit in our lives, whatever power that was bestowed upon us in our baptism becomes a much greater reality for us in the here and now. This power is much more than a feeling that may come and go depending upon the whim of the day. This power is a permanent reality in our lives that we can claim as our own any time of day or night in order to help us be better, stronger, and more faithful disciples of the One whom we have chosen to call our Messiah.
I experienced the power of this resurrection a couple of times this past week as I witnessed people from many different Christian perspectives as well as people from many different walks of life come together around a common purpose for the common good of humankind. The first experience of this transformation took place at a 2-day conference on Christ and Cascadia—Cascadia being the name given to the region west of the Cascades from north of Vancouver, BC to the Willamette Valley in the state of Oregon. This conference that was sponsored by Fuller Theological Seminary in Seattle brought together conservative and progressive Christians to explore how we might be more engaged with the people in our region who don’t necessarily want anything to do with the institutional church, but who are receptive to collaboration with the church for the common good of humankind. I was impressed by this emphasis on engagement with the people of our culture because even conservative Christians are coming to realize that God already has saved everyone and doesn’t require a conversion to faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
The second experience of this transformative power of the resurrection took place at a roundtable discussion at University Temple where people came together in order to figure out some solutions for the homeless people who have been camped out in front of the University District Post Office for the past 3 weeks. Eighteen years ago, after I had just arrived as your pastor, the University District Chamber of Commerce applied to the city for the purpose of establishing a Business Improvement Association in the U District—otherwise known as a BIA. All of the religious leaders at that time, except for the pastor of University Presbyterian, opposed the formation of the BIA because we perceived that this request simply was a way for business owners to hire extra police to walk the Ave, clear all of the homeless youth off of the streets, and tell them to go somewhere else in the city to squat.
Sitting around the table at this meeting on Thursday morning were representatives of the University District Partnership, which has replaced the U District Chamber of Commerce, as well as representatives of the police department, the University of Washington, the mayor’s office, the city’s Health & Human Services Department, and the faith community. At least 6 members of the encampment also were present. For an hour and a half we all were working together to figure out how to accommodate the people of this encampment in the U District—a far cry from the attitude of 18 years ago when the business community simply wanted to chase these homeless people out of town. In this case, the power of the resurrection has been made evident in this shift from constraint and condemnation of homeless people to collaboration and cooperation with them.
How have you experienced the power of the resurrection in your life this past week? What signs have you seen that let you know that the resurrection of Christ is still happening in this world? What have you done to contribute to this resurrection? How have you been in cooperation with others for the common good of humankind? These are the experiences that give us the hope that the Spirit of God is still at work and at play among us to make all things new and to gather all things in heaven and on earth in a single peace.
I was reminded of another witness to this resurrection power yesterday at the Church Council of Greater Seattle Conference on “Weaving Our Strengths” when we were reminded that today is World Communion Sunday—a day when we celebrate and give witness to our unity in Jesus Christ through the resurrection power of this holy meal. The presence of Jesus Christ in this bread and fruit of the vine is what unites all of us throughout the world who put our trust in God and who choose to follow in the way of Jesus.
As Micheal Kinnamon said in his workshop yesterday, “This unity is totally a gift of God that gives us the power to be in community with one another with all of our diversity, our differences, our disagreements, our dissensions, and even our divisions." We are made one in Jesus Christ over and over again every time that we partake of this holy meal. Such is the purpose and the power of God’s grace and salvation that we not only can claim as our own, but also can proclaim to all the world as God’s gift to humankind. As we live, suffer, and die to make this unifying salvation known to all the world, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, the cornerstone of our life together. Amen.