An Open Table where Love knows no borders

What Matters Most?

A sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 by Nathan Nettleton

One of the things that is most difficult about seeking to live Christianly is that the more fully you manage to do it the less likely you are to be patted on the back and congratulated by anybody else, including most of your friends in the church. Christian faith and Christian lifestyle run so counter the values that almost everyone has been raised on, that even most church people find it disorienting, if not down-right unattractive. The more genuinely Christ-like you become, the more you will find yourself regarded either with suspicion, or with a sort of patronising ambivalence: “She’s so lovely and gracious, but I’d never want to live the way she lives.”

I hope you’re not too upset that I say you’ll get this reaction in the church too, but you see, the church as we experience it is a human institution that consists of a mix of those who have experienced Christ’s love and mercy and are passionately seeking to follow him in gratitude, and those who are making no significant response to Christ but who for a range of social, political, psychological or familial reasons find it useful to associate with the church.

Now most of us, of course, think we’re in the first group, although if even half of us are we’re probably above average here, but let me make it clear, that none of us are here for pure motives. No matter how genuine you are, you are still a mixture of both, and many church people who have no relationship with Christ at all still contribute an enormous amount to the life of the church and we would be much the poorer if they all went home.

It does mean though, that at any given time, you, as one who is being genuinely transformed by the love and mercy of God in Christ, and who is passionately committed to doing whatever it takes to representing Christ in the world today; you are not only part of a minority, even inside the church, but you are also constantly surrounded by a culture which values and rewards other things, and which in its church version is even very proficient at dressing those values up in Christian guise and making them look like fundamental tenants of our religion.

This has always been so, and it is into exactly such a predicament that Paul wrote the words we heard from his letter to the church at Philippi. Christianity, as you are probably aware, began in a Jewish context, and so was initially seen as a sect of Judaism. The first Christians were all Jews, but within a generation, gentile, or non-Jewish churches began springing up all over the place and the church at Philippi was one of them.

Now the Jews had always had some distinctive features to their dress codes, dietary codes and to their codes about what to do with the bit of skin round the end of the penis, and so once the gentile churches began springing up there was soon a heated debate about whether gentile believers were bound by such Jewish practices.

Paul, in a number of his letters, is quite scathing in his critique of those who wanted these practices enforced in all the churches. In Galatians he sarcastically wishes they’d slip with the knife and emasculate themselves completely, and here in Philippians he says he thinks these things that are so important to them are all crap. Our translation rather demurely translates it as garbage, but the actual Greek word that Paul used was the word for human excrement. Always a very restrained and polite sort of fellow, our Paul.

But notice the basis on which he dismisses them here. He describes them as trusting in the flesh, trusting in externals, for your righteousness in the eyes of God. And notice that its not just circumcision he dismisses, but the very core of not only Judaism, but every major religious system in the world, including the conventional practice of Christianity. He points out that if the externals counted, he himself would be top of the tree, not only because of his circumcision and his pedigree, but because of his rigorous adherence to the religious law and his zealous championing of his religious code in the face of even its opponents.

Now he says, I count it all as worthless, as mere crap, if anything, as an impediment to what really matters and that is knowing Jesus Christ. Well, no wonder Paul had so many enemies among the religious leaders of his day, but if we hear him out, I don’t think he’ll win too many friends in today’s church either. Because you can translate him into any stream of the Christian church today and there is no difficulty identifying the things that get recognised and affirmed as valuable for Christians; as the important distinguishing marks of the real Christian; and then hearing Paul dismiss them as crap.

When I was 17, I needed to hear Paul saying “I speak in tongues more than any of you and I witness to scores of people every day, and I’ve burned all my non-Christian records, but now I count it all crap, so that I may know Christ and be completely united with him.”

I don’t think I heard it, but when I was 20 the goal posts had shifted and I needed to hear Paul saying, “I have memorised the entire book of Romans and I can give you an accurate summary of what the Bible says about every imaginable human behaviour. What’s more I keep myself pure by rigorously avoiding all temptation, especially sex. But now I count it all crap, so that I may know Christ and be completely united with him.”

I don’t think I heard it, but when I was 25, I had moved into a different group and I needed to hear Paul say, “I live in Christian community, and I belong to Amnesty International, the Wilderness Society and People for Nuclear Disarmament. What’s more I have an honours degree in Theology and I can prove the fundamentalists wrong on just about anything you care to name. But now I count it all crap, so that I may know Christ and be completely united with him.”

I don’t think I heard it, but when I was 30, I’d been employed as a minister at the House of Hope for a few years and I needed to hear Paul say, “My churches are growing and the people in them are discovering and exercising their gifts. We have a broad cross section of people including a many who would be excluded by most churches and we have a significant social outreach program. But now I count it all crap, so that I may know Christ and be completely united with him.”

I don’t think I heard it, but then I came here to South Yarra and I’m all better now! Actually the scary thing is that perhaps for the first time in my life I’m actually hearing Paul now but I’m no less prone to falling for a new version of it that just values different things again. Please, someone, if you can see me just getting caught up on a new set of externals, kick me up the bum and tell me if I need to here Paul saying, “I get up early in the morning to pray. My clothes reek of incense and the knees of my jeans are worn out from kneeling in prayer. But now I count it all crap, so that I may know Christ and be completely united with him.”

It is quite easy to put on a display of prayerfulness that convinces everyone except God while still remaining completely closed in the heart and not allowing any genuine intimacy with the Spirit of Christ. However, if you are looking for another area to look good while still avoiding the claims of Christ on your life, I don’t recommend this one because when you regularly stop still and silent long enough to put on a good appearance of prayer, it gets increasingly hard to shut out the insistent whispers of the Spirit of Christ. All the usual noise and hustle and stress that we use to drown out the call is gone. You can still do it though, but there are much easier ways.

There is all the difference in the world between knowing Christ and knowing about Christ. Just like you can read hundreds of magazine features about Princess Di, but if you were ever to start getting to know her, you would still have to start pretty much from scratch.

Knowing about Christ is easy and much more socially rewarding because you can display it and in the right circles you will be greatly esteemed for it. But getting to know Christ is another matter all together. It’s scary because he keeps seeing through the crap and you can’t get away with any pretence. And he keeps asking you to follow him and you know where he ended up. Hated by the leaders, abandoned by his friends, publicly humiliated by strangers, hung up naked and tortured to death, and buried in a borrowed grave. “Come, follow me!” Yeah, thanks!

Getting to know Christ wins you no friends and no admiration because most the time you spend on getting to know him is time that will be seen as wasted by everybody else. Unproductive, inactive, useless. Even the church people will say, “What have you done for the kingdom? What acts of service have you carried out? What have you done for the church?” Nothing!

Getting to know Christ is painful. Christ is the pain-bearer, and when you get close to the pain-bearer you begin to feel what he feels. The pain, the brokenness, the weight of the sin and sickness of all humanity. The anguish that had him sweating blood in the garden, and screaming at the horror of utter abandonment on the cross. Knowing Christ does not protect you from pain – if anything it exacerbates it – but it does redeem it from meaninglessness. It does transform it into a means to an end, a pathway to resurrection, a seed bed from which new life is born.

And so Paul says, “All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life.”

I’m a relative beginner at this stuff. I’ve got a terrific collection of Paul’s externals, the trusting in the flesh. I can look very Christian and like I’ve got it all together. I can even do a good job as a pastor in helping a church to look quite impressive and active and growing and all that. But I haven’t done a good job of leading anyone into any depth of relationship with the living Christ, because I haven’t travelled enough of that road myself. Now I need and want to hear what Paul says here and put it all behind me and strive to reach what is ahead, to run straight towards the goal in order to win the prize, which is the heavenly call of god in Christ Jesus.

I can’t tell you much about that road, but what little of it I have seen gives me confidence that Paul knew what he was talking about when he said that everything else I have ever achieved is mere crap by comparison. And so I want to press ahead on that journey, and I hope I’ll have you as a travelling companion. If you want to join me I’d love to speak with you some time soon, and we can share our hopes and dreams and discuss how we can support and encourage each other as we strive towards the prize Jesus has in store for us, to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.


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