In the US when you meet someone you introduce yourself, “My name is Jack, what’s yours?” And then there are two questions that follow. “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” (I understand that the British are not as forthright as this. Getting at “what you do” is a more indirect proposition.) (In Ghana you ask first, “How are you doing?” and even this is asked by the older person. Then, if the older person wants, he or she can ask for more details about you.) (In Cameron, the first question asked is, “How did you sleep?”)
I love cultural differences. This simple question, “What is the first thing you say when you meet someone?” tells a lot about the culture of that part of the world. The differences between cultures are fascinating. For the sake of this sermon introduction, let me focus on US culture. Why are “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” the two questions we ask?
The first is a question that seeks connection. If someone tells me they are from the US state of Pennsylvania, I will ask, “Where in Pennsylvania?” I was born in central Pennsylvania and have lived close to the eastern and western borders of Pennsylvania. I want to see if they are from a place where I have been. If someone tells me they are from Germany I ask them what city because I lived in Hamburg for a year when I was 18. Even though I lived in Hamburg long before the person I am talking with was born, it still feels good to make a connection. We like it if someone has visited our country. We like it if we have been to the place where someone is from. It makes us feel connected.
The second question, “What do you do?” is focused on identity. We want to know who the person is that we are talking with.
The problem with this second question is that we think the answer we receive will tell us what we want to know. We want to know who the person is. Does what they do tell us who they are?
There is a radio program in the US that I listen to most Sunday afternoons after church. “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is a clever program with an entertaining panel who answer questions about the news. There are a couple segments in the show where listeners call in and have to answer questions. Peter Segal, the host, asks them who they are and where they are from. They tell him their name and the city and state where they live. Peter Segal makes comments about where this is and tells them if he knows this city. Then he asks them, “What do you do there?”
If the answer is, “I teach yoga” or “I am a teacher” or “I am a cook,” there is an enthusiastic response. “That’s wonderful!” If the radio caller says he or she is a lawyer, there are some disparaging remarks about lawyers. A couple times the radio caller said he or she was a pastor and there was silence. It is clear that Peter Segal does not think much of pastors. Peter Segal thinks he knows who a person is by what they do and he runs what they do through his filter of what he thinks of various professions.
A lawyer could be someone who will say anything and do anything to win a case without any concern for the people involved. Or a lawyer could be someone who cares deeply and passionately about justice and seeks justice in every case that comes to him or her. “I am a lawyer” does not say as much as we might think about who that person is.
When I meet someone who asks me what I do and I tell them I am pastor of Rabat International Church, there is often a silence and a roll of the eyes that tells me what that person thinks about pastors, the church, and faith in Jesus. Do they know who I am? No. Who they know is someone from their past or someone they have read about in the news. They do not know me. If they get to know me, I might reinforce their negative perception about pastors and the church, or I might challenge their assumptions. It depends on who I am which is far more complicated than what I do.
The reason I am talking about this is because in Paul’s Philippians letter, we come to a discussion of who Paul is. Paul presents his credentials, where he came from, what he accomplished in his life, and then he tells us how he views those accomplishments.
Last week I talked about religion vs relationship. I talked about how religion institutionalizes an experience with God and turns it into a system of rules and regulations to be obeyed. A relationship with Jesus, on the other hand, transforms the heart and behavior comes out of the transformed heart. When the emphasis is put on the behavior rather than the relationship, we enter into institutional religion which deadens the spirit.
This morning we continue from the text from last week. Paul wrote:
Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
Paul had reason for putting confidence in the flesh, confidence in where he had come from and what he had accomplished. What was that?
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
Unsurprisingly, Paul begins with his being circumcised. He is attacking the Judaizers who tried to impose observance of the Law of Moses on Gentile followers of Jesus. They insisted that Gentile followers of Jesus be circumcised. Paul tells them that he was circumcised eight days after he was born, in conformity to Jewish law. He was “of the people of Israel.” He was born a Jew, one of the chosen people of God, a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was “of the tribe of Benjamin.” Not only was he born a Jew but he was from the tribe of Benjamin.
The tribe of Benjamin had a favored status in the tribes of Israel. Benjamin was the second son of Jacob’s most loved wife, Rachel. Unfortunately, Jacob did not love all his children equally. He clearly preferred Joseph and his younger brother, Benjamin. When Moses blessed the tribes of Israel before his death, he had a special blessing for the tribe of Benjamin. (Deuteronomy 33:12)
About Benjamin he said:
“Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him,
for he shields him all day long,
and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.”
The first king of Israel came from the tribe of Benjamin. Paul’s Hebrew name was taken from this first king, Saul. When Israel split into the northern and southern kingdoms after the death of Solomon, only the tribe of Benjamin stayed with the tribe of Judah in the southern kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital.
Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He was, in every way, a Hebrew, born of pure Hebrew stock.
This is Paul’s pedigree. This is Paul’s heritage. This is where Paul came from. He did not do anything to earn or deserve this, it was a consequence of who his mother and father were. But there is a ring of pride as Paul recounts his pedigree.
Now, as Paul continues to list his credentials, we move on to what Paul accomplished with this pedigree.
in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
First, Paul was a Pharisee. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul said, (Acts 26:4–5)
“The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.
And in Galatians 1:14 Paul writes:
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
Paul was not just a Pharisee; he was an exceptional Pharisee.
It was important for Paul to write about his status as a Pharisee because the evidence suggests that the Judaizers who were urging the followers of Jesus in Philippi to conform to the Law of Moses were also Pharisees.
This sets the stage for the next items on Paul’s list of credentials.
6 as for zeal, persecuting the church;
This sounds a bit strange for us to read that Paul lists his zeal that led to his persecution of the followers of Jesus as a credential, but what Paul is saying is that he was no ordinary Pharisee. Gordon Fee writes, “his zeal for the Law was demonstrated most surely by his untiring dedication to stamping out the nascent Christian movement, probably related to his conviction that God had especially cursed Jesus by having him hanged.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 21:23 that Paul quoted in his Galatians letter: “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” Paul, the Pharisee, was convinced that the death of Jesus was proof that he had been cursed by God and could not be who the followers of Jesus said he was.
And then Paul tops off his credentials with this:
as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
This is the climax of Paul’s credentials. This is what everything else has pointed to. Paul was devoted to the Law of Moses. He did not take shortcuts. He did not observe the Law only when people were looking. He knew the Law and he obeyed it. If you had challenged Paul on some detail of the Law he could have given you an exhaustive discussion about that part of the Law. He did everything the Law required.
He was a Hebrew of Hebrews and he was a Pharisee of Pharisees. He had been more of a Pharisee than any of the Pharisees who came to Philippi to insist that the Gentile followers of Jesus conform to the Law of Moses. He stood above them in his zealousness. His credentials were impeccable.
Paul’s list of credentials and accomplishments stands in contrast to the example of Jesus.
In the poem of Jesus in chapter two, Jesus descended.
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Jesus emptied himself of all his heavenly privileges and descended to death, abandoned by his friends, betrayed by one disciple, disowned by another, and found himself separated from God the Father and God the Spirit.
In contrast, in Paul’s list of his pedigree and accomplishments, he ascended.
faultless in following the Law
zeal that led to persecution of the church
a Hebrew of Hebrews
the tribe of Benjamin
the people of Israel
circumcised on the eighth day
Jesus humbled himself as he descended. Paul rose from success to success to stand at the top of his world with a very promising future.
From the world’s perspective, who was successful and who was a failure?
Jesus fell from heaven and went all the way to a shameful death on the cross. Jesus descended and landed on a cross, a failure. His disciples deserted him, denied him, betrayed him. His followers scattered. This promising leader, healer, miracle worker, teacher, was arrested, beaten, humiliated, shamefully crucified, and laid in a tomb to return to the dust from which he had been made. The work of Jesus was for nothing. His movement had been crushed. He would become a footnote in history.
Paul, on the other hand, rose from a brilliant pedigree, studied under the famed and well-respected rabbi, Gamaliel. He was a prized student of Gamaliel. He was given the honor of persecuting the followers of Jesus, to rid Jews of the trouble makers who were trampling on the Law of Moses. Paul was successful and heading toward even more success.
But Paul, after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, had a different perspective of his achievements.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul looked at his resume and considered it loss for the sake of Christ. He looked at all he had and all he had done, he looked at all the hard work of his missionary journeys, all the hardships he had endured, and considered it garbage. It was not that there had not been good things accomplished with all his hard work. But all of this was meaningless, garbage, compared to knowing “Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Gordon Fee says that this is a passage that should not be overly analyzed. It should be read over and over again, lingering on the phrase “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” For “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul gave up all his credentials. He took his impressive resume and tore it into pieces. He threw away his diplomas. He discarded his very comfortable future as a leading Pharisee, well respected and influential. Paul set out to fulfill the call he received from Jesus to take the gospel to the Gentile world and from the very beginning Paul knew this would not be easy.
After his encounter with Jesus, Paul could not see and was led into Damascus where Ananias came to him, prayed for him, and Paul was healed of his blindness. God had revealed to Ananias, (Acts 9:15–16)
This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Paul heard from Ananias what had been revealed to him so Paul knew suffering was in his future. He probably did not know how much suffering was to come his way, but he came, over time, to understand his suffering as an honor.
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Jesus suffered – Paul suffered, and yet for both of them, joy was at the center of their experience.
Jesus descended to a cruel death and yet, as the writer of Hebrews says, (Hebrews 12:2–3)
For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame,
Paul rose to the top of his profession and considered his achievements and heritage “a loss” “garbage” compared to knowing Jesus. Knowing Jesus brought Paul joy that carried him through the suffering of his life.
So let me pull three lessons from this.
First, we have to actively resist our human nature to search for meaning in life through what we do.
Paul had an impressive list of his pedigree and his accomplishments. He had a lot to be proud of and if you met Paul in the days before he met Jesus, he would not have been hesitant to let you know about his accomplishments.
We do the same thing. When I walk into the office of someone, I will see on the walls the degrees that tell me where this person graduated. I will see pictures of that person with famous people they have met. The pictures testify to the accomplishments of the person whose office I am visiting. The degrees and pictures are meant to impress me and sometimes, I have to admit, the pictures are very impressive.
But who is the person in that office? Is that person summed up by the degrees and pictures on the wall? The degrees and pictures on the wall tell me of their educational achievements and their power, but they tell me very little about who the person is beneath all of this.
I had a meeting in the home of a man whose walls were full of pictures of himself with the king and other well known politicians and religious leaders. If there is a spiritual gift of making relationships with powerful people, he had that gift. What did I see when I looked at the pictures on the wall? I saw a man who has some deep need for significance and was trying to meet that need through relationships with others. I felt sadness for this man when I saw how he promoted who he was by having these pictures on his wall.
The problem with having our identity wrapped up in what we do is that when we no longer are doing, we are stuck with who we are. I have to admit that I struggle with this. When I come to RIC on a Sunday when Elliot is preaching and leading worship, I feel a bit empty. I have nothing to do and I am left with who I am.
It is who I am that has to be nurtured. I am a beloved son of God. That is who I am. Whether I preach or do not preach, I am a beloved son of God.
This is who you are. You are a beloved daughter of God, a beloved son of God. That is far more important than what you do. When you do a good job with your studies or work, you are a beloved child of God. When you don’t do so well, you are still a beloved child of God. Who we are protects us from what the world thinks of what we do. Who we are protects us from making things we do seem more important than they are.
The All Sorts softball team I play on finished our spring season with a record of 5 wins and 5 losses. Sometimes we played well and sometimes we made lots of errors. After one of these loses I was talking with a member of the team who is very competitive. He was beating up on himself for the mistakes he made during the game. I put my arm around him and told him, “It’s a good thing that who we are is not defined by how well we played a softball game.”
It is important for us to do our best in all that we do, but we need to carry in the center of our being, a sense of who we are in our relationship with Jesus so that the successes and failures in our lives do not dominate our lives.
This is easier said than done, but we need to grow in our understanding of who we are in our relationship with Jesus.
We have to actively resist our human nature to search for meaning in life through what we do.
Second, in order to serve, to think more of others than ourselves, we need to know who we are apart from what we do.
When who I am is dependent on what I do, then I will tend to protect what I do at the expense of people who work with me. Because what I do is so important, people have to become less important to me.
This is a problem with some pastors who work to protect their position. They demand respect and push away any people whose gifting threatens the glory and honor they want for themselves. Who they are as a pastor is more important than the people they are supposed to serve.
Jesus knew who he was in relationship to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. At his baptism, Jesus heard God tell him, (Matthew 3:17)
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Because Jesus knew who he was, because Jesus knew how deeply he was loved, he was able to strip himself of his heavenly privileges, descend to earth, be a servant to his disciples, and go to the cross. Jesus never had to stop and say, “Hey! What about my rights?” because he knew he was loved by God.
I have a good friend, Uchenna Anyanwu, who was unjustly deported from this country in June 2010 and is now thriving, along with his wife and two sons, in the US where he is working on his PhD. Uchenna worked with me in our association of churches and one day he came to the office and told me about an experience he had on the bus that morning. He sat down next to a Moroccan man who looked at him, gave him a look of disgust, and moved to another seat.
How do you handle such an insulting situation? This Moroccan did not like his skin color, his smell, his facial features. This is a highly personal, offensive, degrading insult and yet as Uchenna told me about his experience, this is what he said. “I smiled because I realized that if this man knew what I had to offer him, he would have gotten on his knees and begged me to share words of life with him.”
What prevented Uchenna from the pain of being disrespected and rejected? Uchenna knew that he is a beloved son of God and that identity protected him from the emotional pain of the insult. Uchenna was able to exchange prayers for the insult he received because he knew who he was.
It may come as a surprise to some of you who are not married, but in a marriage relationship there is conflict. And when there is conflict it can drive husband and wife away from an intimate relationship with each other. What is necessary is that at least one of the two needs to love their spouse, even when it is difficult.
How can you love someone who is causing you pain? Paul wrote to husbands and wives in his Ephesians letter, (Ephesians 5:22)
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
Both husband and wife are called to submit to each other. This is not easy to do. It is painful to do. I can tell you from personal experience that the only way to do this is to know that you are a beloved son of God, a beloved daughter of God. When you know that you are loved, then you can be a servant and love as God loves us. When husband and wife know who they are in their relationship with Jesus, they can begin submitting to each other and an intimate marriage is the result.
We have to actively resist our human nature to search for meaning in life through what we do. In order to serve, to think more of others than ourselves, we need to know who we are apart from what we do. Third, joy is protected by knowing who we are.
I said last Sunday that joy is the defining characteristic of a life lived with God. Joy is the consequence of living in an intimate relationship with Jesus.
This is why I talked last week about the importance of being in a living relationship with God rather than following a set of rules and regulations. We have to encourage relationship and resist institutionalizing our experience. We have to encourage relationship and avoid religion.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
It is love that gives life. It is love that encourages us to persevere in difficult times. It is love that helps us to hold on to Jesus when all around us is crumbling.
It is good to speak in tongues if God has given you that gift. It is good to use the gift of prophecy God has given you. It is good to have faith that believes great things are possible. It is good to be generous and give to those in need.
But we need to remember that those gifts we are using come from a person who loves us and who has drawn us into an intimate relationship with himself.
A parent can take care of us, feed us, pay for our schooling, give us a car and help us to buy a house, but it is a neglectful and ungrateful son or daughter who does not love the parent who does all these good things for them.
God has given us great gifts and the greatest of all his gifts is the gift of himself, allowing us the great privilege to be in relationship with him. Don’t settle for the secondary benefits, the things that happen because we are in relationship with God. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Learn more about how much loved you are. Grow in the intimacy of your relationship with him. Let his love heal wounds in your life and make you whole.
Protect your joy.