homily on Phil. 3:4b-14 by Pastor Galen Zook, October 4th 2020
Today we began a new sermon series entitled “Pressing On,” focusing in on our New Testament readings from Paul’s Epistles. The next two weeks we’ll be looking at Philippians, and then Corinthians and Thessalonians.
But we haven’t completely left the Israelites behind in the wilderness. In our readings from the Hebrew Bible the Israelites are still journeying on through the wilderness. In today’s lesson, Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
But in our sermons we’re sort of going “back to the future,” flashing forward to the Israelites living soon after the time of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul, a Jewish believer, is writing to the early Christians in Philippi — the first Christian church established in all of Europe. He’s writing to Christians who were Israelites, but who had grown up in a world that was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture. They had always had to navigate what it meant to follow God in the midst of the pluralistic, humanistic cultural forces and pressures around them. But now as followers of Christ, they were heading into uncharted waters, living in a world where the majority of people thought of Jesus (if they thought of him at all) simply as a prophet or a good teacher, and where the majority of the Jewish people did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
Meanwhile, there were many non-Jewish people turning to Christ. Gentiles were accepting Jesus not just as the Jewish Messiah, but acknowledging Jesus as the Lord and Savior of the whole earth. The King of kings, and the Lord of lords.
And so many of Paul’s letters address the topic of what it means to follow Jesus, not just as an individual follower of Christ, but as a member of a specific family and ethnic community.
The people of Paul’s day were wrestling through what it looks like to follow Jesus as a hebraic Israelite, or as a Greek-speaking Israelite, or as a Gentile, of a member of any number of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.
Now, today we hear the words “culture” and “ethnicity” and we immediately think about the topic of “race,” which of course is a huge hot-button topic in our world today.
But back then, the people would not have thought so much about “race” as they would “family of origin,” “tribe,” or “lineage.” For the Israelites, it wasn’t about the color of your skin, so much as were you a Jew, or a Gentile? And if you were a Jew, were you born into Judaism, or were you a convert? And if you were born into Judaism, could you trace your family lineage back to the original 12 tribes, or was your bloodline a little muddled and confused?
For the non-Jews, there were deep separations and divides among those who were citizens of Rome, vs. those who were non-citizens. Slaves vs. free, landowners vs. laborers, and Romans vs. what were called “barbarians.
And so while there may not have been racial divisions like we have today, there were definitely plenty of ways in which the people divided themselves up, and thought of themselves as unique and distinct.
But we see here in Philippians 3 that Paul wants them to be concerned not with where they’ve come from, but where they’re going. Not with who they’re related to, or their family of origin, or even their religious background, but rather Paul wants them to be concerned with and utterly focused on knowing Christ.
As an example, Paul shares his own story, his own cultural background and the religious qualifications in which he used to take pride.
A Hebrew born of Hebrew
Paul says that he was circumcised when he was eight days old, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.
In other words, Paul was pretty much born in the “synagogue.” To put it in our context, he was placed on the cradle roll when he was born, baptized at an early age, taken to church and Sunday school all of his life. He never missed a Sunday, and any time the doors of the church were open, he and his family were there.
Can any of you relate? For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic was the longest consecutive period of time that we didn’t worship on a weekly basis inside a church building our whole lives!
But Paul was not just passionate about his faith, about learning how there was to know about his religion. He was also passionate and zealous about defending his faith and culture and his people’s way of life.
When he grew up, Paul became a Pharisee, a member of an ultra religious Jewish sect that sought to preserve and protect the Jewish faith from being watered down or compromised. In fact, they extended the law beyond the laws that were given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinia, to include all sorts of rules and traditions that were passed down and eventually added to the Scriptures. The Pharisees took guidelines that had originally been given to instruct priests who were leading worship in the temple, and extended them to every Jewish person, to not only encourage strict religious observance, but also to separate themselves from the nonJewish “pagans” living around them.
While no doubt many of the Pharisees sought to do this peacefully, some were quite zealous about defending their faith, and Paul himself actually became a rather violent persecutor of Jews who converted to Christianity. In some ways, we might think of him as a “violent extremist.” In Paul’s mind, the violent actions of persecution that he committed were actually acts that proved his devotion to God.
That is, until he met Christ.
For Paul, encountering Jesus Christ changed everything. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and revealed to Paul that he was indeed the Messiah, and that he had come not just for the Jews, but for anyone who calls upon the name of Christ, it transformed Paul’s whole worldview and mission.
After Paul met Christ, those markers of cultural and religious identity were no longer proof of Paul’s closeness or proximity to God. Indeed, Paul realized that no matter how conscientious he had been in keeping the law, he had missed the critical component of love. As fastidious as he had been in trying to dot every “i” and cross every “t” he had failed to love God and his neighbor. He was just as much a sinner, in need of God’s grace and forgiveness as anyone else. He needed Jesus to save him, to redeem him, to forgive him just as much as someone who had never gone to church their whole lives.
And Paul eventually came to realize that his religious upbringing was not given to him so that he could lord his knowledge of the Scriptures over others, but so that he could share the Good News with others. His religious fervor and zealous nature were not given to him so that he could defend his people’s culture and way of life or persecute those who he thought were going astray, but rather so that he could gently and lovingly point others towards Christ.
Pressing toward the Goal
For Paul, after his conversion on that road to Damascus, the most important aim and goal in his life became knowing Christ. To know “the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10a). Paul even hoped that in his death he would become like Christ (Phil 3:10b). And he longed to help others know and experience Jesus as well.
Paul recognized that he had not yet reached the goal of becoming like Christ, and so he pressed on, and encouraged the church in Philippi to do the same.
Evoking the imagery of an olympic athlete who throws aside any weight or obstruction that might hinder them or hold them back, Paul said that he is pressing “on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
And what about all those qualifications that Paul mentioned? That whole list of things that he used to take pride in? The marks of his own national and religious pride? Paul says that he regards them “as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
For Paul, knowing Christ is the most important thing — more important than your family of origin, whether or not you grew up attending church or not, whether or not you’ve done “great things” for God, whether or not you’ve done everything right or broken every rule in the book. Knowing Christ, and being “found in him” is better than any earthly trait or characteristic.
What that means for us, of course, is that none of us are too far gone. No one is beyond reach of Christ’s love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. No matter who you are, or where you’ve come from, God’s arms of love are open to you.
All you need to do is to accept that love, to let Christ’s love transform you. Once you encounter Jesus, you’ll never be the same. Jesus will turn your life upside-down — or rather, right-side up — if you’ll let him.
This also means in Christ, we have a new identity. A new family. A family that is closer than a blood, a family made up of believers all around the world and all around our city — many of whom look different than us. Many of whom speak a different language than us, practice different customs than us. Worship a different way than us.
The old loyalties that we had are gone. Our previous allegiances have been annulled. Now we pledge our faith and our allegiance first and foremost to Jesus — the one who has saved us and redeemed us, the one who has brought us into right relationship with God and with one another, the One around whom our whole lives revolve.
So like Paul, let us press on for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus! Let us throw aside every weight. Let us forget what lies behind, and let us strain forward to what lies ahead. Let us seek, above all else, to know Christ, and to be found in him.