Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where you’re talking about faith and belief in God and someone says, “well, I know a lot of really crappy Christians, or look at how Christians did this or that bad thing in history, and you want to tell me that somehow belief in God makes you righteous, when my atheist friend is so much a better person than any Christian I know. My friend or my daughter or my nephew is much better person, much kinder, does more good, than any Christian I know. Go ahead and raise your hand if you’ve ever spoken to someone who’s said something like this.
If I were being really blunt (and frankly a bit of a jerk), I’d blurt out, “you’ve entirely missed the point of God’s relationship to human beings and of the Scripture’s testimony to this.” Fortunately, I generally catch myself before responding so insensitively. Paul provides a much more helpful response to the claim about ‘human goodness’ in our passage today from Philippians. He says, ‘if we’re going to go on about our own righteousness and the ‘goodness of our own works,’ here, I’ll lay mine out for you. You know that law that God gave to his people, well here’s are my credentials: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Here Paul defines what it means to be righteous: to be righteous, to be holy, is to fulfill the law completely, to love God and to love neighbor without fail; it is to have been born without sin. Oops. We have a problem: who of us has been born without sin? According to Scripture, ‘no one is good, no not one.’ That’s not a statement about whether we perform good acts that the Psalms make, that is a statement about the fact that every human being is born into the sin of Adam and Eve. If you are created, you are a sinner. Only a human who is uncreated, who is and was and always will be, before all things that were created (as John chapter one says to us), could be without sin. Only the one whom we call Lord, could be a human being without sin.
So Paul’s claim here then, is that if you were born through the sexual union of two human parents, or cloned from human DNA, or developed in a test tube, you are a human being born into sin. So whatever good or bad we do as human beings created in sin, even if we were to follow God’s law to a T, these acts do not make us righteous before God, because they cannot do so by themselves. Article 10 in our Book of Common Prayer, on Free Will puts it like this: “The condition of every person after the fall of Adam is such that they cannot turn and prepare themselves, by their own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works … acceptable to God …
Of course we affirm this sort of thing in our liturgies all the time, ‘my works don’t save me or make me righteous before God, that’s why I need Jesus.’ Paul makes this bit pretty clear when he says, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 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.” Paul makes a pretty bold claim here that we might just take as zeal were we to hear him or anyone else say it: “I regard all the good things I have or do as loss, as rubbish even, in comparison to my knowing Jesus Christ, and being filled with his own will.” I’ve got to tell you that if I actually did hear this, I’d likely think the one proclaiming it was a brainwashed, zealous nut, or at best, a follower groupie who couldn’t think for himself, perhaps a man with serious personality issues and an inferiority complex.
But here’s the thing: I’d be halted in my thinking when I heard what Paul says next. Paul has said, I regard all my actions and my ways as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ; in order that I might be found in Jesus Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from me ‘doing the good’ i.e. doing the law, but one that comes through what: through the fact that my brokenness and sin, together with my faith, has been taken up, has been literally taken on by Jesus Christ, who offers every single human life to God unstained by sin, cleansed, washed clean, and reconciled to relationship with God. That’s quite a claim. It’s a claim about receiving the fullness of existence and of my own particular life, through this one whom I commit to follow. And this is why Paul says, “I’m willing to give my claim to ‘do good’ to ‘act well’ to ‘be holy’ to ‘be righteous’, because having known Christ, I recognize my sin, my weakness, my incapacity, my frailty, my part in sin and brokenness, and so my inability to actually fulfill the law. Everything I have that matters at all in God’s figurative eyes, “I receive as a gift, as grace, from God alone.”
This would fundamentally stop me in my tracks in thinking Paul to be a wild zealot groupie. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Umm, what, I might say. This is where the story turns. I want to know Christ and to be the recipient of the goods that come out of his resurrection. This of course implies that this one who Paul is following is going to die at some point, and then be resurrected or rise from the dead. This is of course a shocking enough claim – what could it mean? But Paul continues on, that he wants to “share in Jesus’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if he himself can obtain resurrection from the dead.” Paul isn’t suggesting that he’s going to become powerful, wealthy or famous, but more strangely, he is actually implying that by following Jesus in faithfulness to God, he will have to endure suffering, and struggle; this, we know from the Gospels, is the mission of going out into the world to live, through what we say, and how we act, our faithfulness to God. This is what Paul is saying, I want to live into this life of Jesus Christ, and I accept that to inhabit it, I will have to endure the things that come with sticking to my faith.
For Paul this meant enduring torture, imprisonment, snake bites, constant threat, fighting parishioners, breaking up immoral or unethical practices, calling people out on false proclamations of the faith. But potentially the hardest thing it required, was not just speaking with, but living with the humility of being a finite and sinful person. Acknowledging that, and acknowledging that it is solely by the gift of grace that he has life at all. But that this gift of life is given as God intended it, for a particular purpose: the exercise of loving God and loving one’s neighbors, including one’s enemies. Paul acknowledges this when he says, “Not that I have already obtained this [promise of resurrected life or the fullness of life with God] … but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own [because I must always remember that this is a pure gift from God]; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind (all those things that I once thought made me a good and righteous person, complete and satisfactory) and straining forward to what lies ahead (fully reconciled life with God), I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
This is a tremendous and many might think – were this to take place today – a foolish commitment of the fullness of one’s life. You see the thing about faith that we sometimes struggle to understand in North America, is that receiving grace doesn’t set us free to do whatever we please, and receiving grace often doesn’t feel pleasant precisely because as we receive grace – that is, as we come to know God through his Scriptural revelation to us of Jesus Christ – the following we do, the following of Jesus’s own life through all the characters and situations, the ups and downs that we find in Scripture, as we follow that life figured in all of the Scriptures, as we find ourselves into those characters and situations, our very following him strips away so many of the false idols we like to cling to that make us feel as if we’re safe (whatever that happens to be, whether that’s money, possessions, emotionally controlling others, gossiping about others, always walking around as if we can be righteously angry at the world, being moody or irritable, or self-righteous, or condemnatory, or self-righteously violent, or sustaining in ignorance, or hatred, or bigotry, or lacking in the willingness to step into the shoes of another, our impatience, our constant criticism or cynicism, or lack of kindness all exuding the fruit of defense mechanisms against real or perceived threats).
You see to follow Jesus where he has gone and continues to go in this world is to give up our claim to ‘be good or do good, with our self-perceived effort being sufficient.’ This claim is usually made by those who have underlying insecurity about their value and worth. To follow Jesus though is to step into a value and worth that is well beyond the value of any gift we have to provide God with, as our gospel reading makes clear. We can provide our finest oil to anoint Jesus, but we can also steal from him the very gifts, the common purse, that he gave when he created all human beings. We cannot, even at our finest, do works or provide gifts sufficient to reconcile every human being to God. This is something we can only receive. And our reception of this overflowing abundance, this overflowing gift of washing and cleansing from sin, this overflow of God’s love, well our receipt of it is a journey, a lifetime journey that takes guts, the kind of guts that arrogance and demand for certainty cannot foster. It takes the willingness to sacrifice the illusion that we are self-reliant, so we can let go and give ourselves to God for him to transform us in his love. AMEN