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.
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[a] 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.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
My world was flipped upside-down recently. Perhaps the most famous physicist of all times (the only famous physicist?) might be wrong. Of course I am talking about Albert Einstein. Einstein hypothesized that nothing can travel faster than 186,000 miles per second, which is the speed of light. But after rigorous testing, scientists in Europe have found that a sub atomic particle known as a neutrino can move faster than the speed of light. This might not seem like much to us, but this may have implications such as the size of the universe being larger than has been estimated. It might even mean that time travel is or will be possible. The greatest physicist of all times might have been wrong. If this is proven then there will be a lot of people whose studies and research will have become outdated and obsolete.
We all want to be the greatest at what we do. We get a little competitive from time to time, even in the church. Who gives the most time or the most financially to the church? Who prays the most, who never misses a Sunday? Who reads their Bible the most? We take good things and make them into a bit of a competition. And maybe that isn’t always bad, but I think that it is clear that we can take it a bit too far. And even the greatest among us will fail.
Pastors are the worst at this. We compete about everything from congregation size to education to years of experience. I seem to be doing alright here with my Master of Divinity and my seven years of ministry experience. I was ordained in November of 2007. But last weekend I was reminded of how little I have accomplished. Someone gave me a bit of a hard time noting that my credentials are held by an entity that will ordain anyone (he was joking, I think). But this was at a funeral for my former mentor and friend. This was a man who died at 77 years-old who had 51 years of ministry experience. 51 years! Like I said, I have seven years of experience. I really don’t have too much room to brag! Yesterday I was talking with some of my colleagues in ministry and I was reminded of how highly-educated many of them are: The Reverend Doctor so-and-so can really humble a guy like me and remind me of just how much I still have to learn.
The point that I am trying to make is that no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, there is always someone who has achieved more than you or will achieve more than you. Even Einstein is not beyond correction. And if you find your significance in trying to be the best at something, if that is your purpose for doing what you are doing, you will find someone who is better than you are and you will be humbled.
This is how the Apostle Paul starts off our scripture for today. He starts listing his credentials. And his credentials are flawless. Even the things that he couldn’t control were done just right. He was born into the right family line. He was circumcised on the right day. He studied at the right school, and he was full of zeal. If Paul was to turn in his resume at about any company for any position, he would get the job. He is that darn good.
But why would Paul randomly launch into his list of credentials? It would seem that Paul is under attack. And he seems to be under attack by other Jews that recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Paul has been calling for non-Jews to be able to become full members of God’s people without jumping through all of the religious hoops. Paul did not require that the converts be circumcised or adhere to the purity laws of the Old Testament. They could eat shellfish if they wanted to, and this bothered those who grew up as Jews. I would probably be a little upset as well if I was hearing now from Paul that the new converts didn’t have to do all of the things that I had been doing my entire life. Especially the whole circumcision thing!
So this is why Paul goes through his credentials. He is saying, “I know that you all have been good Jews your entire life. But me, I am a super Jew; perfect, blameless, faultless.”
But then Paul goes and turns this little piety contest on its head. He says in verses 7-9, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 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 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.”
The old way of thinking of things seems to have been some sort of banking system where everything that an individual did or accomplished was saved up so that God could see who was accumulating the most good deeds, the most faithfulness, the most righteousness. All of these things Paul had gained, but now they are worthless. Paul calls them garbage, rubbish in the NRSV, or dung in the KJV. The Greek word is σκύβαλον which is a reference to the excrement of an animal.
Paul is a master of hyperbole because surely all of the faithfulness to the Mosaic Law was more than excrement. To say that everything that he had achieved was like poo is like saying tht everything that Einstein did is now worthless because he was wrong about this one thing. What Paul is doing is trying to make a comparison between what he now has and what he had experienced before under that Law, which he had valued so highly. It has been surpassed and supplanted. No longer is a person to try to bank up good works and fleshly achievements. The bank is closed and all debts are forgiven. There is a new goal now for the people of God, and that goal is knowing Jesus. But what does it mean to know Jesus?
In our casual conversations we often will ask one another if they know someone. And we respond according to how well we know someone. If someone asks if you know the President of the United States, you might say that you know of him or that you know who he is. But I doubt that anyone here actually knows the President of the United States. But what if we go to someone a little closer to home, maybe the Executive Director of our denomination, Ervin Stutzman? If someone asked me if I know Ervin, I would say yes. Ervin was my seminary dean and he taught me how to preach in preaching class. So if you don’t like the way I preach, you can blame Ervin. I know Ervin and so do some of you. But to be honest, I don’t know Ervin that well. I can’t tell you how many years he has been married or what his children are doing for a living or where they are living. I don’t know Ervin well, but I still can say that I know Ervin.
Now we come to my wife Sonya. I can tell you where she was born and on what date. I even know the name of the doctor that delivered her. I know Sonya’s parents’ names, her sister’s name, where they all live and what they all do for a living. I know much of her extended family. I know that Sonya prefers dark chocolate over milk chocolate; I know that she likes to travel and regrets that I am a homebody. I know that she likes to go to bed early and that she does not like to be cold. I could go on and on about the things that I know about my wife for a long time, and you would all then know a lot more about my wife than you ever cared to know.
Now I want to ask you, when Paul calls all of his earthly accomplishments and credentials rubbish when compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus, is he talking about knowing Jesus in the way that I know Barack Obama? Is he even talking about knowing Jesus in the way that I know Ervin Stutzman? No, he is talking about knowing Jesus in the way that I know my wife.
There are a number of metaphors in the Bible that are used to describe Jesus’ relationship to the church, particularly to the people who make up the church. But no metaphor is used more frequently and intentionally than the metaphor of Jesus being the groom and the church being his beloved wife. Both marriage and church membership are covenants that we enter into (voluntarily, I hope) where we promise to love, honor, and cherish each other. Jesus even showed us that we are called to love each other so much that we are willing to lay our lives down for one another.
I have been married to my wife now for eight years. We first met over 10 years ago and we learned to know one another so much, especially in the first couple of years. We would stay up all night long talking in person or on the phone, we would email and text each other frequently. And much of that list of things that I know about my wife that I presented to you just moments ago came from those conversations in our first couple of years of knowing each other. But guess what. As much as I know about my wife today and as well as I know her, I learn a little bit more about her every day. Maybe I don’t learn as quickly as I should, but I learn more about her every day. That is how we are to relate to Jesus.
Even Paul recognized that he had not yet achieved perfection in this area. He writes in verse 12, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” Knowing is an on-going thing. Just like I learn a little more about my wife every day, we are to learn more about Jesus every day. And we don’t do this to make him love us, we do it because he loves us. We do it to show him our love.
So why do I use the very limited amount of space that I have in my head to learn more and more about my wife every day? I mean, come on, she already married me. What more could I gain by getting to know her better? And how will I use that knowledge?
As I get to know my wife better I could use that knowledge against her. I am a little bit ornery and I like to play tricks on people. So as I learn things like the way my wife hates crickets, I could capture crickets and release them in her car. I could buy her a large Valentine’s Day box of chocolates filled with…milk chocolate candy so that I could get more for myself. I could use the things that I have learned about my wife to make her life a living hell. But what would be the purpose of that? It doesn’t sound like a very healthy marriage to me. No, I want to use the knowledge that I have of my wife to try to make her know how much I appreciate her and love her.
We learn about one another so that we can show our love and appreciation for one another. And each and every day we try to learn a little more about one another. This sounds like a healthy relationship to me. Granted, I fail at this frequently, but that is my goal in marriage. To know my wife better and to use that knowledge so that she knows how much I love and appreciate her. Now apply that to your relationship with Jesus.
What Paul tells us in today’s passage that our goal is to know Jesus Christ, not know of him, not to know about him, but to know him. We are called to press on toward that goal, realizing that we can never fully know Jesus, but regardless, we will be rewarded.
What are we striving for? What is our goal? If it is to develop a list of credentials or to be “the best” at something, that might be okay, but that isn’t the goal that Paul speaks of today. Even Paul and Einstein have been humbled in their pursuits. But when our goal is knowing Jesus for the purpose of showing our love and appreciation of him, we will be rewarded greatly.