Leaving it behind

Philippians 3:4b-14

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 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.

 

Let’s just come right out and say it this morning. I know what you are thinking, so we should just lay everything out on the table before we get started. Yes, I was in Jamaica last weekend. No, I did not go to the beach. We did not go to Sandals, mon. We were in Kingston. We didn’t stay in a gated community, but there was a double-padlocked gate over the front entrance of the guesthouse.

I’m sure that none of you are feeling too bad for me right now, but I believe that you all owe me a thank you. This nice weather that we have been enjoying, that’s my gift to you. We smuggled some of the nice weather in our carryon luggage. The funny thing is that I’ve got more of a tan since being back in Virginia than I did in my five days in the Caribbean.

I served as a fraternal guest to the Jamaican Mennonite Church’s 58th annual general conference. Why me, you may be asking. Well I’ll tell you why. I don’t often share with you about my various conference-related roles, but I serve as the Assistant Moderator of Virginia Mennonite Conference, giving oversight to guidance to the 72 congregations stretching from Washington, DC to North Carolina; from the east coast to Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. I am also the chair of the Southern District of Virginia Mennonite Conference, which means that I am in charge of leading the business meetings for the churches of Augusta County.

So why was I chosen as a fraternal guest? I’ve got a pretty good resume. Lead pastor since I was 26 years old, chair of the district since 29. And Assistant Moderator since I was 32. I hold not one, but two seminary degrees.

My paternal lineage traces back to the Emmental Mennonite Church in Switzerland, where the whole Anabaptist movement began. I was baptized at Crown Hill Mennonite Church. So why was I selected as a fraternal guest? I’ve got the experience, the education, and the historical connections.

I hope you know how hard that was for me to “brag” on myself. But I think that you know where I’m going. I’ve achieved some things in my professional career, but when we consider the bigger picture, what does any of this matter?

Think about how utterly useless those things would be without putting my confidence in Jesus. Holding various church roles would seem absolutely silly if I didn’t believe in Jesus. Studying at a seminary would be like studying fiction, and I don’t know many people who have their degree in the study of Dr. Seuss or Harry Potter. The only reason it matters that I am even a part of the Mennonite Church has nothing to do with me at all. The only reason that it matters is because I am a part of something bigger than me. I am a part of God’s reconciling work which he enacted through Jesus Christ.

Our text for today begins with Paul laying out his credentials. He says in the second part of verse 4, “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more.” This is a little confusing, but I think that when Paul speaks of confidence in the flesh, he is speaking of human achievements. Paul goes on to name seven different things that build up his resume. The first four are hereditary and the last three are his personal achievements. He was circumcised on the 8th day, an Israelite with all of the benefits thereof, and specifically, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. The tribes of Benjamin and Joseph were considered among the most faithful for their adherence to the law. And he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a pure-blood, not some muggle. His personal achievements, well he is a Pharisee, so he is well versed in the Torah. He is so zealous, or full of passion, that he persecuted the church because he believed that they were a bunch of heretics. And when you looked at his life, he not only knew the law, he kept it to the point that he called himself “faultless.”

Yet as powerful as his resume might be, Paul considers these achievements, whether hereditary or personal, to be a loss. Let’s look at verse 7: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” Gains and loss, that’s strange language to me. What Paul is doing here is using accounting language from his day. Today if we were trying to balance a budget, we might use the words debit and credit. A debit is something you possess of value. A credit is something that you owe someone else. When you use a debit card, you already have the money in your bank account. When you use a credit card, you promise to pay it back to the lender.

So when Paul says that he considered his resume a list of gains, he was looking at them as a debit on some sort of divine ledger. But instead, he now sees even his accomplishments as credits, something that he owes to someone else. And he is going to take it one step further.

In the NIV, Paul says that these things are “garbage” compared to knowing Christ and the righteousness that comes through Christ alone. The word that Paul uses here is skubalon. Everyone say skubalon! I just made you curse in church. Some people claim that skubalon was Greek profanity in Paul’s day, and it is difficult to say if that is true or not. To be honest, there are words that people use today in English that I’m not sure if they are “bad words” or not. I won’t name them now.

A word is only bad if it is offensive to someone, so I hope that nobody was offended that I used the word skubalon, especially because I’m going to keep saying it. If you think about it, our words have different levels of intensity. If you were to ask me one hour after I ate if I’m hungry, I might say, “Ah, I could eat.” Ask me the same question four hours after breakfast, and I might say, “Yes, I am hungry.” Now I really need you to use your imaginations and imagine that I haven’t eaten for 12 hours. If you ask me 12 hours after my last meal if I am hungry, I might say, “Hungry, I’m starving!” Let’s take it one more step. If I haven’t eaten since the day before and you ask if I’m hungry, I would say, “I am famished.”

Ah, I could eat. Yes, I am hungry. I’m starving. I am famished. Hungry, starving, and famished essentially mean the same thing. Yet different words, while meaning the same thing, offer a different level of severity or extremity.

I mentioned that the NIV translates skubalon as garbage. I think that there are better options for translating this word, though I can understand why they chose garbage over the alternatives. The KJV translates skubalon as “dung.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

We try to not use bathroom words in our house unless we are actually talking about using the bathroom. But grownups will often make a reference to bathroom activities when they are trying to capture the stink and messiness of something in life. This is where we get a little PG 13 on you.

Imagine that you are making lunch, and you are carrying your plate, filled with mashed potatoes and gravy, baked beans, and a sloppy joe, to the table. But on the way, you drop the plate and all of those messy foods scatter across the floor and the plate shatters. You might say, “Ah, dung.” You might, but I doubt it. There are stronger words that may better capture your feelings at the moment. You could say, “Ah, poop.” Poop is a stronger word than dung, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever said it before in a sermon. You could say, “Ah, crap.” That’s a word I don’t like to say in church, but I think you would agree that it is a stronger word than dung, even though they mean the same thing. And would could go one step further, but I’ll allow you to use your imagination.

When Paul says that he considers his achievements to be skubalon, he is using a word that means dung, but it is a stronger word than dung. Is it a curse word? I can’t say. But it is a strong word, and Paul uses it for emphasis. All of these things that Paul thought were so important, so valuable, and that set him apart and ahead of all other Jews, he is now proclaiming them to be crap compared to knowing Christ and his righteousness.

We need to be careful to not read this in the wrong way, however. Because some people have read Paul here as being anti-Semitic. It sounds like Paul is saying that Judaism is wrong, but even more so, that he is saying that Judaism is garbage, dung, or even worse! If you ain’t a Christian, you ain’t skubalon!

Of course Paul thought that Christianity was the better religion. We don’t practice a religion if we think another is actually correct. But he isn’t calling Judaism skubalon. There are still really good things about Judaism! Caring for the widows, the orphans, and the poor isn’t skubalon. Worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not scubalon. We can only say how Paul feels about the things he says are skubalon. His ancestry, his heritage, and zealous persecution of the church are skubalon. And this isn’t to say that his ancestry and heritage are bad things, but that they are worthless for one thing in particular: justification with God.

So really, it isn’t Paul’s accomplishments or his ancestry that he now considers skubalon. Relying on these things to bring him into right relationship with God are now considered skubalon. And he goes on to explain this in verses 8b-9a, “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.”

So what does Paul say here brings us into right relationship with God? Be careful, this is a bit of a trick question. Verse 9 says “through faith in Christ.” This is consistent with what Paul says elsewhere, and this is what Martin Luther so famously championed as a part of the Protestant Reformation. And while most Christians will affirm that we are made right with God through our faith in Christ, that may not be what is going on here. Many have said something else.

The Greek phrase Paul uses here is “pistis Christou.” Pistis is the word for faith and Christou is a possessive form of Christos, or Christ. A very literal interpretation of this passage does not say that we are made right with God through our faith in Christ, but through the faithfulness of Christ. So there is a pretty strong debate among scholars about whether this passage is about putting our faith in Christ or about Christ’s faithfulness. And I want to lead toward the second option.

Look at the previous chapter, Philippians 2, particularly verse 8, which says, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

When we look at the bigger point that Paul is trying to make, it seems as if he is trying to shift the attention of Jewish believers from trying to put their trust in their ancestry, their heritage, and even their personal achievements and instead trust that what makes us right with God is the faithfulness of Jesus, who was obedient to death, even death on a cross. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright summarizes this section in his commentary by writing, “‘Justification’ isn’t just about how someone becomes a Christian. It is about the status that they possess, and continue to possess, as full members of God’s people, no matter who their parents were or what their moral, cultural or religious background may have been” (Paul: The Prison Letters, 121).

Paul then switches metaphors from accounting to athletics, particularly to a race. Let’s pick up in 13b through 14: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Obviously, Paul hasn’t forgotten what is behind, because he just got done telling us about it! But he is encouraging the Philippians to not focus on what has happened and instead focus on what they are moving toward. And this not focusing on what is behind includes both the good and the bad.

Paul had good things in his past. His pedigree, his study of the Torah, these were good things! I don’t think that he would lift up his persecution of the church as a good thing at this point in his life. He hasn’t forgotten about these things, but he knows that these things cannot bring him into right relationship with God. But also, the things in his past cannot remove him from right relationship with God. What is left is the future, and Paul is going to partner with God through Jesus Christ to bring about the future God has planned on earth as it is in heaven.

We all know people that seem to dwell in the past, either on the good or the bad. We all know people like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, reminiscing about their high school football years. “If coach would have just put me in, I know we would have won state!” For so many people, their achievements at the age of 18 seem to be the pinnacle of their life experience. And whenever you spend time with them, that is all they want to talk about.

I’m sure we also know people who have made bad choices with their lives, they’ve ruined relationships with family members, dropped out of school, or quit jobs that they really wish they could have back. But you can’t take back words. You can’t un-quit a job. You can’t un-break an egg.

Yet I think that the entire point that Paul is making in today’s passage is that yes, these things do affect you. They shape you into the person you are today. Good or bad, we are who we are because of what we have done and what has been done to us. Some of the things are even out of our control, like our ancestry and the situation into which we were born. And while we cannot fully escape some of our past mistakes and we cannot reanimate our past victories, there is one thing that we can do.

We can move forward.

The things in our past, well they are just skubalon. Good or bad, they are still just skubalon compared to what is coming. And I’m not just trying to spiritualize this. If we partner with Christ, good things will come. And this may not always look like success from a worldly perspective, but when the hungry are fed, the widows are cared for, the lowly are lifted up, and the sinners are forgiven, the kingdom of God is made known. God’s unsurpassable love for humanity is made known. And heaven is made known as Jesus is enfleshed in us.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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