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Christ has made us his own

For us he prayed; for us he taught;

for us his daily works he wrought;

by words and signs and actions thus

still seeking not himself but us.

(O love, how deep, how broad how high Hymnal 448)

 

In his book, The Road to Character[1], New York Times columnist, David Brooks begins by asking what it takes to become a person of depth. While there are certainly techniques we can learn in order to be worthy of the moments in life that call for depth, in the end, depth has less to do with our actions than the quality of soul we possess. To put it simply, depth is not what we do, but who we are. And I would add—whose we are.

Brooks went on to highlight two sets of virtues—resume virtues and eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills and qualities that we offer the job market, who we know, what we have done, how much we have accomplished. The eulogy virtues are what people will talk about at our funeral. Eulogy virtues exist at the core of our being—our capacity for kindness, courage, faithfulness, and love.

Our resume virtues live by straightforward economic logic: effort leads to reward; practice makes perfect; look out for yourself; work hard. Eulogy virtues live by moral logic: we have to give to receive; we must surrender to something outside ourselves to gain strength within ourselves, to receive what we want, we must conquer our desires; success can lead to the greatest failure, which is pride; while failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.

Today in our reading from Philippians, we hear Paul’s letter from jail written to the young church community in Philippi. The Christian community in Philippi was the westernmost Pauline church at the time of its founding. (Acts 16:11-13) To our best knowledge, Paul was only in the city for a couple of weeks before he was forced to move on to another location. Yet in this brief time he founded a new Christian community and formed such a devoted relationship with them that they stayed in close contact with him for many more years.

These bonds were so close that they cared for Paul when he again found himself under arrest. They expressed their support for Paul in very practical ways including sending one of their own people, Epaphroditus, to provide financial and personal assistance.

Paul writes to them from a difficult phase in his life, giving thanks for their gifts and setting their challenges in a wider framework by describing his situation in light of the reality of Jesus Christ. For even though he faced suffering and uncertainty, his focus on the love of Jesus helped him find joy and hope.

It is today we hear Paul offering very direct advice to this community. He begins by listing his personal resume. It is a very impressive one indeed.

“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.” (Philippians 3:4–6 NRSV)

Each of these claims point to Paul’s dedication to living a life devoted to his Jewish faith and his heritage. But Paul has discovered something very important. This is not what ultimately matters. Yes, he is still devoted to his faith. Yes, he is still a disciplined son of Abraham. But in view of what he has discovered in Christ, it has become pale in remembrance.

“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 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Philippians 3:7–9 NRSV)

In this reading we catch a glimpse of the big idea that lies at the heart of this passage. What matters most is not who we are, what we have done, or even what we believe. Paul calls it all “rubbish”—actually he uses a stronger word, but we will leave it at rubbish for today. The only thing that truly matters is the faith of Jesus. Hear that again– The only thing that truly matters is the faith of Jesus.

Often in our churches we have understood this as us having faith in Jesus. But the original sense is more likely to have been the faith of Jesus, the faithfulness that Jesus demonstrated. In other words, what mattered most to Paul was not what he had done, or said, or accomplished, or believed; but what Jesus had done, said, accomplished, and believed. What makes all the difference for us is the faithfulness of Jesus, not what we believe about Jesus.

Paul develops this idea in several of his letters, perhaps most notably in Romans, which is his most considered and intentional theological statement. There he parallels the faithfulness of Abraham, which generated blessings for his descendants, with the faithfulness of Jesus, which generates blessings for all humanity.

Such a simple, but too often distorted idea. What matters is not what we do, not even what we believe. What matters is what Jesus did, as he lived out his own faithfulness to God.

Paul does not ask people to believe a long list of things about Jesus, but to act in the same way that Jesus acted. Paul appeals for them to have the same mind, the same sense of self, the same outlook as we observe in Jesus.

For more than 2000 years, the Church has too often devoted its energies to telling us what to believe, how to think, and what constitutes right actions. But within the Scriptures there has always been this clear statement that the only thing that really matters is that Jesus got it right and so by striving to follow him, we can ride along clinging to his robe—so to speak.

Our call is not to get stuff right about what we believe about Jesus. Our call is to cultivate the same attitude towards God’s call on our own lives. We are invited to receive God’s love and forgiveness as gift, recognizing that we can do nothing to earn it or to lose it. We are invited to see that God offers us blessings as a result of the faithfulness of Jesus.

This was a radical idea in Paul’s time and it is even more so today when too often the Church focuses on sin and guilt. Of course, it matters how we act. How we act leads to blessings or curses in our lives and in the lives of others. God has told us what is required—to love God and to love each other. God gives this as a gift to God’s beloved people from Sinai. God shows us the way to perfect freedom. Paul is not nullifying the law, but placing it where it belongs, and where Exodus places it, in the context of grace. God’s grace and the faith of Jesus allows Paul to press ahead, looking forward, honoring the past as he aims towards God’s vision for his life.

When we open our minds and our hearts and our spirit to recognize that who we are at the core of our being is not what we know or have done or accomplished or what we have believed, we can center ourselves around the transforming faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to reveal God’s love. God loves us not because of our resume or pedigree, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to share that love as the true source of all human life. As Paul states in his letter, “Not that I have already obtained (the knowledge of Christ and his resurrection) or have already reached the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

For this we can truly give thanks as we gather at the Table of Jesus today.

[1] David Brooks. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.

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