Philippians 3:4b-14 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
Others may brag about themselves, but I have more reason to brag than anyone else. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, and I am from the nation of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a true Hebrew. As a Pharisee, I strictly obeyed the Law of Moses. And I was so eager that I even made trouble for the church. I did everything the Law demands in order to please God.
But Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow I also may be raised to life.
I have not yet reached my goal, and I am not perfect. But Christ has taken hold of me. So I keep on running and struggling to take hold of the prize. My friends, I don’t feel that I have already arrived. But I forget what is behind, and I struggle for what is ahead. I run toward the goal, so that I can win the prize of being called to heaven. This is the prize that God offers because of what Christ Jesus has done.
I stopped by to see an old friend this week. He’s retired, but not very retiring. Constantly busy with projects. He’s kind of a local hero in the repair of vintage Mercedes, the guy you call and beg when the shop eventually admits they can’t figure out what’s wrong with your car and they are finally following through on their many threats and sending it back to you on a tow-truck. When everyone else has given up, you take a deep breath and you call Chuck Taylor. You might need to beg. You will probably need to wait. And you will certainly need to pay.
On a rainy Friday morning, he has his suburban garage door open as he starts in on his latest project: a 1964 Mercedes 280SL. It looks pretty good, but it has not been started in 30 years. 30 years! One day in the late 80s, the owner couldn’t get it started, so he just left it in the garage. Then he got interested in sailing… Decades later, boxes and other stuff got piled on top of it, until something finally made him decide that he needed to get it running again. So he called Chuck Taylor.
Thirty years… the project apparently begins by putting a large wrench on the front of the engine and pulling hard to confirm that yes, the engine does turn. It is not completely locked up. So let’s proceed to perform hundreds of troubleshooting measures, including but not limited to: replacing the fuel tank, replacing the fuel lines, replacing the fuel pump, having the fuel injection system completely rebuilt. Replacing the battery. And on and on and on.
It all seems terrifying to me, standing there watching him turning bolts that haven’t moved for over 50 years… I would be so scared, intimidated, filled with fear that I would not prevail in this monumental challenge. I’d be snapping a thousand photos to remember how this will all go back together.
And he’s appropriately chastened, aware that he might not be able to repair the car before the customer’s money runs out. But at the same time, he possesses a kind of confidence. This car will vex him for many days, weeks, and months, but he knows from experience that he will eventually figure it out. There are only so many permutations of problems. And he is very, very persistent.
Moreover, he’s *energized* by this. Even as he’s making wisecracks and dire predictions of doom, there’s a very real twinkle in his eye… he loves this. And deep down, he knows that somehow he will prevail.
The energizing thing for Mr. Taylor, as I see it, is the goal. An objective. He has an end in focus. A finish line. He can anticipate the smell the exhaust, and hear the sound of the engine finally running. Then he’ll drive it around the block. And at some point, he might even smile.
There is exactly this kind of focusing goal at the end of today’s Lectionary reading, but first, the Apostle Paul wants to tell us about the mess he has made. His metaphorical car was in even worse shape than Mr. Taylor’s newest project.
There is a problem in this church in Philipi. The Apostle Paul planted this church, and now some of its members are turning on him. People in the church are bragging about their religious bona fides, and Paul intends to blow them out of the water. He is quite blunt.
Others may brag about themselves, but I have more reason to brag than anyone else. 5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old,[a] and I am from the nation of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a true Hebrew. As a Pharisee, I strictly obeyed the Law of Moses. 6 And I was so eager that I even made trouble for the church. I did everything the Law demands in order to please God.
Paul starts out swinging, brandishing all manner of religious advantages: practices, outward accomplishments, elements of inherited privilege. The opponents in the church are promoting their religious resumes, and Paul displaces all of that: he says he is not some newcomer– he was a Hebrew-speaking Jew, who studied under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, who later became a leading member of the sect of the Pharisees.
Even as he is saying this, proving his point, you can feel the current of his rhetoric… the irony embedded in it. He is pointing, I think, to the limits of religion in particular, and zeal in general. Both of them look here like a large effort to impress God and/or others. But the whole project is not a whole lot more valuable or useful than that. You can never really impress others, and seriously… how in the world— WHO in the world— can impress GOD??
But there is a better way:
7 But Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. 8 Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ 9 and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. 10 All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, 11 so that somehow I also may be raised to life.
Here Paul is describing the Freedom of Faith… which is much different than understanding, mastery, or confidence! Faith is less certain, less sure, more squishy. But evermore enjoyable and productive. Faith and religion are completely different than one another.
Looking back on the religious stuff, the markers of his past life, Paul gets a little gross. Profane. The Greek term is ‘Skubalon’, which my esteemed undergrad Greek professor and generally upright person Dr. William Moulder translated as ‘shit’. Now Dr. Moulder was in his previous life a farm kid from Indiana, so he used terms like that. I would not do so. I was raised to use the more poetic term: ‘poop’. The lexicons translate it ‘dung, or rotten food’ (which when you think about it is really the same thing… I used to celebrate when working on kitchen plumbing rather than bathroom plumbing, until my scientist wife pointed out that it’s all the same).
Again with the rhetoric, Paul shuts down the argument by collecting all of his superior religious bona fides, putting them in a pile, and sticking a sign in it: ‘POOP’.
…and by implication, Paul suggests that the religious bragging of his upstarts are a kind of inferior grade of POOP.
In place of this, Paul says, is Christ… “for the sake of Christ,” “knowing Christ.” This is the way to life, and life eternal.
There is something counter-intuitive about *being right*, isn’t there? We see this with our kids all the time (our youngest kids, of course, never the one who is here today). The more sure we are; the more right we are, then the more chill we should be! If you’re right, you have nothing to prove, correct? Yet too often our surety/confidence– about things big and small!– makes us more urgent, adamant, unkind, outspoken, and rude. That’s certainly true of Paul, who was a proud persecutor of the church (and who by the way still at times seems more than a little bit adamant in his writings– I often wonder what he would have sounded like if he lived to be 300 years old!)
So in place of this religiosity, Paul is now focused on Christ. And there is a clarion call that he offers us in this regard:
12 I have not yet reached my goal, and I am not perfect. But Christ has taken hold of me. So I keep on running and struggling to take hold of the prize. 13 My friends, I don’t feel that I have already arrived. But I forget what is behind, and I struggle for what is ahead. 14 I run toward the goal, so that I can win the prize of being called to heaven. This is the prize that God offers because of what Christ Jesus has done.
There is a bright future, ahead of us and beyond us. This preferred future provides motivation, yes, but also freedom! Freedom to make mistakes, to misunderstand, to not be right all the time. Freedom to laugh off religious bona fides, and proper platitudes, and even clean language. Freedom to be honest, freedom to be pulled along.
Leave behind the past. Press ahead.
…and to what?, you ask. Press on to what exactly? Well thanks to some tangled-up Greek grammar, that’s not entirely clear. Is this a call *heavenward*, to Jesus? Or a call to *heaven* as the reward? It’s not at all clear.
The best conclusion seems to be that we continue the trajectory of this passage to focus on Jesus. Though the otherwise excellent translation Contemporary English Version goes in the other direction suggesting that heaven itself is the end goal.
So in the interest of equal time (and of excellent earthy rhetoric), let’s hear from Eugene Peterson and his translation The Message:
12-14 I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.
Keep your eye on the goal. Keep your eye on the prize! We are here, now. But we’re not stuck here. We can, collectively and individually, move toward a bright future. We are more than we appear to be, and less than we appear to be, all at the same time. And with God’s help, we are headed toward something even better, bigger, and brighter. Keep your eye on the prize!
DISCUSSION QUESTION: Why are you on earth? Where could you use a nudge in your heavenly calling?
CONFESSION/CODA: This passage has been resonating for me this week. Friday began a long-awaited visit from my cousin Erik (who I haven’t seen in at least 20 years) and his husband, and his Dad. I’ve been really excited about it, in part because I’m now at a place where I’m finally, truly excited for Erik and John and eager to engage with them and encourage them. But I’ll admit that this hasn’t always been so. For many years I’ve been trapped by my own religious bona fides, worried about what people would say if I was seen with them or seen as supportive of them. Religion is a powerful deterrent… It’s somehow even able to encourage us to ignore the tenets of our own religion in order to appear religious.
And with all that prelude, and all the distance I feel like I’ve come, it’s been fascinating for me to see that, actually, no one cares. Or perhaps I should say that most of those religious people were secretly supportive themselves. I just lacked the courage to step out of my own norms. I finally jumped in, and the water was fine.
Still, I need to confess. And ask for their forgiveness. I used the privilege of time, of distance, of silence, and the privilege of support withheld. Because they were far away, it was easy to do. To do nothing, basically. God forgive me.
And reading this passage all through the week, I see what I want to do. I want to take the poop of my past responses– or lack thereof!– and plant flowers in it. I want to see something beautiful grow. For the sake of Christ. God, give me strength.
leave the past behind
apologize and turn
cover over mistakes
then press forward
recreating the world around you
planting flowers in the poop