Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Pentecost 18 (A)
8 October 2017
This week our series of passages from Paul’s letter to the Philippians brings us to chapter 3.
Background | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Video 1 (0800 Liturgy) | Video 2 (0930 Baptism Liturgy)
Having considered compassion as a key attribute of the Christian life, and then an authentic humility that causes us to live for others rather than for ourselves, this week our focus us turns to faithfulness.
Earlier Paul has praised the Philippians for their unstinting support for him. He then urged them to get beyond petty disagreements as they discover a deep unity grounded in the mindset of Jesus himself.
Now he turns his attention to some very direct advice.
We can begin by noting how Paul lists his personal pedigree as part of a dispute about the claims of various people to have a status that guarantees them a hearing. In response to these self-serving claims to privilege, Paul cites his own personal pedigree as an observant Jew.
It is an impressive CV:
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)
We could spend a long time unpacking each of those claims, but we will not do that. The point is clear. Paul had an impeccable Jewish legacy.
But Paul has discovered something very important: None of that stuff matters!
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)
The faithfulness of Jesus
Already in that excerpt from Philippians 3 we catch a glimpse of the big idea that lies at the heart of this passage.
What matters is not who we are, what we have done, or even what we believe.
None of that matters at all.
For Paul, the one things that matters is the faith of Jesus.
For the last 500 years in our part of the Church this has been understood 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, said, or believed; but what Jesus had done, said, and believed.
What makes all the difference for us is the faithfulness of Jesus, not what we think about Jesus.
Paul develops this idea in several of his letters, and perhaps most notably in Romans—which is his most considered and intentional theological statement. There he parallels the faithfulness of Abraham, which generated blessing for all his direct descendants, with the faithfulness of Jesus, which generate blessings for all humanity.
It is a simple and elegant 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.
For 2000 years the Church has constructed a religious system that tells us how we must think right, believe right, and act right.
But within the Scriptures there has always been this clear statement that the only thing which really matters is that Jesus got it right, and so we can ride on his coat tails.
Our job is not to believe stuff about Jesus, but to cultivate the same attitude towards God’s call on our own lives.
Once we realise that the faithfulness of Jesus is enough, more than enough, we can stop trying so hard.
Instead of thinking of ourselves primarily as sinners, people who need to do better, we can live into the blessing that God offers us as a result of the faithfulness of Jesus.
That was a radical idea in Paul’s time, but is an even more radical idea after 2000 years of Christian focus on sin and guilt.
Of course it matters how we act, and we want to have our ideas clear and cogent.
But none of that is about seeking God’s blessing,
The blessing is already ours. It is a gift.
It flows from the faithfulness of Jesus.
We are people who live into the blessing, not people who manipulate our thoughts, feelings and actions to win forgiveness and approval from the God we encounter in Jesus of Nazareth,
For that we can truly give thanks as we gather at the Table of Jesus today.