I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done.
(Preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017)
Have you checked your credit rating lately? Even before the Equifax hacking scandal, your credit score had become a big number. When you buy a home or a car, unless you are paying a cash, to secure a loan for the amount of the purchase, they run a credit report on you. They also look at your credit score when you arrange cell phone service or lease an apartment. This rating can determine many things – such as whether you receive the loan, what interest rate you pay, even if there are other fees charged. If you have a good credit rating, you often not only get the loan but you get a better interest rate. If you have a bad credit rating, you may not get the loan, or you may get it but pay a higher interest rate. This score is so important to you that now there are many services where you can keep track of your score without paying for it. One of my credit cards provides me regular access to check my score as a benefit of my card.
Here in his letter to the Philippians, Paul is running a sort of “credit rating” on his life. He lists all the things that he once looked at to evaluate his worth and value as a person – “ circumcised when I was eight days old…. a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin. … a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. … so zealous that [he] harshly persecuted the church. … obeyed the law without fault.” These are the things Paul once depended on to assure himself and others that we was a good person, a valuable person, one pleasing to God. He had a pedigree of birth, came from the right people, had done everything he possibly could to live a good, holy, upright life. Paul had come to realize though, that none of that mattered. After he came to know Jesus and the power of his resurrected life, he now let go of all that other stuff that he was relying on.
On what do you base your confidence? We live I a culture that tells us our “net worth” in terms of dollars and asks us for our resume so that we can line up our degrees, our accomplishments, our credits in order to be evaluated as worthy or qualified. We’re told that we must earn our rewards and that we somehow deserve recognition, security, and money based on things we do.
Or perhaps for you it is your family heritage? Were you born into the “right” family? I once sat next to a very nice woman at a community meeting who was very excited to introduce herself to me, once she learned I was a Congregational minister, as another “Congregationalist.” In fact, one of her ancestors was on the Mayflower! She was a true American!
Perhaps for you it is the contacts you have made in your work and your life? Do you rely on knowing the “right” people? Perhaps it is your membership in a political party? Do you read all the right columnists and listen to the right radio hosts? Is it your membership in this church? Do you trust in that for your validation as a good person?
It is not that any of these things are bad. Paul did not think his background was bad. There is nothing inherently wrong with worldly accomplishments, and Paul actually sounds quite proud of all that he had become. We do need what they call our architecture of ego – containers of our identity. We need to have a sense of who we are before we can become who we were meant to be.
But there comes a time in our spiritual formation when this architecture of identity must be held up against the greater goal and purpose of our living. (This is one of Richard Rohr’s great insights.) If the architecture of our ego is not contributing “to wanting to know Jesus,” as Paul says, then we would do well to step beyond it. It can become a distracting ornamentation at best, or at worst a barrier to our journey toward becoming more like Jesus – the function and purpose of our lives.
We see this so beautifully in this passage from Philippians. The contours of Paul’s life are being shaped by his longing “to know Christ and the mighty power that raised him from the dead.” As such, his life has taken on a new form. It is no longer an edifice of his own making, but instead it is being formed as he pursues what he knows now to be the purpose of his life: to know Christ and share the good news with the world. And while this new life is not without suffering, it has also brought him a lightness of being and a peace the world cannot give.
That new attitude and acceptance of life and of himself came to Paul because he met Jesus. On the road to Damascus God confronted Paul with the life of Jesus – the life of a truly good, holy, righteous man who loved and accepted himself because he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was loved and accepted by God. As a result of that inner knowledge, secure in the knowledge that he was accepted and valued by God, Jesus was then able to love and accept everyone else with great compassion. God held that life up against Paul’s life, which Paul had thought to be a great success. But it was not a life that was loving and accepting of others. Rather it was a life filled with judgment, hate and condemnation of others. It was a life constantly worried about measuring up to a high standard of perfection and therefore striving to root out all those who did not measure up to that standard. It was a life which had turned to violence against those who did not measure up.
Suddenly, Paul saw that none of what he thought in life mattered. What truly mattered was the love and acceptance of God, which is what Paul had been looking for in his life all along and which none of those things which he had thought so important had ever provided him. In fact, his focus on those things was getting in the way of his receiving the love and acceptance of God. His focus on all those qualities and achievements and rules and standards had led him to take his eyes off of God. He was so worried about measuring up that he took his focus off of God and placed it on himself and what he needed to be and do.
I know I have struggled with this same dilemma all of my life: trying to measure up; trying to be a success; trying to establish my value and worth as a person. And I suspect that you have faced the same struggles much of your life. But Paul finally understood that it didn’t rely on him and what he did to measure up. It was totally and completely up to God. And what the life of Jesus showed him was, that God had already pronounced him valuable, worthwhile, accepted.
There is a story about Abraham Lincoln from his Illinois days as a young lawyer that is a wonderful parable for this understanding. An angry man stormed into Lincoln’s office demanding that he bring suit against an impoverished debtor who owed him $2.50. “Make him pay!” the man demanded. Well, Lincoln didn’t want anything of the sort to happen. The debtor couldn’t pay the $2.50, the creditor didn’t need the $2.50, and society shouldn’t be run by either such greed or insensitivity. So Lincoln declined the case. Unfortunately the man kept pressing and since Lincoln was the only lawyer available, he was forced to serve the suit. First, though, he charged the man $10 for legal fees. Then he brought the defendant in, gave him $5 for his time, and asked if the charges were accurate. He readily agreed, and out of his newly gotten $5 paid the $2.50 he owed. Everyone was satisfied, including the irate plaintiff, who never realized that he spent $10 to collect $2.50.
Now turn that story around and think of it from this angle: a man with no credit is burdened by a debt he could never repay. Along comes an advocate he can’t hire to resolve a matter he can’t win. Suddenly, in a transaction he could never accomplish, the debt is gone, the creditor has disappeared, and he has money in his pocket! All he had to do was agree to the terms.
Such is our credit rating with God. It doesn’t make sense, but we don’t have to make sense of it. Just embrace it, accept the good news that God loves you, and allow that to be the guiding truth for your life. After all, we are alive in this world not to prove our worth or earn our salvation, but because of the good news we are to embody and share. As we share this good news of God’s love and acceptance and continue to learn and lean into it, our lives are formed and shaped more and more in the shape of Jesus’ life. It really is as simple and profoundly challenging as that.