A sermon based on Psalm 19 and Philippians 3:4b-16 preached on October 5th, 2014.
There have been countless surveys and studies done—some of them scientific, others of them casual polls—that sought to find what Americans value most. If you were to take your best guess about what sorts of things were on a list of what Americans value most, what would you say?
A recent Reuters’ poll revealed that Americans value time most, with career, success, and money all coming in a close second. I would hope family and loved ones were somewhere on that list too, but they weren’t mentioned as a part of the study’s results.
Time, career, success, and money. These are the four things Americans value most, and I bet that we value time above the last three only because if we had more of it we could work harder or longer at our careers, become more successful, and make more money.
Time, career, success, and money—the four holy things our culture lifts up and strives toward. I use the word “holy” because it simply means “set apart”—whatever it is that we put up top in our lives—whatever things we give our greatest effort to acquire—whatever we spend most of our time trying to grab a hold of—that’s what becomes most holy to us.
The question is: What does all this striving lead to? And how far up do we have to climb the ladder of cultural status before we realize that it’s not leading us anywhere? That our efforts to climb higher and gain more are all too often purposeless.
Our culture tells us to climb our way up the ladder of success—but do we really know what we’re climbing towards? And is it possible that all our climbing and striving for more is an exercise in futility. That all the ladders we climb lead us nowhere meaningful? That they’re simply ladders to the sky.
Paul had many reasons to brag in his day. His resume was long and impressive. He lists some of his accomplishments and accolades in this passage. And as the Philippians read these off one by one, they would have been impressed.
By virtue of Paul’s birth, out of the tribe of Benjamin, he was considered the cream of the crop by all Jewish standards, he was circumcised on the 8th day just like the law of Moses says every good Jewish male should be, he studied the Torah and worked his way up to become a Pharisee—basically a lawyer in his day. His parents would have been proud. He was born an elite, he studied at elite levels, he knew it all, and for years and years he used his elevated status and education to climb even higher.
Saul, as he was known before he became a Christian, lived off of and reaped the benefits of his own accomplishments. He was a professional ladder climber and he had reached the very top. Saul was hailed as a leader against the Jesus movement. He was the leading persecutor of Christians. Saul was confident that he was doing the right thing by persecuting Christians. He was confident that by doing so, he was standing up for his faith. But then something unexpected happened. Saul met the very Jesus these persecuted Christians were following.
On the road to Damascus, Saul was blinded by light and he heard Jesus speak to him and Jesus told him to stop everything he was doing. And as the days went by after meeting Jesus, as his eyes begin to heal from their blindness, as the scales began falling off his eyes, Saul began seeing everything in a completely new way.
Jesus had entered Saul’s life and disrupted everything he thought he knew. Saul the accomplished Pharisee and Christian persecutor becomes Paul the great Christian evangelizer. Once Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, his entire life, purpose, identity, and outlook changed.
It was Saul who boasted about his accomplishment, his accolades, his assets. It was Saul who thought all that mattered. But now to Paul, a servant of Jesus, none of that mattered anymore. Compared to the gift of saving grace that God had given him through his encounter with Jesus, Paul regarded all those past accomplishments as good as sewer trash.
The Gospel hit Paul hard. Once so confident of what he believed and so certain about how to live his life based upon the clear rule of the Laws in the Torah, meeting Jesus threw Paul off his game and sent him spinning—his encounter with Jesus upset all Paul knew and disturbed all of those things he once was so confident about, and it sent him searching for a brand new understanding of himself and how the world worked.
Meeting Jesus made Paul reassess his entire life—its purpose and its direction. Paul’s definition of success changed now that he knew Jesus. The free gift given to Paul on the road to Damascus had turned his entire focus away from himself and his accomplishments and turned it toward Christ. From that moment on, Paul’s one and only purpose was to share Jesus with others and to live out the message of the Gospel. That became Paul’s one and only definition of success.
Paul may not have known where this new life would take him, but one thing he was sure of: All those achievements and accolades that he so often hung his hat on came to nothing now that he knew Jesus. Paul realized it was all climbing ladders to the sky. Striving that got him nowhere.
Paul wrote these words to the church in Philippi while he was imprisoned—most likely in Rome. Shackled up, dirty, and unsure of what may happen to him next, Paul writes to the Philippian church with hopeful words.
Even in chains and locked up in a prison cell, Paul was confident that God was taking him places—doing new things through him. That’s all that Paul was focused on—Christ living through him, so when anyone looked at him they didn’t see Paul the apostle or Paul the prisoner, but Christ in him and through him in every effort he made and every word out of his mouth.
Every effort we make that doesn’t proclaiming Christ in our lives is like climbing ladders to the sky—empty striving for no good reason.
We come to this Communion Table only because Christ has invited us to it. We have not earned our way here. There is nothing about our resume that makes us fit guests at this Table. Our invitation to and everything we partake around this communion Table is a sheer gift given to us through Christ.
At this table, we come to know the true definition of grace—love unmerited, unearned, and undeserved. Our bodies, hearts, and souls are fed through the gifts of bread and cup broken and poured out for us.
It is around this table that Christ gathers us and grabs a hold of us, calls us by name, and makes us his own. It is around this table that we, like Paul, have a chance to reorder our values according to a new set of standards, according to a new Kingdom—to be reminded once again that it is not our status that makes us worthy of dining at Christ’s table.
It is not our effort that has earned us a seat here. We climb no ladders to get here, in fact it’s God who has come down in Christ to meet us at our level, Christ came to teach us a new, peculiar sort of life—one based not on earning, reaching for, acquiring more, and calling ourselves accomplished people.
We cannot secure a place on God’s good side with our own effort. It is Christ who does that for us. It is Christ who secures a seat at this table for us.
This table is a glimpse of a different world, one where we shed our status and our station and come into the presence of God with empty hands, claiming no accomplishment but Christ’s accomplishment in us. Here, we ask for Christ’s effort to replace our own. Here we come to confess that all that we have and all that we are—every good gift we celebrate—comes to us only through God’s grace given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord—through whom we are fed and to whom we owe our very lives.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!