October 4, 2020 – Loss and Gain
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, Psalm 19, Philippians 3: 4b-14, Matthew 21: 33-46
Reflecting on the life of the Apostle Paul, one who, by his own words was a righteous and zealous man of the Law before his conversion to Christ.
How many times, can we wonder, did the words of the Lord, like the ones we have heard this morning from Exodus and Psalm 19, swirl over in Paul’s mind during his life? How many times did these words of Scripture come to Paul and reinterpret themselves as he was transformed from one who was sure that God’s Law was in a Temple and a Scroll, to one who then learned the truth that God’s Law was fulfilled not in stone or paper, but in a man, a man called Jesus of Nazareth?
Not the stone of the temple, but rather the stone that the builders rejected.
This journey, particularly Paul’s journey, and how it informs our own, is what I would like to reflect upon with you today.
Going back to Paul’s words in Philippians this morning, we need to first recognize the kind of believer and man Paul was before he encountered Christ.
In the Apostle’s own words, he tells us:
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… (Phil 3: 4b-6)
In describing himself, or rather his pre-Christian life, in this way, Paul is essentially laying out his resume. His qualifications for righteousness under the God of Israel.
“If anyone has confidence in his righteousness, I have more”
Circumcised on the eighth day…
A member of the people Israel…
Of the tribe of Benjamin…
A Hebrew’s Hebrew…
As to the law, a Pharisee…
As to zeal, a persecutor of the church…
As to righteousness under the law, blameless…
Don’t you see? Paul says. I am, or rather was, the gold standard.
I was so righteous under the Law, such a lover of the Law, I even put to death those rabble-rousing Christ followers, who dared to say that the Law was fulfilled in a man, and a criminal at that.
To hear Paul speak in this way, in his time, is like hearing a man of our own time describe his own pedigree according to our own laws of righteousness.
“If anyone has confidence as an upper-middle class Canadian, I have more”
I learned to skate before I could walk
I got my first job before leaving middle school and haven’t stopped since
I went every Sunday to a good, God-fearing church
A Canadian’s Canadian
As to RRSP contributions, perfect
As to law abiding, a block watch captain
As to pure of heart, I always shovel my neighbour’s walk as well as my own.
Sound like anyone you know?
Hard working, responsible, one who works hard, pays his taxes, takes care of his community, one who values what the nation values; sounds pretty good eh? What else could our nation ask a man to be?
Yet, Paul shows us, even those who are perfect have nothing if they do not have Christ.
“Yet whatever gains I had,” (he writes) “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”
And realize also, this man Paul, this man who had every possible reason to boast in his righteousness as a Hebrew of Hebrews, this man Paul was already a man, already a business owner, already established when he realized that everything he had, in fact, amounted to nothing because he did not have Christ.
At the moment of his conversion, Paul was literally on his way to persecute Christ’s followers, to put more Christians into either a prison or a grave, when he was suddenly struck blind by the Lord and ended up helpless in the hands of those he was persecuting.
At this point in his life, at approximately 30 years of age, everything Paul had suddenly amounted to nothing: his Pharisaic zeal for God’s Word, his business, his standing in the community, the respect he commanded, it no longer counted for anything next to the literally blinding truth of Christ, the Word Made Flesh.
Imagine how disrupted, how out-of-place Paul must have felt in the days and the weeks that followed…
Everything I have built…
Everything I have earned…
Everything I believed…
Everything I am… disappeared in a flash.
In our own time of safety and security, it can be difficult to imagine such a thing, but these things do still happen to the law-abiding and non-abiding alike.
Fires in La Ronge, Fort McMurray, and now California that have destroyed entire neighbourhoods.
The current pandemic which has killed people as well as economies.
Accidents that have turned worlds upside down.
Diagnoses that cause us to reinterpret our entire lives.
In these moments of great change, when what we have known, what we have built, what we have earned is suddenly taken from us; who are we?
Who are we if not for the identities we have created?
Who are we if not for the reputations we have built?
Who are we if not for the legacies (large or small) that we have constructed under our names?
Who are we when we realize, like Paul, that without Christ we are in-fact nothing.
That even those things we took the most pride in as gain in our former lives, we now regard as loss.
Or as Paul himself says:
“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…”
However, lest we think that our conversion to the Way of Christ is a simple “one and done” process, we ought to remember that this way is just that,- a way, a journey - a way from a former life and toward a new life in Christ.
Ekaputra Tupamahu, an Oregon-based pastor and professor, describes this “there and not yet,” “on the way,” or “in the middle sensation” as the “immigrant feeling.”
Like an immigrant, one who is neither “at home” in what is known, nor “arrived” into the new life to come, followers of Christ exist in the middle of this “immigrant” experience, pressing forward and yet never quite reaching the object (in this lifetime at least).
As a grandchild of Italian immigrants, myself, I remember well my grandparent’s existence as people who lived in the middle; in the middle of the place they had come from, its language, its customs, its rules and laws, and the place where they were going, this “new country”, with its own customs and laws and ways of being.
Even though my grandparents, who both lived into their eighties, ended up living much more of their lives in Canada than in Italy, they were, even after sixty years, still “immigrants”. People who spoke, and gestured, and ate, and lived differently than those who did not live their lives in the middle.
What I learned from them, and part of what Paul wishes to impart to us now is that, when it comes to being immigrants, either to a new country, or to a new life in Christ, we ought to embrace being “in the middle,” to embrace being “on the road” even if we will not ever reach the new place in our lifetime.
After describing his dearest desire, of one day “knowing Christ, and the power of his resurrection, by becoming like him in death” Paul gives this description of his journey.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3: 12-14).
Knowing where we have been - regarding such as loss, and
Straining forward for the heavenly home that is to come.
This, Paul instructs us, is a more than worthwhile task for his (and our) mortal lives.
Knowing the loss we have come from.
Straining forward to our future in Christ.
Living in the meanwhile in the middle; no longer storing up our treasures on earth, no longer mistaking earthly comfort for satisfaction in Christ, we live our lives perceiving clearly who we really are (and more importantly) whose we really are.
This knowledge of God, this comfort of knowing where we are in God’s created and uncreated worlds allows us to finally live as the free people we are.
Not as those chained to the ways and values of this world.
Not as those who must prove their worth in earthly terms.
Not as those who live, stressfully, under the constant pressure to “make something” out of their short time on earth.
Paul, as a passionate and devout follower of the Law, could do all of these things and more:
He could prove his pedigree
He could demonstrate his knowledge of the Law of God
He could wield the power and influence allotted to him as good as any man before or since.
But he did not have the most important thing.
Paul, by his own admission of “loss and gain” did not recognize that God’s Law, God’s sovereignty, God’s love, was not fulfilled on the scroll, or in the tradition of righteousness, but that it was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of the only true Son of God.
Let me say that again, because this is true for everyone:
Whether you are a 1st Century Hebrew’s Hebrew like Paul
Or a 21st Century Canadian’s Canadian
Or a devout and committed Christian of any age.
God’s righteousness, God’s Law, God’s purpose for humanity is fulfilled completely in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and coming again; it is fulfilled not in the righteous life we boast about, not in our pedigree, not in our resume of accomplishments, rather, it is (and has been already) completely fulfilled in Christ’s love for us displayed on the cross.
In his early life, Paul, like all of us, did his best to live into the values of his community. To be righteous, to honour God and nation, to follow the Law. However, it was not until his life was interrupted by Christ’s blinding Truth that he learned to turn and embrace life in the middle.
That God’s Law, given to the people of Israel thousands of years ago in the deserts outside Egypt, may have been written on Moses’ stone tablets, but it was fulfilled in the flesh and blood of a Rabbi from Nazareth.
That for all of the beautiful words of David and Solomon, from the great kings of old, to the later prophets, that the object of David’s love for God was not a scroll or a hierarchy of priestly pharisees, but that it was in-fact the man these same pharisees had put to death.
A man who, on the very night he was betrayed, took bread and wine and invited his friends to take part in His heavenly banquet.
What could it have meant?
What could it have meant to Paul that the True Way, the Way of Christ he was now following would take the rest of his life and more. That it would invite him to live in the middle, to replace gain with loss and loss with gain.
And that even more than that, that he, one who was a persecutor of Christ’s church ended up becoming called by God to be the Way’s greatest advocate?
Not despite his old life. But even through it. That God, in His infinite grace and ability to redeem all things, brought up Paul as one who would tell all he could that the same Jesus killed on the cross, the same Jesus scorned and hated by he and his fellow Law-followers, was in-fact the living, dying, and resurrected fulfillment of that Law.
Friends, the Good News this morning is that whether we believe we are on The Way of Christ or not.
Whether we have fully embraced the “immigrant feeling” of following Christ.
Or whether we are still now clinging to our treasures on earth, denying every reason to give them up and regard them as loss.
The Good News is that Christ is seeking and calling each one of us. Whoever we are. Wherever we are on the journey, even if we haven’t yet started.
Christ is reaching out to each of us.
With the simple elements of bread and wine.
Inviting us to journey on the Way; to begin again, or just to begin; to find out who we really are, and whose, and to learn that by losing everything, we will in-fact gain infinitely more.