(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 3/15/2016)
5th Sunday of Lent, Year C
If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.
With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:4b-14)
We are in the midst of Lent, drawing close to Easter. Palm Sunday is next week, meaning that our Holy Thursday service and prayer vigil is next week as well. During this whole season of Lent, we’ve been talking about baptism. On Easter Sunday, we’re going to celebrate the resurrection of Christ and his defeat of the powers of sin and death by remembering our baptisms. The foundation of our faith is found in Christ’s death and resurrection, and we are initiated into this faith in baptism, so I don’t think there’s a better way to celebrate than this.
So throughout the season of Lent, we’ve been working through the baptismal vows given to us by our denomination. These are the vows that are taken by anyone in the UMC who is baptized before they pass under the waters, and they’re taken by any congregation when we remember our baptisms. So these vows are important, and we’ve been studying a portion of them each week. We’re doing this to remind us of what we signed up for in the Christian faith, whether we made the conscious choice to be baptized or our parents did when we were infants. They also give us a glimpse of what the Christian life ideally looks like.
This week, we’re focusing on the word “Profess.” From the beginning, baptism has been an opportunity to profess faith in Jesus Christ for the first time. Remembering our baptism is an opportunity for all of us to profess faith in Jesus Christ again, and be reminded of what that means. So that’s what we’re going to focus on today-what does it really mean to profess our faith in Jesus Christ, as well as our faith in the Triune God-God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The passage from Philippians that I just read for you really helps us out here. So let’s dive in.
So in this passage, Paul starts off by telling us all of the reasons why he’s the most awesome person ever. Right? He says “If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more.” Basically, if you think you’re pretty awesome, Paul says that he’s better. And he delineates all of his credentials that make him exactly this awesome
Some of it might be hard for us to understand because it’s so steeped in the traditions of 1st century Judaism and Christianity. But Paul is basically saying that he has been raised in the Jewish faith and continued as a devout Jewish believer. He’s from a good, respectable Jewish family. He was a Pharisee, fanatical in his faithful obedience to the Law of Moses. He was such a committed follower of the Jewish faith that he even pushed out those who were understood to be ruining and tainting the Jewish faith and hurting his people-the Church. All of this made Paul look like a pretty awesome person.
Reading all of this made me start thinking of my own credentials. What credentials do I have that make me super-awesome like Paul?
Well, my family has been devoted United Methodists for at least three generations, and I was raised and continue in that tradition. Further, my great-granddad on my father’s side was a pastor and my Dad is a pastor as well. Now I’m a pastor, following what might have become a tradition.
But all of that is stuff that I was born into, like what Paul started with. But I have more credentials that I’ve earned. When I finished college, I had a cumulative GPA of 3.8. I made the Dean’s List every single semester. And I worked my butt off to get there. I was getting a music degree, so I spent so many late nights in practice rooms, honing my skills on trumpet, many Friday nights were spent studying instead of partying. Even more than all of that stuff, I’ve been preaching since I was a sophomore in high school. You all know that I became a pastor when I was a senior in college. I got a great scholarship to go to seminary. All of those are credentials working in my favor, like what Paul talked about.
But I’m not going to hog all of the fame. All of us have credentials that make us awesome, just like Paul. Maybe it’s the job that you hold, maybe you’ve kept advancing and getting better and better positions because you’re so good at your job. Maybe it’s your level of education, maybe not many people around you have attained that level of education, not everyone had as good of grades as you. Maybe you have a lot of well-deserved pride in your kids, how well they’ve turned out, how well you have raised them, not every parent has kids as good as your kids. Maybe you’ve been smart in investing and you have a pretty good retirement fund set up, to where you’ll never have to worry about your future. Even if you don’t think you have many credentials, think of the privileges you have compared to the rest of the world. You have, or someone in your family has, a source of income. You have a roof over your head. You live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. All of those credentials, those advantages, those privileges, those skills, they all seem like they make you pretty awesome, maybe even…better than others?
Paul had a bunch of credentials too. Plenty of reasons to feel really good about himself, who he was, what he’d done. But do you know what he said about this? He said, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.” He said “That was my resume. Those were my credentials. That was my transcript. But I destroyed it, got rid of it, erased it, forget it for the sake of Christ.”
Now, Paul is not saying that any of those credentials or privileges or advantages are inherently bad or shameful, and he’s not saying that we should feel bad or ashamed of our credentials, privileges or advantages. But Paul does tell us that staking our life on them won’t get us one inch nearer to where we want to go.
Now that begs the question, where do we want to go? What is the goal? Why does Paul say this? Why did Paul throw away, delete, destroy his resume? Why does the text call us to do the same thing?
According to Paul, we do this so that we may gain the righteousness that is not our own, but the righteousness of God that’s based on faith. Now I want to camp out on that word-righteousness-because that’s a very church-y word that we say a lot around here but we may or may not be able to say what it means. The original Greek word that Paul used here that’s translated into righteousness refers to God’s approval; when we are made righteous, when we gain this righteousness that Paul talks about, it means that we are deemed right by God-We’ve accepted the approval of God that says we are indeed good enough.
I got to thinking about this. Maybe this is what we’re all chasing after. Maybe we-as humans in general-are all chasing after some kind of divine cosmic approval. Maybe we’re all chasing after something in the universe that says that we are good enough, right enough. And maybe we do this by making ourselves:
Maybe we chase this approval by following the rules-by following the laws, following unwritten rules of different groups.
So I hope we see the real problem here. As I see it, the problem is this: We spend so much time professing faith in ourselves that we don’t have time to profess faith in Christ. We trust in our credentials, privileges, advantages; our talents, our wealth, everything we’ve worked so hard to earn. We trust in ourselves and our own credentials so much that we don’t even give Jesus the chance to work in us. We say that we know Jesus, but we find our security in our savings accounts, retirement funds, jobs, education, skills and talents, community involvement, social life. Those things aren’t bad or shameful-they’re good and smart things to have and do, up to a certain point. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we’re simply called to find our security somewhere else. We are called to profess our faith in something else besides ourselves.
And that brings us back to the word I introduced in the beginning-profess. In the ritual of baptism, the central act, besides the baptism itself, is the professing of faith in Jesus Christ. Since the early church, there has always been a point in the baptism ritual where the person would publicly profess their faith, allegiance, trust, and hope in Jesus Christ. Now historically, the church has used something that we call a “creed” to do this. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo and simply means “I believe.” So a creed is basically a summary of belief, a statement that sums up whatever a group believes and holds to be true.
Now too often, creeds become boring recitations where you’re reading or saying something just because the pastor tells you to. But realize what is happening when we read or recite a creed or other statement of faith together. Whenever we say a creed together, we are professing our faith and trust in our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The meaning of this is so deep.
Whenever you profess your faith, you’re saying that your credentials and impressive resume will not save you. They will not bring about any kind of lasting change or transformation in your life or anyone else’s. Your privileges and advantages will not make the world any kind of better place. They will not give you divine cosmic approval.
And when we profess our faith, we say that that salvation, transformation, improvement, divine cosmic approval and love CAN be gained through knowing Christ in so deep a way that you identify with him and find all of your security for you past, present and future in Jesus. Not in your savings account, not in your retirement fund, not in your credentials, privileges, or advantages.
When you profess your faith through one of our creeds, you say “This is what I know about God-Father, Son and Spirit. This is who I put my faith and trust in. This God is enough to save me.”
So I want to help us in this. I’d like us to read together the Apostles’ Creed. We’ve done this before, and we’ve said other creeds and statements of faith together, but I want us to do this with a real awareness of what we’re actually doing-don’t just say the words mindlessly. The Apostles’ Creed began to be formed in the 3rd century AD-the 200’s!- and it has since that time continually been held up as a reliable and understandable summary of who we believe God is and who we profess our faith in.
So I’d like us to read together this creed.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
Pause. Be mindful of what you just said. Realize who you are professing your faith and trust in.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate. He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day, he rose again. He ascended into Heaven, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Pause. Be mindful of what you just. Realize who you are professing your faith and trust in.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
This creed that we just read together, this is one way we can profess our faith and say that this is how we are saved from a life of brokenness, alienation, and shame. This is who transforms us into the image of God. This is where we start to make the world a better place. This is how we can accept and experience the divine cosmic approval and acceptance of us that’s already been offered out to us. Not in our credentials, privileges, and advantages. Not in ourselves, but through this God.
Can you see how this can help you? How professing faith like this here in church as well as in your private life can help heal, transform and mold your life into the image of God? Can you feel the new life you can find by giving up all that you once counted as an asset, by destroying your resume, and finding all of your security in God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer?
O God who calls us from death into life,
You have sent us your Son Jesus Christ
Who did not consider equality with you as something to exploit
But emptied himself and became like us,
And humbled himself to the point of death.
We pray that you would teach us to follow your Son in this way,
That we would write off our assets, destroy our resumes, and give up our privileges and advantages,
So that we can profess our faith in you
Find our hope for a future in you
And receive the new life that you have for us.
In the name of you God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,