Sermon 5 Lent, Yr C

5 Lent Yr C, 21/03/2010

Phil 3:4b-14

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Paul’s loss and gain”

If an employer is hiring a worker, they rely a lot on the worker’s past training, knowledge and experience. The employer depends on information stating the worker’s credentials in a resume. If a university hires a professor, they rely on a potential professor’s academic pedigree as presented in curriculum vitae. And when a country asks who is a legitimate heir to the present king or queen? they rely on the history of a royal family to determine who shall be the new monarch.

In the same way, the apostle Paul speaks of his pedigree, highlighting his impressive credentials in today’s second lesson. Paul we might say, was a spiritual superstar. He was the ideal opponent within Judaism to resist Christianity.

Paul tells us that he was: “circumcised on the eighth day.” Going back to the days of Abraham, in Genesis seventeen, God makes a covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people; and as an outward sign of this covenant, God gave the command to Abraham that all male babies must be circumcised when they were eight days old. So as an Israelite, Paul is a legitimate one, having been circumcised in obedience to God’s command and covenant.

Paul goes on to state that he was: “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin.” In other words, his parents were Jewish and they descended from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribes of Benjamin and Judah were the two faithful tribes when all of the others had abandoned God, and fallen away from the covenant. And Benjamin was considered to be one of the most aristocratic tribes of Israel. The first king of Israel, Saul, was from the tribe of Benjamin, and perhaps Paul, prior to his Damascus road encounter with Christ, was named after King Saul.

Paul continues to state his credentials, saying that he was: “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” The Jewish people did not all speak Hebrew, read or write in that language at the time of Paul. Many Jews could not speak, read or write in the Hebrew because of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles; as well as their taking up residence in several Gentile lands. Over time, the Hebrew language was lost among some of the Jews because the land in which they lived had another official language. Here in Canada the same thing often happens. The first generation of immigrants usually preserve their mother tongue. However, by the second or third generation, their offspring may have abandoned the language of their ancestors—favouring English or French, the two official languages of Canada. Paul tells us that he and his parents retained the Hebrew language.

Paul adds another important credential to his list, saying: “as to the law, a Pharisee.” In the book of Acts, Paul says at least three times that he was educated as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:5). Moreover, he was trained under one of Jerusalem’s best Pharisaic teachers, Gamaliel. Gamaliel, you may recall, was the wise and respected teacher who cautioned other Jewish leaders not to persecute or kill the apostles after they had been teaching in the Jerusalem temple. Gamaliel gave the Jewish leaders the following wise counsel: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39) So Paul was trained as a Pharisee by this highly respected and wise teacher, Gamaliel. As a Pharisee, Paul meticulously knew the Bible, and followed all of the rules and regulations of the law.

Paul then states: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” We recall that before his Damascus road experience, Paul was a man with a single-minded mission—to persecute and even sentence to death Christians. Paul had been a witness to the earliest Christian martyr, Stephen, when he was stoned to death. He was on his way to Damascus to seek out, persecute and possibly put to death other Christians there when Jesus appeared to him and changed his life mission. However, in his days as a zealous persecutor of the church, an enemy of the church, Paul was likely a respected leader among the Jews because of his zealous persecution of Christians. Such behaviour may likely have convinced some of his fellow Jews of his loyalty to the Jewish faith.

In his final credential, Paul states that he was: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” In Paul’s heart and mind, there was no question or doubt that he had not violated the Jewish law in any way, shape of form. Paul had kept Torah; he had observed the Jewish law in spirit and letter. He was, before the law, innocent, clean, righteous, so he thought and believed. On the outside at least, all indications seemed to point to a perfectly righteous Jewish leader.

Yet, the law goes deeper than mere externals, and righteousness in God’s eyes is not based on what we do to earn it. Now if one was judged on the basis of his credentials and his ability to observe the law outwardly, then yes, he had reason to boast and be confident within himself. However, after, if not before the Damascus road experience, Paul knew and learned otherwise. He had read and studied Isaiah 64:6, which told him: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”

So the best pedigree and the finest credentials; the noblest accomplishments; one’s birthright and training or membership within an organization cannot ultimately satisfy, save or make a person righteous. We are all sinners. The law demands perfection, we are imperfect—therefore, try as we do; our final effort shall always result in not perfectly keeping the law. If we are to be satisfied, saved and righteous what needs to happen then?

The story is told of a pastor and his wife who spent a month in Zermatt, Switzerland. It is one of the loveliest places on the face of the earth. Zermatt is a village you reach by a cogwheel railroad, and there are no cars there. It is right at the foot of the Matterhorn, and snow-covered mountains tower all around that lovely little village in the valley. But the residents once had a typhoid scare. Some people in the village got typhoid fever, and they tried to hush it up. They didn’t want to tell anybody about it. They wondered how any water could be more pure than the water running off the mountains from the melting snows. But they found out that a sewer was located close by the source of the water, and the sewer had bled through and was polluting the water supply. The water was fine as it first ran off the mountains, but by the time it reached the people, it had been polluted.

In a similar fashion, even the good things we do are often shot through with selfish interest, the seeking to advance ourselves in one way or another. So the Scripture says that even our righteousnesses in God’s sight are as filthy rags. Jesus said that when we have done our very best, we must consider ourselves unworthy servants in God’s sight (Luke 17:10). It is not possible for us to strike up a bargain whereby we gain God’s favour.1

In contrast to all of Paul’s gains from his birthright, faith in Judaism and achievements; Paul, is given a new revelation concerning what truly satisfies, saves and makes him righteous. He writes: “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 law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

What an incredible statement! Paul, a first class Pharisee, proud of his Jewish birthright, faith, traditions, culture and personal accomplishments tells us that he’s willing to give all of this up, regard it as loss in order to gain Christ and the righteousness of God that comes through Christ. The righteousness of God in Christ is exchanged, traded for our sin. Martin Luther called this “the happy exchange.” Paul puts it like this in I Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Paul’s sense of gaining true satisfaction, righteousness and salvation in Christ is what two hymn writers might have based their hymns on that we sing during the Lenten season. The words to the first hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” highlight the sufficiency of Christ righteousness and ability to save us in contrast with our works: “Not the labours of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands…Thou must save, and thou alone. Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” And in the words of the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Paul’s theme of gain and loss is highlighted, along with the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross: “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. Forbid it Lord that I should boast save in the death of Christ my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”

May we too, like Paul and the hymn writers of these two Lenten hymns, count as gain the righteousness of Christ, freely given as a result of his saving work through his suffering and death on the cross. May we rejoice in the relationship with have with our Lord, as more precious than anyone or anything in the world. Amen.

1 Cited from: Everett L. Fullam, “Profit and Loss,” in: Richard Allen Bodey, Editor, Good News for All Seasons: Twenty-six Sermons for Special Days (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1987), p. 46.