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Another Piece of Paper

March 18, 2013

“Another Piece of Paper” Philippians 3:1-16 © 3.17.13 Lent 5C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

After six long years, I finally had my Doctor of Ministry, or D. Min., degree from Columbia Seminary. For me it was a new credential, freeing me forever, I thought, of the stigma of having my Masters of Divinity from Reformed Seminary, a school associated strongly with the PCA. It was also the end of an educational journey on which I had attained more than anyone in my family, few of whom had ever been to or completed college, much less gotten a master’s and then a doctorate. Now I could also feel more at home and have more credibility in my congregation, filled with Ph.D.’s on the faculty of the local university. I was riding high.

The D. Min. was a large document, and I had had it nicely framed. It looked great in the center of a number of other degrees and awards on my office wall. I had just hung it and was standing back checking to make sure it was straight. That’s when Henry Tolbert, the janitor of my little church, walked in. “Lord, you got another piece of paper,” he said. Of course, that deflated my big head quite quickly. But Henry was right; for all it meant to me, the degree was indeed just a piece of paper. I had found over the years that Henry was a very wise man who had a way of putting things in perspective.

That’s what Paul was doing as well. Putting things in perspective. Speaking about what’s really valuable. He was as proud of his accomplishments as I was and am of my D. Min. What he had done with his life and could do partly arose from circumstances of birth. He was born to his faith tradition and nurtured in it. So he was fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic, the mother tongues of the Jews. But Paul’s family lived in a Greek-speaking city and also knew that language, which was like English is today, the so-called lingua franca, the language of business and commerce, a way diverse cultures could communicate. So he was comfortable in and knowledgeable about both the secular culture and the religious life of his day. His pedigree and training, in short, were impeccable. His mama and daddy were proud of their boy Paul.

But the apostle had also made some choices, just as I had in pursuing ministry. He studied under Gamaliel, one of the greatest teachers of the time. Then Paul had aligned himself for good or ill with the party known as the Pharisees, a group of laymen who were dedicated to seeing the law of God followed to the letter. As a result of his training and his zeal, Paul (then known as Saul) had sought economic and legal sanctions against the new movement that was claiming Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. He was persecuting Christians because for him it was the right thing to do. Getting rid of these troublesome heretics would be a service to the God of his ancestors, the God to whom he was devoted body and soul.

This was a man who had a great deal going for him. He was justly proud of his long heritage. As an intellectual, he was among the cream of the crop. Yet all his credentials had become mere pieces of paper to be tossed away. In fact, even less. The translations are all sanitized. The English equivalent of the Greek term he uses is a vulgar one for waste that can’t be spoken in polite company such as a worship gathering. Notice: none of this was taken from him. Nor does he say that his past and his accomplishments were worthless in themselves. Paul’s is not the testimony heard so often, especially in evangelical and fundamentalist churches, in which the person has lived a life of debauchery and self-destruction, then in a sudden conversion, has embraced Christ as Savior and Lord. There is value in such a witness, and it is to be honored. But that’s not Paul’s experience. He has not given up drugs or drinking or fornication or idolatry or lying or cheating; he never practiced any of that. He wasn’t a bad person; instead, he was among the most righteous, moral, and scrupulously observant people in society and synagogue. No. Paul has given up not the worst, but the best. Or perhaps better, he has given over the best. He’s sacrificed it to Jesus. Author Frederick Buechner once wrote that the human best is often at odds with the holy best. To know Christ was of such surpassing value that everything else paled in comparison.

And what had Paul gotten for his trouble? If he were standing in this pulpit this morning, he would tell you that when Christ takes hold of your life, when you are seized by a passion for the gospel, when you are given new life, you may very well suffer. In fact, suffering is part and parcel of Christian life, a badge of authentic faith.

Hold on, now! Wait a minute! Being a Christian, we’re commonly told, is supposed to make you happy. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey,” we sing. “Happy are those…” goes one translation of the Beatitudes. But is happiness the same thing as blessedness and joy, which are the promise of Jesus?

And then there are those who take things one step farther. Faithful living is also prosperous living, successful living, they tell us. In a twist on the old Protestant and Calvinist work ethic, this spin on the gospel says that if you’re having financial success and health, God is blessing you and favors you. It’s preached these days by Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and Creflo Dollar. As religion writer Cathleen Falsani has described this prosperity gospel, which she terms a “heresy”: “If you pray the right way, God will make you rich” (See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/opinions/outlook/worst-ideas/prosperity-gospel.html). And, I would add, if your wife is beautiful, your husband good-looking, your children bright-eyed and well-behaved, God is showering you with blessings. When your business is raking in the profits, that’s a sign of the Lord’s favor. Since the church you belong to took in 365 new members to add to its 6000 last year, most of them prosperous young families with children, God favors your doctrines, worship, and stance on social issues. The capital campaign was a rousing success, and your new multi-million dollar Family Life Center with Internet Café and state-of-the-art gym was completed without cost overruns. The pastor just published his latest best-selling motivational book, Ten Ways to Get What You Want from God. Again, all this is seen as a reward for your orthodoxy, your insistence on family values, and your faithfulness to Jesus.

On the other hand, suppose your business is doing poorly; customers are staying away in droves, as if your company were infected with the plague. At home, things are no better. Your teenager hates you most of the time; her behavior and manners are atrocious; she never looks up from her smart phone, on which she can text at warp speed; and her speech is incomprehensible, except that one sarcastic word: “whatever.” The church you belong to is small and shrinking; you haven’t had an installed pastor or a new member in many years, and the bank account contains less than some people have in personal checking. All this despite your sense that you are living faithfully, such as by caring about the poor and taking care of the environment. You believe passionately in Jesus and seek to follow him, as do the other members of the congregation and your family. The prosperity gospel folks would say, though, that God is against you, since you do not experience personal success, measured in numbers and satisfaction, and the church is not bursting at the seams. Or if he is not against you, God is at least trying to teach you a lesson or more probably, punishing you for some unconfessed sin like believing the wrong doctrines or welcoming the wrong people, thus breaching historic orthodoxy. He will not honor you with things and growth until you get right with him.

So what about such a take on faith, so popular in certain circles? For Paul, such ideas are just wrong. And more: they may be the lies of deceived and deceiving people. His odd order, which we don’t want to accept, is resurrection, suffering, then glory. Granted, suffering and things going wrong may be the result of bad choices and wrongdoing. It may be that you are the victim of circumstances beyond your control. And when you’re doing well, God may indeed be blessing you. But it could also be that you have learned how to sell out to the culture while outwardly affirming Christian values. The Jesus you worship is not the one who was born in a stable and reached out to the least of his society.

Of course, not all suffering is suffering for the sake of the gospel. But some of it is. Paul’s point is that when you’re a real believer, a follower of Jesus, people may not like you very much. You may suffer precisely because you are in tune with God and other people are not. You’ll be unpopular because there are times when you have to tell the truth, point out the elephant in the room that nobody else wants to acknowledge is there. And people in my experience usually don’t want to hear the truth, because fantasy and myth and magical thinking are easier. You’re not thanked for being forthright and bearing a witness that represents what Jesus actually taught.

But being like Christ, sharing in the power of his resurrection, means being faithful in bad times and good. It means trusting not in whatever we have accomplished, worked for, and are proud of. Our heritage may be a good one. Our work may be productive. Our parenting may be exemplary. Our beliefs may be straight down the line orthodox. But the word from Paul this morning is that none of that ultimately matters, and it won’t save you, won’t bring you into relationship with God. Instead, being like Christ means depending for everything on the same God our Lord trusted. It’s knowing that even should our suffering be as excruciating as the cross, we are not in fact forsaken by God. Being like Christ is surrendering our imaginations, our hearts, our wills to the service of the One who has claimed us completely.

There’s an old gospel song that says “Jesus is the answer for the world today.” But truth be told, Jesus is not the answer. Jesus is the question. The Jesus of the gospels asks a lot of questions. “Would you give your child a snake if your child asked for a fish?” “What do you think…?” “Why did you doubt?” “Who do people say I am?” In turn he is the object and subject of questions: “Who gave you authority to do these things?” “Who is this that even wind and waves obey him?” “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus disturbs our easy, neat systems; he guts and tears down the universe we have constructed for ourselves, you know, the one where we are in control, the one closed to anything new or extraordinary. Jesus, whether his person or his parables, forces us to take a fresh look at our lives and our commitments, our willingness to sacrifice our dearest held values and our most cherished possessions if need be and follow him. Jesus is not the answer; Jesus is the supreme question.

His way is not the easy way. It’s not the way of prosperity and success. It’s the way of sacrifice and the cross. Paul’s opponents in Philippi were offering a salvation you could get by having yourself ritually cut and leaving a physical reminder of commitment on your body. And with that went rules and disciplines. It was a tough path to follow. But what the apostle advocates almost makes that way seem easy. There was nothing to cling to for him but the assurance that we do indeed belong to God, made known in Jesus Christ. No easy answers. No promises of prosperity and big rewards and returns on your investment of time, energy, or life itself. No advantage over your peers, who now regarded you as an expert, somebody who had arrived. This is instead a life of humility, of striving by grace to answer a call that cannot be ignored and will not be made any less difficult as the years go on, only changed in its particulars. This is not putting the past behind you so much as in perspective. It’s knowing that all the pieces of paper or honors or accomplishments or possessions or answers we could get cannot, will not compare to the surpassing, matchless value of knowing and being known by Jesus Christ, sharing in his life and his resurrection.

A janitor in a little church in Alabama, a Missionary Baptist deacon, was convinced of that. I pray we will be, too.

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