Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
Those of you familiar with the tradition of American musicals certainly knows one written by the composer Irving Berlin. I am talking about “Annie, Get Your Gun!,” based on the story of Annie Oakley, who, traveling with the Wild Bill Hickok Show, entertained audiences with her skills in sharp shooting. In the show she meets up with a male competitor—who later becomes her love interest—and the two of them go toe to toe. In a duet, each of them brags to the other all the things at which he or she is the best. For those of you who know it, what’s the name of the song?...That’s right: “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.”
While most of us are modest about our backgrounds or our achievements, occasionally some of us can’t help but brag about some of them. Yet almost without exception, we don’t care for the bragging of others—sometimes even when they’re talking about their children or grandchildren.
So it may be when we read the first few verses of the second lesson—in which St. Paul seems as if he’s sharing with us an impressive resume. Now his purpose is not really to tell us how great he is. Instead, he does it in order to make a different point. But before we get to that, let’s go over again on what he says in that part.
He mentions, first of all, about having been “circumcised on the eighth day” of his life—just like it’s supposed to be for baby boys in the Jewish faith. Second, he says not only is he Jewish by birth—from “the stock of Israel”—but also a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” that is, coming specifically from the tribe of Benjamin, he who was a son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Next, Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee—that group that was especially diligent in keeping the law of the Torah. He testifies he has followed it without deviation—in a manner that is “blameless.” He even speaks of his passion, his zeal, in rounding up those who not only ignore the law, but also claim the Messiah has now come into the world—in the person of Jesus. In his eyes, such people are contaminating the faith he so dearly loves.
If we were to stop right there, we might be impressed by Paul, but maybe feel more put off than anything else. What looks like his bragging may even offend us. But that’s not at all the point he’s trying to make. Yes, he does roll out an impressive set of credentials, but only to say that—in the big scheme, the big picture, of things—it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
It’s like someone who has a trophy wall—covered with diplomas, certificates, plaques of appreciation—or a shelf full of statuettes, medals, and ribbons—awards for athletic contests or academic competitions or both. Imagine someone who has all those things, then coming into the room with a large trash can and tossing into it every one of them—then finally taking that can out to the dumpster.
Paul is saying, “I’m removing all these feathers from my cap. They no longer mean anything to me. They no longer count for anything.”“…whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss…I have suffered the loss of all [these] things, and I regard them as rubbish…” In the original Greek, that word can also be translated as human waste!
We’re not talking here about burying, getting rid of things we’re not proud of, that we don’t want others to know about. We’re talking instead about the very opposite—like coming from a distinguished family or having achieved some wonderful things in our lives. What in the world, then, is Paul trying to tell us?
Does he think that, in a competitive world, he needs to replace what he has with more of the same—only better?...No, that doesn’t seem to be it. Is he in a fit of despair? Does he believe nothing matters anymore? And so he’s throwing it all away?...No, that’s not what’s going on. Instead, he’s like the man in a parable—in the Gospel of Matthew—in which Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (13:44).
What Paul is doing is telling others about his pedigree and past accomplishments because he wants to show them how little they now mean after having found something immeasurably better. So all those feathers in his cap—along with the cap itself—he has taken off and left behind him. They no longer matter.
He confides to the Christians in Philippi: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…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…, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”He wants to know Jesus as much as he possibly can. So not only does he give upso many things from his former life, but he’s also willing to take on obstacles and endure hardships that still stand in his way—even gladly “sharing [in the] sufferings” of Jesus.
And that he does. For instance, he is writing his letter to the Philippians from a jail cell. Because he has been imprisoned for telling others about Jesus. And he’s glad to be there. If he’s now bragging about anything, it’s the challenges he faces along the way. As he writes in another letter:
Five times I have received from [my fellow] Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked…[O]n frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty,…cold and naked….[But] I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:24-27, 10a).
So he keeps straining forward to reach a special goal. It’s not a human
kind of striving. He’s not doing it in order to win God’s love. He knows he
already has that. And he’s not doing it to impress others. Instead, he says: I
“press on to make [the life of Jesus] my own, because [he] has made me his
So he keeps straining forward to reach a special goal. It’s not a human kind of striving. He’s not doing it in order to win God’s love. He knows he already has that. And he’s not doing it to impress others. Instead, he says: I “press on to make [the life of Jesus] my own, because [he] has made me his own.”
Having begun with a scene from a well-known musical, I’d like now to close with that of another. It’s one of several adaptations from the book, entitled, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about the relationship between the fictional characters Arthur Chipping and Katherine Bridges--in the years leading up to and including World War II. He’s an aloof, extremely reserved master at a boys’ school in a small town in the eastern part of England. For her part, she’s a rather outgoing, even vivacious young woman. It so happens she lives a successful life as a singer and actress in the theater. By chance, they meet for the first time on holiday—in the ancient city of Pompeii. For him, the school is in recess. As far as things go for her, she’s recovering from an illness—perhaps burnout from overwork.
Quickly, they grow quite fond of each other. Back in England, they spend as much time together as possible. Then one evening—at a reception following a theater performance—they decide to go out for a stroll along the river. Their conversation goes like this:
AC: There’s one question I have to ask. What you said just now [at the reception], that you’re “sure about it,” what did you mean [by that]?
That I love you, of course….
KB: That I love you, of course….
AC: [Oh.] And I love you. But we have nothing in common—nothing in the world. Can you imagine I would give up my profession? A true vocation? And come [here] to London and live in your house with your money? I’m sorry to turn down a suggestion most men would give up everything for. But I’m a schoolmaster, and a schoolmaster is all I ever wanted to be.
[Smiling and looking up into his eyes, she says:] But all I’ve ever
wanted to be was a schoolmaster’s wife.
KB: [Smiling and looking up into his eyes, she says:] But all I’ve ever wanted to be was a schoolmaster’s wife.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. In this day and age, this story may seem a bit too traditional. It doesn’t at all sound politically correct—the woman giving up her career for the sake of the man. If that does bother you, try to imagine that the roles are reversed. Maybe that will help. The point is she has found something in him that makes a world of difference in her life. The love she has found is so wonderful, she’s willing to give up so many other things she once thought were so valuable—not only her home and money, but also the bright lights, enjoying a high-society lifestyle, rubbing elbows with other exciting people. But, they no longer matter to her. She gladly gives them up to spend the rest of her life with the person she loves—and who loves her.
In the end, the relationship between the Christian and Jesus is like a love story. We sell everything else that we have, so we may buy that field in which is found the treasure of our lives. It goes without saying that any relationship worth having requires a good amount of effort and attention. Even with those, the ups and downs—and the plateaus—will surely come. Not all of them can be headed off at the pass. St. Paul knew this. And the Christians in Philippi also knew it. Their relationship with Christ meant they would regularly be striving toward a distant goal—a goal that lies in all its perfection on the other side of death—in a world God has prepared for us. So we do not mind all the effort, all the struggle we have in this world because, just as we have read in these verses in Philippians, so also we read and hear in nearly the same words elsewhere in the Bible. In 1 John, chapter 4: “We love because he first loved us” ….He first loved us.