Sermon 11-17-13: “Thank-You Note, Part 3: A Righteousness Not My Own”

November 22, 2013

“I press on toward the goal…”

Prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul believed that God loved and accepted him on the basis of who he was and what he did. This sort of religion remains popular today, even among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. How can you “rejoice in the Lord,” however, if you constantly worry that you’re not “good enough”?

Paul tells us in today’s scripture that we don’t have to be good enough because Christ was good enough for us.

Sermon Text: Philippians 3:1-14

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last month, I, along with many of you from HUMC, ran the Water Walk 5K to support the Griffiths’ missionary work in Kenya. And, as you might have heard—because I constantly reminded you—I won the race. I won a similar race a few years ago in Athens, during our Annual Conference. And in both cases, after the race started, there were several runners in front of me. And they were going at a slower pace than I wanted to go. And I had to decide whether or not to pass them. But if I passed them—this is how my mind works—if I passed them, then I would be at the front, and everyone would be chasing me, and it would be really embarrassing if I couldn’t keep up the pace, and people came from behind me and passed me. So the whole time I’m worried about someone passing me. If I weren’t in front, I wouldn’t have to worry about it!

So I couldn’t even enjoy the race. A friend of mine said, “Brent, it’s just like you to turn a good thing—like winning a race—into a bad thing!” But that’s how my mind works.

It’s easier just to run the Peachtree, where there’s absolutely no danger whatsoever of winning the race—if you’re not some elite, world-class runner from Kenya, that is. In fact, when I’ve run the Peachtree in the past, I’m struck by the “party atmosphere” of it: It’s a big celebration more than anything. It doesn’t really matter how fast we run it—or even whether we run it at all. The only thing that matters is that we cross the finish line—whether running, walking, crawling, sliding, skipping, rolling, or somersaulting—just so that we can get the big prize: the T-shirt.

In today’s scripture, the apostle Paul uses the metaphor of a race to describe living the Christian life. And when we read his words—“This is my one aim: to forget everything that’s behind, and to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead”— don’t you get the feeling that Paul isn’t the kind of person who would run a race just to get the T-shirt? He would run to win it!

So, brothers and sisters, if our life as disciples of Jesus Christ is like a race, are you running to win, or are you running just to get the T-shirt?

Ah, who am I kidding? I can’t even ask that question without pointing an accusatory finger back at me! Most of the time I’m only running to get the T-shirt. Honestly! Pastor and best-selling author Francis Chan seems like the kind of guy who never runs for the T-shirt. He wrote a book last year about making disciples, and he said the following: “Being a disciple maker demands your entire life… It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing him with a wholehearted devotion. If you’re not ready to lay down your life for Christ, then you’re not ready to make disciples. It’s that simple.”[1]

Beware when someone says, “It’s that simple.” It never is. After all, how often do any of us achieve “wholehearted devotion”? I mean, I achieved it for five minutes last Tuesday, 30 seconds yesterday. How many of us give everything for the sake of the gospel? Suppose, for example, you were that rich young ruler to whom Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor and then come follow me.” Do you know for sure that you would be able to do it? Or suppose someone placed a gun to our head and asked us if we were a Christian, and that if we were, they would pull the trigger. How confident are we that we would be ready to lay down our lives under those circumstances?

No, I hope it’s not as simple as Chan says or else I’m in trouble. And yet, it’s often as if I have this little Francis Chan sitting on my shoulder, criticizing me, judging me, whispering these words in my ear: “You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not working hard enough. You’re not praying hard enough. You’re not being faithful enough. Why are you such a lazy Christian? Why are you only running for the T-shirt? I hear that little voice, and I feel guilty and ashamed.

Do you ever hear that voice? Do you ever feel guilty?

If you do, please stop listening to it. Because the message it’s sending you is not Paul’s message in this text.

After all, he begins this passage with words that are the theme of Paul’s letter, the theme of this sermon series: “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.

How can you feel like rejoicing, celebrating, being grateful, being happy in the Lord if we’re worried all the time that we’re not good enough, that we’re not faithful enough, that we’re not doing enough, that we’re constantly disappointing God. That would be like me—running a race and constantly worrying about not keeping the pace, falling behind, people passing me. I can’t enjoy running in that case! And Paul is telling us throughout this letter that we Christians ought to be joyful all the time. He doesn’t want us to make ourselves miserable with guilt and worry and fear!

A few years ago, I attended a play that my daughter was in at her school. One of Elisa’s older classmates played the role of a character who was also a violinist. Throughout the play, her character would show up and play violin. And, from my perspective as a non-violinist, violin seems like one of those unforgiving instruments that is very easy to play wrong. Like if you don’t put your hands in just the right place, move your fingers in just the right way, and move the bow across the strings with just the right motion, you will not produce a tone that anyone will enjoy hearing. In fact, it will sound like you are strangling cats! Just really, really screechy.

This high school girl, by contrast, knew how to play the violin correctly. And when I talked to her after her performance, I thought I was giving her a giant compliment when I told her that she had played beautifully well. In fact, I said, “You didn’t sound screechy at all.” By which I now see that I was damning her with faint praise. Because she responded, in a flat tone of voice, “Thanks. I practice four hours a day every weekday, and eight hours on Saturday and Sunday. And I’ve been doing that for ten years. And I’m like, “Oh… I guess you wouldn’t sound screechy then!” And tried to change the subject. So I went on to ask her about her future plans: “You’re obviously going to go to some music college and become a professional musician then?”

And she said she wasn’t sure. She said that she really doesn’t enjoy playing the violin as much as she used to. She used to love it, and now it’s very stressful to her. She feels a great deal of pressure from her parents to succeed. And she’s desperately afraid of disappointing them.

Isn’t that sad? All this discipline. All this practice. All this striving after perfection… Motivated not by a love for the instrument, but by fear, and guilt, and shame.

That, Paul says, is exactly the kind of religion that he knew before Jesus Christ got hold of him! A religion based on striving after perfection, striving to earn God’s love, striving to measure up! And like this young violinist, Paul was better at striving than anyone! “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”[2]

In fact, in verses 7 and 8, Paul uses an image from accounting of a ledger sheet. He says that he used to imagine that each of these attributes he just listed were were like credits on a balance sheet, and if he had enough of them at the end of his life, well, then God would save him. If he was only good enough, then God would save him.

This is a widespread belief even today.

When I was on the north side of town, I was friends with a funeral home director who would often call me to conduct funerals for families who didn’t have a church home and needed a pastor to conduct the funeral. I actually enjoyed this part of my job. It was good ministry, because I was able to share the gospel with many people who desperately needed to hear it. Inevitably, though, when I talked to them about this person who died—and asked about their religious background—nine times out of ten the family would tell me that this person grew up in church and was baptized. He didn’t really go to church anymore, but… but… but…” “He was a good person. Well, of course he was! I never heard anyone say, “I’ll be honest… My brother was a real jerk.” No, it was always, “He was a good person.” And I don’t think they were lying!

But what the families meant when they said these things to me—the premise behind the statement, “He was a good person”—was, “He was a good person, and therefore…” Therefore what? “We know that because he’s a good person, he’s in heaven… Because you go to heaven by being good.”

Not that I would put it this way to grieving families, but I was always tempted to ask, “Just how good do you think this person was? Just how good do you think this person had to be in order to make it into heaven?” Was he “Mother Theresa” good? “Billy Graham” good? “Dalai Lama” good? Because while I never met this loved one of yours, I know that my own “goodness” falls far short of those famously good people—and it falls far short of so many millions of other anonymously good people all around the world. And if we have to be “good enough” to earn our way into heaven, and we already know we’re not nearly as good as so many other people, shouldn’t we be anxious about the destination of our eternal soul? Shouldn’t we be worried it? In other words, if God let Mother Theresa into heaven on the basis of her goodness, and we’re not nearly as good as she was, what makes us think we’ll pass the test? Do we think that if God gave Mother Theresa an A+ for goodness, maybe he’ll let us slide by with a C- or a D?

My point is, if being good were the prerequisite for getting into heaven, how could we ever be confident that we were good enough?

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, understood this better than anyone. Wesley, along with his brother Charles and a few others, formed a club when they were students at Oxford called the “Holy Club.” The members of the Holy Club committed themselves to being good and doing good work. They got up at 4:00 every morning and met for prayer and Bible study and communion. They visited the sick every week. They visited prisoners. They gave away most of their money. They were what some people today might call “radical” about their faith. And they were ridiculed by their classmates as a bunch of fanatics. They were called “Bible moths” because of the time they spent in the Word. They were even called “Methodists” because they followed all these rules or “methods” for becoming better Christians.

Did you know the word “Methodist” was originally intended as a putdown, an insult?

But here’s the thing: Even while Wesley was keeping all these rules and following all these methods and trying desperately to be more “religious” than nearly anyone else, he was worried. He didn’t know for sure that he was saved. Can you imagine?

But then, on the evening of May 24, 1738, he wrote about an experience that day that changed his life: He went to a Bible study in London on Aldersgate Street, and someone was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. And he wrote that at “about a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had this heart-warming experience because he understood for the first time in his life that he didn’t have to be good enough. Why? Because Christ was good enough for him. That’s what Paul means in verse 9: we’re not brought into a saving relationship with God because of anything we do—but because of what Christ has done for us.

You may remember from our first sermon in the series that Paul wrote this letter in prison, and he was facing the death penalty, all because of his faith. He didn’t know whether he’d live or die. Paul isn’t exaggerating when he says that for Jesus’ sake, he had “suffered the loss of all things.” He had lost everything—and ultimately that would mean losing his life. But you know what? Paul says. What he’s lost isn’t worth anything—it’s “rubbish” he says, compared to what he’d gained through his faith in Christ.

Paul’s experience reminds me of a couple of short parables that Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 13: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”[3]

Paul was like the man who sold everything he had to buy the field that contained that treasure chest. Or the pearl merchant who sold everything he had to acquire that one perfect, beautiful, priceless pearl. Paul is sort of living out Jesus’ words, right? He gave all he had for the sake of his salvation through Christ, and he says here that it was totally worth it to him.

But if Paul heard me apply Jesus’ parable to his life and his experience, I’m sure he would correct me and say, “No, no, no, you’re not thinking of these parables correctly: I’m not like these men who gave up everything they had to acquire their treasure. Jesus is like these men who gave up everything they had to acquire their treasure.

“Because Jesus gave everything he had: he gave up all the rights and privileges he enjoyed as God the Son, including his heavenly home. He emptied himself and became fully human. He bore all of the world’s sin—including yours and mine—and he suffered the penalty that our sins deserved. He experienced separation from God and hell for us—so that we wouldn’t have to. He couldn’t give any more than he gave, and he gave it all for us.”

And one day, in heaven, you can ask Jesus, “Was it worth it for you to do all this for me?” And I believe he’ll look at you and say, “It was totally worth it!

“You, Brent, are my treasure. You’re worth everything I had to give. You, [fill in the blank] Derrick randy rosemary autumn, are my treasure. You’re worth everything I had to give.” “Buddy, your wife Dee…” “Those poor, shoeless children in Clarkston that the youth reached out to in love. They are my treasure. They’re worth everything I had to give.”

“So don’t listen to that voice in your head telling you you’re no good, you’re worthless, you’re garbage, you’re unlovable. Are you kidding me? You’re my treasure. I gave everything I had to give for you, and it was totally worth it.

And if that’s not reason enough to rejoice in the Lord, I don’t know what is! “Rejoice in the Lord!” Amen? Hallelujah!

[1] Francis Chan and Mark Beuving, Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2012), 47.

[2] Philippians 3:5-6 ESV

[3] Matthew 13:44-46

2 Responses to “Sermon 11-17-13: “Thank-You Note, Part 3: A Righteousness Not My Own””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I may have a bit of a different perspective here (surprise! 😉 ). I don’t think the two parables are talking about Jesus sacrificing his all to get us. I think he is saying we need to be willing to give up all we have to get the greatest treasure of an eternal relationship with him. Elsewhere Jesus says more literally that if we are not willing to give up children, spouse, etc.; yes, and even our own life also, we cannot be his disciples.

    More generally speaking, I do think we should be striving to be more pleasing to God, and that it makes a difference whether we are doing so or not. Consider the parable of the talents and its companion parable. Do more with what you got? Get more. It is doubtless a parable as to what we get to begin with and what we will get as a result, but clearly Jesus is calling us to be at work for him and telling us that he will reward us based on whether we are or not.

    Finally, I think the passage you selected supports this conclusion (Philippians 3:12-14):

    “12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the PRIZE of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

    So, while if we have repented and have faith to initiate and sustain our relationship with the divine, we know God will consider us his own and smile upon us, I do think the “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” depends on what we then do in gratitude for what Christ has done for us. He gave all, and so should we be willing to do in return. In the words of the hymn: “Take up thy cross and follow me,” I heard my master say. “I gave my life to ransom thee; Surrender your all, today.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      It’s not that I don’t think the traditional interpretation of those parables still applies, but they also invite us to consider how Jesus lived them out. Regardless, I’m trying to be more deliberate in my sermons about relating every scripture back to what Jesus has done for us through his death and resurrection.

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