Sermon 11-19-17: “That I May Gain Christ”

In today’s scripture Paul considers everything he’s lost as a result of following Christ. From the world’s point of view, it’s substantial. Yet Paul says he counts it all as loss in comparison to what he’s gained in Christ. Too often, I can think of many things in my own life that don’t seem like “rubbish” in comparison to Christ. What about you? How can we learn to treasure Jesus the way Paul does?

Sermon Text: Philippians 3:2-14

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Sadly, each passing week seems to bring new allegations against celebrities who have used their power to sexually abuse, harass, or rape people. In the case of Harvey Weinstein—one of the most powerful and influential Hollywood producers over the past 30 years—friends and associates like Ben Affleck and director Quentin Tarantino have apologized publicly because they knew this stuff was going on and they never said anything or did anything to stop it. They didn’t even confront their friend about it. And the truth is, there were dozens or even hundreds of powerful people in Hollywood who also knew about Weinstein’s behavior, and none of them did anything about it. Weinstein’s behavior was, in one report I read, Hollywood’s “worst-kept secret.”

Why the silence—not on the part of Weinstein’s victims—I totally get that—but on the part of his many powerful friends and associates? Why didn’t they do anything or say anything to him? Why didn’t they hold him accountable? Because Harvey Weinstein had the power to make or break their careers in Hollywood. He had the power to do great harm to their careers, or contribute to their success—as actors or filmmakers. He had the power to make their Hollywood dreams come true or prevent them from coming true. Because of their connection to Weinstein, many people won Academy Awards who otherwise wouldn’t have won them!

So these friends and associates decided that they had too much to lose. And they weren’t willing to risk losing it—even for the sake doing the right thing, telling the truth, being people of integrity.

How very different, by contrast, is the apostle Paul, as we see in today’s scripture! He was willing to lose everything that the world placed a high value on—everything that made him “somebody” in the eyes of the world. Why was he willing to do that? That’s what this sermon is all about.

Our scripture begins: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” In a country in which 44 percent of us own dogs and cherish them as beloved members of the family, it’s hard to imagine the world of the first century, in which most people hated dogs. So for Paul to refer to people as “dogs” was quite the putdown. Who were these people?

They were “Judaizers.” They were people—ostensibly Christians—who would infiltrate Paul’s churches and try to convince Gentile church members that Paul was preaching a deficient gospel. That Paul was wrong to teach them that they were justified by faith alone through grace alone because of Christ alone. Paul was wrong to teach that Gentiles could be fully Christian without first being circumcised, and following other laws and customs within Judaism—like Jewish dietary law. Basically, these false teachers were teaching that Gentiles had to first become Jewish in order to become Christian.

And Paul says “no.” Paul says in Galatians and Romans that the only role that the law plays in saving us—albeit an important and necessary one—is in showing us how utterly sinful we are—how impossible it is to keep God’s law—and how desperately we need a Savior who can keep it for us.

To believe that you have to add circumcision to faith in Christ in order to be saved, Paul says, is to put “confidence in the flesh.”

Besides, Paul says that if there’s anyone out there who ought to put confidence in the flesh, It’s Paul himself.

I wish Kyle King still lived in Hampton, because he would appreciate this illustration. But some of you are Star Trek fans, and some of you remember the movie Star Trek VI. This was the movie in which the Federation—the “good guys”—negotiate a peace treaty with their hated enemy, the Klingons. And Captain Kirk, who has spent his long and successful career battling the Klingons, and whose own son was killed by the Klingons, is given the job of ensuring that the peace treaty gets signed. He complains privately to his first officer, Spock, about this: “Why am I the one who has to do this? I hate the Klingons. They killed my son!” And Spock said, “This reminds me of an ancient Vulcan proverb.” And Kirk says, “What’s that?” And Spock says, “Only Nixon could go to  China.”

In other words, it was fitting that Kirk was the one who was vouching for this peace treaty, because no one could question Kirk’s credentials as a sworn enemy of the Klingons. Just like, back in the early-’70s, no one could question Nixon’s credentials as an enemy of communism. So when Kirk says, “Trust me when I say that you need to support this peace treaty,” he has a lot of credibility.

This is why Paul reminds the Philippians of his credentials as a Jew—as a formerly strict observer of the Jewish law. No one could touch Paul’s resumé when it came to following the law! In verse 4, he writes: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” In other words, if anyone ought to teach people that righteousness comes by keeping God’s law, “it’s me.” Because no one did it better than Paul. No one was more scrupulous about observing the law than he was! No one was more dedicated to the law than he was. And everyone knew it!

So Paul stood on a very lofty perch when he said, “All of my efforts to justify myself under the law—to save myself by keeping the law—to be righteous by following the law—count for nothing! All of the privileges I previously enjoyed as a well-respected member of the guild mean nothing. All of my accomplishments mean nothing. All of the praise I enjoyed from others means nothing. My reputation means nothing. My worldly success means nothing. I have suffered the loss of everything that the world places a high value on—everything that ought to make me a “valuable” person in the eyes of the world—and I am telling you that it doesn’t matter to me at all.

“In fact, all these trophies, all these tokens of my success, all these accolades, all these attaboys that used to be so important to me—they are garbage to me now in comparison—in fact, worse than garbage”—the King James gets it right when it translates it as “dung” in verse 8.

Just listen to Paul’s words: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

I hear these words, and they convict me. Do they convict you?

I mean, imagine taking a spreadsheet, and in one column listing everything in the world that you value besides your relationship with Christ. What would that include? Your children, right?—if you have children. Your grandchildren. Your spouse, if you’re married. Your girlfriend or boyfriend, if you’re single. Your friends and family. Your military service record. Your college degree. Your career, your job. Your reputation. Awards you’ve won. Your accomplishments. Your money, your wealth. Your home. Your retirement nest egg. Your hobbies. Your toys. Your electronic gadgets. Your loyalty to your favorite sports team.

My point is, like Paul, we all have these things that we value, that make us feel special, that distinguish us from others. Things that we’re proud of. And most of these things are perfectly good. By all means! I’ve told you before that when my first child was born, my daughter, Elisa, back in 1999, I remember holding her—this precious little thing—in my two hands because she was premature—she was so tiny! And I thought, “I would die for you. And not give it a second thought. You’re worth everything I have and more.” And of course I feel that way about my two other kids.

And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is everything right about that. By all means!

So you look at the spreadsheet, which includes a column on the left listing all of the valuable people and things in your life—whatever that list looks like to you. And there’s a column on the right with one word—or name: Jesus Christ. Are you picturing it?

O.K., now imagine printing it out, taking a red pen, and writing the word “loss” over each item in that left column. “I count this as a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Elisa—loss. Townshend—loss. Ian—loss. Lisa—who has proven that she loves me as unconditionally as any human being could love someone—loss. My job as a pastor—loss. My Georgia Tech degrees, which I don’t use anymore, but you know how I love my alma mater—loss.

You get the picture…

Would I be willing to do that? Would I be willing to say that all of these things are a loss compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”?

If so, does my life reflect that? Do my actions reflect that?

If I sleep in on Sunday morning, how am I showing that my comfortable, warm bed is a “loss” compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ? If I sleep with someone on Saturday night who is not my spouse, how am I showing that my love life is a “loss” compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ? If I fail to give ten percent of my income—a tithe—to the church, yet I go to the movies when I want, and have all the data for my smartphone that I want, and have all the clothes that I want, and eat at Chick-fil-A as often as I want, how am I showing that money and possessions are a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ?

And you may say, “Oh, come on, Brent. Of course the apostle Paul counts everything a loss compared to knowing Christ. But he was an apostle—who literally died for his faith! We’re not like him! We’re not super-Christians. We’re just normal, average, every day Christians trying to do the best we can to get by. We have to be practical. We have families to feed, and mortgages, and rent payments, and car payments and eight-to-five jobs, and kids to get through school. All this talk of ‘counting it all loss’ isn’t for us—it’s for those really ‘advanced’ kind of Christians—like Paul!”

But this isn’t true. Because look ahead in Philippians chapter 3 to verse 17: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” God’s Word tells us, in other words, that we’re supposed to be just like Paul.

And it’s not just Philippians. What do you think of those very hard sayings of Jesus? “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”[1] This is hyperbole—intentional exaggeration to make a point. But Jesus’ point is the same as Paul’s: In comparison to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ, even the strongest bonds of love we know in this world are counted as a loss.

When you hear these words, do you wonder if you’re even a disciple? After all, Jesus says, “I can’t be a disciple if I put anything in front of him, and yet I put so many things in front of him!” When I hear these words as a preacher, I wonder if I haven’t been soft-pedaling the gospel for 13 years. Have I made it too easy? Probably!

And yet, in a sense, it is easy!

Jesus tells a parable about a man who finds a hidden treasure buried in a field. So he hides it again—he’s not stupid! He doesn’t want anyone to find it! Because this treasure is by far the greatest thing that he’s ever seen. It’s of such surpassing worth to him that he literally sells everything that he has in order to buy this field so that he can have this treasure for himself.[2]

Was it hard for him to do that? No. It sounds like it was the easiest thing in the world? How could he not sell everything he had—given that what he was getting in return was infinitely greater! It wasn’t hard! In fact, it was a matter of self-interest. It brought the man an incredible amount of pleasure—and happiness and joy—to give everything away for the sake of obtaining this treasure. He thoroughly enjoyed this treasure. So it wasn’t hard!

We’re supposed to enjoy Christ in this same way! That’s how Paul enjoys Christ! And that’s how we need to enjoy Christ! We need to treasure him! There is a great contemporary preacher named John Piper who is famous or infamous for saying that we need to be “Christian hedonists.” To be a hedonist is to be someone who is committed to the pursuit of pleasure. And so one can imagine that this word is usually associated with sin, right? But Piper chooses this provocative word in order to make an important point: if Christ is our treasure above all earthly treasures, then following him ought to be pleasurable! It ought to make us happier than anything else! I agree with Piper!

One of my favorite theologians, preachers, Christian thinkers is a retired Episcopal minister named Paul Zahl. Like me, Dr. Zahl loves old pop music from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. I listen to his podcast, and he likes to say provocative things sometimes. For example, if you want to learn about how much God loves you, you need to listen to Journey. The band Journey. You know, “Don’t Stop Believin’” Journey.

See, when I think of Journey, I think of my seventh-grade dance. And slow-dancing—for the first time in my life—with a girl named Kristen on whom I had a crush. And when I asked her to dance, and she finally said “yes,” it was the early highlight of my life. And what was playing through the sound system? Steve Perry singing, “I’m forever yours, faithfully.”

It’s the greatest song ever. Or how about “Open Arms”? If you’re of a certain age and you hear those songs, they melt your heart. Because you know that feeling of falling in love, right? God’s Word tells us, Paul tells us, Jesus tells us our love for him ought to be more like falling in love than obeying some difficult taskmaster—obeying a teacher who gives homework assignments on Thanksgiving break. Our relationship with Jesus is about deep intimacy. When we love Jesus like that—if we love Jesus like that—nothing’s hard.

Does this sound hard for Paul? He’s lost literally everything except the only thing that matters. Because Christ is his treasure above all treasures. So he’s doing just fine.

Brothers and sisters of Hampton United Methodist Church, I have had this growing intuition for a couple of years—I believe that the Lord has given this word to me, but you can decide for yourself whether it’s true. Just please hear me out: This church needs to fall in love with Jesus again. We need to have our hearts melted again by the love of Jesus Christ. We need to experience that love—not as something that just lives up here in our heads, but something that lives in here, in our hearts. There is ultimately no challenge our church faces that won’t be overcome by falling in love with Jesus again.

We find following Jesus to be very hard here at HUMC. Way too hard! Because we have lots of other treasures that we value more than the treasure we have in Christ.

And maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t feel it.” O.K. Then confess that to the Lord. Tell him! Confess that you enjoy all these other things in your life more than you enjoy him. Tell him to kindle within you a holy dissatisfaction with the status quo in your life.

1. Luke 14:26 ESV

2. Matthew 13:44

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