Lent as a season of renewal . . . gratitude, through darkness, appetite, relationship. This week we come to a passage in which Paul’s explains how Christ gives him a new vision of what is important in life.
Read scripture: Philippians 3:4b-14
All that I counted as gain - now I consider as loss. Empty and worthless to me - in the light of the love of the Lord. (The choir's anthem is a lovely paraphrase of this passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians.)
This passage is puzzling.
But I have a new image I want to try out on you. You see if this makes this passage of Paul’s letter any easier to understand. OK. Here’s an image to start with: a street lamp in the dark. See it? It casts a pool of light in a circle on the ground. Got that image? If the street light is hard for you - think of a reading lamp that sits beside your favorite reading chair. If you sit in the chair, a pleasant level of light falls on the pages of your book or newspaper. But if you sit on the couch across from the lamp and try to read - the light doesn’t reach that far. A Coleman lantern set on a camper’s picnic table shines brightly on the table - and maybe even the benches. But it doesn’t light up the edges of the forest, much less penetrate the shadows around that spooky old outhouse.
Lamps cast a certain very useful light.
The old joke about the man who was searching on the ground under the street lamp. And someone comes along and asks what he’s doing. “I’m looking for my key,” the man says. “And you dropped it here?” “No. I dropped it down the block, but the light is much better here.” Lamps are great. And in the dark, we’re glad to have them.
But, “When the sun comes up, the lamps go out.”
We can imagine that when the sun comes up, the guy is much more likely to find what he is looking for.
What Paul might be saying in this passage is that the little lights by which he had seen his life - family heritage, uprightness, religious observance, citizenship - are worse than useless to him now. They all mean nothing, because of his love of Jesus. Once the incredible light of Jesus shown on him (remember the road to Damascus? Paul was blinded by the light!) nothing else was worth bragging about, caring about, pursuing.
It is as if the million of foot candles of sun shine flood a candleabra. The darkness can’t put out a candle. But the dawning of a bright new day renders the candle’s glow useless.
So what did Paul see differently in the light of Christ? He saw his family differently. Paul’s family was a wonderful one. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He could trace his lineage back to Jacob’s son Benjamin - a favorite son, born of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. It was a good family - a family that had been blessed by God and materially prosperous. And just by being one of them, Paul had a certain amount of status, and the self-confidence and ambition that comes from knowing that success is possible, it is expected.
Family is also an important thing for us these days.
Family values was quite the rallying cry for evangelical Christians in the recent past - and it was widely and loudly said that the one of the church’s most important missions was to promote “family values” - however that was defined - and it was usually defined as a particular family configuration. Thankfully, that fad has passed. But the fact remains that “Family” is one of the earliest and most important lights that help us see ourselves. Many of us are quite justifiably proud of our lineage. I’m defined as a certain kind of member of a certain kind of family:
I’m a single mother from an Polish family.
I’m the Patriarch of a large Italian clan.
I’m a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution,
or the Sons of the Confederacy, or both.
My family goes back to the Mayflower.
Someone told me last week that both he and his wife could trace their family trees back to the Mayflower.
Our family lamps illuminate for us who we are, what our chances for success may be, what kind of impact we’re supposed to make on the world.
But Paul is saying that the little light cast by our family is nothing compared to the blinding light of knowing one’s kinship to Jesus Christ.
Look what a difference Jesus made in Paul’s understanding of his family: He left his Hebrew family home. He left behind the Temple of Jerusalem, which had sustained his family’s faith for generations. He neglected - deliberately violated - the rules that had made his family special. And became a brother to Greek women, traveled with a half- Jew Timothy, took his meals in Gentile homes and was at home among Roman citizens at every layer of society, from nobility to slave. He didn’t see who he was in terms of his Hebrew of Hebrews, tribe of Benjamin identity anymore.
Our unity with Christ expands and explodes our family boundaries as well. We may sit in a pew with brothers and sisters from vastly different backgrounds than we have. We may find that what our mother did, or how much success our father enjoyed may not be that great a predictor of our own faith journey. Our relationship with Christ supersedes what our family may have caused us to expect of them and of ourselves. The light of Christ casts a much brighter light than the little lamp of our family.
Paul seems to reach the same conclusion when we considers the moral and religious framework that had been his guiding light before he encountered Christ: As to the law - I was a Pharisee, and a good one! I was blameless under the Pharaisaic law!
Being a Pharisee was a good thing. We don’t know any Pharisees except the ones that opposed Jesus and made his life miserable - but Pharisaic Judaism is actually a based on a beautiful concept - that every action that we take can acknowledge and glorify God. That’s why they had so many laws - because they wanted every single little part of their life to make God happy. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing? To use a system of laws that please God to illuminate your life?
Paul had been a zealous and accomplished practitioner of that religious system. But no more! Jesus’ life, its freedom and grace, Jesus’ stories of God’s overwhelming love and faithfulness to us shone an entirely different light on Paul’s religion and the theology behind it. Paul could see the shadow side of Phariasaism, which is that it is a theology which sees God as obsessed with his own laws, angry and offended when things are not done in exactly the prescribed way. In Christ Paul comes to see God as incapable of such attitudes and behaviors. The new light of Jesus shows God's being to be characterized by love and generosity which is pained and angered by human sin and harm, but which ultimately seeks to reconcile people from their estrangement and their captivity - including their captivity to religion. The theology that Paul had found light giving now he sees as a projection of human egotism. And he loses it.
I don’t have to tell you that a lot of religion, even in churches, has the same shadow side that Paul saw in his religion. It is based on a belief in God as a strict old man, perched up in heaven, keeping score of how many good deeds and bad deeds we do. At the men’s group - one of my most educational hours of the week - someone reminded us how Benjamin Franklin kept a journal and he wrote down on one side of the journal all his bad deeds and on the other, all his good ones. As if he could, by moral effort, balance the book.
Jesus put an end to all that. The concentrated, focussed beam he shown on who God is - that light is like farenheit 451 - the temperature at which our pitiful little attempts to be good enough for God burst into flames. I like that image of Benjamin Franklin’s - and my - moral scorecard bursting into flames in the light of Jesus. Paul saw that and said, “I want to be standing in that fire - I want to know Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, based on faith. I want to know Christ.”
For in being one with Christ, I am surrounded by a light that illuminates not only this life but the reality of a life beyond this one. It shines beyond all earthly boundaries and into eternity. So Paul says, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings so that somehow I may share in his resurrection. And this knowledge, this perspective, this view of who God is and who God has made me to be - seeing life - my life, other living beings, the universe, and the ultimate reality at the heart of all that is - in this Light is my first, my primary goal.
Can we reach that goal? Can we see ourselves and others in the blazing noontime sun of God’s light? Paul did sometimes - for sure. On the road to Damascus the light hit him so hard it knocked him off his horse. Moments of clarity and power like that happen yet.
We read the parable of the prodigal son and, just for a moment, we see God as a loving parent, running down the road to meet us and welcome us home.
We pray, and in the silence, a peace that passes all understanding permeates our very being.
We look into the eyes of a poor person, a sick person, a hungry person, a hurting person - - - and we see the face of Christ.
If we could just live in those moments! how incredibly light and beautiful our lives with God would be! Yet Paul admits that our eyes are not yet up to constantly perceiving in that light. To the Corinthians he writes - “now we see in a mirror dimly what soon we shall see face to face”
Here he says: “Not that I have already obtained this, or have already reached the goal” he writes. But Christ Jesus has taken hold of us and is gently yet firmly pulling us toward the goal of being made one with Him in the light.
Holy Week is only seven days away, the week in which we remember and again experience what God did in Jesus to pull us into the light. The suffering of the cross and the triumph of the resurrection. The events of that week shine a light into the deepest recesses of our own hearts, and put to flight the darkness of this world.
Little darlin’ it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. Here comes the Sun. Here comes the Sun, and I say. It’s gonna be ALL. RIGHT.