Tag Archive: Paul


The sermon I preached last Sunday (Holy Cross Sunday) on 1 Corinthians 1:18–24 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

During the Emperor Constantine’s construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, his mother, the Empress Helena reportedly rediscovered the True Cross. This cross was said to be the one upon which Jesus died. On September 14, 335, Constantine dedicated the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a huge complex in which Golgotha and the tomb are enshrined, and from then on, the Western Church took September 14th as a day to venerate the cross.

On Friday, January 17 of this year I found myself standing in this massive church. We climbed a stairwell and entered a section of the church where the walls were covered with beautiful mosaics and paintings. There were ornate chandeliers and beeswax candles placed in sand illuminating the room. And there were shining gold and silver icons surrounding a marble altar. On either side of the altar, there were two glass boxes covering the rock of Golgotha. There was a line forming under the eyes of a very watchful Greek Orthodox priest, and as we crept forward we could see the protocol. Each person stooped down to kneel under the altar and reach their hand down through a hole in order to touch the place where the cross of Christ was raised.

Kneeling to Touch the Rock of Golgotha (Jerusalem - January 17, 2014)

Kneeling to Touch the Rock of Golgotha (Jerusalem – January 17, 2014)

As I approached I said a prayer that I wouldn’t clunk my head on the marble altar while trying to maneuver and then awkwardly knelt with my backpack. I crossed myself and as I reached down through the elaborate silver star, I felt a little silly and wondered what to say. But as my hand touched the rock, all I felt was a wave of gratitude. And all I could say was “thank you.”

That day, kneeling in what might be the place Christ was crucified, all I had to say was “thank you.” Thank you, God, for the way in which you came into our world to forgive and free us all our sins. Thank you for calling us to a different way of living that can change the world around us. Thank you for the ways in which we know and experience your love.

And yet, that was not the first emotion I felt. Kneeling there, awkwardly squished under the altar, I wondered how we could possibly know if this was the place of the crucifixion. What was I hoping to experience by touching a rock? Yes, the first emotion I felt was a little bit of silliness. A little bit of foolishness. And Paul, writing in the year 58, knew about this as well. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The message of the cross sounds foolish because it is not a message based on the wisdom of this world. It is not what the world normally hears or wants to hear. It is not rational.

Paul knew this even in his own time because both the Jews and the Gentiles – the Greeks and Romans – had a hard time swallowing his message. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would use miracles and adhere to the respected teachings. And there were a plethora of different thoughts about who this Messiah would be or how his role would play out, but dying as an insurrectionist on a shameful cross of the Roman oppressors was not part of the picture. As for the Greeks and Romans who prized logic, wisdom and power, why on earth would you want to follow a God who died broken on a cross? It was a disgrace and an affront to their sensibilities.

And I think that sometimes, even though we come to church and are Christians, we feel a little foolish about the cross. It’s acceptable as a piece of jewelry, sometimes even used as bling for celebrities and rappers. But to actually talk about what the cross means to us – that’s hard to do. We can find ourselves stumbling over words. Or, as I used to experience, literally facing a lump in our throats. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the fact that we believe in a God who came into the world to live among us, who died on the cross, and who was raised from the dead.

As Lauren Winner, an Orthodox Jew turned Episcopalian, writes in Girl Meets God, “Admittedly it’s a little crazy. Grand, infinite God taking on the squalling form of a human baby boy. It’s what some of the old-timers call a scandal, the scandal of the Gospel. But it is also the whole point.”

The cross calls us to live in ways that are foolish to the world. It calls us to forgive and love our enemies as Christ did from his cross. It calls us to stand up for what we know is right even if it is not popular. It calls us to be vulnerable and ask for help when we need it rather than striving for rugged individualism. It calls us to help the poor and the stranger even when we are not always sure if the money or goods will be used responsibly. It calls us to believe in and work for justice and equity for all people even when it seems we make no progress. And, ultimately, the cross gives us joy in despair and hope in sorrow because we know that after the cross there is resurrection.

It’s utter foolishness. But I think there is one thing that helps us to understand it. And that’s love. As William Goldman writes in The Princess Bride, “…love is many things, none of them logical.” And I think it’s God’s love that makes God’s apparent foolish actions for creation into the very wisdom and power of God.

It’s this kind of scandalous love that knocks us off our feet. At least, that’s what I remember it doing to me when I first heard it. You mean Jesus, a person I don’t even know, would do that for me? You mean God loves me that much? You mean everything I’ve done wrong and will do wrong is forgiven? You mean that life bursts forth out of death? Yes!

This kind of love made me wonder about the God who would do all of this for the sake of the world. It was a love that drove me to seek God and long to learn more. It was this kind of love that led me to the church and later into ministry. Because I found that it was difficult to keep that love to myself – I wanted to share it with others so that they could experience the love, peace, hope and joy of Christ that I had experienced.

And sharing this message isn’t just something pastors or missionaries do. Each of us is called to share this incredible news. As Paul writes, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. … we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” God uses the silliness and foolishness of our proclamation to make God’s love known in the world. Crazy pants!

We are called to proclaim the crucified Christ in our words and deeds. People may not always respond positively or may be apathetic, but that does not change the fact that God has called us to share God’s foolish and abundant love with everyone. We are called to share this love, not to judge or condemn, but in order to save and heal.

When I look at the cross, I am filled with wonder and gratitude, love and hope. It also causes me to turn and look at where I have fallen short. It leads me to think about how I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. The cross is the place that turns me from myself and calls me into deeper relationship with Christ. It is both a place of suffering and death, not only for Christ, but for dying to myself. It is also a place of new life and beauty.

What does the cross mean to you? Have you thought about it much? Do you struggle with it? Do you have a hard time connecting this event from 2,000 years ago to your everyday life?

Knowledge and wisdom are wonderful things. But I think it’s only through looking at the cross with the eyes of faith, through prayer and meditating on what the cross means to us, that we delve deeper into the life to which this symbol is calling us.

So what does the cross mean to you? Since school is starting, I’d like to give you some homework this week. I know, collective groan! But stick with me. As you go about your week, spend some time praying and thinking about the cross. Write down what the cross means to you. It can be simple thoughts, or a poem, or a song. Or take a picture of something that symbolizes the cross. Or paint or sculpt. Submit your thoughts or creation via e-mail, on Facebook, or bring it back next week. The cross of Christ is at the center of everything we do – let’s start a conversation about what it means to us and how it shapes how we live. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

God’s Wild Kingdom

This past Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

 

ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν… The kingdom of heaven is like a pastor who stepped into the pulpit one Sunday speaking foreign words. The listeners were confused and unsettled, wondering how they could interpret what she was saying.

Yes, like foreign words heard early in the morning, the kingdom of God is surprising, baffling and catches us off-guard – making us sit up and pay attention. Oh, and by the way, those words, ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν…,mean “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Now you can rest easy – I promise I won’t use anymore Greek today!

There are basically six different parables in this week’s Gospel – six! It seems as if Jesus is trying every possible way to get the disciples to grasp what he is speaking about. He’s already told them the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds. And now we hear these other parables about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. At the end, Jesus even asks them “have you understood all this?” They answer “yes,” but I’m wondering if they actually did understand or if they just needed to get past the parables!

These parables may seem disparate, but each one of them offers a glimpse into a different aspect of God’s kingdom – like facets on a diamond. The first speaks of God’s kingdom as one that begins small, spreads like a wild and invasive weed, and becomes a tree – a welcoming place where birds, symbolizing the people of many nations, make their home.

The second parable offers that the kingdom is like a tiny bit of yeast that permeates, lightens and expands our entire world. The next two parables describe the kingdom like a priceless treasure or pearl for which someone sacrifices and gives up everything in order to keep the newfound treasure.

The fifth parable reminds us that there is both good and bad within the kingdom, since it’s like an abundant catch of fish that needs to be sorted onshore. And Jesus’ final parable tells us that the kingdom is like the head of the house who not only brings out new treasures, but refurbishes the old to make it new again.

We speak about the kingdom of God and being a part of it by serving God and others. We even pray that it will come every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But I find that it’s easy to forget what the words “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” really mean. These parables help to present a fuller picture and call us to reexamine our thoughts and beliefs about God’s kingdom. They declare that the kingdom is priceless, powerful and grows in amazing, often unseen ways.

When Jesus spoke these words, he was speaking in the shadow of the Roman Empire. This was an incredibly powerful and unforgiving empire, ruling the lives of not only Roman citizens, but also slaves and conquered peoples, crushing rebellions and dissenters underfoot. Speaking of the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of Rome was radical and dangerous. Remember, part of Jesus’ sentence leading to the crucifixion dealt with him being a king and having a kingdom – something seen as a direct threat to Rome.

But I think we forget that we, too, have kingdoms and empires –we have things that rule over us and our lives. In some places, perhaps it is an oppressive government. But we cannot forget all of the other things that we allow to rule us – money, anger, fear, prejudice, material goods, gossip, anxiety, ourselves… The list could go on and on. And how often are we content to live under these rulers!

It is striking that Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven as something that people rush out and sacrifice all they have had previously to obtain. This sounds like a terrible maneuver or investment strategy to our ears, but it means putting our trust solely in God. And the people in these parables don’t grudgingly sacrifice their things or their old way of life to follow God. No, they do it with joy: “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.” They are excited and brimming with joy because they know the kingdom of heaven is better than anything else. So what sacrifices have you made for God’s kingdom? And where does your allegiance lie – with the kingdoms and mindsets of this world or with the kingdom of heaven and God’s ways?

It is downright scary to ask these questions of ourselves because it means going against much of what society teaches us. Asking about what we can sacrifice for the idealistic and nearly impossible sounding kingdom of heaven flies in the face of what many would call common sense. And yet, that is our call as disciples of Christ – to live as God calls us to live, not as the world does. It makes us confront the prevailing storyline that there’s not enough to go around and that we therefore can never truly help those in need. Or that those who appear different than we are for one reason or another do not have the same hopes, dreams and needs as we do. It makes us confront the ideas that forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking are weak or foolish endeavors. It calls us to be people of radical hospitality and generosity.

The kingdom of heaven is beautiful and glorious, foreign and surprising given what we know of the world. To describe it using events of our own time, “The kingdom of heaven is like a beautiful land where the homeless and refugee feast at the table of God alongside the rich and well-connected. Where Palestinians and Jews see one another as brothers and sisters.   Where the boundaries of ethnicity, economic status, background, sexual orientation, and class melt away so that we finally see one another as fellow children of God.”

The kingdom of God is unexpected, mysterious and not yet fully established. And it can be incredibly difficult to keep faith and hope when there is so much around us that tells us so glaringly that there is pain, injustice and evil in the world.   But Christ is calling us to step out of our comfort zones and embrace God’s wild kingdom. To see glimpses of it breaking in. And it is breaking in.

Can you see it? It’s where Rwandan students like George and Bosco are receiving an education that will help them continue the transformation of their country. It’s in the smiles of children singing VBS songs and learning about God’s love. It’s breaking through when a Muslim professor in Iraq sacrifices his life in order to speak out against the persecution and murder of his Christian neighbors. It’s forgiveness and love instead of revenge and bitterness. It’s where someone generously and humbly offers the gifts they’ve been given to help others. And it is found in bread broken and wine shared among a diverse group of people.

The kingdom of heaven is popping up here and now in little and marvelous ways all over the world.  And maybe we can’t always see it because the bad and horrific news gets so much air time, but maybe we can take a page out of Solomon’s book and pray for an understanding mind – literally a listening heart – that will be able to see both the good and evil and discern God in the midst of it all.

And we can remember that no matter what happens, God is bringing this kingdom about.  Paul talks about this beautifully in his letter to the Romans when he says that nothing, including other kingdoms, empires, rulers, or even angels, can separate us from God’s incredible love.  Hearing that just makes me feel lighter somehow. No matter what hardship there is in our lives or in the world – no matter what horrors we hear about or experience – we are firmly embraced in God’s love. Knowing we are secure in Christ’s love, now and always – that is freedom to live and work for God’s kingdom.

There are so many kingdoms and rulers in our lives – so many things we can choose to serve. So who will we serve? Will we listen to Christ’s call to joyously be a part of God’s wild and growing kingdom, even if it involves hardship and sacrifice? Or will we be content to dwell in the kingdoms of this world?

I’d like to close with the words of a Taizé chant that have been echoing in my heart this week: “The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.” Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The Peace of God

This was my humble and much wrestled with attempt to speak to the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut.  May we continue to pray for God’s peace for the families and community affected, as well as for all people and nations.  And may we be peacemakers, sharing the love we have experienced in Christ Jesus with all those we encounter in both our words and our actions.

Today is Gaudate or Joy Sunday.  And the readings we’ve just heard are bursting with praise and joy.  But to be honest, I don’t really feel a whole lot like rejoicing.  I’m still thinking about the horrible shootings of the past week – two in one week.  I’m sad and wondering how this could have happened.  I’m frustrated and I’m angry that once again there have been shootings in our country.

I guess when I think about it more, I’m just tired.  I’m tired of turning on the news and hearing about continuing bloodshed in Syria, or more trouble in Israel and Palestine.  I’m tired of hearing about tragedies happening in movie theaters, temples, malls and in schools.  I’m tired of all the bad news.

And so it seems that these texts for today are horribly out of place given what’s been going on in our world.  But I think just the opposite is true – these texts have a lot to say to us this morning, particularly the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

I really love this letter to the Philippians.  It’s positive and upbeat, it includes the Christ Hymn in the second chapter, and it’s full of these wonderfully written sentences and phrases that I have found incredibly valuable in my own spiritual life.  Not to mention, it’s short and that makes it seem a little bit easier to handle!

But there’s a lot more depth to these four chapters than we might think at first glance.  The Philippians were living in what is now northern Greece along one of the major Roman trade roads of the day – the Via Egnatia.  In addition, the city of Philippi, once a backwater town, had become a sort of retirement community for Roman military personnel who had fought previously with Marc Antony and Octavian against Brutus and Cassius – yes, “Et tu, Brute?”  So the city had a Roman vibe.

Then, in around 50 CE, this guy named Paul had founded a tiny church – the first on European soil.  As a follow-up, Paul writes to the Philippians to share what he’s been up to, to encourage them to stay united in Christ, and to continue in the faith despite opposition.  And he’s not just writing this letter from his cushy home office, he’s sitting in a prison cell, knowing that his life could seriously be in danger.  Prisons in Paul’s day were not places for punishment or reform, but rather places where people would be held until a verdict could be reached.  Paul was waiting to see what would happen.

It is with all this in mind that we hear four verses of Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi.  We hear about rejoicing, about not worrying, and the peace of God.

How on earth is Paul able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice?”  If I were sitting in a dark, dank prison cell, pondering the possibility of my death, as much as I’d like to, I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to write that.  And yet, Paul is not the only prisoner I know who has had this attitude.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII for various charges, the gist of which was that he wasn’t following the Nazi party line as he should have been.  During Christmas of 1943, sitting in prison, away from his family, friends and fiancée, Bonhoeffer wrote a Morning Prayer included in a collection of “Prayers for Those Also Imprisoned.”  The prayer is rather long, but here’s a portion of it that echoes Paul’s words:

“In me it is dark,
but with you, there is light;
I am lonely, but you don’t leave me;
I am faint-hearted, but with you there is help;
I am disquieted, but with you there is peace;
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I don’t understand your ways, but
You know the way for me…

Lord Jesus Christ
You were poor
And wretched, and imprisoned and abandoned like me.
You know the affliction of all people,
You stay with me,
Even when no person stands with me.
You don’t forget me and you search me out.
You desire that I recognize you,
And that I turn myself towards you.

Lord, I hear your call and follow.
Help me!”

These words help to clarify for me some of what Paul was talking about.

All of the things Paul talks about in these four verses – rejoicing, not being worried, receiving the peace of God – all of these things only happen in the context of what God has done first.  We are able rejoice, but we rejoice “in the Lord.”  We are not concerned or worried about the things we face, because in all things, we can always bring our prayers, requests, and questions before God.  And we receive the peace of God that guards our hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus.”  In God, come down to earth in a fragile, vulnerable baby, we rejoice, we pray, and we know God’s peace.

What is peace? How do we define it? There are two KFC commercials right now that feature the tagline: “find some peace this holiday.”  One shows a man using chicken to quiet two women, who are laughing and gabbing, while the other shows this same man pacifying his fighting children with chicken and chocolate chip cookies.  Is that what peace is?  Quieting down the noise with fried chicken?!

When we say we long for peace or that we’re praying for peace, what is it that we’re actually saying? Are we hoping that people will stop being physically harmful to one another?  Or are we hoping that conflicts will cease?  What does peace mean to you?  What does peace look like and feel like to you?

I think we often have a more limited view of peace.  I think our idea of peace sometimes looks like something that you’d hear in a beauty pageant – “I wish for world peace and for everyone to have a puppy!”  Both awesome things, but a little limited.

God’s peace is far greater than that.  God’s peace is  “shalom” – completeness, soundness, safety, health, prosperity and wholeness.  God’s peace is nothing short of the complete healing and wholeness of an aching world.  Close your eyes for a moment and imagine it.  Wars cease.  Painful conflicts end.  Bitterness between politicians disappears.  Words of love and joy flow from peoples’ lips.  Sharp and hurtful remarks are gone.  Relationships are healed and restored.  People feel and are safe and secure because this peace from God is permanent – it is not temporary or confined like human peace.

This is the peace that Paul and Bonhoeffer knew.  It was in the hope of this peace that they lived and died.  It was in this peace that they waited for Christ’s return, just as we do today.  And it’s not that their lives were free from the pains, tragedies and sufferings we experience.  No – just the opposite!  They had more than enough trials and ordeals.  But they knew that the Lord was near.

They knew that God had come into a violent, worrisome world as a vulnerable child to live life among us.  They knew that God, the holy One of Israel, had lived life as a poor peasant – an outcast.  They knew that this same God, had faced the injustice and violence of the world head on, and had been crucified.  They knew that this God – the God who worked through weakness and the unexpected – was raised from the dead conquering sin and death once and for all.  And they knew that this God had done all of this out of love for God’s beloved children.

They knew that they could take all of their struggles, worries, problems, fears, doubts, questions and joys to God in prayer and supplication.  They knew to give thanks for the good things and to let their requests – all of them, even the most mundane – be made known to God.  Knowing all of this, they lived with the peace of God guarding their hearts and minds.  They were able to rejoice in the goodness and the promises of God even in the midst of persecution, violence and injustice.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation.”

We catch glimpses of or experience this peace from time to time.  We may feel God’s peace surround us when praying or being prayed for.  We may witness courageous souls stand up against violence and hate in favor of love.  We may see it in little children who go caroling through the neighborhood, lifting a neighbor’s spirits.  God’s peace – God’s kingdom – is breaking in, despite all that we have seen to the contrary.  It has always been this way.

The peace of God is found in expectant hope.  We see the horrors of the world around us and yet we know what God has done for us in Christ.  We watch the news and we pray, knowing that God hears us and is at work, even if we cannot perceive how.  We wait and hope for that day when God’s peace will reign.  We wait and hope for Christ’s coming, knowing that all things will be made right at last.

It will take time to grieve the losses we have experienced this week.  Even if we were not in that Oregon mall or at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we are all grieving.  We are all wondering what the next steps will be.  But God is also grieving.  God is grieved anytime there is suffering in this world.  And God knows the unbearable pain of losing a child.  But God also knows that death does not have the last word.  There is light that the darkness can never overcome.  There is peace that no violence can take away.  There is life that comes forth from death.

I’ll close with the last verse of the hymn we are about to sing: “O God, whose heart compassionate bears ev’ry human pain, redeem this violent, wounding world till gentleness shall reign.  O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again.”  Amen.

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Sharing in Paul’s Joy

This is the sermon I preached at Trinity Lutheran Church in Greencastle, PA today.

Philippians 3:4b-14:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, 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, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain 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 and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

As I began preparing for this sermon, I started by reading over the texts for the day. And as I read, I found myself being drawn to the reading from Philippians. So far, so good. But, oddly enough, as I read it again and again, songs kept popping into my head. And not hymns or contemporary Christian music, but a song from Disney’s Hercules movie and a song from the musical Hairspray. Weird. And as I tried to figure why this was happening, I began to think – what would it be like if Paul had put this passage to music?

(to the tune of “Without Love” from Hairspray)
Once I was a Pharisee
Who never broke the rules
Never looked inside myself
But on the outside, I looked good!

Then we met and you made me
The man I am today
Jesus, I will follow you
On your holy way

‘Cause
Without you
I consider all things a loss
Without you
How could I ever bear my cross?

Jesus, I’ll be yours forever
‘Cause
I never wanna be
Without you…
Jesus, you have set me free
No, I ain’t lyin’
You have set me free
Oh, oh, oh!

Perhaps it would have sounded something like that – well, if Paul was influenced by 1960s rock-n-roll and showtunes.

In any case, I think the joyful and upbeat tune conveys Paul’s message to the church in Philippi very well. This passage is a fairly well-known one, but I think that sometimes it’s hard to hear the joy, hope and appreciation in Paul’s voice when he says he considers all things rubbish for the sake of Christ.

Before we get there though, let’s take a look at how Paul arrived at this statement about rubbish. Paul starts by listing his inherited traits, including his Jewish ancestry and the traditions he participated in from his early life – like circumcision on the eighth day. Next, he moves on to describe what he himself had accomplished, saying, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Now, up until this point, it seems that Paul is almost boasting about his accomplishments. He was a Pharisee, one skilled in interpreting and explaining the Law of Moses. And not only could he interpret and explain it, but he followed it carefully as a way of life – an incredibly admirable endeavor. In addition, to show how devout he was, Paul even mentions his persecution of the church. One can almost see him sort of shaking his head as he admits this to his fellow Christians.

And then comes the twist. Paul says, “yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, 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, and I regard them as rubbish…” In fact, Paul’s wording here is very strong – think of the strongest word for rubbish or filth you can find and that’s what Paul is getting at. Yes, Paul has a potty mouth here!

What would this statement sound like in our context? Imagine being born into a good family and then having a wonderful opportunity to go to an Ivy League school where you excel in everything you are doing. You graduate and achieve all you ever wanted – an amazing job, a sweet sports car and all the honor and prestige you could ever desire. Then, you have a life-changing encounter with the living God and tell your friends, “I count all that I had as nothing because of Christ. Actually, everything I’ve ever known and the opportunities I’ve had, have been nothing compared to experiencing Christ. I’ve even lost my six-figure job, my corner office and my amazing house and I consider them all garbage now because I have Jesus in my life.” Anyone who heard you say that would probably think you were in some sort of incredible denial, unwilling to admit that you had failed or fallen from where you were. It’d be a huge shock to hear those words coming out of someone’s mouth today and it was most likely a huge shock for Paul’s readers to hear him describe where he had been and how his life had changed.

Paul does not stop here, however. He says he wants nothing more than to be found in Christ – to be found following Jesus, no matter what the cost. It is at this moment that Paul declares that all his works and blameless adherence to the law don’t mean anything without faith. As he explains, it is through this faith in Christ that he, that is Paul, and we too, have righteousness that comes from God. God does not look at us and see our works, judging whether or not we have been “good enough” or judging whether or not we have measured up. Nor does God look at us and see our sins piling up around us.

This is where the love for God and the joy and hope I was speaking about earlier enter into the picture. Paul’s love for God stems out of his overflowing gratitude for what Christ has done for us on the cross. Because of the cross, when God looks at us, God sees the righteousness of Christ. Instead of the multitude of sins, God sees Christ’s perfection and the loving obedience that brought him to the cross on Calvary. God sees us covered over in mercy and grace. It is through Jesus that we have been made righteous – that we are able to stand before God. That, my friends, is grace. It is that precious gift, freely bestowed by a loving God. It is not something that we attain through clinging tightly to the law or by living perfectly. Otherwise, we wouldn’t make it – we would all be judged under the law and found wanting. As Casey Novak, Assistant District Attorney on the hit television show Law and Order: SVU pointed out, “No one is above the law.” As someone slightly more credible than Ms. Novak, namely Martin Luther, put it “…we let God alone work in us and in all our powers do we do nothing of our own.”

It is with this in mind, that Paul continues his letter passionately, saying that he wants to know Christ, to experience him and the power of the resurrection. It would be easy to see why one would want to experience the resurrection with its redemptive glory and invitation to new life, but Paul also states that part of the experience of knowing Christ is sharing in his sufferings. Here, Paul is saying that he wants to die to sin and experience new and abundant life with Christ. This is what we are to do every day in living out our baptism. Daily, we die to the old person and we are raised again, loved and forgiven to go out and serve.

Lest we become frustrated when we feel like we continue falling short and sinning far too much, Paul assures us that we are to keep on moving forward. We can do so because Christ has made us his own. This phrase “Christ Jesus has made me his own” is interesting because it can be translated as “I have been won by Christ Jesus.” Jesus has won us in the fight against sin, the powers of the world and the Devil – the very things we renounce in baptism. Jesus is with us, strengthening and encouraging us to continue following him. No matter how many times we stumble or fall, Christ has already won us and nothing can remove his victory. The key is to keep trying, no matter how difficult it seems. To keep moving forward, even when it may seem like you’ve done something unforgivable or when you feel there is no hope.

Paul reassures the Philippians and us that he is by no means perfect yet, but that he is also journeying “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s an awful wordy sentence, but I think we can break it down and make it a bit easier to understand.

A few weeks ago, many of us, myself included, were glued to the television watching the Winter Olympics. We cheered for the United States and for those who had overcome so much to make it all the way to the medal podium. We teared up over those touching stories the announcers presented between all the action. We were absorbed in what happened in Vancouver. With all of this in mind, however, I couldn’t help but think about the athletes’ lives after the Olympics finished. They have spent their whole lives straining toward the Olympic prize, trying to beat incredible odds to attain that one glorious, shining moment on the winners’ podium. But what happens when they have achieved that?

In his letter, Paul writes, “not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s goal isn’t an Olympic medal, but rather life in God through Christ. In fact, the Greek phrasing Paul uses can be translated as “the prize of the upward invitation of God in Christ Jesus.” God is inviting us to a whole new life and a new way of thinking. Our goal is not one that we can achieve, like putting a check mark on a to-do list, but the goal is rather the invitation to a whole new way of life. It’s only the beginning of the adventure that lies ahead of us.

Life with Christ is just that – an adventure. It’s dying to our old selves and discovering our new identities as people living in and walking with Jesus. It’s picking up our crosses and following our Lord. It’s failing and falling, and getting back up, knowing that Christ is with us and will not let us go. It’s looking at life through the eyes of Jesus and realizing that, thankfully, we don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God! It’s struggles and joys, fears and hopes, death and resurrection. It is an adventure, but it is one we are by no means traveling through alone. God is with us and will remain with us. Moreover, our brothers and sisters in faith are our companions on the trip.

It is this journey we experience on a smaller scale during the Lenten season. We began on Ash Wednesday, confessing our sins and with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we will return. As we journey, maybe we have given up something or taken up a new spiritual discipline in order to try to focus more on our relationship with God. Next week will be Palm Sunday and then, Holy Week. Good Friday will bring the crucifixion and with it, the reminder of the heavy price Christ paid for us on the cross. But the Easter Vigil and Sunday will once again remind us of the Resurrection and the hope and joy Jesus’ rising brings to us.

I believe it is with this joy that Paul writes. He has come to realize through his encounter with Christ that it is not about him and how well he can uphold the law or obey the rules, but rather about the beautiful and unmerited gift of grace and forgiveness that God gives us. Take a moment. Think about that. That’s freedom. It’s freedom from the frustration and despair that comes from falling short of what we should be. It’s freedom from the exhaustion we feel when we are trying to live up to other peoples’ standards or trying to be all things for all the people around us. It’s freedom in which God says “I have done this for you – rest in this grace and know that I love you.” Paul’s joy is one of liberation and his hope is one of hearing the invitation of God and setting out to join God on the adventure.

Yes, God is with us through it all, sustaining us through the Holy Spirit, and encouraging us by reassuring us that Christ has already made us righteous before God. How amazing to have a God who loves us so much! Thinking of this, let us share in Paul’s joy and hope. And, knowing this love and the freedom and righteousness we have through Christ, how can we keep from singing? Amen.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Under the Cross

Driving down Route 15 today, I saw something that struck me as odd and yet very fitting. What was it, you might ask? On the side of the highway, there are three wooden crosses, two white ones and one yellow/gold one in the center. Perhaps you’ve seen these elsewhere. I drive past these crosses nearly every day, but today was different.

Today, there was someone pulled over by a police man directly underneath these crosses. At first I thought, “that’s an odd place to stop,” but the more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed. Here was a man, caught breaking the law, parked at the foot of the cross. Aren’t we all guilty of breaking the law, i.e. God’s Law? Don’t we all run the risk of being caught by the long arm of that law and being punished? The answer? Yes.

That is, until Christ came. Until Christ bore our sins and burdens on the cross, we were in bondage to sin. However, through his death and resurrection, we have been miraculously set free to have new, abundant life and the freedom with which to live it. As Paul says in Romans 6:3-11:

3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Being raised to new life in Christ means that we have forgiveness and that we are free from sin, but it also means that we are free to respond joyfully to God’s magnificent grace. We are free to live boldly, loving without bounds and giving of ourselves to others.

In effect, I see the man pulled over under the cross as a fitting picture of all of us being caught in sin under the Law. We all need to come to the foot of the cross to find forgiveness for what we have done or what we have failed to do. It is only there, with the cross in plain view, that we can begin to understand what being forgiven for our sins and what the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, really means. All things revolve around what Christ has done for us on that tree.

I’m pretty sure the man who was pulled over wasn’t focused on Law and Gospel or thinking too much about the crosses, and I hope he had a safe and uneventful trip. For my part, I am thankful that I was reminded once again how important it is to keep the cross of Christ ever before us.

© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

%d bloggers like this: