Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 5, 2014
“St. Paul’s Rubbish Sale” (Philippians 3:4b-13)
Yesterday our Ladies’ Guild here at St. Matthew’s held a rummage sale. You know how a rummage sale works. People donate their old, obsolete items that they don’t want or need anymore, and then those items are resold, usually at a much lower price than the original purchase price. And when I say much lower, I mean much lower! I saw a television set downstairs that someone may have paid a couple hundred bucks for originally, but now it was being sold for a mere $5.00. And that was at the start of the sale. Who knows what it went for, if it was still there toward the end? The point is, it didn’t have much value for anyone anymore. But that’s the nature of things at a rummage sale. Old items that people once valued very highly no longer have much worth.
Well, that was how it went at St. Matthew’s rummage sale. But today I want to talk to you about “St. Paul’s Rubbish Sale.” Yes, you heard me right: St. Paul’s rubbish sale–rubbish, not rummage. That’s the word St. Paul uses in our text for today from Philippians chapter 3. Rubbish. That’s how Paul regards the things he used to put so high a value on. He now regards them as rubbish. Today we’ll explore how and why. And we’ll see if you’ve got any rubbish you’d like to get rid of, too. Because when you get rid of the rubbish, the nice thing is, there’s something waiting for you that is of so much more value, infinitely so, a true treasure. And amazingly, this treasure is all yours, free of charge.
St. Paul’s rubbish sale: What am I talking about? We’ll let Paul himself tell us, as he writes in our text: “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. 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. . . .”
You see, Paul is writing autobiographically here. He’s telling his own life experience here, his life story and what a dramatic turn it took. As he looks back, he recalls what he used to regard as being so important, so vital for him and his hopes for God’s favor. But no longer. Now he looks back at these things in retrospect and says that those were really false hopes, and that really they didn’t amount to a hill of beans when it came to gaining brownie points with God.
Paul begins by saying, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” “Confidence in the flesh”: In other words, confidence in my own ability to generate enough righteousness to get somewhere with God. And if such a thing were possible, if there was anybody who would have achieved salvation by his works, Paul is saying: “It was me. Like Avis, I tried harder. Let me count the ways.”
So what were those things that Paul used to put his confidence in and esteem so highly? He lists them. Let’s take a look at them, one at a time. Paul says he was “circumcised on the eighth day.” OK, check mark number one. That’s exactly how it should have been for a Jewish male child. They were supposed to receive that mark of the covenant one week after they were born. Good start, Paul. Then he says, “of the people of Israel.” Again, exactly as it’s supposed to be. Paul was a member of God’s chosen people, the children of Israel.
Next, “of the tribe of Benjamin.” Ooh, very good, Paul! Benjamin was one of the most important tribes of Israel, very prominent in Israel’s history. Paul, or to use his birth name, Saul–Saul of Tarsus was named after the most famous person to come out of the tribe of Benjamin, namely, King Saul, the first king of Israel. So Paul would have been proud of that. Next, “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” He had an impeccable ancestry. “As to the law, a Pharisee.” Paul was as pure as you could get in rabbinic Judaism. He was a Jew’s Jew. When he graduated from rabbi school, he would have been top of his class. He knew his stuff and ardently put it into practice.
Paul continues: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Whoa! Hear the self-deprecating tone, the regret, the irony in Paul’s voice. He says, “as to zeal”–and zeal for God should be a good thing–“as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” In other words, Paul is saying: “Even though I was so extremely zealous to do the will of God, it turns out I was doing exactly the opposite, and I didn’t even know it! I was persecuting the church, arresting and imprisoning Christians, and here I thought I was doing a service for God! Wrong!”
Paul then concludes this list: “As to righteousness under the law, blameless.” If anybody could have made it by observing the law, by keeping it and being as righteous as you could be on your own strength, it would have been Paul. He did the best he could. And I’m sure he would have put most of us to shame in that regard.
But now what does he say of all these things? “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.” “Rubbish”! That’s a pretty strong word! The Greek word here is interesting. It’s “skybala,” which is even stronger than just “rubbish.” “Skybala” is a word that was used for, well, to put it politely, excrement. You could also translate it as “dung.” Dung for the dunghill–that’s how Paul now regards the things he used to put such a high value on.
Why? Why such a strong statement? It’s not because some of these things were bad in themselves. There was nothing inherently wrong with being circumcised, or an Israelite, or being from the tribe of Benjamin. The problem was that Paul had been relying on those things for his salvation. He was, as he put it, putting confidence in the flesh and his own righteousness under the law. And that just won’t do. Therein lay the problem, and so now Paul calls all that stuff “skybala,” rubbish.
What about you? Are there things you have relied on for your standing with God that really should be put in the rubbish pile? Maybe you’ve thought: “If anyone has a right to say he’s a good Lutheran, it would be me. Look at me: Born and raised in Perry County. My ancestors came over on the boat with Walther. I’m fifth-generation Missouri Synod. I went to Lutheran school. I memorized all 306 questions in the blue catechism. In German.” And so on.
Or maybe you don’t have such a strong Lutheran heritage, but you put your confidence in other things: “Hey, I’m a pretty good person. I’m not like those bad people who do drugs and get in trouble with the law. No, in fact, I do good deeds in the community. People respect me. I haven’t done anything to have God be mad at me. I’m a good person.” But that’s still putting confidence in the flesh and counting up points you’ve earned with God. Which is what Paul said he used to do, but now he realizes that was all rubbish as far as contributing to salvation.
Paul counts all such things as loss, valueless rubbish, in comparison to his one big gain: “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, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Where is your righteousness before God going to come from? Not from anything you can generate. No, the only righteousness that works is the one that comes from God as a gift. It is, as Paul says, “that which comes through faith in Christ.” And even that faith is a gift. The Holy Spirit works this faith in you through the Word of God, the gospel. Your faith in Christ has value because it is faith in Christ, not because it is “your faith”–as though you couldn’t do anything else to merit points with God, but hey, look at me, I made my decision for Jesus! No, that’s not how faith works, as some meritorious act of ours. Rather, faith saves by virtue of its object, namely, Jesus Christ himself.
There is your righteousness, friends! Not in anything as flimsy as your works. But rather, in the person and the work of Christ. He is your righteousness. Christ, the only Son of God, come down from heaven, in the flesh, to fulfill God’s law on our behalf. He, Jesus, was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” Unlike Paul, though, Jesus was not from the tribe of Benjamin. He was from the tribe of Judah, because he was a descendent of David, the great king from whom the Messiah would come. And Jesus was, is, the Messiah, the Christ, the great deliverer sent from heaven to establish an everlasting kingdom of blessing. And “as to righteousness under the law”? Jesus truly was “blameless.” He did everything he was supposed to, and he didn’t leave anything out. His righteousness is one you can count on, the only one that works.
And his righteousness gets counted in your column in the heavenly ledger book by way of a blessed exchange. Jesus takes your sins. You get his righteousness. It happened on the cross. There Jesus carried your sins, taking the punishment you deserve, dying in your place. Your sins thus are forgiven. In exchange, you get his righteousness, the biggest gain you could get. Now you have God’s favor, purely as a gift. You don’t have to earn it. Jesus already did. And by faith, which is trust in him, you receive his righteousness and share in what he has earned for you. Which is forgiveness, righteousness, knowing Christ, the sure hope of the resurrection from the dead, and everlasting life. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal. Fantastic, in fact.
If you’ve ever seen the TV program “Antiques Roadshow,” you know that sometimes a person is on who purchased this painting or that pot at a rummage sale for, like, $5.00. And now it turns out to be worth $500,000. Well, you and I and St. Paul have discovered a far greater treasure than that. We have gotten rid of some rubbish, stuff that really doesn’t count for points with God. And in exchange, we have picked up a true treasure that’s worth more than anybody can put a price on. This treasure is the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. It is completely free, and it will keep its value for eternity. Pretty good pick-up at a rubbish sale!