“From Rubbish to Righteousness to Resurrection” (Philippians 3:4b-14)

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 4, 2020

“From Rubbish to Righteousness to Resurrection” (Philippians 3:4b-14)

I’m sure many of you have heard of a “rags-to-riches story.” A rags-to-riches story is one in which the hero starts out poor and penniless, but then, through hard work and perseverance, overcomes all odds and hardships to become a great success. That’s a rags-to-riches story, and we all love to hear one.

Well, today in our reading from Philippians 3, we hear a different kind of story. It’s the story Paul tells about his own life. Only in this case, Paul himself is not the hero. And it’s not a matter of rags to riches. Rather, it’s a story of going from rubbish to righteousness. And then Paul takes it even to a third step: “From Rubbish to Righteousness to Resurrection.” So listen now, brothers and sisters, as Paul tells us his story, because–guess what–it’s your story too!

First, the rubbish. Only, as it starts out, it doesn’t sound much like rubbish. Instead, it sounds like things to be proud of. Paul starts listing his pedigree as a pious Jew: “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.” Now these are good things. For a Jewish baby boy to be circumcised on the eighth day, that’s exactly according to the law of Moses. Paul is saying he got a good start in life. His parents did what they were supposed to do, bringing their baby into the covenant of God’s people. And that is the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, whom the Lord had promised to bless. These are good things here.

Next, Paul says that, among the tribes of Israel, he was of the tribe of Benjamin. Again, something to be proud of. Benjamin was a very prominent tribe among the twelve tribes of Israel. Israel’s first king, King Saul, was from the tribe of Benjamin. And Paul–remember, that was not his birth name–no, we first meet him as “Saul,” Saul of Tarsus. Presumably, he was named after the most famous person to come from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul. So Paul describes himself as “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” Pure-blooded, with an outstanding pedigree.

Paul is telling us his pedigree. How about yours? Maybe you’re a lifelong Lutheran. Third or fourth generation or more. Your ancestors came over on the boat, and they kept the faith they brought over from the old country. Great! You were baptized as an infant. You’ve been a faithful church member all your life, never straying away. Terrific! You’ve served on every board and in every auxiliary. You even go to Bible class. All good stuff! But the question is, what do you do with all that good stuff? Are these things that you’re proud of, in the sense of, “Hey, look at me! Look at what a righteous person I’ve been!”?

Back to Paul’s listing of things he was proud of–or at least used to be proud of: “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had been a Pharisee. He was very well versed in the law of Moses. He had gone to rabbinical school and was undoubtedly the top guy in his class. But even though he knew the Scriptures, he didn’t understand them aright. Because, as a young man, Paul (then Saul) had participated in the stoning of Stephen. He thought that this new Jesus sect, as he saw it, was opposed to the religion of Israel, when in fact it was the fulfillment of it. So Paul in his zeal became a persecutor of the church. Zeal is good, but not when it is misguided. Paul thought he was doing a service for God, when in reality it was just the opposite.

If you were a Jew at that time, you would have thought that Saul was exemplary. Here is a young man with great knowledge, great zeal, very attentive to the law, wanting to do the will of God with everything he had. If anybody ought to have God’s approval, it would be Saul. As Paul reflects back on that time, he says: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

But all of those things he used to value and treasure and define his worth by, now Paul looks back and calls them rubbish: “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 strong word! The Greek word he uses here is the term you would use for the stuff that goes in the toilet: “skybala,” “dung,” “garbage.” Rubbish! That’s all that stuff was! Not because all of it was inherently bad. No, Paul says, it was rubbish because that was what I was priding myself on for my righteousness. And anything that is not Christ is not going to cut it.

Righteousness means your right standing with God. And if you are basing that on the things that you do, on your own works or goodness, you are building on a false foundation. Your righteousness will never be righteous enough. You will never do enough. You will never keep God’s law sufficiently. You still don’t, and never will. Your keeping of the commandments, to love God wholeheartedly and to love your neighbor as yourself–that will always fall short. You are a sinner, just like Paul came to realize about himself.

So no righteousness there. But is there any righteousness to be found? Righteousness strong enough for you to be able to stand before God on Judgment Day? There is. And you will find it in the same place where Paul found it: Outside of yourself, in Christ. “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.”

Here is the only righteousness that avails. It is the righteousness Christ obtained for you, which you receive now and take hold of by faith. Christ Jesus gives you his perfect righteousness, which he alone was able to earn by his perfect keeping of the law. He gives it to you as a gift, a free gift. You don’t do anything to deserve it. Jesus gives it to you freely. And Christ’s keeping of the law on your behalf also meant his taking the punishment the law prescribes for sinners. He took it in your place. And that place was the cross, on which Jesus died. Because Jesus took God’s judgment for you, now you are forgiven. Christ’s holy blood covers it all.

And so this is how Paul went from rubbish to righteousness: by God revealing Christ to him and giving him the gift of faith. And this is the same thing God does for you. The Holy Spirit, by the gospel, makes Jesus known to you, so that you take hold of him and cling to him for salvation. From rubbish to righteousness: It worked for Paul, and it works for you also.

From rubbish to righteousness. But now Paul adds a third thing: resurrection. He writes: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” It is the power of Christ’s resurrection that gives Paul the strength to endure whatever comes his way. Jesus rose from the dead, in victory over sin and death, and this is what gives Paul a hope to hold on to and to look ahead to in joy.

Knowing Christ Jesus your Lord and the power of his resurrection–this is what will give you the strength to carry on, whatever the adversities that are afflicting you now or will come your way in the future. What are those adversities? What are those sufferings? Physical ailments? Fear of the virus? Financial woes? Worries about the economy? God has got it under control. Your heavenly Father cares for you. He is watching over you. The fact that he sent his Son Jesus to be your Savior shows how much he loves you. And the fact that Jesus rose from the dead shows that whatever the sufferings we face in this life, there are better days ahead. Eternal days. Our own resurrection from the dead on the day when Christ returns. Listen, you are baptized into Christ, and so you will share in his physical, bodily resurrection. And then unending days with our Lord and all his saints from all ages, in a perfectly restored creation. No more sorrows. No more suffering. Only joy and life the way it is meant to be. Forever.

We’re not there yet, Paul says, but it’s a done deal. It’s a sure thing. “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. 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” For Paul, it was a permanent press. He pressed on in life, because he had this hope to sustain him. And so do you.

“From rubbish to righteousness to resurrection.” At first, I said that this was a different from than a rags-to-riches story. But on second thought, maybe it is similar. Only the hero is Jesus, who makes it all happen. And we do go from rags, because all our own righteousnesses are as filthy rags–they belong in the rubbish heap. And we do receive riches, incalculable riches, the righteousness of Christ and the sure hope of the resurrection. Brothers and sisters, through faith in Christ, by knowing him and being found in him, you and I, like Paul, go “from rubbish to righteousness to resurrection.”

Published in: on October 3, 2020 at 9:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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