Throwing Away the Good Stuff
Scripture - Philippians 3:4-14
What an ego! What self-absorption! No wonder Paul was hard to get along with & can be hard to warm up to today. Yet he was the one God used. God can take an arrogant, self-absorbed Paul, let his egocentric word tumble out of him & we find a witness for God there. And God can take an arrogant, self-absorbed Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was this week, humble him & make him a saint who still shows us the way to God.
I thought of the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” this week. “My richest gain…” Francis intentionally lost his riches to be close to Christ. Verse 9 caught my eye. Paul speaks of being found in him. Perhaps a question for us today is: Where are you? Where are you found? I am at church. Or am I? I am at work. But is that the place I truly am “found”? I remember both of my boys getting lost at some point. I wish I could remember being a child, being lost, & then, aha! There he is! Such joy & celebration would ensue. We found him. God’s grace is exactly like that.
We think God can or should shelter us from suffering. Or maybe not. Paul quite transparently seeks suffering. He wants to share in Christ’s sufferings. He implies we are missing out on Jesus until we too seek a share in his sufferings. How alien to our idea of holiness!
Think of St. Francis once again. He slept on rocks – hoping to be close to nature, close to Jesus, the “rock of ages” cleft for us. He prayed before, not sterile shiny crosses, but crucifixes. Two years before his death, he prayed intently before a crucifix at La Verna, “My Lord Jesus Christ, 2 graces I ask before I die. One is that I might feel the pain you felt in the hour of your great passion. The second is that I might be filled with the love that drove you to undergo such suffering for us sinners.”
Who would dare pray such a prayer? Paul suggests we miss out on joy until we know Jesus’ sorrow & pain. When you love your spouse or child, if they are in pain, you do not run away, grateful you feel good. You hurt. You do whatever you can to bear their hurts. You would take them on yourself if you could.
You know that in sermons I sometimes refer to a hymn. As I mentioned, this week I kept thinking of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
But note: We do not just glance at it. We measure it carefully, size it up, consider every angle. Too often, we sanitize the cross, preferring those of smooth wood or some shiny metal. The original cross would have been of olive wood, gnarled, hacked hurriedly, with human flesh gruesomely nailed into it. Back in 1968, archaeologists discovered an ankle bone from the time of Jesus – pierced by an iron nail. Crucifixion was a gruesome, horrifyingly painful & public humiliation of criminals. Having seen plenty of crosses, the soldiers at the foot of Jesus’ cross did not “survey” this one. They did not know to be attentive to this one or did not have the surveying skills to see that this was God, that this was the start of a revolution of redemption. Jesus looked like any other dying, despised person – which was precisely what God was hoping to achieve.
“See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow & love flow mingled down.” Just think on that for a minute, or maybe for an hour this afternoon, or, better, the rest of your life. Blood & perspiration were mingled all over his ravaged body, & then after the piercing by the soldier’s cruel lance, the Rock of ages, cleft for us, blood & water flowed, mingled. But it was not tragedy & justice mingled, although most observers at the time would have thought so. It was sorrow & love, God eternal, finally & fully manifested love for us, mingled with sorrow over our brokenness, our waywardness, our confusion, our mortality. Medieval paintings depicted little angels flying around the cross with cups to catch that sorrow & love flowing down. Why? It is precious. It is medicine. It is life for the world.
Isaac Watts asks us, “Did ever thorns compose so rich a crown?” Museums all over Europe display sumptuous crowns. At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. It was heavy, forged of 22 karat gold, with 444 precious stones, aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts, & sapphires. She then knelt to receive the body & blood of our Lord. Did she ponder his crown, bristling thorns gashing his forehead, temples, & scalp? Or the sacrificial love that refused the derision of spectators: Save yourself (Luke 23:37).
This cross is not just some religious artifact, or even the mechanism God uses to get you into heaven once you have died. It fundamentally alters our values, & how we live. If this is God, if the heart of God was fully manifest in this moment, if this is what God’s love actually looks like, then everything changes. “My richest gain I count but loss” (echoing Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8). “Pour contempt on all my pride.” “Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ” (echoing Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14). “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them.”
Yes, the more we ponder the crucified Lord on the cross, the less attached we are to the gadgets & baubles of this world, the less arrogant we become - & then we are ready to abandon what we were clinging to, as we realize in the face of our mortality, & God’s redeeming love, these formerly valued things are just nothing. It is as if someone at the foot of the cross were reading the book of Ecclesiastes aloud: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Indeed.
Casting aside vain fantasies, we do not walk away from our survey back to our old life. Instead, we get caught up in Christ’s causes, & become generous with our money & stuff. What is your offering to God? Watts’ hymn imagines “Were the whole realm of nature mine” (an absurd idea, that the richest of the rich could have so much!) “that were an offering far too small.” No gift I could muster would be enough to begin to match Christ's sacrificial gift to me, to us - so why then is my giving so measured, so chintzy?
We get busy & distracted & forget what the life of faith is about. We water it down to a little add-on, something we indulge in when convenient, a place we turn when we are in a pickle. But the last words of the hymn get to the truth of things - & stand as a stirring, unavoidable challenge to us, if we sing with any sincerity at all: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Not this compartment of my soul, or this part of my life, or the part of me I do not mind parting with. No, no. All of my soul. All of my life. My all.