Sunday, March 17, 2013

Text:  Philippians 3: 7-14

Paul tells the church at Philippi that knowing Christ Jesus is the most important thing in his life.  In order to experience this mystical knowledge of the risen Christ, Paul has been willing to give up all that was previously important to him. The value of knowing Christ surpasses all else he values in life (Philippians 3: 8).

But Paul never knew Jesus.  Not in the flesh.  Paul became a Jesus follower—as we have—without having ever known Jesus literally, personally, physically.  Paul’s knowledge of Jesus the Christ is mystical. And in a rare moment of modesty, he’s careful to say he can’t claim to have attained that goal of knowing Christ yet. I’m glad Paul admitted that his Damascus Road conversion was just a start toward this spiritual transformation. But he’s moving toward that goal.  To pursue that new goal of knowing Christ, Paul has come to believe that all his previous goals were rubbish. Actually the original Greek word means excrement and is best translated as a term I can’t say from the pulpit.  Paul uses that crude term for its shock value, to stress how little he now values what used to be so central to his identity.

Take a moment now to call to mind goals you have set for yourself—formally or informally.  These, no doubt, are worthy goals.  They are things you have pursued with some earnestness and energy.


How do these things compare to “knowing Christ”?


Maybe you’re not quite sure why Paul so ardently longs to “know Christ.” Maybe you’re not quite sure how one comes to know Christ.  The answer may lie in verses 10 and 11: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  Knowing Christ, for Paul, requires that we, like Jesus, experience a death followed by a resurrection.

Hmmm.  You may be getting even less interested now in this goal of knowing Christ if it requires death and suffering.  Resurrection sounds good—and we’re looking forward to Resurrection Sunday in two weeks.  But suffering and death before that can happen?

Fortunately, Paul is not prescribing literal deaths.  But just as Paul gave up his old life, so too, in this process of spiritual maturation, our old selves must die in order to be raised up into a new way of living.  We cannot know Christ and the power of his resurrection otherwise.

Paul, a religious leader, a highly positioned Pharisee and Roman citizen, and a highly feared persecutor of the early Christians gave up his status—did a 180 in his position on Jesus and followers, even changed his name from Saul to Paul—to follow Jesus, to try to know the Christ.  In doing so, he became one of the persecuted.  In fact, Paul was writing this letter from jail.  He would eventually be killed, suffering and giving up his life for his faith.

These ideas seem remote to us.  Dying for our faith is an unlikely possibility.  Besides, Paul was not aiming to be executed.  So consider the death he describes in a more spiritual sense: the death we must endure before being resurrected is a death of a false self we and our culture have constructed, death to a self made of external things like education, personality, social status, family expectations, moral rectitude.  It is not our truest self.

Richard Rohr taught us, in his book Falling Upward, that we’ll remain in the first half of our spiritual journey forever, as many people do, if we continue to think we are our occupations or our personalities or our relationships or our culture or our religion. But in his most recent book,Immortal Diamond, Rohr explains that our “True Self is the only part of us that really has access to the big questions” in life. “Once you make contact with your True Self, there’s a natural correspondence between who you are and who God is. When you discover your True Self, it’s easy to recognize the presence of God”*  And know who you are: in essence you are a soul that is connected to all other souls; you are God’s beloved, loved in a way that is not dependent on what you’ve done or failed to do. “When you’re living out of your False Self, you tend to be more attracted to externals–external beliefs, external rituals—without being touched at any deep level because it’s not really YOU that’s making contact. It’s your temperament, your personality, your culture, all of which are okay, but your True Self is that part of you that already knows God, already loves God at some unconscious level. When you can connect with your True Self, the whole spiritual life opens up.”

He continues:  “Once you have experienced the loss of the old self, you’ve learned how to die. If you don’t learn how to die early, ahead of time, you spend your life avoiding all failure, humiliation, loss, and you’re not ready for the last death. Your True Self, your soul knows spiritual things, and knows God. So if you don’t awaken it, you really don’t know God. You can be religious, but if you don’t encounter God at any depth, it isn’t really transformative religion.”  What Richard Rohr describes is what I believe Paul is talking about here and what all the major religions understand: that we must die in order to live. Christians see in Jesus a life that became so stripped down and laid bare that God shined through.  This is the Christ event that Easter represents to us, the possibility held out for each of us.

Maybe each of us has spent years and energy creating a self that is based on “rubbish.” Maybe our identity has been built upon skills or talents or personality traits, some belief system or some view of the world.  These are not bad things. But they are transient and insufficient for an authentic life. What if a worldview starts to fall apart?  What if the image we’ve constructed begins to crumble?   What if some former self dies? Can we let God resurrect us?

A truer self is ready to be emerge, stripped of all the images we’ve created to bolster our fragile sense of self.

Paul saw this possibility for us in the life and death of Jesus.  Jesus rejected the labels the world tried to place on him, giving up all claims, trusting only in being God’s very child, purely connected to the source of all that is sacred.

Paul recognized this in the Christ he met through the stories of others.  Paul yearned for this kind of spiritual maturity. Paul admits he hasn’t really arrived.  But he’s “pressing on” and moving toward the goal that is truly worthy of his life: a true self in relationship with God, in touch with the God he experienced in Christ Jesus.  Paul perhaps has glimpses of the false self falling away, and in his very core he is connected to the Spirit that connects us all and binds us in a love that is not contingent, that is all-inclusive. To share in Christ’s sufferings is not masochistic.  To aspire to suffer with Christ is to be willing to strip aside all that is false, to endure a first death, to be unafraid of the second death.

I’m certainly not there yet.  But at moments in my life I, too, ardently want to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” This may be your prayer, too.

* See interview with Richard Rohr at

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