Sunday, September 20, 2020

A Life Overshadowed by Life: Sermon on Philippians 3:1-11

By the mists of the morning one day around the year 641, a peculiar confrontation took place at the gates of an English monastery. The king of East Anglia, Ecgric, and his troops had marched the twenty-six miles from the fortified city of Gipeswic all the way to Beodericsworth to call upon one monk in particular: Sigeberht. It was, they said, a matter of utmost urgency, a matter of national security. They needed this monk's help in a dire way.

For this monk had not always been a monk. Once, he had been a king. Sigeberht had been raised in the royal house of the East Angles, the stepson of King Rædwald. Rædwald had been somewhat of a half-Christian, in an effort to appease all the neighbors. He had a temple where there stood a Christian altar for the celebration of communion next to a pagan altar for the offering of sacrifices to the gods of English tradition. And Rædwald had raised his boys to reverence those gods. As Rædwald was in his late years, he banished his stepson to clear the way for his natural-born son Eorpwald to inherit the throne unhindered. Under Eorpwald, East Anglia lapsed further into dark idolatry. Meanwhile, Sigeberht, forced across the sea to the Frankish dominion of Neustria, sought shelter under King Chlothar II who ruled from a town called Paris.

It seems like it should have been a tragedy. But in fact, it was the best thing that could've happened to an exiled prince. For in the lands of the Franks, he heard and beheld the gospel. In the absence of political pressure, he was freely baptized, and received a Christian education in the scriptures. Sigeberht had been deeply impressed by what he saw in this foreign land, and realized that knowing Christ was so much greater than all he'd ever known before. Over the short years of Eorpwald's reign back home, Sigeberht grew as a disciple of the Lord. But one day, news reached his ears. Thanks to the influence of the Northumbrian king Eadwine, a Christian, Eorpwald himself had been baptized early in the year 628. And shortly thereafter, Eorpwald had fallen victim to a pagan assassin named Ricberht. And the kingdom had slid into chaos and lawlessness.

For three years, Sigeberht laid plans to prepare himself for what was to come. He bid farewell to Francia, took ships back across the English Channel, and joined forces with a kinsman named Ecgric. They claimed kingship together and retook power. Among all the dozens of kingdoms on the island we now know as Britain, Sigeberht became the first man to ever ascend a throne as a Christian. And he was determined to see his people receive with willing joy and gladness the blessings he had come to know. He established some of the first schools there so that children could learn to read and write. He welcomed missionaries from Burgundy and Ireland. There were many enemies to the west, and Sigeberht was not shy about leading his troops into battle. He was a model warrior, vigorous and strong and decisive in battle, bravely defending the people of his realm during his rule.

And then one day... King Sigeberht laid aside his crown. He handed the kingdom over fully to his junior partner Ecgric. And Sigeberht walked away from it all. It was the strangest thing, to those who heard it! But Sigeberht walked away from the levers of earthly power for something he believed was a higher calling than kingship. He became a monk. There was a monastery he'd sponsored from the royal treasury – one of several, dedicated to a life of prayer and study. In place of the royal crown of thisworldly power, he let them shave the top of his head, leaving a crown of hair ringing 'round. Sigeberht tossed aside command and submitted in obedience to an abbot among other monks. As once ancient Englishman quipped, King Sigeberht the warrior “made it his business to fight instead for the heavenly kingdom.” Perhaps he'd heard what one earlier Christian had written, how “a man who is strongly seized with the desire of following Christ can no longer be concerned with anything pertaining to this life.” Sigeberht was strongly seized with a desire to follow Christ. Of that there can be no doubt.

Sigeberht, you see, had had plenty of reasons for confidence in his flesh. He was of royal stock and princely upbringing, of the tribe of the Angles, a native-born speaker of Old English. He held power and rule in his hands as a mighty warrior-king who benefited the lives of his people and the health of his kingdom. But whatever gain Sigeberht had from that, he chose to count as loss for the sake of Christ. As his heart surveyed the wondrous cross of Christ, Sigeberht's richest gain he counted as loss and poured contempt on all his kingly pride. Sigeberht no longer desired power and riches and fame. He just wanted to gain Christ and be more fully found in him. He'd seen a glimpse of heavenly life and beheld heavenly realities worth chasing, and he wanted to chase them in prayer and song all the live-long day, to dwell in secret with saints and seraphim. He wanted to be a disciple unhindered by the concerns of the world. So Sigeberht stepped, not down from the throne, but up.

Years passed: Ecgric as king of the East Angles and Sigeberht as an obedient monk, sworn under strict vows in his cloister. But then came that day – that day when Ecgric and the whole army came a-knockin'. Ecgric had an urgent plea for Sigeberht. The East Anglians were under attack, threatened by an invasion from the northwest. The Kingdom of Mercia had long been contesting the East Anglians for influence over the fenlands and midland peoples. And now they served a vicious and ravenous king named Penda of Mercia, who wished to enthrall the peoples to himself. Ecgric wanted to fight, but the Mercians were mighty and the Anglians were fearful. The troops needed a dose of old-fashioned courage to stand even a chance. And nothing could inspire them like being led by their hero, King Sigeberht. Ecgric had come to the gates of the monastery to ask Sigeberht to leave it and go fight for an earthly kingdom again. And to that, Sigeberht said no. For to go back was to turn again from the songs of angels to the clatter of shields, from simplicity to chaos, from glory to dust, from gain to loss.

Ecgric would not take no for an answer. He had his bodyguards grab hold of the monk Sigeberht and drag him away from the monastery by force, and took him against his will – from the field of spiritual warfare against the passions of his own flesh to the field of political warfare against the flesh and blood of others. And they tried to thrust a sword into his hand. But Sigeberht would not take it. Having taken up the sword of the Spirit, he never again would clutch the weaponry of the world. He would not take off his cloak and cowl, he would not lay aside his simple staff. But if his presence would remind the troops of a higher truth and cheer their hears, out of charity he would stay by Ecgric's side through the battle. He knew violence would surround him, but he would lay down his life as a soldier of heaven, dead to his credentials but vibrantly alive to God in Christ. And so he did. Sigeberht died that day. So did Ecgric and a great many Anglians, at the hands of Penda and his men. But Sigeberht died to share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death, with the ardent hope of then attaining some day to a more glorious resurrection like his. So forth he went to be crowned with loftier crown. Because once you've found Life itself, all else you once called life just pales in its brilliant shadow.

The Apostle Paul could relate. As he's writing his letter to the Philippians, today's passage represents something of an abrupt change in tone, a sharp and sudden turn that makes you wonder if, while he was writing what he thought was a conclusion, a messenger showed up with an urgent news report that got his heart racing and his blood boiling. Some Judaizing missionaries had been spotted somewhere in Macedonia, perhaps, and so while they hadn't yet made it to Philippi, Paul suddenly realized they might get there soon after Epaphroditus returned home with this letter. And Paul needed them to be ready.

The Judaizers – our name today for a group of opponents Paul was constantly dealing with – were missionaries, of a sort, but not the kind Paul liked. This was an infectious movement in the early church that was especially troubling when they hoodwinked the Galatians, but they believed that the only way Gentiles could ever be fully included as God's covenant people was to become Jewish. And what they meant by that was, in order to be part of God's people, they had to accept all the old Law's marks of customary Jewish practice, things like food rules but also especially circumcision, which was the mark of the old covenant. For the Judaizers, until you had that, you were still an outsider, still in need of conversion, still had no basis for confidence. And probably one of the reasons why their message caught on was that Judaism had legal protections under Roman law, it was a permitted religion. It was a lot easier to make the case against persecution if the church were to present itself as simply one more Jewish sect. That was the safe and respectable option.

Only, in Paul's eyes, it's neither. To tell Gentile believers to bow down to the old Law is to tell them to walk away from the Spirit. It's to tell them that Jesus isn't enough, that he isn't the Savior of the world. The whole point of Christian faith is “to be justified by faith of Christ and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). To run to what can't justify you, can't establish you as part of God's end-times covenant people, is to retreat into infancy, is to abandon freedom for slavery, is to spit on a glorious inheritance. Like Paul told the Galatians, “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole Law. You are cut off from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:2-5).

Paul is nothing if not passionate about this. And so, by the late point in his career when he's writing to the Philippians and hearing that the same issue might crop up again there, he's exasperated. He tells them simply, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evildoers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (Philippians 3:2). If the Judaizers come, the Philippians should be on red alert about it. Paul does not want the Philippian church to let the Judaizers make them feel inferior. The Judaizers might come with their oodles of Israelite credentials, reasons they say to listen to them. But Paul says to this Gentile church: We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). In other words, the Philippians, without ever having their flesh circumcised, have already had it done to their ears and hearts and souls – they don't need the symbol, they've got the substance. They already are God's end-times covenant people, already are the Israel of God made new. Being what they are, they've no need to accessorize with things that amount, Paul says, to putting “confidence in the flesh.”

And then, Paul adds, if the Judaizers want to compete for the Philippians' allegiance by trotting out their fleshly credentials, Paul could just as easily beat them at their own game. “I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. 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” (Philippians 3:4-6). Those are Paul's credentials. If you really want to hear a fully authentic and robust Jewish take on Christianity, you should not even bother with the Judaizers – Paul outdoes them in Jewish credentials with ease! Paul makes it clear that he's fully a native. Paul is a born member of ethnic Israel, inducted into the Mosaic covenant from the earliest possible moment. Paul is no proselyte, no secondhand Israelite without a tribe. He's got a tribal affiliation with the Benjaminites, who stayed loyal to the house of David even when most of the tribes were torn away. Even though he was born and initially raised in the Jewish dispersion outside the promised land, Paul grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home – which means his parents were incredibly dedicated. When he turned teenager, they sent him to Jerusalem to personally study under the famous rabbi Gamaliel, whose grandfather Hillel was one of the two leading lights of the Pharisaic movement. As a card-carrying Pharisee, Paul was educated to be a legal expert. Did he take it seriously? So seriously that he was willing to hunt down and kill blasphemers for it – he persecuted the church, which he at first saw as a threat to Israel's hope. And was he a hypocrite, a screw-up trying to mask his failures? No, he was blameless as to legal standards of rightness – he really was the very model of Jewish excellence under the Law. Paul was everything the Judaizers were trying to create!

To the Galatians who had already fallen under the Judaizers' bewitching spell, Paul had to confront them with argument after argument. But to the Philippians who love and support Paul with a deep personal affection and attachment and who haven't had the Judaizers come to town yet, all the argument they need is Paul's personal testimony. But Paul here is doing more than warning against the Judaizers. The way he lists out his credentials is structured exactly like the inscriptions that were etched all over the walls and pillars and stones of Philippi, where people would brag about their credentials and achievements. Officers and officials would write out their story by specifying first their name, then their heritage, then their Roman tribal affiliation, and then the honors they had achieved in life. The Philippian way of life, too, was to put 'confidence in the flesh' and glory in it.

And then Paul promptly takes a sledgehammer to the monument. “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, 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 of Christ, the righteousness of God on the basis of faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).

Paul had plenty of credentials and achievements he could easily inscribe on a mighty monument – reasons why anybody with his background might take confidence in the flesh. But he refuses to hang his hat there any longer. Because now he's seen Jesus Christ. Jesus isn't just 'the Lord' to Paul. Not even just 'our Lord.' No, in one of his most deeply personal lines, Paul calls him 'my Lord.' And now “the things of earth have grown strangely dim / in the light of his glory and grace.” Jesus and his good news loom so big to Paul that everything else shrinks into oblivion. Catching sight of Jesus, Paul races so fast toward him that all this other stuff – all the awards, all the honors, all the birthrights – drift away like litter. Beholding Jesus in front of him, Paul chooses to loosen his grip on everything else he once held dear, chooses in a reflective way to be less impressed with its impoverished value relative to Christ. Because in Jesus, Paul can have a more stable righteousness – not just the kind he concocts through lawfulness but the kind God bestows into faith's waiting hand because Jesus Christ is faithful. In Jesus, Paul counts it as a privilege and an honor to share in his sufferings, to be conformed daily toward the cross. And in Jesus Christ his Lord, Paul can – in the willing embrace of those sufferings – already taste resurrection-power, as he races toward resurrection-life in the glory of God.

Paul glances back at his old life – the very sort of old life that the Judaizers might want to set up as a permanent crib around the Philippians – and he admits his flesh had a lot to be proud of. But to sit in a crib and miss Jesus, or even to lose sight of Jesus because you're staring out through bars, would be an absolute loss. That's what will happen if the Philippians give a hearing to the Judaizers. It's also what will happen if the Philippians get caught up in the flesh-confidence trumpeted by the monuments of their own culture all around them.

Take it from Paul. His old life had a lot to be proud of. But Paul's life has since been overshadowed by the One who is Life itself. In Jesus Christ the Life, Paul has flown past the flesh and met the Spirit. He's finally stepped from dust to glory. He's finally found everything that Israel was ever meant to be. And so, if they hold firm the gospel, have the Philippians. And so, if we hold firm the gospel, have we in this church. Now that Paul knows Jesus – now that Paul can speak of Jesus as 'my Lord' – there's no going back. To reclaim old trophies and old victories would be to pick up litter while there's a race to be run, while heavenly realities are out there to be chased and caught in Christ. To be elsewhere than in Christ is to be in the wrong place. To hang your hopes in yourself when his hands are so near is to lose it all. But to hang everything on Jesus your Lord is to finally know Life itself. And when you know the Life, leaning on him to justify you is the only credit you need, and sharing his sufferings is a taste of his surpassing worth, and meeting his resurrection-power is a bright promise. In the 1500s, a Dutch scholar named Desiderius Erasmus paraphrased Paul's sentiments like this – he said:

I attribute so much to the gospel of Jesus Christ my Lord that I... regard as a liability whatever this world anywhere holds as worthy or welcome. Therefore, as soon as I began to have a taste of this, there was no profit in anything, however splendid, that I do not consider a loss, or indeed that I do not regard as rubbish or something more despicable than rubbish, if only at its expense I am allowed to gain Christ, the Source of all the goods that truly are good.

Which brings us back to where we started, with Sigeberht at the monastery. Once Sigeberht signed up to fight the good fight of heaven, all the royal armaments on earth couldn't lure him back. His old royal life came to be overshadowed by Life itself. And in that brilliant shadow, his old sword seemed a toy, his old crown a trinket, his old realm a passing fancy. He counted them as rubbish, not because they had no value, but because Christ was too beautiful to let things like that keep Sigeberht distracted when Sigeberht could be gaining him. No credit or achievement was worth gripping onto, at the expense of missing out on more of Christ the Life. No political power or influence was worth achieving – (nor are our preferred outcomes in American elections!) – at the expense of our spiritual health or the credibility of our witness to Christ the Truth. No thrill of battle could compete with chasing after Christ the Way. Paul and Sigeberht, the rabbi and the royal, saw their old lives overshadowed by Life – so they suffered the loss of all things and counted their old honors and delights as rubbish, in order to gain Christ and be found in him. May we be more like Paul, more like Sigeberht. May we regard as a liability and a loss anything in our lives that hinders us from drawing near the Source of All Good, who is our True Gain. May we learn to love to share in Christ's sufferings and to know him intimately in all the power of his resurrection. Nothing the world holds worthy or welcome is so worthy or welcome as this. May your life be blessedly overshadowed by Life, the Life that is Christ Jesus, the High King of Heaven! Amen.

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