A sermon preached March 13, 2016, based on Philippians 3:4b-14.
On June 1, 2015 I stood before the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church and Bishop Paul Leeland asked me, along with all others being ordained, “Are you going on to perfection?” and, “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” The answer to both of those questions was yes, and, had it not been, I would not have been a passible candidate for ordination. It’s a little unusual, the way we talk about perfection in the church. Anywhere else you go, people tend to say, “no one’s perfect.” And, even within the church people really like to use Romans 3:23, which tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.”
But here I stand, having professed that I expect to be made perfect in love in this life. And I get to stand next to the Apostle Paul, who says here in Philippians that he is striving for perfection.
Paul starts out by giving us all of his stellar qualifications. You see, in Philippi there was a pretty big debate going on about who God’s righteous were and who God’s righteous were not. Of course, this isn’t a debate that we can relate to at all. We would never talk about who should be included and who should not, but that’s what they were talking about in Philippi. And so Paul lays it out for them:
If anyone should put their confidence in physical advantages, it’s me:
I was circumcised when I was supposed to be, I’m from the family I’m supposed to be from, I’m from the race I’m supposed to be from, I’m not just an upholder of the law, I’m the greatest of the upholders, I’m devoted, with respect to righteousness under the law I’m blameless.
Paul has all the appropriate prerequisites, he’s done the right things, said the right things. All of his credentials are up to date. If this were a job interview for the position of most holy, Paul would be the most qualified candidate.
And do you know what he says? “None of that really matters.” We have such a need to know that we have the right belief, the right birth, the right way. We need to be right and those who disagree with us to be wrong. We want to be a part of the in-crowd. We want God to think we’re better than those other people. So we lay out our qualifications. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he says, “You know what? Those credentials, those things you’ve accomplished? They don’t matter.” We want to be perfect on our own merit. Paul says that’s not what it’s about.
In fact, Paul says that all of these things were his assets, but he wrote them off as a loss for the sake of the cross. He says that everything is a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. As it would turn out, we may have to give up our privilege in order to gain Christ and be found in him. The righteousness we have is not because we’ve done or said the right things. It’s not because we hang out with the right people. It’s simply because we know the right person. We are not righteous because of our own excellence, but because of Christ’s excellence.
Paul says that he is conforming to Christ’s death in the hopes of resurrection. It’s such a simple thing, but it is EVERYTHING. In order to be made perfect in love, we must live a cross-shaped life. We must conform to the path of the cross. It is in giving up everything, our privilege, our rights, our own excellence, that we conform to the life of the cross. In this giving up everything, we gain everything in Christ. See, when Jesus told us to be perfect, just as his heavenly father is perfect, I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. I think he was ACTUALLY calling us to be perfect. And the only way to do that is to lose ourselves in Jesus.
Just for a second, I want to speak to those who are new to this whole Christianity thing and those who aren’t sure they’d call themselves Christians. If you’re well established in your faith, you can take a Facebook break right now. Check in on your newsfeed. This is for those who are here but don’t particularly understand why or those who are here and want to know why:
Paul and I are adamantly declaring that you are welcome here. Not because Paul and I are super welcoming people, but because Jesus says you’re welcome. There are no prerequisites for being embraced by Jesus—you qualify simply by being you. None of us can really account for why it is we showed up this morning, except that it was somehow God’s grace that brought us to this place. It may all seem overwhelming and you may be sure that you have no idea what’s going on. Rest assured, none of us really do. There’s no shame in not knowing what’s going on. Just know that you are welcome. Take the next step—take the risk of giving up your privileges for the great freedom that is found in Christ. Or maybe just take the risk of telling someone you’re trying to figure out what a cross-shaped life looks like. You might need to baby step this thing--that’s ok.
Now, for those of you who are well established in your faith, this is for you. Those who are still trying to figure out what in the world is going on, you can give your ears a break. This is for those who know exactly what’s going on:
Stop worrying so much about who’s in and who’s out. Stop worrying so much about who Jesus welcomes, and definitely stop worrying so much about who Jesus doesn’t welcome. Stop worrying so much about the qualifications you have and what makes you righteous. That goes for me too. It doesn’t matter to Jesus that I’ve done really cool things with people that the world says are important. And, you know, that’s a shame, because sometimes I’m really impressed with myself.
Do you know why people get annoyed with Kanye West? I mean, other than the fact that his children’s names are North West and Saint West. Because he’s REALLY impressed with himself. So often we get so excited about how great we are that we forget that we’re supposed to be more like John the Baptist. We don’t have anything to boast in, except for Jesus. Now, in Jesus—we have all the boasting to do. Let us stop boasting about how great we are and start boasting about all that Jesus has done, is doing and will do.
Now, everyone get off of Facebook, this is for everyone:
The only way to be made perfect in love is to live a cross-shaped life—to live a life that puts aside our qualifications and all of the really wonderful prerequisites we have to present. The cross-shaped life is about making ourselves lesser so that Christ can become greater. And I know that this isn’t a very popular idea because we live in the age of individualism. But here’s the catch:
When we live a cross-shaped life and we give up all of our qualifications and our personal greatness, we find that we count everything we had before as a loss because of the great gain we have in Jesus. And we find that by giving up all of these things that we had before, we give up much of our false-selves and find our true-selves in Christ.
Do you know the stories of Noah, Abraham, or Jacob? Or how about Moses, David, or Peter? Noah was a drunk, Abraham was a liar, and Jacob was a cheat. Moses was a murderer, David was and adulterer and a murderer, and Peter… well Peter didn’t know when to keep quiet…and there’s also that whole denying Christ 3 times thing. Then again, God used Noah to build the ark so that the human race could continue, Abraham is the Father of many nations, and Jacob’s descendants end up being the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses is the one who leads God’s people out of slavery and receives the law from God, David is God’s beloved king, and Peter is the rock on whom Christ builds his church. On the basis of their own merit, every one of these guys is a complete failure. But on the things that God did in them and through them, they are leaders of our faith. It is both comforting and disappointing to realize that we don’t’ have to be great; we just have to recognize that God is great.
I found myself in front of an Episcopal Priest several years ago asking for the rite of confession. I had gone through Lent and totally missed the mark on everything I had said I would do. My prayer life was in shambles and I had had some personal failures that I couldn’t really come to grips with. And I was a pastor of a church. I wasn’t supposed to fail like this—people needed me to pray for them, people needed me to step up and take care of things. I had dropped the ball and I didn’t know what to do about it. I confessed all of this to the priest and he took a deep breath, reached over to my wrist, and felt my pulse. “It’s just as I suspected,” he said. “You’re human.”
I was trying so hard to be the right person, do the right things, pray the right prayers. I had forgotten that it’s not about me at all. That’s the best news about cross-shaped perfection. We don’t have to get it all right, we just have to live cross-shaped lives—submitting to the will of God.
We’re not at the goal, but we’re pursuing it. We haven’t reached it, and you may find yourself reminded of all the ways you’ve fallen short of the goal. Hear this: Forget about the things behind and reach for the things ahead. The God who has called you to perfection is the same one who is making you perfect. We don’t become perfect because of the great things we do or because of our great accomplishments; we are made perfect in God’s love. God has stacked the deck in our favor, all we have to do is let God be in charge of our lives.
Maybe that means you have to do something you weren’t planning on. You may have to spend your time, money, or talents differently. Maybe it means radically committing to not speak negatively to others, maybe it means finding a way to be present with someone, maybe it means volunteering, or taking special time to be with your family or friends, maybe it means showing back up to church next week.
Whatever it means for you, you don’t have to worry about how you failed to be perfect yesterday or even earlier this morning. You just have to focus on what God wants from you today. And then tomorrow, you can worry about what God wants for you tomorrow. Cross-shaped perfection isn’t made in one great act of faithfulness. Instead, it is a steady, incremental faithfulness of giving up your life in order to accept the life that God has for you.
I wonder—Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?