On My Own
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 13, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Philippians 4: 4b-14
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I 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. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Back in 1991 Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep appeared in a movie called “Defending Your Life.” I’m not sure whether many have seen it, as it was not really a blockbuster movie back then. The only reason I know it is I remember being on Vacation with my parents, and it was on at the hotel, and we watched it. I don’t even remember too much about that first time watching it, other than we watched it a couple of times. I think it must have been raining or something. . . but none of that matters, basically the movie is what you would think from the title. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep have both died, and they are in the next phase, a place called justice city, where you defend your life to some judges, and they decide whether you are ready to move on, or whether you go back to Earth, to try it over again, it is actually more of a Buddhist, reincarnation idea, than a Christian one, but their focus was on living without fear. Meryl Streep is confident, carefree, and Albert Brooks is neurotic, worried about being judged. They show aspects of their life, they have an attorney, and they are on trial of sorts, defending their life, defending their record. It is funny, Meryl Streep’s character seems to look at it as if her life speaks for itself and she isn’t concerned, and Albert Brooks feels like he is taking a test, playing a game, submitting his resume.
In this election year, we all know about resumes, we all know about the game, the game of image creation. Is this aspect of me going to play well with voters? Should I hide this? Should I accentuated this? Should I build myself up? Should I pull others down? How do I compare? How do I measure up? Where do I stand? Should I be loved? Feared? Respected? Is my record important? Or is it my personality? Is it my sense of humor or is it the fact that people think I will fight? What is it that will get me this job? And it isn’t just the politics of government, but any job you’ve ever been up for, any interview, anytime you’ve had to build a resume. Building a resume, asks you to look back, take stock, think about the question, what have I done? What have I accomplished? What skills have I developed? What is it about me that sells? What do they want to hear? I really want to make myself look good? Show what I have been able to do, separate myself from the pack, show what it is that I can do, by what I have done, and what I have done then, on my own. People don’t want to hear how I’ve been helped, they want to hear about what I can do, on my own. If they are going to hire me, that’s what I need to put forward. Anytime you are playing that game, it seems to be weakness to show any weakness. . . humility doesn’t do you much good in the world’s competition game. . . it doesn’t. . . unless you can spin it into a positive personality trait, but how humble is it to prove that you are the most humble? But I think we have been there.
We call this pride in life, being proud of what you are, what you do, what you can do, what you have done, how you can win in comparison to others, and it is quite, quite seductive. We have been looking at Edmund Spenser’s poetic allegory of the Red Cross Knight in Sunday School in a prose translation. And this morning we started looking at his description of what he calls the House of Pride. I decided to put a piece of it in the bulletin.
It was a stately palace, built of smooth bricks, cunningly laid together without
mortar. The walls were high, but neither strong nor thick, and they were covered
with dazzling gold-foil. There were many lofty towers and picturesque galleries,
with bright windows and delightful bowers; and on the top there was a dial to tell
It was lovely to look at, and did much credit to the workman that designed it; but it
was a great pity that so fair a building rested on so frail a foundation. For it was
mounted high up on a sandy hill that kept shifting and falling away. Every breath
of heaven made it shake; and all the back parts, that no one could see, were old and
ruinous, though cunningly painted over. . .
What stands out here is the facade, the show, what it looks like. The walls are beautiful but thin, there are bricks holding it together, but no mortar, they are covered with a gold foil facade, but again it is only foil, no foundation, like the biblical idea of being built on the sand, rather than on the rock, and everything out of view, was old and ruinous. . . That is the building, but I love the description of the people there assembled:
The lords and ladies of the court, however, were all eager to appear well in
the eyes of the strangers. They shook out their ruffles, and fluffed up their curls,
and arranged their gay attire more trimly; and each one was jealous and spiteful of
As they went along, crowds of people came round, shouting for joy; always before
them a foggy mist sprang up, covering all the land, and under their feet lay the
dead bones of men who had wandered from the right path.
Do you hear it? In part of what I skipped over was the queen, Lucifera, who stared at herself in the mirror, because since she is at the top of the pecking order, she had no one else to look at worth her time. Every one below, the lords and ladies all, look up to her, trying to be here, eager to “appear well” even in the eyes of strangers. They are all competing and comparing, trying to look and be better than each other. But the most impressive image is the one that is subtle at the end, and it is much more subtle when you read the whole thing, (I’ve pulled it out, so it’s more noticeable), but do you see it, they are standing on the bones of others, and they don’t even know it. They have no knowledge of whom they have trampled along the way, as long as they can appear to be good, moving ahead, playing the game, competing.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippian Church is all about humility. It contains one of the great Biblical texts, a hymn about what Christ himself does as an example of humility:
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That hymn stands at the forefront of any foray into this Letter: Christ’s perfect example of humility. Christ was God, but did not rest on his laurels, did not submit his resume to play the games of this world, but instead humbled himself to become human, but not a king, the son of a carpenter, the form of a slave, as a human. . . so that God could exalt him, and God does exalt him.
This is exactly what Paul is referring to in this morning’s reading. He gives his resume, and his is strong. . . according to everything that had always been within the Jewish Community Paul resume is impeccable. It is perfect. Look at it:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day
As all Jews should be, as the Law had said, the covenant made back with Abraham and then confirmed and expanded by Moses.
a member of the people of Israel,
He is a Jew, God’s chosen race, not a gentile, not a Roman, nor a Greek, nor a Samaratan
of the tribe of Benjamin,
Jacob’s favorite, Israel’s youngest and favored son, born after Joseph even, to the right mother, the beloved Rachel, not Leah. . . even his name is one of love and effection . . . Benjamin, Ben-son of, jamin, my right hand. . . there is favored place here, the perfect pedigree to have.
a Hebrew born of Hebrews;
Again he can trace it all the way back, it is his ancestors who crossed the Red Sea, and had been slaves in Egypt, had spoken and written the language in which the covenant and everything else had been recorded.
as to the law, a Pharisee;
The respected keepers of the law, the teachers, beloved of the people, the protectors of the faith, the ones fighting for Jewish identity in a Hellenized and Romanized world, they are the warriors for God.
6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;
And he is not just a Pharisee in name, but he had been out doing God’s work, fighting against the changes of the law, condemning things new, condemning heresies and law breakers like Christ and his followers, doing things like healing on the Sabbath,
as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
And not only did he protect the faith, and judge the sins of others, but he himself practice what he preached, led a righteous life himself, according to all of the laws.
Everything about Paul’s resume is perfect. . . perfect that is under the old system, which means he had everything to lose in following Christ. We just read through last year, most of the Gospel of John, where Jesus was doing sign after sign, and there were those who were getting angrier and angrier, angry because everything they had built their lives on, everything they had believed would save them, has been challenged by this new prophet, and they plotted for his execution, and they would get it. Paul could, and as Saul, before his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, did seek to protect his status by destroying the message and messengers of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, but then it all changed. In one great shining burst of light, everything he thought he knew, everything he had treasured, everything he had accomplished, in his life, on his own, he realized was worthless. That all of the gains his life had made, he now was counting as loss. He now was seeing it all as rubbish, he now saw the truth about Life, Death, this world, and its games, the resume building, the doing things to appear better than others, the jockeying for position, the keeping up with the Jones’s, the posturing, and of course the trampling of others below us in the quest for the top. No all of that was now a loss, and instead he was choosing, suffering, pain, sacrifice. . . carrying his own Christ, emulating Christ in every way possible, so as to persevere, and run the race to the end, the whole time following Christ, following Christ not to the top, but to the Cross. Doing nothing on his own, but rather for God, for Christ, and their exaltation.
What we have ask ourselves this morning is which life we want. Do we want to play in the game, defending our lives, seeking the approval of others, somehow above us, trampling on those somehow below us in a house made of Pride? Netflix just released the newest season of House of Cards, and that show redeemed itself I thought, after season 3 had lost its way to some extent, this season was awesome, and it’s awesome because it completely shows this house of pride scenario, because it all is really a House of Cards, waiting to fall on their heads, that is what we build on our own, a house of cards, fragile, and resting on a foundation of sand, grinded from the bones of every human being who has ever lived playing that game. Do we want to perpetuate that game? Or do we instead wish to follow Christ, humbly walking as he did, for him?
It is a very different path. . . it will be for us, it was for Paul. It took him to great suffering, a wild life, he was constantly in his letters referring to as a slave for Christ, in a life that finally ended in Martyrdom, as Jesus of Nazareth’s life also did, carrying a cross. It is a different life, but it is life lived as a testament to another way, a truth surpassing all others, one that ends the devastating cycles of life lived on our own, and for only ourselves. Which will it be? Two roads diverge, and pity that we cannot travel them both. . . Sigh. . . it will make all the difference. . . amen.