Have you ever gotten frustrated or angry? And in your frustration and anger, perhaps used strong language? Going a little further, have you ever expressed this anger or used strong language in a letter to someone? Today of course, we have to be careful when putting our anger in writing. An email sent in haste, a tweet that is posted too quickly – it can get you into trouble.
This morning we come to an intense parts of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In these few verses Paul uses language that is strong, he makes an argument that is provocative – he wears his emotions on his sleeve. In these verses it becomes clear just how much Paul cares about the life and faith of the Philippian Christians – and how engaged he is with questions of faith and identity.
To understand why the level of intensity goes up in Paul’s letter, we have to remember that wherever Paul has gone in his ministry – wherever he has gathered women and men in Christian community – he has been dogged by other preachers and teachers. Already in this series we’ve talked a bit about this. In his Roman imprisonment there were other evangelists taking their rivalry with Paul too far. They were undermining him and undermining his gospel on account of his suffering and imprisonment.
But in our passage for today we are talking about something different – something quite specific. In these few verses Paul is responding to other preachers who are referred to now as Judaizers. It is these specific teachers that have dogged Paul at every turn. It is these Judaizers that have constantly undermined Paul’s teaching in the congregations he has planted.
You’ll remember that early on within the Christian movement the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to answer the question of what to do with non-Jewish followers of Jesus. And a part of the Apostles response was that Paul would focus his ministry and his teaching in a non-Jewish context – Paul would serve the gentiles. And that’s just what happened. In the years following the council at Jerusalem Paul brought the good news of Jesus to various cities around the Mediterranean Sea. And in the various communities were he preached and shared the gospel, Christian communities were formed.
But over the decade or so that Paul preached and founded these Christian communities – things got difficult. The Judaizers were preachers and teachers who came along behind Paul, with a version of the gospel that was different from Paul’s message. The Judaizers came into the Christian communities that Paul had formed, and this is what they said to the gentiles Christians:
You aren’t circumcised, so you don’t really belong to Christ.
You aren’t circumcised, so you aren’t fully the children of God.
The Judaizers came into these gentile Christian communities and they insisted: “If you want to be true followers of Jesus the messiah – if you really want to be God’s children – then you also have to be circumcised, and you have to follow the rituals of Jewish culture and religion.“ These other Jewish Christian teachers are referred to as Judaizers precisely because they insisted that gentile Christians adopt the rituals and practices of Judaism.
Now it’s fair to say that these Judaizers drive Paul crazy – they make him angry. And Paul uses some pretty strong language in attacking them. Yes, the language he uses was very often bandied around in his cultural context, but it’s still strong language. He calls them dogs and workers of evil. Paul is angry that anyone would say these gentile Christians don’t fully belong to God. Paul is angry that anyone would say that these gentile Christians have to do something more if they want to know the full covenant love of God. Paul completely rejects the idea that gentile Christians have to be circumcised and embrace Jewish cultural practices to live fully as followers of Christ.
But here we might want to stop and ask: Is Paul right? Or are the Judaizers right?
After all, Jesus is proclaimed as the messiah of Israel.
After all, the God that has done a new thing through Jesus is none other than the God who makes covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Doesn’t it make sense that gentile followers of Jesus, of Yeshua, should embrace the rituals and the cultural practices of Judaism – isn’t their faith in Jesus incomplete as long as they aren’t following the particularities of Jewish law?
What Paul has to do, of course, is make an argument. He has to offer reasons why gentile Christians don’t have to be circumcised – reasons why they don’t have to embrace Jewish law and ritual as followers of Jesus. Paul has to make an argument.
In his letter of the Galatians, Paul offers a more extended theological answer to this question. But in our passage for today, he also offers an argument – about why the gentile Christians are already fully related to God.
Paul begins his argument by playing along with the Judaizers. The Judaizers think of themselves as religiously and culturally pure. The Judaizers feel they have reason for boasting in their circumcision and their keeping of Jewish law. And Paul says to them: “Well, I can play that game, too. You think you have reason for boasting? You think you are religiously and culturally pure? Well, look at me.” And Paul goes on to give the evidence of his purity. He says:
I was circumcised on the 8th day – just like you.
I’m a member of the people of Israel – just like you.
I’m also a member of the privileged tribe of Benjamin – can you say that?
I’m a Hebrew born of Hebrews.
Not only that, but I was a Pharisee – a religious teacher, a keeper of the law.
I was so earnest in my religious faith that I persecuted the early church.
I have followed the rituals of the pharisaic tradition without fail.
Two can play at the game of religious and cultural purity. And as one commentator puts it, Paul “challenges and overwhelms the competition.” If they think they have reason to be confident in their circumcision and their religious purity – Paul has even more reason. He’s got it all.
Now when these other Jewish Christian teachers recount their cultural and religious purity, it leads them to the conclusion that the Gentile Christians have to become like them. “If those gentile followers of Jesus really want to be children of God then they have to become culturally and religiously pure like us. They have to be circumcised. They have to obey the food laws and the purity laws. Otherwise they remain outside God’s covenant love.”
But that’s not where Paul ends up. Here’s what Paul has to say against the backdrop of his own purity: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers. For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh – even though I too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.”
Here is Paul’s argument: these gentile Christians already have everything that matters. These gentile Christians already serve in the power of God’s Spirit. They already have faith in the risen Jesus Christ. And that’s all they need. In fact, if you now tell these gentile Christians that they have to be circumcised – if you now tell them that they have to follow Jewish law and ritual – then what are you saying. Well you’re saying that life in the Spirit isn’t enough. You’re saying that faith in Jesus isn’t enough. But Paul thinks that’s enough – more than enough.
In making his point, Paul goes on to puts things in the balance. On the one side of the scale he puts his religious and cultural pedigree (all of these external things that the Judaizers are insisting on) – and on the other side of the scale he puts faith and life in the risen Jesus. And for him it isn’t even close. He writes: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Paul will go so far as to say that all of his religious and cultural purity is rubbish, garbage, when set alongside everything he has experienced and received through Christ. What matters for him is faith in Christ as the source of new life and joy. What matters for him is a life of service in the Spirit of God, among the people of God. Nothing else matters. Everything else is loss.
Let me offer an important aside here. We need to realize that large parts of the New Testament arise out of a long and intense debate about this very question. Large parts of the New Testament in a sense arises out of this debate about how gentiles fit within the covenant of God’s love. This debate is in the background of John’s gospel – it’s in the background of Paul’s letters – it’s in the background of Acts – it is in the background of the letter to the Hebrews. This is a debate that takes place, largely, amongst and between Jewish Christians within the early church. “What do we do with these gentiles who accept Jesus as messiah and Lord?” In terms of this debate, we all have a good idea of where Christianity ended up. The early church ended up largely where Paul ended up.
The answer was that Gentiles are fully included in God’s covenant through faith in Jesus and through service in God’s Spirit.
The answer was no, the gentiles didn’t have to follow Jewish law and ritual to be included in the covenant of God’s love.
Yet one of the challenges we face is that already within the New Testament there is some evidence that this approach to the gentiles led some to the conclusion that Jews are excluded from God’s covenant love. Within the New Testament, springing out of this debate, there are some instances of anti-Judaism – negative comments about Judaism and about the Jews. In some cases, the early Christian debate led to the view that the Jews are now excluded – it led to some negativity toward Jews and Judaism. And this anti-Judaism contributed to later anti-Semitism in western culture and in the church. So we have to read these New Testament texts so carefully – and handle these texts so carefully. In the case of Philippians, Paul uses strong language against the Judaizers. Paul is a Jewish Christian who is having a heated debate with other Jewish Christians about God’s covenant love, about the identity of God’s people, and about faith in Christ – this debate is understandable – it’s not surprising things got heated. But perhaps, with utmost respect, we can add this thought. If Paul had lived into twentieth century, and had the benefit of hindsight from today’s perspective – if Paul saw the full trajectory of where some of this language led – perhaps he would have been more careful in his response to the Judaizers. He might have been more hesitant to use the language of “dogs” and “evildoers” – he might have been more hesitant to use the word “garbage” to describe aspects of his Jewish heritage. Paul is not anti-Jewish. And Paul is certainly not responsible for the anti-Semitism in later western culture. But we especially must handle his strong language with care.
Where we want to end this morning, however, is not with Paul’s negative response to the Judaizers. You see, what really drives Paul is not negativity toward the Judaizers, or toward aspects of his own religious heritage in Judaism. Rather,
what drives Paul is his encounter with the risen Jesus;
what animates Paul is the new life God has given through Jesus;
what excites Paul is the church’s service in the Spirit of God.
what drives Paul is his conviction that through Jesus women and men are drawn deeply into relationship with God.
Paul has found himself in Christ, and nothing else matters. Nothing else is needed. He has Christ, and that is more than enough.
I want to conclude this morning, not with Paul’s words, but with words written more recently. Over this past week, I have been reading the autobiography of Lamin Sanneh, published just this year. Professor Sanneh is Professor of World Christianity at Yale University. The book is entitled: Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African. Lamin Sanneh grew up in West Africa, in The Gambia – he grew up as a Muslim in that majority Muslim country. He grew up experiencing great joy as a child, and at the same time sometimes experiencing the harsh reality of poverty and famine and hunger. Along the way, growing up, however, he also encountered the Christian message through a variety of people. It’s interesting that Lamin Sanneh didn’t attend a mission school of the mainline churches – he didn’t live in proximity to evangelical missionaries – but he began to hear the message of Christianity through various people – he heard the story of Jesus, and became enamoured with Jesus.
Let me read a fairly long passage from his autobiography as Sanneh recounts the moment of his turning to Christ. At this moment he has gone for a walk along the seaside near Banjul, the capital city of The Gambia, where he was living at the time.
Suddenly I was unable to continue with my stroll unless I persisted in defying the relentless nipping at my heels. A momentary pause was enough to set a new course. I had no idea what I was doing or why. The short, small step I took to suspend my seaside stroll and head home turned me in a new direction: I had to follow Jesus as the crucified and risen One…
When I turned to go home I realized I had also yielded to the mystery pursuing me. I remember the sense of a door opening and a reassuring presence sweeping into my life. With my guard down, I had the feeling of giving myself in trust. By the time I reached home my legs were heavy, and the next thing I knew I was tumbling to my knees in prayer to Jesus, pleading, imploring, begging for God to forgive me, to accept me, to teach me, to help me – everything a child looks for. The cross flashed in my mind, making me think of redemptive solicitude. I was in tears, but not for long. After all, my formation was…not by subjective feeling.
I got up from my knees with the feeling that I was waking up on a new day. The late afternoon was infused with a grace-tinged soothing flare, and with a hint of the luminous freshness of new creation. Awakened, all sense of struggle, fear, and anxiety vanished. I felt bound and confused no longer. It was a new feeling of release and of freedom, infused with a sense of utter, serene peace. I could speak about it only in terms of new life, of being born again.
In the face of such an experience – in the face of such an understanding of grace and forgiveness and new life – everything else fades to the background. Paul’s words are fitting: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.