Philippians 3. 4b-14
The message of the church is Christ and Christ crucified,
aka, god loves!
It was an “interesting” time in my life … attending seminary in South Carolina. Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary is the second oldest Lutheran seminary in the U.S. Established in 1830, it did for the Lutheran Church in the South what Gettysburg Seminary did for the church up north. But whereas, in the Northeast, Lutherans were a dime a dozen, down south – like here in West Texas – well, we were fewer and farther between. And that brought challenges. For instance …
Legend has it that there was a time, just before I attended, that we’d be the destination for one of Bob Jones University’s annual mission trips. Bob Jones University is a private, non-denominational, evangelical school. It’s kinda like the West Point for “conservative” American Christianity. From what I was told, they’d come to Columbia to try to convert us Lutherans! It was, pretty much, what you would have expected. Opening the door to Jesus’ knocking. Accepting him as our personal Savior. Making him Lord of our heart. And telling them we’d been baptized as babies only made their zeal burn brighter! Needless to say, it didn’t make any points. Usually, when all was said and done, they’d go their way and we’d go ours. Us agreeing to disagree. Them praying for our souls.
Well, as the story goes, there was one class, in particular, who took the visits personally. Their mission was to come up with a way of answering the questions as Lutheran as possible! I’d like to say that they did it, solely, through prayerful consideration. But having attended seminary myself, it was more likely done around a picnic table … out behind married student housing … over a beer or two. By the time the Bob Jones Bruins came, again, they were ready …
Question one: Are you saved? Answer: Of course, we are! Question two: When were you saved? Now here, they expected the usual conversion story. Responding to the altar call. Sitting on a park bench at the end of a worship service. The usual recitation of the whos and whats and whens and wheres and hows. That’s not what they got … Question two: When were you saved? Answer: Two thousand years ago, on a hilltop, outside Jerusalem! End of sentence! End of conversation!
For the sake – as they say – of transparency, I have to admit I’ve told the story before. In fact, it’s part of my repertoire as a teacher and a preacher. Some of you, no doubt, have heard it, before. But for me, this is the best way to explain what the writer of Philippians is saying, this morning. It’s all pretty basic. The more we talk about ourselves, the less we talk about god. The more we talk about god, the less we talk about us. And if there’s one thing we Lutherans are called to do, it’s talk about god! Especially about Christ! About Christ and the Cross!
We’ve, often, been criticized for not talking about our conversion. Those students from Bob Jones, certainly, thought so. We couldn’t recite, couldn’t recount, how we came to be saved … so, it must mean we weren’t! But not talking about us isn’t by accident. It’s by design! The more we talk about us, the less we talk about god! The more we talk about god, the less we talk about us! And if we’re going to talk about anything … if we’re going to talk about anyone … as Christians … as church … it’ll be god! It won’t be about “the hour we first believed.” It’ll be about something important! Something that matters! Like what happened two thousand years ago! On that hilltop! Outside Jerusalem! It won’t be my choice, my decision (even if I had one). But it will be the love with which god loves me! The love with which god loves us all! And anything that distracts … anything that diverts … that deflects … Well, it’s just not worth the time or the trouble! It’s not worth the effort or the energy! “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss … because of Christ!” Garbage! Rubbish! Trash!
That’s why – over and over, again – Paul tells the church … if we’re going to brag … if we have to boast … boast and brag about something – about someone – worth boasting and bragging about! Brag about Jesus! Boast about the cross!
Through the years, as church has grown smaller, as church has turned grayer, one of the remedies I’ve heard prescribed is that we need to give our personal testimonies. Just like other churches. Become more vocal. Talk about ourselves. About thoughts and feelings. About deeds and words. Truth is, we’re already doing that! In fact, our worship is overflowing with testimonies! Just not about us!
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit!” That’s OUR testimony! “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us … all!” That’s our boast! Our brag! About god! It’s all about god! It’s not about us praying … or us going to church on Sunday morning … or us reading the bible … or us giving our ten percent … Our boast, our brag, is of Jesus! Jesus and his love! Faith isn’t about us! Believing isn’t about us! We’re not the object of our trust! But god is! Father! Spirit! Son! Creator! Life giver! Savior! Two thousand years ago! On that hilltop! Outside Jerusalem! That’s what makes Christianity Christianity! It begins and it ends with Christ! Before I believed, I was saved! Before I was born, I was saved! Long before my parents and my grandparents and their parents and grandparents before them were, god was already doing what needed done! God had already done what needed doing! And nothing – NOTHING ELSE – matters! Even infant baptism … that was such a scandal, such an offense to those who came to witness … Even infant baptism isn’t – foremost and first – about us! It’s about god! It’s about Christ!
As church, we’re not here to create our neighbor in our image. We’re not here to encourage them, to exhort them, to think just like us! To believe just like us! To act and sound just like us! And we’re not here to “let god be god”! God’s going to be god with or without our permission! With or without our help! We’re here to help the world, to help all creation, see god for who, for what, god is! See what god has done! See what god is doing! Are we saved? Of course we are! We’ve been saved for two thousand years! Truth be told, we’ve, probably, been saved a lot longer than that! Saved from the beginning! Saved from before the beginning! We didn’t always know it! We haven’t always believed it! But some things are true whether we know them, whether we believe them or not!
Faith … believing … isn’t about us. It never has been. But it’s been, it is, it will forever be, about god! And for church, for Christians, it’s about the cross! About the cross and the one held in its arms! And anything else … anything less … isn’t important! Anything else … anything less … doesn’t matter! We, too, want to know Christ! We, too, want to know the resurrection! Most of all, we, too, want to know the cross! Each breath of it! Every heartbeat of it! Because, you see, my friends … anything else … anything less … we, too, regard as loss!