Changing Perspective To Understand God’s Unfolding Drama Of Salvation – A Sermon on Philippians 3:1-11

We’ve spent this entire year in Philippians and it’s been a pretty fun ride. We have a better understanding of the kind of letter that Paul is writing, who he writing to, what kind of world it was when this letter was written and we are only half way through the letter. We’ll just jump right into it this morning because I want to spend less time talking this week and more time trying to better apply what Paul is doing in this section.

We are going to do the first half of Philippians 3 this morning. Paul is starting to sound like a broken record. He keeps telling us to rejoice.

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.

We get it already. We get that Paul is happier than us and that we aren’t as happy. We get that he just wants us to look at everything differently so we can keep rejoicing. He says he is doing it to safeguard us. I don’t know about you, but when someone keeps telling me to be happy over and over again it makes me more angry. Maybe there is something to his persistence? What we do know is that a big part of this letter is about how Paul is trying to explain his way through his perspective on the world and encourage the Philippian church to do the same. We talked about this last month a bit. Remember, Paul has changed his entire perspective so that even when the worst things are happening to him, he is able to rejoice. He has shifted his perspective from seeing all the bad stuff that is happening to him and everything now goes through the filter of the gospel. He now cares about the gospel. He cares about how people find themselves in the story of God’s good news. Outside of that, nothing else matters. Paul almost seems giddy about it. Of course it is no problem for him to keep mentioning it, it’s all he can think about, it’s all he cares about. Let’s keep going.

Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.  For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh- though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

So let me tell you a story about my life that might help give some context to what is happening here. Back in about grade ten I started spending a lot of time with a guy who was nothing like me. He was one of those non-Christian kids who didn’t observe any of my morals or rituals and my way of life. I was a church kid. I didn’t drink, swear or sleep around. I went to church every single week. This guy drank, swore, and slept around. He didn’t go to church every week. Then something happened though. Over time this guy started getting more into this Jesus guy and eventually a year later decided that he wanted to follow Jesus. He did the whole go up to the front thing and say a dedication prayer and he committed his life to following Jesus. So here we were, one year later, and he is now following Jesus.

Over time as this guy started coming to church he started having all sorts of people coming up to him and telling him different things. Hey man, great that your a Christian and all, but listen, if you really want to be a Christian, if you want to be close with God, you have to stop swearing, drinking on weekends, sleeping around, doing drugs, being loud and annoying, and you have to start reading your bible, praying every day and coming to church a bit earlier. He was volunteering at a drop-in center and he got asked to leave because he was swearing around the kids. I remember the skepticism of people in looking at him and telling me that he wasn’t a Christian because he still did these wrong things. I remember being told about all the hoops he had to jump through if he really wanted to have a relationship with God. They kept telling him that he had to do this, stop doing that if he ever wanted to be a true Christian. According to them, this guy needed to act exactly like them, have the same morals as them for his faith in Christ to be complete. One place even told him that unless he spoke in tongues than he couldn’t be in leadership. There was this sense that there was another level of spirituality he needed to reach before he was truly who he said he was.

So let’s give some background on what Paul is doing here. Paul is in a similar situation. There is two types of people that would be good to highlight. There were good Jewish Christians. They were familiar with the scriptures, and they were familiar with the idea of a messiah coming to bring salvation to Israel. They saw Jesus as that Messiah and they were from Philippi. Then there was Gentile Christians. They hadn’t grown up with all the stories from the Torah like Noah, David and Moses. They follow Jesus now, but they didn’t come to know him through the Jewish story. So what had happened is there was this group of Jewish Christians who would go around to all these churches everywhere and find the Gentile Christians and say: “Oh it is great that you are following Jesus, welcome on board, it’s good to have you here. Have you been circumcised yet?” The obvious response is that they haven’t, because it’s not something that Gentiles did. So these Jewish Christians would tell them that they had to get snipped and after that then they would be able to be with God. So you have this group of Christians telling other Christians what more steps they have to take so that they can be true Christians. So in a way, they’ve created two tiers of Christians. There are the Jewish Christians who have done all the right things, right rituals so that they can be with God. Then there is also the Gentile Christians who have no idea about any of that stuff, all they know is that they like this Jesus guy and they want to follow him. So the Jewish Christians wanted the Gentiles to basically become Jews in order for them to complete their faith in Christ. Paul addresses this issue elsewhere, such as in the book of Galatians, where he basically tells them to back off and stop making following Jesus into a cultural change because Jesus transcends cultural boundaries.

So when Paul says to watch out for these dogs, the evildoers, the mutilators of the flesh, these are the people he is talking about. He is talking about those who have hidden rules on those that want to follow Jesus. Jesus came to free people, not bind them up with better morals. The evildoers he is talking about are not the the people doing morally wrong acts. The evildoers are those that heep burdens of guilt on people. The evildoers are ones that make it seem like salvation can only be had through their ability to perform good morals, and not through Jesus alone. They thought salvation was still through following the Torah, obeying the rules of the law. We are used to this flipping of language by now after reading the parables. So here we are again. The evildoers aren’t so much the ones that we think are evil because of all the bad things they do. The evildoers are the ones who tell people that they have to be good to know God. To Paul, that is evil. What Pharisees used to call unclean people was the greek word for dogs. What does Paul call them? Dogs. Paul is playing with the same words that Jesus did. He takes words that religious people would use to call them wrong, evil or unclean and then flips them and says “whatever you say bounces off them and sticks on you.”

Though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

So back to my friend from earlier. I think I literally had this conversation with him. If my friend is the Gentile in this story, then I am the Jew. I was a perfect Christian kid. My morals were outstanding. I didn’t do any of the things he did. I was generally a nice person, I helped people. I didn’t drink, I was still a virgin, I didn’t use bad language. Everything that was expected of a Christian; I was. I was so sure about my morals and my life that I would argue my teachers in high school over all sorts of things, trying to show how they were wrong in what they were teaching. I remember one class and we were supposed to write an essay on one of the first situations that arose when a gay couple was going to go to prom. I ripped into it pretty hard. I told her, in front of the whole class, that it was ridiculous that she would make us write about such horrible things and that homosexuality was wrong and she had no right to accept that way of living. I was hardcore and shameless. I loved the debate and putting people on the spot to show them how their morals were wrong and how if they wanted to live right, or proper, then they would believe in my morals.

So Paul gets to this point in his conversation and basically gives the same rigmarole as me. He says listen, in every single moral standard there is, I win. He’s not saying this to be prideful, he’s saying it to make a point. This guy in terms of decisions to be holy and set apart and in terms of luck of the draw in how he was born, was perfect in every sense. Paul had it together. If anyone was going to take pride in who he was, or how moral he was, it would be Paul. Paul was so hardcore that he actually used to kill Christians because he thought they were wrong. He’s not telling this because he felt bad about killing people, he telling us because he needs to show us how hardcore he really was. He believed in what he believed so much that he gave up his entire life and dedicated it to making sure people knew and believed how he understood God’s story. Paul was under the impression, like all Pharisees, that the law could be fully kept. So that’s what he did; he kept it.

Now Paul is referring to some things in this passage that might not make a lot of sense. So let’s get a little refresher shall we, more specifically why are we talking about circumcision. Circumcision was a Jewish ritual. Ancient cultures, and still some cultures today, like Israel always had symbolic gestures that they would do to set apart themselves to show the entrance into a community or to show a seriousness to show an identification with a kind of people. This is a tribal identity that people who had their kids circumcised were basically saying that they were raising them with this tribe. Their kids were growing up with this kind of identity because as the world was falling apart they were to be part of a tribe that was to help and love all the other tribes.  This is a very significant thing. It was odd, but this was what happened.  Anyone who didn’t grow up in a culture of circumcision would find this to be a very odd practice. There are still other very odd initiations, coming of age traditions and right of passages in the world today and from ancient communities from around Israel.

For instance one group South Pacific Vanuatu, the Vanuatu people do this tradition called land diving.

Suicidally brave men jump from makeshift rickety towers as high as 100 feet up in the air with vines tied around their ankles. Land diving is kind of a multipurpose ritual: a rite of passage, a way to appease the gods to ensure a good yam harvest, and now, a tourist attraction. So it’s like bungee jumping – big deal, you think. Well, actually it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The whole point of land diving is that the jumper’s head touch the ground. But obviously if you’re the jumper, you’d want that to be as briefly done as possible: if your head doesn’t touch the ground, then it’ll be a bad yam harvest. If your head touch too much ground, the yam will be blessed but you’ll die. The difference between a good jump and a fatal one is about 4 inches of vine. It’s no surprise then, that a jumper is allowed to say anything he wants to anyone before the jump and not be held responsible for his words.

Or there is one where these boys take on something called crocodile scars where they are cut hundreds of time up and down their back. You can see why they call it crocodile scars because it gives them a look of the back of a crocodile. I won’t show you the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc9dGK8ketg) but it was one of the more disgusting things I’ve seen. The boy is held down by their uncle and over the course of a day they are cut extremely deep all day long. Then they are put in these smoke rooms so the get infected and scar up better over a few weeks.

There are lots of others, such as putting your hands in these crazy gloves with ants that sting 100 times worse than a wasp, or cow jumping where if you don’t make it then you never become a man, adolescent circumcision (this gets really gross) or blood letting through their throats, nose and tongue. I tell you all these stories, because I really do think that circumcision probably fits somewhere in there. The medical benefits are scarce and it’s much more of a tradition than a moral thing. Circumcision is a symbol of a certain tribe.

Basically all humans are born with something that physcologist call an egocentric way of life. In other words. All they can do is think about themselves. Life revolves around them. They need external sources to survive and we coddle and nurture them so they are raised. Now as parents one of our main jobs is helping them become less ego centric and more ethno centric. Meaning that they start to not just think about themselves and their own good anymore, but they start to have their lives for the purpose of their tribes (whether that be their family, church, culture etc.). As parents our goal is to help move children from being ego-centric to ethno-centric. But then what happens when an entire tribe has gone off in the wrong direction. What happens when the ethno centric way of living is actually bad for other tribes? What do we do in Germany 1938 when an entire tribe started taking out other tribes. So now, as parents, and as the church the goal is to help move people not just from ego-centric to ethno-centric but from ethno-centric to world-centric. So that the person who was raised in 1938 Germany just doesn’t look out for the good of their own tribe, but the good of the entire world. This is what the entire Christian story is based on. We go from Adam to Abraham to Jesus and we see how God eventually brought humans to care about themselves to caring about their families to caring about all the nations. Eventually Abraham was the beginning of a world-centric worldview.

So what we have in these verses with Paul is that there is a group of Jewish Christians who have taken their tribal and ethno centric symbolic gestures and tried to force them into a story that only has room for a world-centric faith. They would go around and tell these Gentile Christians that they had do perform certain tribal rituals in order for them to be fully identified with God and the Christian Faith.

Q: What kind of ethno-centric or ego-centric traditions do we have or that are out there that we expect people to do or conform to in order for them to be identified truly as a Christian or as part of our tribe?

(prosperity gospel – ego-centric, story of my friend, ethno-centric)

So these are the kinds of people Paul is talking about. These are the dogs, the evildoers, these are the ones that we should beware of. This is not where God’s unfolding plan of salvation for the world happens. Done are the ways of ethno-centric laws such as the Torah for granting passage for salvation. Jesus came to bring a new world-centric way of living. So Paul takes his entire ethno-centric way of life and puts it on display and then throws it out the window. It is useless to him now, at least in terms of God and salvation is concerned. Paul continues on this line of thinking.

He says beware of that dog that tells you that your church is better, your right, your more responsible, your more right that everyone else, you care about people more, your way is better than everyone else. Beware of the evildoer that tells you to put your own tribe, culture and society ahead of everyone else and not worry about the, Beware of the mutilator of the flesh that let’s you think any moral will save you. This is a message for me I need to hear on a daily basis. My inclination is to think that all my stupid ideas are the right ideas and that everyone needs to follow me, or they are wrong, or they can’t really know Christ. Beware of me when I sound like that. Let’s listen to Paul here and beware of anyone who tells us that salvation can come from any place, any moral or right choice, any ritual or tradition.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, 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 is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Paul is on the same kick here. Remember he is no longer talking from a ego-centric point of view. He has moved to making his own story, and his tribes story fit into God’s story. We can believe that because of what we talked about a few weeks ago. He’s in jail, and nothing is really going well for him, yet he is still telling us to rejoice, because all he really cares about is the gospel advancing to the world. So it is this perspective. This shift of thinking that allows him to write words like this. All these other ways of thinking, and all the things he gained through thinking this way are considered worthless to him now. He’s looking at the world from a new perspective. The language he is using here is actually financial terms of ‘assets’ and ‘liabilities.’ What was once an asset, is now seen as a liability to him. The things haven’t actually changed. He still has been snipped. What has changed is his perspective, not his circumstances. This is what he book of Philippians is about. It is about changing our perspective to look at the world through God’s grandoise story of salvation for the world rather than looking at it through our short-reaching imaginations of individual happiness.

It depends on learning to perceive things from a perspective in Christ. This is a habit that had to be formed in Paul. Moreover, he wants the Philippians to have similar perceptual habits formed in them. Paul’s account of himself and his circumstances has multiple aims. First and most straightforwardly, he wants the Philippians to see him in a particular way. Second, and more importantly for the long-term health of the Philippian congregation, Paul displays the perceptual habits, skills, and ways of life that allow him to fit himself into the ongoing drama of God’s salvation. These are the habits, skills, and ways of life he desires to see formed in the Philippians. Indeed, this is in large part what he means in 2:5 when he urges the Philippians to adopt the particular pattern of practical reasoning appropriate to those in Christ. It is not simply the case that Christ has altered Paul’s perceptions about his past achievements. Rather, Paul is narrating himself into the story of salvation that begins, climaxes, and will end with Christ.
– Stephen Fowl

I want to know Christ-yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

For the last part that we are going to do this morning. Paul has helped us see how his perspective has shifted and now he says that he wants to know Christ and then tacks on this statement about suffering and becoming like him in his death and resurrection. This is really what the Christian life is all about. Participating with Christ in his death. Paul has been able to shift his perspective so well, that all his suffering and eventual death still fit into the unfolding story that God is up to. Should we be able to develop similar abilities for doing the same thing with our lives, we too will have the resources for making the suffering that comes our way as the result of our commitments to Christ make sense.

To perceive this, however, the Philippians and we will need to become practiced at reading the drama of salvation properly. They also need to act in specific ways, as outlined before in Philippians. Thus, a proper reading of the economy of salvation will enable them to situate themselves within that drama in the appropriate ways so that they will live, and continue to live, as “friends” of the cross…Paul’s attention and affections are redirected so that he comes to understand God and God’s ways with the world in profoundly different ways.
– Stephen Fowl

I want to end with this letter. There is a few guys that looked to find the place in the world that was most desperately in need of God’s love. They decided that the porn industry was that place. So they packed up their lives and their families, wives and kids, and moved to the hub of the porn industry and started a church. It is called XXX Church. Rob Bell read this letter and I just couldn’t help but share it with you as well. This letter was written by the organizer of the big gay sex expo that happens every year. The XXX Church guys go and setup a booth with big signs that say Jesus Loves Porn Stars with an agenda to spread the love of Jesus and God’s story to those that they think haven’t heard it enough or have never heard it.

Your crew was incredibly friendly and welcoming and willing to speak with anyone and everyone. We even gave them stage time in a prime slot to promote your message. Your exposure was at it’s peak with attendees at that time because it was our fashion show time slot. All eyes were on them and I said to your guy, (I can’t remember his name sorry) that I will give them stage time as long as he doesn’t get up and say “God hates gays” or anything. And he quickly assured me that you guys were not there with a message of saving our lost condemned souls, but rather to spread God’s love. That stuck with me because religious organizations preach that only God is the true judge, yet have no problem protesting a funeral of a murdered hate crime victim for being gay. I’d say that is the ultimate form of judgement upon another human being.
Your message that he loves everyone and the fact that your determination to spread that word even in what i’m sure was the craziest and weirdest event and location your crew has witnessed shows me that you guys are doing a great and selfless thing. We would love to have you guys back next year! Please keep doing what you are doing.

I read you this letter because I think that it’s a perfect example of what it looks like to live out intentionally what Paul is talking about here. The pornography culture while may completely offend us is no match for the love of Christ, so much so that these two family men have set up camp in the middle of their culture with God’s message of salvation, for even them….for even us. They aren’t knit picking at every single thing that morally offends them, and they aren’t even trying to change their culture. They are just sharing God’s story in the midst of it.

This is the kind of perspective that Paul sets up for us in this letter. All the things that we think God cares about, like not swearing, going to church, tithing 10%, and all of our cultural traditions that we have all mean nothing to our salvation. They mean nothing to the story of God. All the bad things that happen are nothing when it comes to the good news of what God is doing in the world. All the good things you have done, I’ll the perfect 10’s you’ve achieved in your good Christian life are nothing more than a pile of shit compared to being found in Christ. Now that we have some context, let’s read the Message Version to help it sink in a bit deeper, and then we’ll pray.

And that’s about it, friends. Be glad in God! I don’t mind repeating what I have written in earlier letters, and I hope you don’t mind hearing it again. Better safe than sorry-so here goes.
Steer clear of the barking dogs, those religious busybodies, all bark and no bite. All they’re interested in is appearances-knife-happy circumcisers, I call them. The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ’s praise as we do it. We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it-even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash-along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant-dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ-God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.

May we have perspective
And count our accomplishments not

May we understand your story
And count our failures not

May we see your unfolding plan
And be found firmly within it

May we participate in your redemption
And be redeemed ourselves

May we rejoice
And keep on rejoicing

May we embrace you
As you embrace us

May we give up everything
And suffer and die with you

Amen.

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