This sermon is part of the sermon series "Free to Sacrifice". See series.
I returned from a two-week trip to Nairobi, Kenya, and Jos, Nigeria, where we were visiting some of our dear friends and ministry partners in the gospel. There is one guy in particular who is a good friend of our diocese, works with and under Archbishop Kwashi—his name is Venerable Mark/Mukan. “Venerable” is his official title. Mark, or Mukan as we call him, sometimes, has been to our church and hopefully, Lord willing, we’re going to be able to bring him back here again shortly. Mukan is full of crazy stories of God’s intervention and miracles in his life, as many of our African Christian friends are.
So he was telling me this story about traveling up in the northeast of Nigeria, and he was driving his car in the middle of nowhere and going by this small village, and the car broke down and couldn’t move. He couldn’t get it to start. So he got out and he noticed that he was right by this small village. So he went into the village. He started talking to people, noticed there was a lot of children there, and he noticed there wasn’t a church there. So he thought, This is interesting. Maybe I’ll come back and visit here someday. By the way, his car had serious engine problems so he had to get a rebuilt engine. So he gets the rebuilt engine, he’s driving the same car, and in exactly the same spot, the car broke down again, right in front of that village. He had some little activity books for children so “I got out and I was talking to the villagers and I was getting to know them, and I noticed hey had no church.” He got back to Jos, and then he got another engine rebuilt so that’s two new engines in two months. And then he says, “And you know what, Matt? I realized God was trying to tell me something. God was trying to tell me that I should plant a church in that village.” The first words out of my mouth were, “If God wanted you to plant in a village, and he wanted to get your attention, couldn’t he have just taken out two water pumps instead of two engines?” And he looks at me like, “Oh, you stupid American. How long must I be with you? It’s not about the engines. It’s not about the money. It’s about people. It’s about Jesus. Remember him, Matt? It’s about the gospel. It’s about the Good News.”
Now, if you want to be a good Christian, look at Mark/Mukan in that instance because there is something that happens as we meet Jesus for the first time, as we continue to meet Jesus, and continue to be transformed by him with a living encounter with the person of Jesus, and life in his church. This encounter transforms our values; it transforms what’s important to us. It transforms what we’re passionate about. Some things that we really had to have and couldn’t live without, suddenly they’re not that important anymore.
Everything has been reassessed, everything has been revalued, and I’ve been reprioritized. My life has been reprioritized. That is what the apostle Paul is trying to tell us, what is happening in his life and what’s supposed to happen in every believer of Jesus’ life, in our first reading from Philippians 3.
(Read Philippians 3:1-11)
Upside down, inside out
This is a powerful passage on what happens when Jesus gets ahold of our life and begins to change us from the inside out. A lot of times we hear in the Christian life that we’re supposed to sacrifice. Sacrificing, though, is about giving up. Sacrificing is about losing things. You can’t sacrifice without losing some things. But sometimes if we’re living a life of sacrifice without the powerful encounter with Jesus Christ, it looks like this—a big man trying to take away a bone from a scrappy little dog. God is the big man; we’re the little dog. The bone is whatever we have: our pride, our anger, our jealousy, our sense of self-worth in ourselves. That’s the bone and we don’t want to give it up, and God goes, “Drop it, drop it.”
Jesus used a very different picture. He said it’s like a man walking through a field and he stumbles upon this unbelievable treasure, more than he ever imagined. A better life than he ever imagined. So he goes back and he sells everything he has. He sacrifices everything. He loses everything. Why? So he can get that treasure. That’s what the Christian life is like, that is what encountering Jesus means, and that’s what Paul is going to explore today. Through his own story, he’s going to show us what every Christian’s journey is meant to be—a life of losing, but a life of gaining the thing that is of supreme worth, the treasure, the pearl of great price. That’s what this passage is all about.
Paul comes out swinging in verse 2, “Look out for the dogs. Look out for the evildoers. Look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” And you’re going, “Whoa, this guy is angry.” Well, he’s not so much angry, but he says we need to keep our focus on the heart of the Christian faith. If you cut this out, if you dilute this, if you somehow compromise this, you have lost the heart of faith in Jesus. So this is worth fighting for, Paul says.
Then he moves into a personal testimony. If you’re not familiar with personal testimony, it’s the story of how someone came to know Jesus. We were actually in our church, our college group, instructed to write our testimony in three minutes in three parts with one minute for each part. Part one was my life before I met Jesus, which is usually: It was a train wreck. I was headed for disaster. I was awful. I was miserable. … I met Jesus—it was dramatic; it was amazing. Now I’m following Jesus, and my life is unbelievably better. If your life is a train wreck, this morning, Jesus wants to meet you too. He wants to meet you this morning. For most of us were met at the train wreck part of our life. Jesus can meet us there. There is no pit so deep.
For Paul, his three-part testimony was very different. Before he met Jesus, his life was pretty good. At least his self-assessment of his life. He was running around killing Christians, but aside from that, his life’s pretty good, he felt pretty good about himself, had good self-esteem. Then he met Jesus and it was traumatic. “The guy knocked me down, I was blind, I couldn’t see or eat for three days, I was completely disoriented, I had no idea where I was, and I had no idea which way, if up was down or down was up. And then this guy I’ve never met has to come and lay hands on me and it’s like scales falling off my eyes and I’m like, What just happened? It was traumatic.” Since he’s known Jesus, it’s really hard. He’s like, “I’ve been shipwrecked, I’ve been stoned, I’ve been beaten, I’ve been threatened, now I’m in a prison cell, and I don’t know whether I’m going to get in or out or come out alive or dead. So come, follow Jesus with me. There’s my personal testimony.”
Notice what Paul does in verses 4–6. Now, I don’t need to give you all the details of why those things were so impressive in Paul’s day and for him and for his culture but trust me, it’s a very impressive list. Seven things, they’re all very impressive. What he calls, he is “building a righteousness of my own” (vs. 9). It’s a righteousness building project in which I build my righteousness. I build myself into a good person. I pull myself up. I live the life I’m supposed to live. I get accepted before God by the good things I do. I impress other people. I’m building my righteousness.
Paul is giving us his spiritual life résumé. There are two categories on this life résumé: status and achievement. These are the two things on your résumé. Status, that’s the things you’re born into; it’s your privileges. Maybe you were born into wealth. Maybe you were born into a great home life and it was amazing. Maybe you have beauty or talent or some kind of privilege. That’s status.
When I was in Nigeria, they think in terms of something called American privilege. They think we’re all very privileged. Now you may feel you’re on the lower end of the American privilege scale, but they think we’re all privileged. For instance, the guys really liked my tennis shoes, which I thought were pretty cool and I consulted with my young sons and I picked them out. And they were like, “Those are cool shoes.” They asked, “How much did those cost?” and I’m like, “Oh, they were very reasonable. I got them on sale, $50.” And they’d look at each other and one guy says, “That’s 20,000 naira. That’s like three months’ salary.” We are privileged; we have status.
The second thing is achievement. Achievement is what you earn. It’s what you work for. It’s your sweat. It’s your activity. It’s you deserving what you get. You weren’t born with it; you earned it. Paul says, “I had both. I had privilege. I had achievement. I had status. I had spiritual success.” And he said, “If anyone could put together a good résumé, it was me. I had confidence in the flesh.” He uses that phrase three times: confidence in the flesh. What’s he talking about? He means “I had confidence in what I was able to put together for my life before God and other people. I didn’t feel like a train wreck.” And he says that gave him a lot of gain, that gave him a lot of significance, gave him a sense of identity. Then Jesus bumped into his life and, boom, everything is ripped out from underneath him.
Notice what he says in verse 7, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” Remember that treasure that guy bumps into? “I found the treasure,” Paul says. “I found the pearl of great price.” And then he goes on, “For his sake”—for Jesus’ sake—“I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.” What does he mean by “I lost everything”? Because he didn’t lose his Jewish identity. He didn’t lose how he was born or when he was circumcised. Well, he literally did lose one thing. He lost persecuting Christians. He completely gave that up. But the rest of that stuff, he said it was more like “that stuff just doesn’t matter to me anymore. All that stuff that I thought was so important, all that stuff I thought I could not live without, it doesn’t matter to me anymore.”
You know some people call this the Rocky Balboa test, if you’re familiar with the Rocky movies. In Rocky I, Rocky is this scrappy boxer from Philadelphia. He wants to box, his wife, Adrian, doesn’t want him to box so she’s trying to get him to quit. She says, “Why is this so important to you? Why do you have to box?” And he says, “Because if I don’t fight, I’m a bum. I’m nothing but a bum.” The Rocky Balboa test is what you would put in the blank in that sentence. If I don’t have X, I’m a bum. If I don’t have my image of a nice person, I’m a bum. If I’m not a perfect parent, I’m a bum. If my kids aren’t successful, I’m a bum. If my life falls apart and I’m really struggling, I’m a bum. If I don’t get that degree, I’m a bum. What would you put in that line? Paul says, “I had a whole bunch of stuff in there. I thought I’d be a bum without it, and now I’m not. I’m actually free.” Whatever things were loss, it’s like it’s gain to me.
He even calls it rubbish in verse 8. Now, the word rubbish, is a very emotional word. It’s not like leftover salad that you throw out with the trash. It means dung, excrement. One of the premier New Testament Greek scholars, a guy named Daniel B. Wallace, says this, “The word in the Greek, the original word, took on the nuance of a vulgar expression with emotive connotations.” In other words, that’s disgusting. This is not something you would use in polite conversation. That’s why the word is actually really rare in Greek literature. Paul is saying, “You know, that Nobel Peace Prize, that Pulitzer, that MVP for the Super Bowl, that PhD from Harvard or whatever success you want? It’s all dung.” Why would he say that? Well, look, those things are not bad in themselves. I would not mind getting a Pulitzer Prize someday. That would be alright. I could handle that. I wouldn’t mind getting an honorary doctorate from Harvard or something like that. The point is he was using them to build his righteousness project, and they were keeping him from the real treasure, Jesus, and that’s why he said, “They’re like dung, just throw it out.” Throw it out with the trash. You see, building our own righteousness is a hopeless project, according to the Bible. We all think we can do it. We all think maybe a lot of people can’t do it, but I can do it. That’s the default of our heart. I can build my righteousness.
Resurrection power and shared sufferings
A former mayor of New York City was interviewed and he was talking about all of his political achievements—“I did this and I did that and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And he said at the end of the interview, “If there is a God,” he said, “when I get to heaven, I am not stopping for an interview. I’m heading straight in because I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.” Now, I don’t want to say that’s just arrogant, but what’s really wrong with that is it’s ludicrous. That’s the problem with it. It’s like me saying, “If anybody can beat LeBron James in a one-on-one basketball game, it’s me. It won’t even be close.” It’s arrogant, but it’s also ridiculous.
One of the Psalms says, in a beautiful summary statement of our human problem, “Oh Lord, if you counted sins, who could stand before you?” That’s one thing we all have in common, in this room and outside this room. If the Lord counted our sins, and he does, who could stand before him? We’re all sunk. None of us can succeed in this righteousness building project. But notice verse 9, here’s where the good news comes in. Verse 9, “That I may gain Christ and be found in him.” I love that phrase. I’ve been thinking about that all week. “Be found in Christ.” What does that mean? It’s like you’re held. It’s like you’re clothed with Jesus’ righteousness.
Paul goes on to say, “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, I’ve given up that project. I’m so glad I gave that up.” He said, “But I have a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Earlier Christians called that an alien righteousness, not because it was like something from outer space, but it might as well have been because it has nothing to do with you and your track record. It comes from God, through Jesus Christ, and you receive it by faith. You don’t achieve it, it’s not your status, it’s not your pedigree, it’s not your privileges, and it’s not how hard you work. Faith is the instrument, the vessel by which God pours it into you. Faith is not a work; it’s how we receive the gift. Paul says, “I have that. I have that now.” And it reorients his life.
Notice what he says in verse 10. Here’s his new consuming passion. “That I may know him.” That’s it. I’m not building my righteousness project. I just want to know him. I want to know this treasure. I want to know this One who has given me his righteousness. And he says there’s two facets to knowing him. First is the power of his resurrection, and second is to share in his sufferings.
It is his resurrection. It’s not our power or our effort. Christ puts within us as we encounter him, as we know him, the power of his resurrection. Think of him, dead in the grave, every cell in his body is dead. Then the power of God comes, reverses every single cell in his body, walks it backward, and all of a sudden he is alive. That power, he says, is in you. I want to know the power of his resurrection. I want to experience that.
No matter what you’re going through right now, no matter how you’ve fallen flat on your face, no matter what train wreck you may be experiencing right now, no matter how much you’re hurting yourself or somebody else, or no matter what kind of dead end you feel like you’re at, there is no dead end, there’s the power of his resurrection. Paul says, “I also want to press into sharing in his sufferings. I want to know that too.” But notice again, it is Christ’s sufferings that he wants to know.
I thought about that all week. It’s like we talk so often, my suffering, his suffering, her suffering, or their suffering, but Paul says, “I want to press into sharing the sufferings of Jesus.” You know what that means? It means that we never suffer alone. The worst thing about suffering is that we feel like we’re all alone in it, and we feel like people are going to reject us, people are going to leave us, people don’t understand. So we go into this dark valley, whether it’s depression, loneliness, addiction, divorce, or whatever. We go into this valley and we’re going to be alone. Jesus says, “No, it’s my sufferings. I’m already there. You’re coming into my sufferings. You’re not alone in your suffering. I am there with you.” And Paul says, “I want to press into that.”
That encounter with Jesus unleashes something into Paul. He’s like a guy getting shot out of a cannon. Or C. S. Lewis said it’s like a horse growing wings. We begin to fly and do things that we never thought possible because the power of Christ is within us. So Paul, even in this very broken place—he’s in a prison cell, he’s in brokenness and he’s in sorrow and he’s in a place of vulnerability—he throws himself wide open to risk, to sacrifice, to give of himself because he knows the surpassing value of Christ.
I’ll tell you another Mukan story. This is a story about a group of people who understand this passage better than most of us, better than me with my linguistic Bible, Bible commentaries, and seminary degree. We are driving to the cathedral church where I’m supposed to give a presentation. I’m pretty nervous, and as Mukan always does, he has a trip planned for us that I didn’t know about. So it’s like, “We’re just going to stop here for a few minutes.” It’s like, “I’ve really got to get to the church.” “Don’t worry, they won’t start before you get there, so don’t worry about it.” So we pull into this little dusty road, and at the end of this road, there is a junkyard. Like an auto junkyard, but this is a junky junkyard. I’ve never seen cars this junky. I’m going, “Why do you even have that car? You really going to get that car going again?” I don’t understand. We drive in, and then off to the left, we see what’s called the garage church. The garage church is a couple of big tin sheets, upheld by a bunch of spindly big sticks and a dirt floor, no walls, no windows, no door. It looks like it’s going to collapse, but there’s like 30 men under there, and they’re all believers and they’re singing. There’s no musical instruments and there’s no sound system, but it’s loud and it’s raucous. And they have this clapping that they do that’s like with beats that I never quite got but it was music, and there’s singing, and there is joy radiating on their faces. And then Mark/Mukan says, “Matt, why don’t you say something? Give them a word.” So I gave what I think is my shortest and maybe one of my best sermons ever, honestly.
I thought, I’m going to get out of my comfort zone a little bit. I had this impression from the Lord. I sensed something. Have you ever had that happen? So I got on my knees and I started moving the dirt around, and I picked up the dirt and I let it fall through my fingers. And one of the guys—these guys are all mechanics, by the way, in case you didn’t pick that up—turns to Mukan and he says, “He’s touching the dirt.” They didn’t think Americans touch dirt. And then I said, “I want you men to know that the Bible says, ‘Beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.’” And then I looked at all their feet, they all had these open sandals, feet are all dusty, hands are greasy with mechanic grease. And I said, “I want you to know you have brought—you are bringing the good news of Jesus in this place. You have reminded me of the good news of Jesus. You are bringing the good news of Jesus into your community, so I want to encourage you and thank you brothers for what you’re doing.” That was my sermon.
I mention this story because those brothers in Christ—and they were all brothers, they were all mechanics, all men—have something that sometimes we forget. They know what it’s like to be found in him. They know what it’s like to have the treasure of Jesus, the surpassing worth of Jesus. They know what it’s like not to have a righteousness of their own, trying to build their righteousness through status, pedigree, and achievement. They have an alien righteousness from Christ. It is the supreme worth.
When everything in life is stripped away, when all the stuff we think is so important is stripped away—and it will be someday—there is one thing for those who believe in Jesus that will remain: The supreme worth of knowing Jesus Christ. I want us to recapture that this morning, to recapture the wonder of that.
Maybe your life is a train wreck, maybe you feel pretty good about your spiritual résumé right now. Maybe you’ve been a Christian a long time and it’s grown stale. Maybe you need to come to Jesus for the first time. Wherever you’re at this morning, this message is for us. Christ himself is our treasure. How would you live, what would you do today if you knew that he is the supreme treasure? Reach out to him today. Reach out to him in this service. Reach out to him through the prayer ministers. If you’re a believer, reach out to him during the Eucharist. Reach out to Jesus; he is the treasure.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.