Return to Sermon Archive
October 6, 2002
(World-Wide Communion Sabbath)
by Tony Grant
When David wrote in Psalm 18, "For by thee I have run through a troop; and by my God have I leaped over a wall" (18:29, KJV), he could not have imagined what mechanical engineers and chemists are doing today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have developed a synthetic material with properties that mimic human muscles unlike anything seen before. They believe that their innovative muscle material is perfect for anti-gravitational suits, as well as for therapeutic and commercial devices.
The team has recently launched a company called Molecular Mechanisms to develop the technology. They expect to produce a variety of working prototypes that may even lay the foundation for a "superman suit" for the armed forces. Such a suit could enable soldiers to run, jump and lift to a nearly superhuman degree. "Imagine," says one scientist, "the psychological damage it would wreak on a foe if we had entire troops able to leap over 20-foot walls."
Wouldn't we all love to have this kind of strength? Not just physically, but emotionally, morally, and spiritually. One of the most discouraging and disillusioning dimensions of day-to-day life is our ever-present human weakness. We collapse in glassy-eyed exhaustion before our everyday tasks are finished; we break down emotionally when confronted by severe stress; we give in to temptation instead of showing moral strength and righteous resolve; and we take the path of least resistance instead of the demanding road of dedicated discipleship. None of us is Superman, or Superwoman. We are human. We wobble and wear out; we fall down and screw up.
Even the superheroes of the spiritual life have serious limits to their strength. Paul was a Christian superhero. But in Philippians chapter 3, he is talking about his limits.
In Philippians chapter 3, we experience Paul at his most passionate. At first glance, it might seem that Paul is bragging. He boasts, "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised 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; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (3:4b-6 NRSV). His credentials, he says, are impeccable: He was a good and righteous man according to Jewish expectation. He declares that as a Jew he was blameless. Now he was not blameless. That is to say he was not without sin. If we read the Pauline letters we become aware of how much Paul was aware of his own sinfulness. What Paul is saying is that he was trying so hard to cope with his own sinful nature that he became a hyperJew, a Jew of Jewsbut that was not working very well for him either. Then he met Christ. And nothing else mattered. Compared to his faith in Jesus Christ, his past is totally unimportant. Thus he says, "whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ" (v7).
If it is true that Paul is in prison, when he wrote this letter, then his declaration in v8--"I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord"--takes on added weight. He has given up his past, his status, his connections, and now even his liberty to witness to his faith in the reality of the risen Christ, who draws all history to himself and directs it toward the completion of its eternal purpose. In Chapter 2, Paul has written of how Christ emptied himself for us. Now he says he desires to empty himself for Christ.
So focused is Paul on his self-emptying obedience that everything else for him becomes what most modern translations call "rubbish." Thus the NRSV: "For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him" (vv. 7-9). I am sorry but that translation just does not quite get it. Modern commentators are too genteel to give the full force of Paul's street Greek. The original Greek word used by Paul is skubalon, which literally means "excrement." Yes, I know that makes you sit up and listen. The KJV is right. The Greek word means "dung." Now that shocks us because we are used to reading our churchy translations, and we do not realize how earthy Paul could beespecially when he was passionate, and the one thing he was passionate about was Jesus Christ. Nothing is of comparable value to knowing Christ and having faith in Christ. Every other credential should be treated as excrement and flushed. That is blunt language but that is exactly what Paul says.
Paul craves a new righteousness, one comes through faith in Christ. For Paul, and for each one of us, the righteousness of Christ can be a sort of Superman suit. Indeed, Paul uses a clothing metaphor frequently throughout his writing. In Colossians 3, he says, "Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience" (12).
Every day brings us an array of things that try our patience. we buy something that needs to be assembled, and the instructions do not make sense. We are out on a golf course and hit a straight drive; but when we get to where it ought to be lying, it is not there. We toss sixteen socks into a clothes dryer and get back fifteen. Life can be irritating.
Sometimes people can be irritating. Poky drivers in the left lane. Or the person ahead of us in the fifteen-item express line at the supermarket. This person puts thirty items on the belt, chats with the checkout clerk, fishes for a checkbook only after everything has been rung up and then wants to review the bill.
As God's chosen ones, says Paul, bear with one another. Clothe yourselves with patience. We need that piece of clothing. We need it to absorb the ordinary fallout of working and living together. We need patience in order to manage annoyances and the low-level anger that accompanies them.
But when do we get this kind of clothing? When can we have patience? When our lives are "hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3), we have a superman suit that includes patience and all the other Christian virtues. This suit is called the righteousness of Christ. This sort of power suit gives us, not the ability to run, jump and lift like a superhero, sailing over 20-foot walls in a single bound, but instead the truly superhuman powers of compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness, love, and thankfulness.
We might call our superman suit a G-Suit, a God suit. When we put on this G-suit, we are protected not by synthetic muscles, but by the whole armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:13-17).
Thus empowered and protected, we have a mission to perform in this world. "I do not consider that I have made it my own," admits Paul to the Philippians, "but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (3:13-14). Paul presses on, like a Man of Steel on a mission, determined to live his faith in Christ every day every way.
Faith to Paul is not a goal to be achieved. Faith is not a series of doctrinal statements to assent to. Faith is a dynamic gift from God through Jesus Christ, which creates a yearning in the believer to press on. For Paul, knowledge of Christ is an ongoing process.
I Corinthians 13:12 reads, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face." This coincides with what Paul says in Philippians. Paul still "wants to know," still wants to "share Christ's suffering," still wants to "become like him." Paul writes that he has not reached his goal yet. Paul's language about pressing on for the prize, attaining the goal, and straining forward no doubt has grounding in the Greek athletic competitions. The ideal is to reach the finish line.
The same is true for us. We are ordinary men and women who have been given extraordinary powers. We are cloaked in the righteousness of Christ, that is our God Suit. When we put on that suit we discover as Paul says later on in Philippians, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (4:13).
When Saint Patrick was preaching the gospel in Ireland. King Loeguire (Leary) set an ambush for him to stop him from going to Tara. Patrick learned of the danger and sang this hymn on the way to Tara.
I arise to-day
Through the strength of Christ's birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of Doom ... .
Christ to shield me to-day
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Patrick had a G-Suit, a God suit. It is the same suit that you and I can have in that same Christ. Amen.
Cameron, David. "Artificial muscles gain strength," Wired, February 15, 2002.
"The Deer's Cry," Early Irish Lyric Poetry, translated by Kuno Meyer, Mockingbird.creighton.edu/. Retrieved March 24, 2002.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 10/25/02