Please turn in the Pew Bibles to Philippians chapter 3 and follow along as I read verses 5-7
5 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;
6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
My wife was telling me about a child she had in her third grade class whose name was Precious. Can you imagine calling the roll everyday, asking if “Precious” is present? This child was the opposite of her name. She was the devil incarnate. The old saying is that “Some people live up to their name and some people live down to their name.” I suppose that if you had a name like “Precious,” you would have to be the meanest kid on the block. Parents ought to think about things like that when naming children.
It is interesting the way we name babies. If we have a beloved relative or friend, if there is someone we admire, we might give their name to our baby. And so a name can have all sorts of relationships attached to it.
In my case, my parents were both in rebellion against their families, and so they gave me a name that was not associated with any family member, but they really admired President Franklin Roosevelt, so that is why I wound up with the middle name of Delano. When parents, give a name, for whatever reason, that name is full of meaning for them. And that meaning impacts the baby’s identity.
What is your identity? Who are you? We are often asked that question in one form or another. Try to cash a check. The clerk says, “I need a photo identification.” In other words, who are you? Try to talk to your government about taxes—yes, it is almost tax time again—and the first thing they ask is: Give me your social security number. In other words, who are you? That is perhaps the most important question that anyone will ever ask you.
But notice this: the way we identify ourselves is always relational. That is, my personal identity is always derived from my relationships with people and institutions. My driver’s license, for example, is about a relationship between me and the state of SC. My social security number is about a relationship between me and the Federal government.
Go further. Another question about identity is: Where are you from? Where do you live? Years ago, I was fishing with some friends down in the low state. We had stopped at a little country store to get some snacks and I struck up a conversation with some folks. There was one kid. I guess he was ten or twelve years old. I asked where he was from. He stuck out his chest and said with great pride, “I’m from Hell Hole Swamp.”
I admitted that I had no idea where that was. He could not believe it. He said, “You don’t know where Hell Hole Swamp is?” And he said it like I was the most ignorant person in this world. He put his hand to his head in disgust and said, “Everybody know where Hell Hole Swamp is.”
That was a young man who was proud of where he lived. He had a very good relationship with his hometown, if it was a town. I obviously don’t have any relationship with Hell Hole Swamp because I still don’t know where it is.
But identifying yourself with a place, indentifies you with an image of that place. The image of York is a place where you can find a traditional Southern lifestyle. I suspect that in reality the image is grievously flawed, but you know what Hollywood says, image is everything. And when you say, I am from York or from York County, you identify yourself in some way with that image, even if only in negative way, even if only to rebel against it.
Or, you could identify yourself in terms of family. That used to be a major Southern characteristic. Family was everything in the old South, not today. Most people do not care who your momma and daddy were. But in any case family is obviously about relationships.
Or you could identify yourself in terms of profession. I meet people all the time who tell me that they hate their jobs. That is sad. When you spend so much time doing something, it is sad to have a bad relationship with it. But for better or worse, part is our identity is tied up with job or profession.
Thus, we identify ourselves by the relationships we have with other people. It begins with other people giving us our name, we are part of a certain family. we go to a certain school. We live in a certain area, we have a certain job. All these elements shape who we are.
But that does not mean that we are absolutely predestined by to be what we are by these external relationships. We each have a unique personality that interacts with our relationships to create our unique present.
Let us go back to your name for a moment, your family gave you your name, but as you grow older, your name is associated with what you say and what you do, and the relationships you have with others. Thus, you add your own meaning to your name. And another generation will give or not give that name depending to some extent upon what you do with it.
And this is true of all the other ways we identify ourselves. We are part of a family and we contribute our part to that family to make it functional or disfunctional. We contribute our part to our profession to make it respected or not. Every relationship by which we identity ourselves, we contribute to that relationship. We do our part. Relationships are important. What we do with relationships is even more important.
The apostle Paul was well aware of this. In Philippians chapter 3, Paul is responding to attacks on his identity. Paul identified himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, as one who teaches an authentic message about Jesus, but Paul had enemies in the church who said that Paul was not an apostle. These enemies of Paul are usually called Judaizers. They believed in Jesus, but they also believed that a Christian keeps the law of the Old Testament, including dietary laws and the laws of sacrifice.
Now to give them their due, Paul’s enemies had some truth on their side. Paul was not one of the original disciples of Jesus. He never met Jesus in the flesh. Moreover, the relationship between Paul and the Jerusalem church, the mother church of Christianity, was somewhat strained. That church did lean more heavily on the law than Paul did. The Jerusalem church never condemned Paul, but it was never very enthusiastic about Paul either.
Paul was ordained to be a missionary by the church at Antioch—which was a church full of Gentiles and non-Palestinian Jews. So to many people, Paul’s credentials seemed suspect.
Paul defends his identity as an apostle. He says in v4 that his opponents have confidence in the flesh, that is, they have confidence in physical rituals and practices. They believe that not eating certain things, they believe that offering animal sacrifices in the temple, they believe that rituals like circumcision, can make them acceptable to God. Thus, they find their identity in those rituals and practices.
Paul emphazises that he came from these same roots. He says in v5 that like every Jewish male baby, he was “circumcised on the eighth day.” He emphasizes his Israelite background saying that he was “of the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul’s detractors may have been saying that he is not an Israelite at all. They may have said he was a Greek who converted to Judaism and tried to be a Pharisee and failed, and then pretended to be a Christian apostle.
They totally questioned Paul’s identity. But Paul does not give an inch. He asserts his Jewishness. He says I was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” He emphazies that he was so much a Pharisee that he persecuted the church. And he was dedicated to keeping the law.
We see Paul here in the heat of battle defending his basic identity, and probably, in his anger, he overstates his case somewhat. To be “a Hebrew of the Hebrews” he would have had to been from Jerusalem, and he would have had to speak Aramaic as his native tongue. But Paul was from Tarsus which was in Modern Turkey, outside the Holy Land all together, and Paul spoke Greek. Even when he quotes the Old Testament, Paul quotes the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Paul had absorbed far more of Greek culture than he admits in these verses from Philippians. That is why he was such a good missionary. But that is not really the point here. Paul is defending his Jewishness, because that is what is being questioned by his detractors.
But then Paul adds something new. He says that Jewishness is not really the point, and not really his identity.
Speaking of his enemies, he says, these guys want to make a big deal about being Jews and keeping rituals. I could do the same thing. I have a Jewish background, I once was into keeping rituals. And he says, I did it better than they are doing it.
But now I know that none of that matters. The only thing that matters is my relationship with Jesus Christ. V7 reads, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Identity is about relationships. Paul says that the relationship that now describes his identity is his relationship with Jesus.
Now Paul describes his relationship with Jesus so emphatically in these verses, that he almost seems to be denying that any other relationship exists for him. He says, “Whatever gains I had,” whatever relationships I had, I now think of as worthless. In v8 he says, All I want is Jesus and I regard everything else as garbage.
Does that mean that a Christian should have no other relationships but Christ. Not at all. Paul had other relationships. He had good friends like Barnabas and Silas. At the end of some of his letters, he find lists of people that he is concerned about. Paul obviously had a lot of relationships with people.
What he is saying is that his relationship with Christ dominates all other relationships, colors all other relationships. All his other relationships are meaningful only because they are in Christ. Paul’s enemies questioned his credentials as an apostle. Paul says my credentials are that my whole identity is bound up in Christ.
That leads us to this question: What are your credentials that establish that you are a Christian? You might say, “I come to church. I am a church member. I have a lot of Christian friends.” That is fine. That is part of it. But Paul saying that ultimately, Christian identity is about Christ.
I said earlier, you are your relationships. Paul absolutely agrees with that. And he adds that as a Christian all your relationships are influenced by Christ..
Does this mean then that Paul is so dominated by Christ that Paul has disappeared and only Christ is left? No. Paul is still Paul. He is a person like you and me. He had some bad times and some good times. He got angry, he rejoiced. He brought his own unique personality to his relationship with Jesus. And in this relationship, he made a tremendous impact upon his time. He was a giant of the faith.
I suspect that we are not giants of the faith, but the same thing is true of us. As Christians, our identity is tied up in Jesus. That does not mean that we are any less ourselves. Each of us has our unique personality. But our relationship to Jesus is the essential part of our personality. If we are Christians, Jesus is the most real thing about us. Basically our relationship with Jesus is who we are. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
|HOME||About YARPC||Sermons||What's New||Prayer Center|
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 08/19/06