While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
As Christians, we have a long-standing hang-up with the idea of personal salvation. Centuries of teaching about Jesus dying for our sins, coupled with the exciting prospect of eternal life or conversely, eternal punishment have been at the heart of a lot of church teachings.
Even in the Reformation, when the various Protestant churches rejected practises like formal confession, acts of penance, and ideas like Purgatory, the idea of personal salvation was still addressed:
- The Lutherans embraced the idea of salvation by faith alone, rejecting what is called “works righteousness” for the idea of believing the right things and having a strong faith;
- The Reformed Church, including the Presbyterians, took this farther and settled on Double Predestination where God decided in advance who was saved and who was damned. It was supposed to be reassuring: if you were part of the church and living a righteous life, then you were obviously saved. There was nothing you could do to earn salvation because God gave it as a gift;
- The Methodists had a very different approach, with personal salvation being something offered as a gift but not applied until you embraced it. There was a serious outreach program to get as many people as possible to gather in tent meetings, be baptized and embrace both salvation and the righteous lifestyle that it demanded.
In all these situations, there was a determination to understand how it worked: How can I be saved?; What’s the system?; Or perhaps more directly, How can I be sure I’m not going to Hell?
That’s a very individualistic approach to faith. You could even call it selfish because it makes the central questions of religion all about “me” and what I need to know or do be right with God to be able to assume that I will be safe for all eternity.
That is NOT the approach we find in most of the Bible when we examine the relationship between God and humans.
In our Isaiah lesson, we find the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. The prophet reminds them of their exodus from Egypt and promises a new wilderness trek with water provided in the desert to the chosen people to such a degree that even the wild animals will celebrate!
That’s their promise of salvation: these people are God’s chosen ones and they will be rescued from their Babylonian captivity.
That’s the kind of relationship with God Paul is talking about when he goes on his rant in our Philippians lesson. Like so many people, Paul likes to know what the rules are and he likes to get them right to the full extent of his abilities.
So Paul points out his credentials: He was born into this same chosen nation and he was circumcised on the 8th day under the law as the confirmation of the covenant given through Moses.
Paul describes himself as a Pharisee which means he was meticulous about obeying the law, going well beyond the literal demands to follow extra rules that would prevent him from ever accidentally breaking a law. This practise, called Fencing the Torah, is still alive and well today.
Paul was not just legalistic. He was passionate about obeying God so that he persecuted the church when he believed that Christians were perverting Judaism.
Paul finally declared that under the law he was righteous. He clearly had never heard of the doctrine of “original sin”; he believed that he was sinless. If the issue were personal salvation, Paul was convinced he had it made. He was in good with God and he worked exceptionally hard to keep it that way.
And look, he goes on to say, I am prepared to trash all of that rule-bound assurance for the sake of the gospel, for the privilege of knowing Christ.
You might think: okay, he’s exchanged one reassurance for another; not salvation under the law, but salvation through faith, which is a very traditional Protestant way to read this.
But Paul makes no assumptions. He doesn’t feel like he can rest on his laurels because of knowing the freedom of Christ any more than he could under the law.
Paul is an obvious Type A personality, so he strives even harder, he even says he doesn’t consider that he has achieved the resurrection yet but that he must keep striving, keep pushing “upward”, because that phrase “the heavenly call of God” literally says “the upward call of God”.
Paul uses athletic language here, like “faster, higher, stronger”. We can blame passages like this for all the times Jesus gets invoked in football games.
Some of what we are seeing reflects Paul’s personality, even when he considered himself perfect under the law. He kept trying harder and harder so too, when he is given freedom from the law and is connected to God through faith in Christ, he still feels compelled to try harder.
But for all his striving, Paul isn’t struggling to become saved. That’s not his issue. Paul has never lost his sense of community; that God is dealing with a chosen people. Paul just sees God’s choice opening up
to welcome those who were excluded before.
From Paul’s perspective, this has nothing to do with personal salvation
or anything that self-centred. Paul says righteousness is a gift that comes through knowing Christ. It can’t be earned; it’s not a question of believing the right things; it’s about a relationship. It has always been about a relationship.
Which is why Paul ends up striving like someone trying to win Gold at the Olympics. So he feels compelled to share that relationship with as many people as he can.
In this passage, Paul does what Jesus did all the time: he demonstrates that we have been preoccupied with the wrong questions for centuries: the gospel is not about personal salvation; it was never about Heaven or Hell. Those are selfish concerns, foolish assumptions that blind us to the real message. It has never been about “me”; it has always been about “us” in relationship with God.
Paul understood that God’s love is all about us looking beyond ourselves and our own narrow concerns, to help others as Jesus did.
Knowing that, Paul took his formidable energies, tossed his concerns about his own righteousness on the garbage heap and put those energies into making a difference for others. In doing so he touched countless lives and still does through his writings, centuries later.
We may not be as driven as Paul was but there are so many more of us. What do you suppose we could achieve if we followed his example, abandoned our self-centred fears about salvation and put our energies into reaching out to others?
Just imagine what we could achieve; how many lives we could touch.
Better yet, instead of imagining, let’s follow Paul’s example and actually do it.