Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 7, 2019
I have carved out an image for my life: husband, dad, pastor. I hope it would be said of me, “he’s a loving husband, a devoted, involved father, and a caring, committed pastor.” I am not those things without fail, but that’s what I work toward. That’s the identity I intentionally try to embody.
You have an identity too; everyone does. Maybe you work on it consciously. Maybe you are unaware of your identity and worldview, but you have it. You have a worldview and a carefully crafted identity, even if you are not conscious of it.
The Apostle Paul had this as well. Paul was a first century Christian who met Jesus in person after the resurrection. As Paul traveled to Damascus, Jesus appeared to him in a blinding flash of light . Paul was a Jewish legal expert, a Pharisee, and he had in his possession arrest papers. He was accompanied by a unit of armed guards, commissioned by authorities from the temple in Jerusalem.
Who was Paul arresting? Jews who claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead and was in fact the Messiah and the Son of God. Temple authorities in 33-35AD felt this new sect of Jesus-followers had to be crushed. So the talented young Pharisee was given arrest powers. He was headed to Damascus to arrest Christians. Many he detained would end up executed, death by being pelted in the head with rocks: stoning.
The resurrected Jesus appeared to Paul in a light that blinded him and told him to stop persecuting Christians and become one. Paul did. Have you heard the phrase “a Damascus Road experience” uttered to describe the radical change in someone’s life that comes after seeing the light? That phrase comes from Paul’s story. He was headed to arrest Christians and then his life took a radical u-turn.
Almost half the New Testament books are letters Paul wrote to churches he started after he met Jesus in that blinding light on the road to Damascus. In Philippians 3:3-6, Paul describes the identity that he had carefully crafted for himself. Jesus brought Paul’s intentionally built self-image crashing down.
Has Jesus wrecked your life the way he did Paul’s?
You have your job, family, relationships; you see yourself in terms of where you live, who you know, the teams you cheer for, the games you play, the accomplishments and failures of your life. Everyone of us has built a life.
I invite you to think about if Jesus has obliterated your own identity and then remade it. If you think that has happened, how has it happened? What’s different about you because you have given yourself fully to Christ?
As you ponder that, listen to Paul’s description of how his life was completely changed. He gives 7 marks of his identity in Philippians 3:3-6. He was circumcised as a newborn, the proper way for good Jewish males. He was a true Israelite. He knew his tribal heritage - the tribe of Benjamin, one of the two favored southern tribes. While he spoke Greek fluently, he was a Hebrew-speaking Jew. He wasn’t a Hellenist as Greek-speaking Jews were derisively called, but a true Hebrew.
This circumcised, true Israelite, Benjamite, true Hebrew was also a Pharisee. But, Paul wasn’t just a run-of-mill Pharisee. He was a zealous and he pointed to his persecution of the Christians as evidence of his zeal. Finally, he states he was righteous, by which he means he kept the law of Moses. He made mistakes, as all humans do, but he did not fail in observing the law.
Paul believed that if he was a good Jew it would mean he was a good person, the best possible person. This was his life. Then he met Jesus. “Whatever gains I had,” he writes in verse 7, “I came to count as loss because of Christ. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
To drive the point home, Paul then says, “I regard them (his accomplishments and the life he’s built) as rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (3:8b). The very heart of his life, all he worked for up to the day he met Jesus he now counts as trash. This is what Paul said. He looked at what he thought was the very best possible life - the life of a Jewish Pharisee, a life in which he thrived, and when he met Jesus, he saw that life as garbage. It’s a good life, but it’s nothing next to life in Christ.
Again, I put the question, a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time: has Jesus obliterated your identity and remade it? What’s different when you and I give ourselves fully to Christ? Do we willingly, truly say “life is not about me. I die to self and live for my Lord, my master, Jesus?”
In the opening verses of John chapter 12 we one who met Jesus and experienced the same kind of change as Paul. Mary was the emotional sister in the family of Jesus’ close friends, Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. In the previous chapter, John 11, Jesus had been away when Lazarus, whom he knew was sick, died.
Upon arrival at their home, Martha the pragmatist, lectured Jesus and he responded meeting her where she was, giving her resurrection theology. Then Mary confronted Jesus not with words, but with tears. And Jesus met her where she was. You might know the verse because a lot of people point to it as the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus wept. When the tragedy of Lazarus’ death hit the family, Jesus talked theology with Martha and cried with Mary. And then he raised Lazarus back to life.
The Gospel of Luke also offers insight into this family and the relationship Jesus had with them (Luke 10:38-42). He was teaching a group of men in their home. Martha worked hard as the hostess keeping wine in everyone’s glass and bread on the table. Mary forgot about the work. Instead she violated convention and sat with the men so she too could hear teach. When Marth complained, Jesus told her Mary had chosen the better path.
Thus we come to John 12. Jesus is again dining in their home. Again Martha works to keep him and his disciples fed. Again, Mary forgets traditional household duties and instead lavishes opulent, extravagant love on Jesus. She dumps a bottle of expensive perfume all over his feet and the massages them with her hair. John writes that the house filled up with the smell of the perfume.
Judas complains. The perfume could have been sold, the profits given to the poor. His protest was a sham. The narrator reports that Judas used to pad his own pockets from the common purse. Jesus doesn’t call out Judas’ hypocrisy. Instead, he commends Mary’s show of love. Whether she knows it or not, her actions prepare him for burial. But why did she do it?
Why did Mary, who was probably poor herself, make such a dramatic display of affection for Jesus? Like Paul she sees who she was before she met Jesus, and who she became after meeting him. She had been an unmarried woman locked into her place in life in a society that assigned a second-class status to women. Women’s value came in their performance as wife and mother, and she was neither; in society, she had little worth. In the circle around Jesus, she was a beloved disciple. Like Paul, she knew the surpassing value of knowing Christ.
Do we? Our experience as his followers is anemic if we do not. If we force our discipleship into just one small part of our lives, it is not discipleship at all, and we aren’t really acknowledging Jesus as Lord. If, when we look to Him, we see Him, and then we re-order our lives, everything changes. Job; pastimes; relationship; family; it all gets pushed aside as Jesus moves to the center.
But it doesn’t happen by accident or happenstance. Growth does not come just by showing up at church. Growth comes when we become aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the time we spend away from church. Work; eating out; while driving in frustrating traffic; in the public schools; Jesus is Lord in all these places. We recognize him and begin to grasp the surpassing value of knowing him when we see him and submit to him in these places.
All last week, I thought about submitting my weakness to Christ. My left knee hurts a lot and I feel frustrated that I am not as strong as I used to be. Some guys my age and older are runners and weightlifters and I just cannot do those things as well I used to. In my physical weakness, I want to know Christ.
I am undisciplined - with my appetite, with my time, with my attention to detail. I can work on it, but I will never be admired for my self-discipline. I want to submit to Christ in this deficiency. In my area of mental weakness, I want to know Christ.
When I get angry and snap, usually at people I really love, I want to submit to Christ. If I am tired or hungry, or if expectations I have aren’t met, I become a grumpy, impatient person. In my emotional weakness, I want to know Christ.
I have a huge ego, which parenting and pastoring has severely my bruised. I submit the ego to Jesus. In my identity-weakness, I want to know Christ.
In Philippians, Paul discarded his accomplishments because he saw the worth of knowing Christ. In 2 Corinthians, he does what I have tried to do here. He names his weakness and submits them to Christ. Mary stepped out of the roles her culture imposed on her because she saw the value of knowing Christ.
What needs to change in your life so that you will see the value of knowing our Lord Jesus? Everything in life assumes its proper place when Jesus is the at the center of life. What do you need to give up? From what do you need to be freed? What obsession do you need to let go?
Paul concludes Philippians chapter 3 by urging us, his readers, to “imitate [him]” in seeing our past and our future in light of who we are in Christ. He says, “Our citizenship is in Heaven.” The Lord Jesus will “transform the body of our humiliation that [we] may be transformed to his glory.” May we look to Jesus, see the worth of knowing Him, and live into our Heavenly citizenship.