What Really Counts
The Apostle Paul wrote those words we just heard. Talk about a conversion! Paul was born Saul. He was a devout Jew. He was a Pharisee. He was educated in Tarsus which was one of the great educational centers of the ancient world. And Saul hated Christians.
He hated all those who belonged to Jesus Christ. He hated them enough to kill them. Saul was on a mission to arrest, imprison, and get a death sentence for followers of Jesus.
And then one day while he was riding to another mass arrest of Christians the risen Lord appeared in blinding light to Saul and literally knocked him off his horse. Jesus spoke to Saul and told Saul that he is now going to proclaim Christ’s name to Gentiles, kings and to the people of Israel. Christ literally came, grabbed Saul by the scruff of the neck, looked him in the eye, and absolutely changed his life. The One Saul thought was a croc was very much alive and real.
Saul’s name was changed to Paul and he went from leading a deadly movement against Christ to become perhaps the greatest influencer for Christ the world has ever known. The one who hated Christians became the foremost Christian. Christians read, study and live by his writings. Most of the New Testament are letters written by Paul. Philippians is one of them.
And now Paul is writing to the Christians at Philippi Presbyterian Church…to watch out for those he calls “dogs” and “evildoers.” Sounds like some bad guys. Paul is referring to those who bragged about how religious they were and how closely they followed the law of Moses.
Always remember this when you read the New Testament: in the beginning of Christianity there was a tension between parts of the Jewish faith and this new movement of following Jesus. Christianity came out of Judaism. A big question was “how much did someone still have to keep of the Jewish faith?”
Paul wrote that we don’t serve God by keeping a legal code, but by the inward working of the Spirit. When the Spirit lives in us he leads us to do the things Christ wants us to do.
Paul contrasts himself with those who put all their confidence in their own religiosity. They wave around their religious resume as something special.
It can be easy to trust in our own spiritual resume, look at ourself in the mirror, and take pride in our accomplishments. “Well, I am in church every week. I was baptized by immersion when I was 13. My family has been members for years. I teach Sunday School. I serve on the Session or am a deacon. I attend a Bible study regularly. I have a lifetime of committee work. I must be very good with God. Look at me.”
Those are all excellent things. But to wave them in front of God or anyone else as the reason we are accepted by God won’t fly in the face of the gospel of grace. Paul uses himself to point the Philippian Christians – and us – in a different direction.
He writes, “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh (meaning their religious pedigree) I have more.” And then Paul lays out his religious resume. “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
If there was ever a Jew who had checked all the boxes it was Paul. If anyone had reason to be confident in his religious self, it was him. Paul says, “You want to compare religious achievement? Let’s go, because I can’t be beat.” And he could. He had the receipts, as the kids say now a days.
Being circumcised on the eighth day, Paul was saying he had known the privileges of being part of the Jewish people, the chosen people of God, since birth. Israel was the special people of God, and Paul was stressing the absolute purity of his descent. To be of the tribe of Benjamin was to belong to the elite of Israel. Benjamin was the child of Rachel, the most-loved wife of Jacob, who was the only patriarch to be born in the Promised Land. As a Hebrew of Hebrews, Paul was not only of pure racial descent, but he still spoke in the Hebrew tongue.
He was trained as a Pharisee. The name Pharisee means “The Separated Ones.” Pharisees had separated themselves from common life to keep even the smallest details of the Jewish law and religious requirements. They lived the most demanding religious lives possible.
Zeal was a virtue that was deeply admired in Judaism. Paul’s zeal led him to persecute the church before he became a Christian himself. He thought that he was protecting Judaism from the new upstart Christian faith which seemed to go directly against Judaism. As for keeping the legal requirements of God, he was faultless. Paul was of the purest, strictest, most zealous, and loyal of people when it came to religion.
But he says, “…whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” All the things he once thought were so important are now gone from his life. What really counted looks totally different, now.
Paul listed his purity, standing, zeal and religious background in a column, and zeroed it out. He puts all his profit in a line and draws a line right through it. He calls them a loss. A loss because he has found something worth more: Knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.
He goes on, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”
First of all, Paul says it is of “surpassing worth” to know Christ Jesus as his Lord. Losing all his religious accomplishments was worth it for the sake of knowing Jesus.
Pay attention: Paul does not toss away junk to gain Christ; he tosses away that which was of tremendous value to him. Life was good and going good for him.
We are familiar with testimonies of how people got rid of addictions, immoral lifestyles, bad relationships and a host of other dark things and came to Christ. Their lives were different. Maybe you are one of those. These stories remind us that the worth of Christ is greater than the worst in one’s life.
But Paul is saying that Christ surpasses everything that was the best in his life. He wasn’t depressed. He lived a deeply upright life. He wasn’t unhappy. He had a place of prestige in society. The gospel is not just for people at their worst. People at their best need Christ.
You may be a success. You may have a hundred reasons to brag. You may have had a vocational career that is the envy of many. But how is it with you and Jesus?
Paul has lost all things for the sake of Christ and he calls all his accomplishments “garbage.” Pretty strong language again. In fact, the language is so strong, some bibles rightly have this word as “dog dung.”
I want to teach you the word Paul uses here. Paul uses the Greek word “skubala”. Say this word with me…
Skubala. It was a word used of animal excrement, which is why some Bibles translate it “dog dung.” But we know what that really means. Paul used a very edgy, border-line word.
Now, don’t we all have times when something happens where you are so filled with anger, frustration, or fear that something slips out of our mouth that is an inappropriate word? Fess up. If that is not a problem for you then you are blessed. But I admit and am not proud to say that certain words can come out of my mouth when I am get frustrated or mad.
Well, now you don’t have to say those words. You can use this one. Skubala. It doesn’t sound offensive. You can say it in front of the kids or grandkids and they don’t know what you are saying. You can say it to the boss. Because its Greek to them, right?
When you drop your wedding ring down the sink, you just say, “skubala!”
When your car is backed into by someone not looking, causing thousands of dollars of damage and you are on the brink of a massive coronary, you say, “skubala!”
When you drive all the way home and realize you left your wallet by the check out stand at the store you say, “skubala!”
When you realize you overslept your alarm and your flight leaves in an hour, you can now say, “skubala!”
Isn’t it a great word!? You can lay this one out, big and loud, and no one will be offended. “What did you get out of the sermon today?” “I learned how to swear in biblical Greek”
Skubala is how Paul now thinks of his life before he came to a personal encounter with Christ. Strong language for a strong conviction. Everything he had before he came to Christ is dog dung and garbage.
You know that phrase, “what’s it worth to you?” We use that when we calculate a decision, a direction, and possibility. Well, I ask you this morning, what is Christ worth to you?
Another way to ask this might be what is your life accounting system?
What’s in the profit column of your life? What are the things you really value? Career and vocation? Car? Boat? House? Houses? The latest technological gadgets? An education, advanced degree, or specialized knowledge? Church involvement? Pastor of a church? Community service? Places you have traveled? Athletic prowess? Races you have run and mountains you have hiked?
Can we draw a line through them and say “skubala,” “garbage,” “dog dung” for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus? Is there something worth more?
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic Christian, a priest. He taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. He was highly sought after as a speaker. He was a wonderful writer and published many books on the Christian life. I recommend his books to you. They are deep and fully of spiritual wisdom. But he gave all that up. He gave it all up to go work with mentally and physically handicapped people at a community in Canada. He lived in the home where these people lived. He would take care of one person all day: dressing, bathing, feeding, caring for someone who had tremendous needs and was absolutely dependent upon him.
It wasn’t that his life had been bad up to that point. Not at all. He was doing some wonderful things. Henri Nouwen did this as a response to what he believed Christ wanted him to do. He came to a place in his life where everything he had accomplished seemed like garbage in comparison to doing what Jesus wanted him to do. It was worth it.
This isn’t to say we will quit our job, sell the house, and make a “u-turn” in life. What really counts can be found in our church, in our home, in our community. But let’s ask ourselves, what really counts? Do I spend my life on what really counts before the Lord?
If you have lost something because of your commitment to Christ, you know what this is about. If you have lost some experiences, advancement, time, opportunities – you know this.
What really counts?
Sometimes an event crashes into our lives and shakes us up so much that we see all of our life in a new light. What had previously been so important to us comes to mean absolutely nothing.
The preacher and Bible commentator Fred Craddock tells the story of a missionary family in China who was forced to leave the country sometime after the communists took over. One day a band of soldiers knocked on the door and told this missionary, his wife, and children that they had two hours to pack up before these troops would escort them to the train station. They would be permitted to take with them only two hundred pounds of belongings.
Thus began two hours of family wrangling and bickering. What should they take? What about this vase? It’s a family heirloom, so we’ve got to take the vase. Well, maybe so, but this typewriter is brand new and we’re not about to leave that behind. What about some books? Got to take a few of them along. On and on it went, putting stuff on the bathroom scale and taking it off until finally they had a pile of possessions that totaled two hundred pounds on the dot.
At the appointed hour the soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked. “Yes.” “Did you weigh your stuff?” “Yes, we did.” “Two hundred pounds?” “Yes, two hundred pounds on the dot.”
“Did you weigh the kids?” “Um, . . . no.” “Weigh the kids!”
And in an instant the vase, the typewriter, and the books all became trash. Trash! None of it meant anything compared to the surpassing value of the children. Obviously!
And Paul says, “I have suffered the loss of all things and regard them as garbage in order that I may gain Christ…”
It would be tragic to attend church for years and years, to teach Sunday School, serve the poor, and do all kinds of good things and not know Christ.
To know Christ is to know that he loves you, that he died for you for your forgiveness and reconciliation with God because you can’t make that happen on your own. It is to know that we don’t have to earn it but it is offered to us as a gift of grace. It is to know that he is the risen Lord and lives with and in us now.
To know Christ is to know that he is the Lord, and the difference he makes in every part of our lives. To know Christ is to understand his claim on our lives, and to offer ourselves back to him.
Paul says he wants to gain Christ, be found in Christ, know Christ, and possess Christ. And he says, “I’m not there yet.” He hasn’t arrived. He hasn’t obtained it. He says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” I love the way he puts that: he is pressing on to take hold of what Christ has for him, because Christ Jesus took hold of him. Christ has taken hold of Paul and he wants to take hold of what Christ wants for him. When Christ takes hold of our life we have to ask “what really counts?” If Christ has taken hold of you, then take hold of him.
None of us are there. We aren’t perfect. We don’t arrive. We are in progress. We press on. We keep moving toward the goal. We won’t cross the finish line until our life is over and we are with him.
We’re going to sing that old hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross.” The chorus goes, “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross/’til my trophies at last I lay down.”
What’s trophies do we have to lay down? None of them will be with us when we stand before God.
Have you laid down your trophies and stood at the cross, and said before Jesus, “I’ve got nothing. I come with nothing. And anything good I have ever had is nothing compared to you.” That’s where the Christian life starts.
Some faiths tell us to keep a strict set of rules and do all these things and build our own righteousness. Paul said, “skubala!” Paul said, “I don’t want a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”
Trusting him. Knowing him. Because he is worth it.
 Fred Craddock, Interpretation Commentary on Philippians, p.58  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-5c/?type=lectionary_epistle#sthash.IGsIG54N.dpuf