Sunday, March 21, 2010

Losses and Gains--Philippians 3:4b-13

Once upon a time, if people in this country really wanted to proclaim their Christian faith without even having to say anything, they might wear a necklace with a cross on it, or hang a cross in their home. More rebellious biker Christians might get the name “Jesus” or a cross tattooed on their arm. Nowadays, there are a multitude of possibilities for sharing a love of Christ. T-shirts range from “Jesus is my homeboy” and “Got Jesus?” to screen-printed images of our Savior. Kids can play with action figures, like this one, or talking Jesus dolls that quote scripture. There are bobblehead dolls, body wash, night lights (this is Jesus doing karaoke) and keychains (mine has a light), in addition to cuff links, earrings, band-aids, iron-on patches, and of course the popular “WWJD”—what would Jesus do—bracelets among almost countless other items. But perhaps one of the most popular ways folks today transmit the message “I’m Christian” is on their cars, with a silver fish symbol.

Of course, the ironic part about flashing this symbol everywhere so that everyone knows the car belongs to a Christian is that it used to be a secret code. The point of using it in the days of the early church was so that Christians could identify each other without others knowing. Christians were persecuted by Romans and Jews for their beliefs, and so being able to recognize a person or place as being “safe” was key.

In the United States, a country often dubbed as a “Christian nation,” this notion can be somewhat foreign to us. Christmas and Easter, our two biggest holy days, are marked with government and—perhaps even more significantly—retail holidays. There are churches everywhere, and of most every denomination, belief system, political stance, economic and ethnic makeup and worship style you can imagine. It is generally accepted and common to be Christian, even if it is only by name and not by practice. Baptisms are often done without a second thought. Many call themselves Christian by default, because that’s the way they were raised, or because their parents were Christian, or because they think that to be American means being Christian.

Many of us might have come to Christianity the same way, almost as if it just “happened,” while we played a passive role in the decision. While being a faithful Christian does often mean “giving up” some things—sleeping in on Sunday mornings, a portion of our incomes, maybe even the respect of those who believe religion is just an “opiate for the masses” and not for the intelligent, discerning person—and I know I often say that following Christ is risky, it’s usually more of an internal risk, rather than an external danger. Here in this country, at this time, it’s pretty easy to say you’re a Christian, and generally people are pretty nonchalant about it.

So one of the things that strikes me about the passage from Philippians is Paul’s passion. He is willing to give up everything—and pretty much has—just to know Christ. He regards all that he has lost as rubbish—more properly translated as dung or excrement—as compared to being found in Christ. The love and commitment to Christ just ooze out of this letter. Reading this, I found myself feeling a little…jealous.

I had a similar feeling at the end of my time in seminary. Each year, there is a beautiful small ceremony in which Catholic women graduates are commissioned. I attended the ceremony, a few weeks before graduation, in support of two friends and classmates. I sat in awe of the choices these women had made. One woman had a Jewish parent; the other woman’s parents were radical secularists. Despite the risk of alienating their families—nevermind their not-always-Catholic-friendly classmates at a Protestant seminary—they chose Christ, and to follow the call of Christ into a religious institution in which they could not preach or really even leave. Yet they were not only willing, but joyful about their choice. As they shared their stories, it was clear that neither of them found the choice to be Christian an easy one, but they found what they gained with Christ to be worth whatever losses they might suffer. I left the chapel that day marveling at the passion and commitment of those two women, and wondering—as much as I loved Christ and the Church—if I could do the same if I had to make a choice like that.

I try to imagine what it’s like to live in a place that’s hostile to Christ. Around the world, even today, people are risking everything for Christ. I think a lot of times we in the mainline church don’t like to think or talk about conversion, and honestly I’m not really comfortable with missions which attempt to “save” people of other or no faith by making them Christians, but then, no one else is out there showing Christ in any other way. And I’m amazed that in many places around the globe, people are introduced to Christ and choose to become Christians—even if it means the loss of their families, their friends, their standing in society, their freedom, or even their lives. Knowing Christ is worth all of that and more to them.

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi from a prison cell, presumably for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. Paul lists off all the ways he found status in his society: his bloodline, his education, his adherence to the Jewish faith—all of which he gave up in favor of Christ. Although there’s no clear evidence of how or when Paul died, most scholars are fairly certain that he was killed because of his faith, since Christianity had been separated from Judaism and become illegal. And despite all this, he writes with such fervor about Christ. He says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” And this: “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.” Straining forward: he’s not casually meandering on his spiritual journey, he is straining forward towards Christ.

I have to say, I think this is one area the Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have us mainline folks beat. They are passionate about Christ. They are not afraid to tell people who their Lord and Savior is, not hesitant to share Christ with another, not worried about letting people know of the value they place in knowing Christ. Now, I may not always agree with the way they go about it or the reasons behind it, but no denying they have Paul’s excitement. I mean, imagine if someone arrived at our church for the first time, and in polite conversation, someone asked, “So what brings you to First Church?” and instead of “Oh, I grew up UCC” or “I’m new to the area and wanted to check it out,” they said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Would we think? Honestly, I’d probably wonder why they came to a UCC church. No offense to our beloved denomination, but we don’t tend to be that expressive about our faith.

But what if we were? What if, when someone asked any of us why WE go to church, or call ourselves Christian, we said “There is nothing surpassing the value of knowing Christ?” Or if they comment about churches being full of hypocrites, we reply, “I’m not perfect, but I try to make Christ’s goals my own, because Jesus has made me his own?”

Why do we hesitate? I’ll admit straight out even when answering the question of why I’m a minister I hedge a little. This is why I am jealous of Paul, and of my two Catholic classmates. I want not only to know Christ in the same way Paul does, but I want to be able to passionately proclaim to others what gain there is in Christ. I posed a question to my friends on Facebook: “What is Christ worth to you?” One friend answered, “I don't know how to quantify it. Jesus is so much. How do you put a price on the air you breathe? The blood that courses through your veins? He is that much, whatever that is, to me.”

Really, what have we got to lose? Compared to Paul and to other Christians, very little. So I offer a little challenge. We’re still in Lent. I wrote in my newsletter blurb that Lent was about practicing our faith. And remember our Lenten theme is gratitude. So in gratitude to God for the gift of Jesus, and in gratitude of all we gain from our relationship with Christ, let us practice two things. First, let us practice actively choosing Christ. Take some time in reflection and prayer and then make a decision about whether or not to be Christian. And then do the same the next day. And the next. Practice for the next two weeks. Let’s see what happens. And second, and this is probably the tougher one for most of us: practice sharing your choice. Once this week, and once next week, tell someone why you’ve chosen Christ. This can be in person, on the phone, in a letter, an e-mail, a Facebook posting. It can be with someone you know, or if you’re feeling really adventurous, a total stranger. Let’s try and find that passion and excitement that Paul has, and instead of keeping it to ourselves, proclaim it—and if a t-shirt, action figure, or bumper sticker helps, then, hey, go for it!

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