Do you know what this is? (SHOW HOSPITAL CREDENTIALS)
How about this one? Do you know what it is? (SHOW MINISTER’S COUNCIL CARD)
These are just a couple of the credentials I have, and I am proud of my credentials. I worked hard for them, and they communicate an important part of who I am and who I hope to become.
The apostle Paul, in our scripture lesson today, is talking about credentials as well. As he writes, Christians still see themselves as Jews first and Christians second. And apparently, there have been some preachers come to town who flout their credentials to convince the Philippians to follow their teachings instead of those of Paul.
So Paul throws his own credentials out there. And if you were making up a fake resume for a Jewish teacher in the first century, you could probably come no closer to the ideal than what Paul himself lived. His Jewish credentials were impeccable.
All these credentials (Paul says) don’t mean a thing—not where it matters. More than that, though: Paul uses hyperbole—exaggeration—to show that these credentials (when looked at rightly) are practically something disgusting, unwanted, and perhaps even a hinderance.
The old King James Version tries to politely put it in this way (in v.8): I “do count them but dung.” Paul is so intent on making his point that he uses what in my house might be called a “wordy dird.” He actually lapses into what amounts to Greek profanity to try to demonstrate how little value these credentials are in terms of things eternal.
But these same kind of credentials are the things that we in churches frequently hold up as the ideal. If you were to describe for me a “good Christian,” I suspect you’d say things like:
- prays a lot
- reads the Bible every day
- never misses Sunday worship
- teaches Sunday School
- is a deacon or serves on a church board
- is “at the church whenever the doors are open”
Am I wrong? I suspect not.
These are great things, but they should not be held up as our “Christian credentials.” Our church attendance, for example, is the same kinds of credential that Paul describes as “dung.”
We’ve got a perspective problem. We are valuing the wrong things.
Pastoral Search Committee
It reminds me of something I came across a while ago (adapted from here). Someone humorously penned a pastoral search committee report as though they had reviewed a number of Bible personalities as candidates for the senior pastor position.
Pastoral Search Committee Report
Noah: He has 120 years of preaching experience, but no converts.
Moses: He stutters; and his former congregation says he loses his temper over trivial things.
David: He is a questionable moral example. He might have been considered for minister of music had it not been for significant transgressions of sexual misconduct and a murder conviction.
Hosea: His family life is in a shambles. Divorced, and remarried to a prostitute.
Amos: Has no formal training or experience whatsoever.
Peter: Has a bad temper, and was heard to have even denied Christ publicly.
Paul: We found him to lack tact. He is too harsh, and he preaches far too long.
Timothy: He has potential, but is much too young for the position.
Jesus: He tends to offend church members with his preaching, even offending the search committee with his pointed questions. His advocacy of socialist policies, combined with the kind of company he keeps makes him far too controversial for consideration.
So, our choice is:
Judas: He seemed to be very practical, co-operative, good with money, cares for the poor, and dresses well. We all agreed that he is just the man we are looking for to fill the vacancy as our Senior Pastor.
(adapted from http://www.joke-archives.com/spirit/pastorsearch.html)
It’s funny, but there’s some truth there. We’ve got a perspective problem.
The Right Credentials
These verses penned by Paul to the Philippians can help us reorient our perspective, should we allow the Holy Spirit to so work in us.
What Paul is after—the kind of credential that has real value—is the kind of righteous that comes from knowing Christ. Listen to verses 9-11 from another translation (The Voice, slightly adapted):
I want to be found belonging to Him, not clinging to my own righteousness based on the law, but actively relying on the faithfulness of Christ. This is true righteousness, supplied by God, acquired by faith. I want to know Him. I want to experience the power of His resurrection and join in His suffering, shaped by His death, so that I may arrive safely at the resurrection from the dead.
Having the right credentials centers around one thing and one thing only: knowing Christ.
Now, just to be clear, Paul is not talking about “knowing Christ” as merely “accepting Christ as your Lord and savior.” He is talking about a deep kind of knowing that comes from nurturing relationship. He’s talking about the kind of knowing that comes about by walking so fully in the footsteps of Jesus that you suffer and are persecuted, just as with Jesus himself.
Is that the kind of relationship you have with Christ? Or maybe I could put it differently:
Imagine you woke up this morning and discovered you were out of coffee. (Yeah, I know.) Do you long for Jesus the way you long for your daily jolt of caffeine?
Do you know—really know—Christ?
Or imagine you sit down to watch your favorite TV show. You’ve been looking forward to the “startling conclusion of last week’s broadcast.” You’ve popped the popcorn, walked the dog, silenced the phones—all to ensure an uninterrupted viewing. It’s time—the show comes on……and it’s a rerun. (“NOOOoooooo!!!”) Do you miss Jesus like you miss your favorite TV show?
Do you feel his absence like when you forget your cell phone at home?
Do you know—really know—Christ?
No New Problem
This isn’t a new problem, you know. It seems to me that we’ve looked at this credentialing thing wrong for most of human history.
Way back in Isaiah 58, the prophet addresses this perspective problem by reexamining the religious tradition of fasting. In verses 5-7, God (through Isaiah) says:
What kind of a fast do I choose? Is a true fast simply for making a person feel miserable and woeful?
Is it about how you bow your head (like a bent reed), how you dress (in sackcloth), and where you sit (in a bed of ashes)?
Is this what you call a fast, a day the LORD finds good and proper?
No, what I want in a fast is this:
to liberate those tied down and held back by injustice,
to lighten the load of those heavily burdened,
to free the oppressed and shatter every type of oppression.
A fast involves sharing your food with people who have none,
giving those who are homeless a space in your home,
Giving clothes to those who need them,
and not neglecting your own family.
If we know—truly know—God, that is the kind of religion we will practice. Those are the actions that flow from the right kind of credentials. That is life lived with a proper perspective–God’s perspective.
In case we missed it in Isaiah, here’s what the prophet Micah has to say about focusing on the wrong kind of credentials (6:6-8):
What should I bring into the presence of the LORD
to pay homage to the God Most High?
Should I come into His presence with burnt offerings,
with year-old calves to sacrifice?
Would the LORD be pleased by thousands of sacrificial rams,
by ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should I offer my oldest son for my wrongdoing,
the child of my body to cover the sins of my life?
No. He has told you, mortals, what is good.
What else does the LORD ask of you
but to live justly
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your True God?
Then there’s that story Jesus tells—the one about two different pray-ers? (paraphrased from Luke 18:10-14)
One—the one with impeccable religious credentials—prays: God, how I thank you that I am not like other people—crooks, cheaters, the sexually immoral—like that guy over there! I do more than required, I faithfully pay my tithes.
But “over there” in the corner is that other guy, who probably didn’t even notice he was being pointed at and slandered with the accusations of sin. He was too busy praying to God, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Jesus assures his hearers that it is the second man—and not the first—who is justified before God.
Jesus also tries to turn this credentialing thing on its head by showing how things are valued differently in the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 5 (vv.3-10), at the very beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, we read about these topsy-turvy values of God’s Kingdom. There, we learn that the right credentials—the ones that demonstrate we truly know Christ—they involve poverty of spirit, grieving sin, meekness, having a passion for righteousness, mercy, single-minded devotion to God, and advocacy for peace and the victims of persecution.
You know, that actually sounds quite a lot like Paul’s desire to know Christ in our Scripture Lesson: “I want to experience the power of His resurrection and join in His suffering, shaped by His death.”
Knowing Christ. Really knowing Christ. Genuinely identifying with Christ. Now that’s something to be proud of.
So in the spirit of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3, Let us also:
Let’s throw everything aside—that we may gain Christ.
Let’s be found belonging to Him, not clinging to our own sense of righteousness.
Let’s actively rely on the faithfulness of Christ instead of our own faithlessness.
Let’s desire Christ’s resurrection to be manifest in our lives—here and now!—even if it involves suffering.
Let us know Christ, and continue in our hope (with the apostle Paul) that we may arrive safely at the resurrection of the dead.
To God be the glory, and the power, and the praise. Amen.