Last Sunday of Epiphany 2020
Rev. Doug Floyd
Exodus 24:12–18, Psalm 99, Philippians 3:7-14, Matthew 17:1–9
Just before our Gospel reading today, Jesus challenges his disciples by saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). Then in Matthew 17, he leads them up a mountain where his glory is unveiled in a way that overcomes their senses and their thoughts. They fall in fear before his awesome power and glory. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story of Jesus unveiled in blinding and beautiful glory. All three gospels also precede the story of the Transfiguration with Jesus’ call to take up the cross. Glory and the cross are bound together these stories.
As we prepare for the season of Lent, we meditate upon the way of the cross. We also look toward this season through the image of Jesus in his Transfiguration. In this sense, we see the Lenten journey as a path of glory, as a joy-filled journey following in the way of Jesus Christ.
For a few moments, I would like to briefly meditate upon our Philippians passage as an image of this path of transfiguring glory. In our passage today, Paul tells us, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-9)
In this compact picture of losing and gaining, we see a glimpse of Paul’s pilgrimage of transfiguring glory. If I back up a bit and consider the entire letter to the Philippians, I see the themes of suffering and joy repeated throughout the letter. I’m highlighting these central themes and will not take time this morning to focus on other aspects of the letter.
In the opening paragraph, Paul talks about his imprisonment. He also writes about his joy at hearing about the saints in Philippi. Later he will encourage the Philippians not to be fearful of their opponents even as it has been granted them not only to believe in Jesus Christ but to suffer for his sake. Paul and the Philippians both suffer in Christ and know encouragement and comfort in Christ. Though they are threatened, Paul encourages them not to allow this threat to make them turn inward toward self-pity or self-preservation. In chapter 2, he encourages them that even amid the struggle, they are to follow Christ by turning outward humility, service, and lovingkindness toward one another.
In chapter 2, verse 17, Paul suggests that his own suffering might be seen as a drinking offering poured out on the sacrificial offering of the Philippian’s faith. His suffering is both worship to God and love toward others that they might believe.
Paul and the Philippians are united in both suffering and faith, and this is a cause for joy. He also celebrates the sacrifice and service of Epaphroditus who serves as a connection between Paul and the Philippians. I’ll skip chapter 3 for a minute and jump to 4. Once again, Paul rejoices in his bond with the community. He encourages them to be joyful, even in suffering for the Lord is near. In one sense, as they suffer, they share a special communion with the Lord in his sufferings. While suffering, there is this holy communion of love and joy. With this in mind, they should not meditate on those things which distress or cause fear or self-pity but meditate upon the goodness of God and all those things that reinforce God’s love and care for them and Paul and the whole community saints.
The letter to the Philippians focuses on suffering and shared joy in communion with Christ and with one another.
Now I want to return to chapter 3. In this chapter, Paul steps back and summarizes a bit of his own story. Paul suggests that his own life had been filled with gains. He enjoyed benefits in this life and hope for the life to come.
Paul’s lineage was strong: born in the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, devote in observance of the law. He studied the law, taught the law, and defended the law. He persecuted all who would threaten the law. He was blameless, meaning he was a faithful observer of the law, which counted as righteousness. His life earned him honor among his peers, probable financial gain, and a deep sense of personal success.
But then something happened.
He beholds the Lord of glory. He has a transfiguration encounter. Paul does not recount his Damascus road experience here, and yet, this is what precipitates his dramatic shift. Paul has an encounter similar to Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. They fall down, terrified at the voice of God. Paul also falls to the ground when he beholds the glory of God and hears the voice of the Lord. The intensity of the vision blinded him. In a moment of beholding the glory of God, Paul’s entire life is changed. He will never go back to his old life. In a moment, all that was counted gain is now considered a loss. He will follow Jesus, but he will also suffer for Jesus.
In our passage today, Paul says that for the sake of knowing Christ, he has suffered the loss of all things and counts them as rubbish. The emphasis here is not on the fact that it is rubbish to be a Jew; it is rubbish to be a Pharisee, or it is rubbish to obey the law. Instead, Paul has encountered Christ Jesus, and everything has instantly changed. Those things that gave Paul his identity, his status, and even earthly comforts simply cannot be compared to following Christ.
It is as though he has let them go, and they’ve fallen to the side of the road as refuse. This act letting go and following Christ involves suffering then and now. His whole life is stripped away in a moment. His life will be marked by suffering and loss (physically and emotionally), but it will also be marked by growing love and joy and hope. While we may not all suffer physical persecution, we do suffer loss in the way of Christ. Sometimes this loss is more acute than others. There are losses and forms of suffering that we never fully recover from. They change our lives forever, but these very places can be places of deeper communion with Christ and one another.
In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul sets up a pattern of knowing Christ. He says, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
He begins with the resurrection. I want to know Christ in the power of His resurrection. After encountering the power of the resurrected one, Paul wants to “share in his sufferings, becoming like him in death.” Finally, Paul returns to the resurrection, “that by any means possible I may obtain resurrection from the dead.”
This is a pattern of resurrection, suffering and death, and resurrection. First, know Christ in the power of His resurrection. On the road to Damascus, Paul enters the glory of God in Christ Jesus. He meets Jesus Christ in His resurrection. The path forward is marked by suffering and death.
Paul will follow Jesus and walk away from his former life, which means he will lose the public honor and work a trade to support his ministry. Instead of honor, he will face rejection by the Jews and even challenges from some Christians.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul will talk explicitly about varying types of suffering in Christ in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, and more (6:4-5). He will also speak of his life of faith as growing inwardly from glory to glory even as he is growing weaker outwardly or physically. For Paul, knowing Christ in his suffering involves physical suffering and emotional suffering as he experiences the loss of some friendships and even direct opposition from other Christians. Though Paul suffers he discovers encouragement in Christ through the faith and friendship of other believers.
In Philippians 1, Paul looks beyond his suffering to hope in Christ and to the hope of his own resurrection in Christ. He writes,
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1)
If we return to chapter 3, we see that Paul eventually ends up incorporating the Philippians in this same pursuit. Together we are seeking to know Christ. Just as Jesus raised up the disciples as a community, Paul is raising up communities that journey together in this path of knowing Christ. They will suffer together, and in some way he and they will share both in suffering and in joy together.
Paul gives us a picture of the Christian life which holds both a future longing for resurrection in Christ alongside a joy in the shared faith between believers. The Christian life is not my own personal journey, but a shared journey with others. Within this shared life together there is the potential for a life of mutual encouragement in Christ.
In our individualized culture, the life of faith is often seen so distinctly in overly individualized ways that we can easily fail to see the communal and familial aspects of our faith, our pilgrimage, and our joy. To know Christ is not specifically to move inward in a series of individual experiences. We may have a personal faith and even have rich personal experiences. At the same time, following and knowing Christ often means moving outward in obedience, in love, in suffering (which is often the result of living in relationship), and sharing my life with others even as they share their lives with me.
Our faith journey rests in the absolute faithfulness of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. From this place of rest, we can face difficult times. Genuine persecution, which many Christians experience around the world, but also suffering and loss in our day to day lives. We are not called to walk through the valley of the shadow of death alone. We are called to hold up one another, pour out our lives for one another, pray for one another, and share both the pain and the joy in Christ.
Our redemption in this life and in the life to come is rooted together in Christ. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”