Further thoughts on being a servant
October 8, 2017

Further thoughts on being a servant

Passage: Philippians 3:4b-14

So we’re back for the third week exploring Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. And I’ve got to say that in today’s reading it sure does sound like Paul is strutting his stuff:

If anyone else has reason to be more confident in the flesh, I have more...

and off he goes, listing his impressive pedigree about what an awesome Pharisee he used to be. And even though he's about to make his emphatic point that he now counts it all as rubbish when compared to what he has found in Jesus, you can't help but think, Really, Paul? Did you really need to list everything for us? It reminds me of a time I was listening to some Christian speaker going on and on about what an impressive, great paying job he had before he left it all for the ministry. And I thought to myself, Bleh! It was such a turnoff.

And who knows. Maybe I'm totally misreading Paul's tone here. But I was at a lecture a couple weeks ago with a speaker who was a Pauline scholar. He had nothing but respect for Paul – his ministry, his theology, his integrity as an apostle – but he said something helpful, to the effect, Well, Paul was still a person. He might have been full of wisdom and integrity, but clearly he had some personality issues that still needed to be worked out. 

(And this is a total aside... but the speaker’s theory was that Paul’s letter to the Galatian church was so intense and condemning that it ended up destroying the church because after that point in history there is no longer any mention of a church existing in Galatia. Now I don't know if that's true or not. But I appreciate the fact that one can identify flaws in Paul's humanity, while still respecting him for the extraordinary apostle he was – not only for the early church – but for the church throughout the ages.)

So Paul starts this section of his letter showing just how exceptional he was in Jewish society before his conversion. He followed the letter of the law to perfection. But honestly, it's hard for us to be impressed by this because there's no immediate parallel in our culture – certainly not at St. John's, or even in America as a whole. We don't have a value for that kind of strident, religion-first-above-all sensibility. People like that don’t impress us. They annoy us.

But certainly we can find the dynamic equivalent. We all know the lure of being successful by our culture's standards: the quest for youthful beauty, for making lots of money, of having status. Shoot. It doesn't matter whether you're in prison or a country club – every group creates its own form of status. And if we can't get to the top ourselves, we'll sidle up as close as we can to whoever is above us so we can start name-dropping, "Well, my cousin – the one who went to Harvard..." and off we go.

We're not so different from Paul. We all like being a “somebody.” He was just more successful than most of us are.

But then came his conversion. Then came his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, and Paul's value system made a 180 degree turn, such that he says, Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ… I regard them as rubbish. Now - here's an interesting fact: That word translated as "rubbish" is actually a somewhat vulgar word for “human excrement”[1] – which makes it hard to include in a sermon. But you get my point. Paul is at his "very human" best here. He's saying, all that stuff that I believed made me special – made me stand out, made me feel good about myself – turns out it's just a big pile of ____." Well, you get the point.

And it’s worth noting, that – before Paul got all potty mouth – the more careful word choice he started with was “loss.” I count it all as loss, he said. It’s an accounting term. It’s like what used to be on the positive side of the ledger is now a deficit. It’s not just that it’s lost its value; it’s now become a negative value. It’s a liability.

And that makes sense to me. If there is some aspect of our lives that – in our formative years – we grew to depend on for our identity, then that is a very difficult thing to let go of as we try to align ourselves with our maturing identity in Christ. If we’ve learned to get by on our charm, our privilege, our intelligence, or our anger – well, good luck! Those are things that were formative to our personality. And that doesn’t change overnight. Look at Paul. He might no longer be a Pharisee, but he’s still got the personality of a Pharisee. And I think he knew it. When he talks about his former life now being a loss in his faith – now being a deficit in his faith – I suspect that’s what he’s getting at.

Look how this section of his letter progresses:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death

Think about that. What was Jesus like at his death? Quiet and submissive.

Not that I have already obtained this, he goes on, or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ has made me his own… but this one thing I do: 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 (Philippians 3:10-14).

Paul has converted, but he is still being transformed. He’s got the right belief about Jesus, but he’s still learning what it means to live like Jesus. He wants to know Christ.

And I would say that “knowing Christ” certainly has an element of intimacy to it, such as you would know a friend. But more than that, “knowing Christ” means knowing him as a model – as the one we are looking to inform us, to guide us, as we seek to live into our true selves.

And what is it that Paul sees in Jesus? Well, that’s in the previous section of the letter that we looked at last week, the Christ who “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave.” Christ revealed a truer humanity, a truer face of God, by becoming for us a servant. And that’s what Paul wants as well – not only in action, but in temperament.

See, the problem with our egos – with our status-seeking – is that it’s always about us. It’s about securing our own safety and prestige. But Jesus says, “Oh no, no, no. It’s just the opposite. Seek the good of your neighbor. Seek to bless, not to fear. Seek to share, not to hoard.”

And the extraordinary truth of the Kingdom is this: it is giving that we receive, in showing mercy that we experience mercy.

I read the most encouraging interview the other day of a man who exemplified this kind of servant life.[2] His name is Henry Robinett. He’s a fairly successful musician in his own right. But when he was first getting started he was offered a job teaching guitar to inmates in prison. He needed the money, and he was a little curious about what it was like in prison, so he took the job. That was 24 years ago, and he’s still at it.

What’s so impressive about Robinett’s story is the freedom he’s found simply to serve these guys with what he’s got to give them: music. He doesn’t have any grandiose ideas about saving them or redeeming them. “I’m not trying to heal people,” he said. “My job is to teach this guy a D chord, and a G chord, and a C chord, and then get him playing some tunes. If I focused on the larger purpose as opposed to the nuts and bolts, then I’d lose everything.”

It’s so freeing because, we Christians can get caught up in such an elevated sense of purpose of “saving souls” or “fighting for justice and righteousness.” These are all fine things. But they’re a little intimidating for just a bunch of schmucks like us. But Henry Robinett gives us a kind of permission to do what Paul is telling us – what Jesus is telling us – just be a servant. Care for your neighbor with what you’ve got to give. Let God take care of salvation. That’s not our job. Our job is simply to choose compassion with whatever we’ve got at hand.

And while we’re trying to care – seeking to love our neighbors – we need to be W I D E open in perceiving who our neighbor may be. That’s the other extraordinary thing I discovered in Robinett. He knows most these prisoners have done bad things. He knows they’ve been put in prison for a reason.

But he also knows they’re human. And in teaching them music he’s welcoming them to create art – to be able to participate in one of the most distinctive glories of human culture. One of the inmates said that the hour he spent in Robinett’s class every week was the only time he felt like a human being.

Part of what helps him to treat them with such dignity is his clarity of mind that recognizes their prison sentence is their punishment. They don’t need to keep being punished every day they spend in prison. Give them the dignity of being human. Most guys he teaches won’t go on to join a band or be professional musicians. “Some guys just want to play a song for their wife or their kids when they visit.” And now they can, because Henry Robinett has chosen to serve his most justifiably forgettable neighbors with the gift that God gave him to give.

It’s like our theme for stewardship this year, “Here I am.” Our call is to be available to love our neighbors, without any inflated sense of our superiority or pulled-togetherness. We’re just servants, who see the dignity of our neighbors, no matter how crusty the surface may be.

And along the way, as we stumble in our attempts to serve and to believe, we receive God’s grace, because God is our servant as well – loving us and lifting us and teaching us that, though we too have been imprisoned by all manner of fears and false truths, there is still a song we can learn to sing. And so we press on to that goal, straining and hoping afresh for what lies ahead. Amen.





[1] https://bible.org/article/brief-word-study-skuvbalon

[2] Aaron Carnes, “Jailhouse Blues: Henry Robinett on Teaching Inmates to Play the Guitar,” The Sun (October 2017, 7 – 13).