What kind of information do people typically put on their résumé?
Name. Contact info. Education. Experience. Special Skills. Awards.
When do people typically use their résumé?
Applying for jobs, schools, grants, awards, etc.
Don’t we also use a kind of “unofficial résumé” at other times, though? When you’re at a party with a bunch of people you don’t know, what’s usually the first thing you ask a stranger? “So, what do you do?”
How about in dating life? While most people don’t bring a printed document with them when they go out, they’re nevertheless “putting their best foot forward” early in the relationship.
I can’t help but think of the scene from the movie Anchorman where Will Ferrell is trying (unsuccessfully) to impress Christina Applegate:
“I don’t know how to say this, but: I’m kind of a big deal… People know me… I’m very important: I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”
We laugh at it, but don’t we all do it? Our culture trains us to “live by our résumé.” We often confuse “what we do” with “who we are”. In fact, when people at parties ask, “What do you do?” We often respond with, “I am a (pastor, teacher, nurse, parent, salesperson, etc.)” and if someone has no job, they say, “I am unemployed.” But is that true? Is that really who you are? We have jobs and roles that we play, but we are not our jobs. Mistaking who we are with what we do is one of our culture’s biggest (and most consistent) mistakes. Vying for a close second is mistaking who we are with what we have (I am a homeowner, a Honda driver, a coffee drinker); who we are with who we know (group identification: Democrat/Republican, Presbyterian, Mets fan); who we are with what we are (White, Puerto Rican, heterosexual, mentally ill).
All of these things about us (what we do, what we have, who we know, what we are) may or may not be true, but none of them can fully sum up who we are.
This can be good news for those whose identifying characteristics are less socially acceptable (there is more to you than your addiction/illness/conviction), but it can also be difficult for those who are tempted by privilege that comes with a socially desirable characteristic (you might have a lot of money, but that doesn’t make you rich; you might have a PhD, but that doesn’t make you wise). The great irony is that: the same gospel truth that feels liberating to one person at the bottom of the social ladder might feel threatening to another person at the top. Maybe that’s why Jesus warned us that, in the kingdom of God, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
This morning, in our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the Apostle reads his résumé for us:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
What he’s trying to say is that he’s got pretty impressive credentials. His résumé is about a mile long, but then he does something unexpected: he tears it up. He goes into his office, takes all of his diplomas off the wall, and starts chucking them out of the window like Frisbees.
Here’s what he has to say about himself and his list of accomplishments:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Paul is saying that he is able to let go of all the props he had previously used to bolster his ego. He says, “I regard them as rubbish.” It’s worth noting that this word (rubbish) is actually a much cleaner and more polite English translation of the Greek word skubala. I won’t tell you what the most accurate translation would be (I don’t think I could get away with saying it in church), but let’s just say that it’s often used as fertilizer.
Paul is telling us that his BS is just that: “BS”. And his MS and PhD are “More of the Same” and “Piled Higher and Deeper”.
Paul used to prop up his ego with his résumé, but no more. He has found something far greater, something of “surpassing value” as he says to the Philippians: the knowledge of Christ.
Now, this is the part where, if we’re not careful, our good Presbyterian autopilot will kick in. All we’ll hear is: “Blah blah blah… all this other stuff used to be so important to me, but then I became a Christian and now it isn’t so important anymore… yadda yadda yadda.” We’ve all heard that story so many times that we’re bored with it.
But here’s the thing: that’s not what Paul is talking about here. At no point does he ever talk about “becoming a Christian” in this passage. That’s because Paul didn’t think of himself as a Christian (in the sense that we are used to understanding that word). Paul, as we already know, was Jewish. At no point in his life, even after his experience of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, did he ever “convert to Christianity” in the sense of changing religions. As far as Paul himself was concerned, he was born Jewish, raised Jewish, given a Jewish education, lived a Jewish life, and died a faithful Jew. His encounter with Jesus may have changed his life, but it did not change his religion.
So, when we hear Paul talk about the “surpassing value of knowing Christ”, we need to be careful not to put on him something he is not saying. And he is almost certainly not saying, “I used to be Jewish, but now I’m a Christian.”
The other thing that Paul is not talking about in this passage is Jesus as a mere historical figure. He’s not saying, “I came across a book by this guy Jesus, and he had some interesting ethical ideas, so I think I’ll incorporate his teachings into my overall philosophy of life.” That’s not what he’s saying.
For Paul, the “surpassing value of knowing Christ” is not about someone who lived a long time ago (centuries for us, decades for him), but a living, mystical presence who can be experienced in the here and the now. For Paul, the risen Christ is the one “in whom all things hold together”.
We are, all of us, members of the Body of Christ. Christ lives in each of us and in the faces of the people we meet. I don’t even think it would be a heresy to go a step further and say that Christ is present in all created things (earth, water, wind, and fire) or, more accurately: that all things are present in Christ, “who fills all in all.”
Paul writes elsewhere in the New Testament that the entire universe is on a journey “from God, through God, to God.” And he says to the Athenians, quoting the Greek philosopher Epimenides, “In God we live, move, and have our being.”
This spiritual awareness of all things holding together “in Christ” is what Paul means when he talks about the “surpassing value of knowing Christ”. This is the truth that changes his life and allows him to tear up his résumé: to let go of all those other props he had previously used to hold up his ego.
For Paul, Christ is the lens through which he views the rest of reality. He talks about it as a gradual process of continual “crucifixion” and “resurrection”. 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, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
He says the same thing a little more clearly in his letter to the Galatians:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
Paul is talking about the metaphorical crucifixion of his ego: that old part of himself that identified who he is with what he does, what he has, and what he is. What gets resurrected in its place is Paul’s True Self, which is Christ in him, the hope of glory. In Christ, Paul now knows who he is in Christ and that knowledge, of “surpassing value”, changes everything for him.
Just as this living reality of Christ was true for Paul, it is also true for us. Our identity, no less than his, is “hidden with Christ in God.” The task of the Christian spiritual life is to become gradually more aware of this truth over time and let it slowly change our lives from the inside out.
It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not like we get baptized and suddenly everything becomes clear to us. This kind of deep transformation takes time, just like it did for Paul. Even as he was writing this passage of the Bible, Paul, the saint and apostle himself, did not have all of this figured out. He said:
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my 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.
Waking up to the truth of who we already are in Christ is the central task of Christian spirituality. That’s why we read the Bible and pray each day; that’s why we come to church to worship and take Communion together each week: we are trying to work this truth into our souls like we were working yeast into bread dough.
On this particular Sunday, which we call World Communion Sunday, we have a unique opportunity to realize this truth as we gather around the Communion table with fellow Christians from many different denominations, languages, countries, cultures, and continents. We come together today to realize that we are all one in Christ.
The petty distinctions and divisions we make between ourselves are nothing more than props for our fragile egos. Take them away, and what remains is what we really are: our True Self, hidden with Christ in God, as Paul experienced it: first on the road to Damascus and continuing for the rest of his life.
I invite you this morning to meditate on this truth and let it change your life as well, slowly and surely, from the inside out.
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This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church: