By Leigh Reynolds
Gardner-Webb School of Divinity includes in its Master of Divinity curriculum a Theological Integration Capstone class for students who are nearing graduation. Incorporated in this class is the responsibility of leading one of the divinity school’s worship experiences. During atime of worship, which I was privileged to help lead, we considered what is of most value on our faith journeys. I invite you to consider Paul’s words from Philippians 3:4b-14 as you, too, reflect on what is of most value on your faith journey.
Higher education, perfect GPA, tenured professor, published and sought-after pastor, teacher of the year, accomplished musician, star athlete, renowned entrepreneur, baptized, confirmed, ordained. Our list might sound a bit different than Paul’s, but is the question not the same? On our faith journeys, where do we place our value?
Paul begins this section of Philippians with what sounds like an arrogant litany of accomplishments. It’s as if he is saying to the church at Philippi, “Look at me; I am better than all of you. I am from the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, one obsessive about my background in Judaism. Don’t bother trying, because you cannot be as good as me.”
Haven’t we all had a colleague or classmate who wants everyone to think that they are the best and the smartest person to ever live? And for a moment, it sounds like Paul is that exact person.
But should we not strive for excellence in all our endeavors? Is Paul telling us that our efforts do not matter? That we shouldn’t care?
No, this text is not telling us that our pursuit of education, service to others, baptism and faith rituals are without purpose. Paul is also not saying that his heritage does not matter. He is not denouncing his roots in Judaism. He is not saying that the work he has done on behalf of God is worthless. Rather, Paul is forcing the church at Philippi, and us as well, to consider where we place the most value.
As we continue in this text, we realize that what seemingly began as annoying arrogance has flipped to a reflection on faithfulness. We discover that Paul is not on a religious ego-trip.
Instead, he dramatically stresses the insignificance of his personal accomplishments compared to the surpassing accomplishments of Christ. Everything that he has earned on his own, all his past deeds matter none, or as the NRSV translates, “they are rubbish,” compared to knowing who Christ is and what Christ has done.
Much of Paul’s life was spent saying “look at me. Look at what I have accomplished.” In this moment, he is allowing us to learn from his mistake. In this moment Paul is saying, “Look at Christ.” “Look at what Christ has accomplished on our behalf.”
The late pastor and professor, Fred Craddock shared a story of a missionary family in China who was forced to leave the country sometime after the communists took over. On the day of their banishment, a group of soldiers knocked on their door and told this missionary, his wife and children that they had two hours to pack up before these troops would escort them to the train station. They would be permitted to take with them only 200 pounds of stuff.
Thus, began two hours of family wrangling and bickering as to what should they take. What about this vase? It’s a family heirloom, so we’ve got to take the vase. Well, maybe so, but this typewriter is brand new and we’re not about to leave that behind. What about some books? Got to take a few of them along. On and on it went, putting stuff on the bathroom scale and taking it off until finally they had a pile of possessions that totaled 200 pounds on the dot.
At the appointed hour the soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked. “Yes.”
“Did you weigh your stuff?” “Yes, we did.”
“Two hundred pounds?”
“Yes, two hundred pounds on the dot.”
“Did you weigh the kids?”
“Um, . . . no.”
“Weigh the kids!”
And in an instant the vase, the typewriter, and the books all became trash. Trash! None of it meant anything compared to the surpassing value of the children.
That is what Paul is teaching us in this text. All the tangible accomplishments, the vases and typewriters of our personal and professional lives have value, but their value pales in comparison to the people and, more specifically, the person with whom we journey.
At Paul’s urging, once again, we ask ourselves, on our faith journeys, where do we place our value. Is our value in our past accomplishments and our aspirations of notoriety and success? Or is our value grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Christ?
We are each on a journey. A journey that will last a lifetime. A journey that calls us to declare where we place our value. What is of most value to you? Is it typewriters, vases, degrees and titles or is it being found righteous because of your faith in Christ? I pray that for each of us it is the latter.
Leigh Reynolds serves as the Coordinator for Youth and Communication Ministries at Oakland Baptist Church in Rock Hill, SC. She is pursuing her M. Div. with concentration in Congregational Health through Formation: Christian Education from Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC.