Running on Empty

Sermon preached Sunday, October 5, 2008 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.

If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Phillipians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46; Psalm 19.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! In today’s NT lesson, Paul identifies a problem that has bedeviled human beings and Christ’s church from the beginning—our need to be in control that stems from a proud and self-reliant spirit. Our pride deludes us into believing we can actually help earn our own salvation and makes us believe we are not really totally dependent on God for our lives. In other words, we humans have the problem of being full of ourselves.

If we are to fully understand today’s lesson, we must look briefly at the verses preceding today’s passage. In them, Paul warns the Philippians to beware of those dogs, those doers of evil, who mutilate the flesh (Phil 3:2). Harsh language indeed! He is of course talking about those who insisted on Christians being circumcised and following the Jewish religious laws, the basis of which are the Ten Commandments we heard read in today’s OT lesson, as necessary for their salvation. Circumcision, of course, is not the real issue here; it simply points to a greater problem that beset the early church—the delusional belief that we have enough good in us that allows us somehow to be responsible for our own salvation. Such thinking puts the emphasis on us rather than on God’s grace, and on our doing the right things rather than acknowledging our utter inability to save ourselves. It is the kind of thinking we see manifested in today’s Gospel lesson which led Jesus to talk about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone. Such belief might even acknowledge that, “Christ died for our sins,” but in the final analysis it emphasizes what we must do to keep our part of the bargain (as if our salvation were a bargain). In other words, such thinking emphasizes not what we believe but what we do. 

And if Paul’s other letters are any indication, this was not just a problem confined to the church at Philippi. We see similar warnings to the Galatians (cf. Gal 1:6ff; 3:1ff), to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1-4), and to the Romans (cf. Romans 2-4; 9-10), to name just three other examples. In each case Paul is adamant in his insistence that we are saved only by our faith in Christ and not by anything we can do or who we are. For as Paul reminds us elsewhere, there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3:10) and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Our sin leads to death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:23). And if all this weren’t bad enough, in Romans Paul also points out the fact that those who try to obey the demands of the law are doubly delusional because the Law cannot bring life; it was given only to expose our sin and make us realize just how complete and total our separation from God really is if left to our own devices (cf. Romans 3:20; 4:15a).

In our lesson today, Paul confesses that he himself was like this before he met Christ doesn’t he? He recalls that he was a Hebrew among Hebrews, a Pharisee’s Pharisee, a zealous persecutor of the church, and blameless when it came to following the requirements of the law. Like the circumcision party he so harshly criticized, Paul acknowledged that he too was full of himself and that was a terrible problem for him because he knew that being full of himself is not only delusional but leads ultimately to death.

Lest we think that self- and works-righteousness were problems only for churches in Paul’s day, we might want to think again. Have you ever thought to yourself (or heard someone else say) something like this: “I know I’ve sinned but I haven’t committed the really awful sins like murder or rape or preaching really long sermons like Fr. Kevin does” or, “I have my issues but overall I think I’m a pretty good Christian. I have been baptized, I read the Bible and pray daily, I attend church every Sunday, I am a leader of a small group, I am actively involved in several ministries of the church, I am (or have been) on the Vestry, and generally I try to follow the rules of Christian conduct. I know I am not always successful, but I try really hard to be a good person and follow Christ.”? If you have—and if we are really honest with ourselves, there is probably not a person in this room who has not thought something like this on occasion—then we, like Paul, especially before he met Christ, are wanting to be full of ourselves. You see, the issues change but the root cause does not because the human condition remains unchanged. 

So why is being full of yourself such a problem? After all, none of the things I just listed, things like daily prayer, Bible study, regular worship and small group fellowship are bad things; in fact, you hear us regularly encourage you to do all of those things, don’t you? It is a problem because given the nature of our spiritual and psychological DNA, if we are not careful, we are quickly tempted to believe that doing these things will help us get to heaven and make us good people, i.e., we tend to look at doing these things as an end rather than as a means to an end. And as we have seen, Paul reminds us here and elsewhere in his letters, that this thinking is deadly—literally.

Where is God’s Grace?

If being full of ourselves leads to death, what is the remedy (or is there one)? Thanks be to God Paul answers with a resounding, “YES!” He goes on to tell us that the remedy is to empty ourselves. He tells the Philippians that the things he considered valuable before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, i.e., his works righteousness that led to his sense of being full of himself, he now considers as garbage. The Greek Paul uses for this translation is, skubalon, which means dung or anything that is rotting and worth getting rid of. It conveys in a graphic way just how worthless Paul now sees being full of himself really is and it helps us understand why he was so harsh in calling the circumcision party, “dogs.” Here we see Paul beginning to empty himself, or to use another biblical term, Paul is beginning to find real humility because he is acknowledging that he is utterly incapable of doing anything to help his own salvation. That is for Christ alone to do and for some to suggest otherwise, literally was a matter of life and death for Paul. No wonder he was so angry with his opponents!

But simply emptying oneself will not ultimately help us find life because as Jesus reminds us, if we stop being full of ourselves, we need to replace the vacuum with a positive presence; otherwise, we will end up worse than we were before (Luke 11:24). No, emptying ourselves means not only being less full of ourselves but attaching ourselves to the Source and Author of all life, Jesus. Paul talks about wanting to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection. The Greek Paul uses for “know,” ginosko, means a deep and intimate knowledge of someone or something. Paul does not say he wants to know about Jesus, he says he wants to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection so that he can be like Christ and live with him forever. Note Paul’s almost desperate desire to know Christ and deepen his relationship with him Note too the underlying assumption Paul makes about Jesus, that he is not dead but alive and willing and able to enter into a relationship with Paul. On the basis of that relationship, then, Paul understands that it is Christ alone who is the source of his life and salvation, a salvation won for Paul and all who believe in Christ by Christ’s terrible and costly act on the cross so that we might live with him forever. For Paul, that relationship was more valuable than anything else and worth the suffering he had to endure from a world hostile to Christ and his Gospel.

Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about learning this humility, i.e., about emptying himself so that he could learn to put his utter hope and trust in Christ. Recall that three times Paul asked Jesus to take away the thorn in his side and finally Jesus answered by saying no. Why? Because his grace was being made perfect in Paul’s suffering, i.e., that in his suffering Paul was learning that he could trust Jesus to give him all he needed for the moment.

Last, Paul reminds us that this emptying is not an event but a process. Learning to put our whole hope and trust in Christ is not easy nor is it quickly attained. We are sinful, proud beings who take offense at having to acknowledge our powerlessness in the ultimate matters of life and death. But as Paul reminds us here, the good news is that as we deepen our relationship with Jesus, he helps us so that we can stop being full of ourselves and be full of him instead. Paul likens this to a race, which requires great effort on our part, an effort NOT in trying to do the right things to earn our salvation but the kind of effort needed to surrender ourselves completely in trust to the One who already has won life for us through his death and resurrection.

Where is the Application?

So what can we do to stop being full of ourselves? I return to the things we talked about earlier—prayer, Bible reading, regular worship, etc. They are the same behaviors, aren’t they? The difference is that now we do these things as a means to a greater end, the end of knowing Christ intimately so that we can discover he is trustworthy and can consequently put our whole hope and trust him. If we come to know Jesus intimately, we will come to understand that he is not some sort of Cosmic Police Officer waiting to rap our knuckles at every wrong turn but rather he is the One who loves us and gave himself for us on the cross so that we can live with him forever. In other words, the more intimately we know Jesus, the more we come to know that his promises are true and trustworthy.

I would like to close by sharing with you how Christ has used my mother’s death to help me understand the truth of these things about which Paul spoke in today’s lesson [personal testimony]. 

What about you? Are you content to be full of yourself or do you long to develop a deep and life-giving relationship with the Source and Author of all life? Being full of yourself will ultimately lead to death. Emptying yourself and filling yourself with Christ leads to life that transcends a mere biological existence. It is hard work to develop the kind of relationship that leads to real life but in the end, we do not have to worry about doing the impossible for or by ourselves, i.e., we do not have to worry about effecting our own salvation. The God who loves us, took on our flesh and gave himself for us, has promised that he has done the impossible for us because he wants us to live with him forever. All we have to do is say yes to his gracious invitation and then allow him to transform us into the kind of people he wants us to be. That’s good news now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.