The scriptures for today are here. I am preaching on Philippians 3:4b-14.
Years ago, when we lived in Texas, long before we had children, my husband Tom and I used to take a vacation each year, right after Christmas, to Big Bend National Park. The park is on the far southwestern edge of Texas, where the border with Mexico makes an elbow shape. That border is formed by the Rio Grande River, which is deep and wide there.
One day we took a hike right along the banks of the Rio Grande. At this place the river carves a deep channel through a mountain, so you can hike along the US side next to the river and walk deeper and deeper into a canyon formed by the mountain walls rising on both sides of the river. To get to the canyon, you walk across a tiny little stream, three feet wide, just deep enough to splash water two inches high on your hiking boots, that runs from way high up in the mountains down into the Rio Grande half a mile away.
We walked across the little stream, into the canyon, and deeper and deeper into the wild, beautiful channel cut by the river over thousands of years. As we were walking we heard a little thunder, way far off, but it was sunny where we were, so we paid it no attention. Then, as late afternoon came, we finally turned and headed back.
And then we came to little stream. Only, there was no little stream any more. That thunder we had heard way far off was rain, up in the mountains. And the rain had turned that tiny little stream into a giant rushing river. We stood at the edge of it, watched the dirty, churning, turbulent water rushing by, thought about camping out for the night – but we had no food, no blankets, no flashlights, no shelter, no one knew where we were. So we thought – hey, we’re young, we’re 25 years old, what could happen to us? And we waded into the river. Which was a very big, very dumb mistake.
As we walked in, the river quickly rose up to our chests – and it was moving fast. You couldn’t keep your footing in water like that. Water, I had never been afraid of – I had been a swimmer all my life. I knew how to control myself in water. But this water was something new and frightening. This water was a power I had never felt before – a power that was far stronger than my willpower or my training. It swept me off my feet more than once – I couldn’t grab for Tom, he was having just as much trouble as I was, hauling himself across the river.
This is the time when, no matter your personal beliefs, you need to pray. I discovered the best I could do was “God, help!” And somehow, God helped. For a few minutes, as I struggled across that rushing water, I was truly afraid that one or both of us wouldn’t make it. But step by step, with the water pushing us steadily downstream toward the Rio Grande, we hauled ourselves across the water and pulled ourselves, soaking wet, out on the other side. And we looked at each other, astonished and shaken, with new respect fort a force of nature seeming so benign and friendly, like water, yet so strong that it could sweep us out of control.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s exactly how the apostle Paul felt when he met Jesus. Paul had plenty of experience with God, with religion, with knowing how to act as God commanded in the Ten Commandments and other 603 laws. He tells us about it in the reading from Philippians today. The context of this reading is, there are teachers who have come to the Christians in Philippi and tried to convince them that in order to be true followers of Christ, they must live as true Jews: circumcised and following all 613 commandments of Jewish law. Paul is very clear that living as Jews is a good and right thing for Jews, but not for Christians, especially Christians who were born as Gentiles. For Christians, Paul says that marking our bodies as members of God’s people and following intricate rules that set us apart is not what is required, because these things rely on our own personal skills in being holy.
If personal holiness were enough, Paul says, he would have been a champion at holiness (Paul is never particularly humble). “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he writes, “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.”
In other words, Paul had a PhD in holiness: he studied at the feet of one of the most famous rabbis of his era, Gamaliel, a rabbi so famous that he is still studied and revered today. Paul had plenty of training in how to be holy: he had all the credentials; he had developed his religious muscles through years of careful obedience to the law. But he discovered that personal religious training was not enough, because learning the skills of religious holiness means relying on personal power. And he discovered that personal power was nothing compared to the awe-inspiring, irresistible power of God.
One day, as he traveled to Damascus to find and persecute members of the upstart sect of Christ-followers who insisted Jesus was raised from the dead, the divine force of God overtook him and swept him away; he was confronted face to face by the living Christ; he was struck blind by power of Spirit and was led, groping and shaken, to Damascus, where a loving group of Christians nursed him back to health and taught him the truth of the living God. He was blind, but he learned to see. And his whole life changed by the amazing grace of God.
All that training, all that background, all that personal skill in holiness he had developed over a lifetime of exercising careful religious muscles, he learned to count as nothing, as rubbish, as he says today. He learned that his own righteousness wasn’t what mattered: what mattered was Christ. He yearns, “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.” In thanksgiving for gift of God’s holiness, he presses on; he travels around the known world, risking his life and his health and his possessions to tell others the good news of salvation and lead others into relationship with living God.
To Paul, the awe-inspiring, uncontrollable, overwhelming power of the living Christ required him to give up everything he had learned on his own, to let go of personal power, and give himself up to the rushing river of God’s holiness. And it is probably because of Paul and the transcendent gift of salvation he received, and his determination to press on, that you and I have heard of Christ and have the chance to stand in awe of that same holiness today.
And oh, how we need that gift of holiness that comes to us from the living Christ. We live in a culture that glorifies personal achievement: that pushes all of us to work more, try harder, push ourselves beyond our limits, be the best. And while I’m all in favor of learning and working and achieving, there are times when all of us find that our whole identity gets caught up in what we can do under our own power – and we forget about who we actually are. Who we are is children of God, members of the living Christ, people who regularly, through no fault and no deserving of our own, stand in the presence of the awe-inspiring God of all creation.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” says Paul, “not that I have already achieved this goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” In Christ Jesus, God has made all of us God’s own; in Christ Jesus, God has reached out to us and grabbed onto us for dear life- for our own dear lives. And in Christ Jesus, we stand regularly in the rushing river of God’s holiness, whether we let ourselves get swept up in it or not.
If we’re lucky, sometimes, just sometimes, if we open up our hearts, we can detect the presence of that holiness. I spent most of my life relying on my own power, until the signs of God’s presence and overwhelming power and holiness in my life became unmistakable. It has happened at odd moments: at the altar rail, on a hard day, when a priest stopped in the middle of handing out the Bread of Life in order to give me a blessing, because she saw I needed it. At the baptism of a child, when all of us there suddenly, separately became aware that we were standing in the presence of saints and angels. In an ordinary worship service, when for just a moment, everything around me changed and I saw the people around me glowing with heavenly light.
The truth is that we stand right here in the presence of divine holiness today. It’s easy to ignore, to simply keep our minds on the small streams of own thoughts. But occasionally, if we open our hearts, we can be swept away by the power of God’s presence. The Eastern Orthodox say that the divine liturgy, the celebration of holy communion, goes on at all times and all places, with all the angels of heaven eternally singing with joy: Holy, holy, holy. And when we come here to church, celebrate communion, we simply join in. We sing that same song too, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, to our own tune, but when we sing it we join in with saints and angels who are singing that song to all the tunes that have ever been composed by the universe.
For brief moments of our lives, as we worship, we can open our minds to the deeper reality of holiness that we usually ignore, a deeper reality that surrounds us all the time. That deeper reality is the reality of Christ’s resurrection, the truth that God has raised him from the dead and therefore we are raised to eternal life. And that means that we have entered resurrection life already: the living Christ is here with us; and every now and then, if we open our hearts, we can let that overwhelming power and beauty and transcendence sweep us away. Living not under our own power, not according to our own achievements, but in the secure knowledge that we are borne on the rising tide of God’s love. Safely held, for all time, by the power of Christ’s resurrection – the prize we have already gained as our own, through our baptism into Jesus Christ our Lord.