What Makes Us God’s People? (A Quick Look at Philippians 3:1-11)

What makes me a Canadian? Is it being born here? I wasn’t. Is it having a Canadian accent, eh? Many don’t. Is it living here in Canada? Many Canadians don’t even do that. So what makes me Canadian? We can also ask, what makes us God’s people?

In the earliest days of Christianity, before there was something known as the New Testament, the answer to that question for some people was very simple; if you are part God’s people you will act like God’s people as laid out in the only Testament available, the Old Testament. You will therefore be found keeping the covenant, keeping all the customs and traditions including dietary restrictions, festivals, and of course the mark of belonging for the males, circumcision. In other words, to be part of God’s people in Christ you must become a Jew, though a Jesus-believing Jew of course.

After all, some would have said, as God’s old covenant people we are considered to be the righteous ones, the ones in right standing with God, while the rest are the unrighteous ones, the ones not in right standing with God. Through Jesus you can duck under our Jewish umbrella.

But is that it?

This became a very important question among the early Christians. There was a discernment process which we read about in Acts 15. Here is the conclusion of the matter as written in a letter to Christ followers of non-Jewish background:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Acts 15:28-29 (NIV)

Short, sweet, and to the point! You don’t need to become Jewish to be part of God’s people. But neither can you worship who, what, and how you once worshipped before walking with Jesus. This is why food, blood, and sexual immortality are mentioned, these all being part and parcel of the worship of the gods commonly worshipped in that time and place.

The early Christians realised that in Jesus God was not inviting people to get under the Jewish umbrella, but that there was now a bigger umbrella that now included non-Jewish people, just as they are, but now focusing their lives and their worship on Jesus.

Paul, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before the non-Jewish Christ followers in Philippi would be under pressure by some to become more Jewish, warned them very strongly:

Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved. For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us.

Philippians 3:2-3 (NLT)

Paul is reiterating here very strongly what was already recognised: you don’t need to become Jewish in order to become part of the people of God. Whatever makes us God’s people, keeping the customs of God’s old covenant people isn’t it.

If it was it, Paul could boast of the things that marked him out as truly belonging to God’s people:

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.

Philippians 3:4-6 (NRSV)

If being Jewish is what makes you righteous, if it is what gives you right standing before God, then Paul can boast of his Jewishness. But that’s not it:

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.

Philippians 3:7-9 (NRSV)

Paul knows that God doesn’t relate to him on the basis of his fitting in with Jewish society. God relates to him through Christ. Being God’s people is about “knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord,” and being “found in him.” It is about “faith in Christ.”

There is a challenge in translating “faith in Christ.” Some Bible scholars point to the possible translation of “faith of Christ,” that is, the faithfulness of Christ. So we could paraphrase it like this: “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based on God’s faithfulness to us.”

The focus is on the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:6-8 (NRSV)

We should each ask, am I part of God’s people? Am I included? It is not by taking up religion. It is not by figuring out the right rules and keeping them really well. It is not by picking a Christian sub-culture and trying to fit in with what you wear and how you speak or what kind of music you listen to. It is by being “found in” Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ. It is by responding to the invitation of God and walking with Jesus. What makes us God’s people? God’s love and grace.

(The full reflection can be seen as part of this “online worship expression”)

When Everything Changed (Easter Reflection)

We have all experienced incredible change recently, to our routines, our plans, our lives. Our hearts go out to those who have experienced change in the worst ways.

I am reminded of a time I was the instigator of change. My first pastorate was a two-point charge, each of which had regular Bible studies. In the one church we met over lunch and tea was served in some very fancy teacups. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t do fancy. And while my fingers are not large, they are still larger than the pathetic little handles in your average fancy teacup. By the time we left that church five years later, I had them drinking tea out of mugs!

That was pretty much the only change I made in that church. People resist change, especially people who are devout, people who are committed. Very often in smaller churches, people are both devout and committed. Thankfully so!

In New Testament times we see many devout, committed people making very big changes in a very short space of time. They made changes in their expression of faith. For example, they moved away from a focus on the temple, away from the practice of animal sacrifice, and away from a focus on Saturday, the Sabbath, as the highlight of the week, focussing on Sunday instead. They also moved away from an insistence on keeping a distance from anyone who was not Jewish.

How did these big changes come about among people like Paul, who were very devout and very committed to an old and enduring way of expressing faith in God? What made them want to change in matters of great importance? Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)

Paul met the risen Jesus, and that changed everything.

Since Jesus had risen from the dead, people began to change their religious practices. For example, people began meeting on Sunday to worship in order to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, which happened on a Sunday. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday! They stopped the sacrifice of animals, realizing that Jesus is the best, and truly only, sacrifice for sin. They stopped having a strong focus on the temple, realizing that God was not to be found there, but rather indwells all His people.

Since Jesus had risen from the dead, people realized that how they related to God had changed. We relate to God through a new covenant, not by our being good enough to “make the cut,” but in Jesus being good to us, taking the consequence of our sin on himself. Our relationship with God is based on his love and grace, his offer of reconciliation.

Since Jesus had risen from the dead, people changed how they related to one another. They related, not so much by law and custom, religious or national, but by a new way of love which touched all relationships. There was a new way of valuing one another, breaking down class divisions, another big change.

Jesus was raised from the dead and that changed everything. Jesus is alive, and that changes everything. It can change everything, for you and for me.

The resurrection of Jesus can change our future. Many are living in fear that COVID-19 will control our future, and rightfully so, it certainly has had, and will continue to have, an impact. However, some day it shall be a matter of history. It will be in the past. Jesus is the one who is, who was, and who is to come. The day will come when COVID-19 will be part of our history. Jesus is our future.

The day will come when COVID-19 will be part of our history. Jesus is our future.

Jesus was raised from the dead in the past. He lives with us now in our present. He will be there for us in our future. Resurrection to eternal life will be a life-changing, life-giving part of our future.

The resurrection of Jesus can change our lives now. We can walk with Jesus now, in faith, hope, and love. Walking with the risen Jesus changes everything. It changes our relationships, as we walk with others in the way of love. It changes our outlook on life and society. It changes us. The word “repentance” literally means “a change of mind.” We change our minds about ourselves, and about God. Among other things, in repentance we change from thinking that God does not matter, to realizing that God does matter, because we matter to God. Easter is the evidence that we matter to God, a lot!

Jesus is risen, and that changes everything. Are you ready for change?

The Shrunk Sermon “video version”

(This reflection comes from an “online worship expression” which has replaced our regular church service due to COVID-19 precautions. You can watch the full worship expression, or the reflection alone. For a limited time, this reflection can also be heard here)