Between Two Thieves (Part 2) (Philippians 3:12-21)

What you worship you become.

About a year ago my nephew became enamored—as three-year-olds do—with an app on his mom’s iPhone.  The app functioned as something of a moving storybook, complete with narration.  It even taught him some new words.  But there was one word in particular that seemed a bit out-of-place in his vocabulary: stawk.  Stawk?  Yes; stawk.  It’s a bird, silly.  It’s usually the bird that brings new babies to their home.  Oh…stork.  See, the app my nephew had been enjoying was manufactured across the pond, and the British accent had rubbed off on him.

If that can happen with something as simple as an accent, think of what happens with the things we worship?  And let’s also be clear: everybody worships something.  This was even the point made by David Foster Wallace—a mathematician and author who spoke at Kenyon College’s graduation in 2005:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. …Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

Keep in mind, Wallace is hardly a Christian.  But you understand his point, don’t you?  It’s actually not that different from Augustine’s notion of sin: that sin is loving something else higher than God.  The problem—both for my nephew and for us—is that what we worship actually shapes us, whether we want it to or not.

HOPE SEEKING UNDERSTANDING

In yesterday’s post, we looked at Tertullian’s idea of there being “two thieves” of the gospel.  We looked at the way the religious thief replaces the gospel with self-righteousness; today we’ll look at how the un-religious thief replaces the gospel with self-absorption.

But notice, first, what Paul says about his own life.  After pointing out the superiority of knowing Christ,  he observes that this doesn’t actually mean that he himself is superior:

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.  16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.  (Philippians 3:12-16)

Much of Christianity is about goal-setting; it’s about hope.  Very often I meet people who say things like, “I tried Christianity; it didn’t work for me,” or perhaps: “I went to church for a while, but it didn’t meet my needs.”  Maybe you’ve said similar things yourself.  But notice the words “work” and “needs” are paired with words like “for me” and “my.”  It’s just another form of self-absorption.

Paul’s attitude is radically different.  For Paul, Christianity isn’t about having it all together.  Christianity is a lifestyle of transformation.  Want to be mature?  says Paul, Then persevere.  If faith is a journey, then nothing will derail our progress like stopping along the freeway.  It’d be like stopping at a roadside diner and calling it a family vacation.  Better things lie ahead—it just takes patience in getting there.

THE NON-RELIGIOUS THIEF

We now turn to the non-religious thief.  Paul starts by inviting his readers to learn from his own life—a life that stands in contrast to those who oppose the gospel through self-interest:

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.  18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.  19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.  20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,  21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21)

Do you hear the list of descriptors Paul uses?  We can even list them:

  • Enemies of the cross (v. 18)
  • Their end is their destruction (v. 19)
  • Their god is their belly (v. 19)
  • Their glory is their shame (v. 19)
  • Minds set on earthly things (v. 19)

These verses frame the portrait of someone who worships self instead of God.  As we saw through Wallace’s graduation speech, you don’t even have to believe in God to believe that this kind of attitude is caustic—to yourself and to other relationships.

But wait.  Aren’t some decisions personal?  Society makes progress, after all.  We don’t need to regress to a list of rigid, religiously-motivated restrictions.  What I do in the privacy of my own home—or bedroom—is my own business.  As long as I’m not hurting anyone, what does it matter?

The answer, of course, is found in verse 21: “our citizenship is in heaven.”  For Christians, identity isn’t found in behavior but through relationship.  And yet, this relationship provokes us to alter our behavior.  Why?  Because Christianity teaches us that this world is not all there is.  Therefore there is a higher goal than merely promoting freedom.  There is a higher goal than merely not offending or hurting anyone. So to be an “enemy of the cross” might be little more than a dogged insistence on living life on your own terms.  That’s not citizenship in heaven—that’s being tied to the city of man.

RAZOR’S EDGE

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that there are many ways for Christianity to fall—but only one way for it to remain upright.  If I can blend metaphors here, there are many variations of these two “thieves” of the gospel.  It may be tempting to see the gospel as some sort of “middle ground,” a balance struck between extremes.  But that’s not the case at all.  No; the gospel is a different road altogether—a road that leads God’s people on a new exodus away from the tyranny of self.  It’s about abandoning self-absorption and self-righteousness—nay, all self-interest and pursuing a radical life of self-sacrifice.  It’s why C.S. Lewis writes that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither” (Mere Christianity, p. 134).

The more we live as citizens of heaven, the more our “accents”—our lifestyles, our stories—will come to be shaped by God’s kingdom rather than our own empires.  Follow self-interest and you’ll never find happiness.  Follow Christ and you’ll find everything you never knew you wanted.

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