Philippians 3:4-14 Year A, Pentecost 19
One of the
things I have always appreciated about the Episcopal Church is that many of us
seem to be comfortable in the gray areas.
We embrace the questions. And as
someone who has always had more questions than answers, I felt at home in the
Episcopal Church. I was raised Roman
Catholic and my questions were not always appreciated by the clergy and Sunday
School teachers. Fortunately I had
parents who encouraged my questions and never shut me down, which really helped
my faith life. I love that the Episcopal Church has doctrine, liturgy and a
commitment to scripture, but still encourages critical thinking and an open
sometimes…I long for the certainty that so many Christians seem to have. My first year in college, I joined one of the
Christian groups on campus, which was almost exclusively made up of
Evangelicals. They were friendly and
outgoing, which made it an easy group to step into, for me at least. Often the events would center around a talk
about a person’s conversion experience. Despite my doubts and uncertainties, I
loved those stories because there was so much joy and confidence. I craved both of those things. That is the model we often see when people
present life before and after they have been born again or committed their life
to Jesus. Before there was darkness and
suffering, then there was light and joy.
lot of people hold up Paul’s conversion story as the quintessential conversion
story. There he was, a man who was
actually persecuting and imprisoning Christians. And then one day, he was simply walking down
the road and a bright light came from heaven and he was knocked own. Then a voice came from heaven and asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” After that— the same
voice (Jesus’ voice) gave Paul instructions on what to do next. If that wasn’t dramatic enough, he was then
blinded and his eyes were only opened when he was baptized. It’s like a recipe for the perfect
conversion. How could there be any room for doubt after that?
Here is the interesting thing, that
dramatic story is in Acts of the Apostles.
Paul didn’t write Acts of the Apostles.
I am not implying that it’s not an accurate story, but it is curious
that Paul never told that story in the many letters he wrote. He talked about
his conversion, but it was much more nuanced.
In fact he didn’t use the word conversion. It seems to me it was more of an experience
and then a change. It was a journey. Paul nor Acts ever used the word conversion.
For Paul, that experience and change didn’t give him all the answers, nor
unmitigated joy. It gave him more
questions, but also the ultimate answer, which was Jesus Christ.
Today’s reading from Paul begins with
what appears to be an elaborate humble brag.
It’s so much more than that. He
was showing that before his Jesus experience he had the ultimate confidence in
his own abilities, his knowledge. He
didn’t have any questions or doubts.
After he heard the voice of Jesus question him (remember that’s how the
whole thing started, Jesus asked him a question), then all his knowledge,
education and pedigree was considered a loss. He lost all the confidence and arrogance and
instead discovered the love, but also yearning that comes with knowing and
being known by Jesus Christ.
One of the other things I always
appreciated in those conversion stories I heard in college was the joy. Paul talks about joy, but I am not sure
anyone would call him a joyful person.
Many if not all of you know that Good Friday comes first and then comes
Easter. Good Friday is when Jesus
suffered and died. Easter is when he
comes back to life and then everyone is joyful.
Yet note what Paul says, “I want to know the power of his resurrection
and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” The resurrection (Easter) comes first and
then sharing in suffering comes second. Paul, one of the greatest theologians and evangelists
of all time, seems to have it backwards.
According to Paul, first comes resurrection and then suffering.
Well I don’t know about you, but I
will take joy and confidence over suffering any day of the week. Sometimes I am baffled that Paul brought so
many people to the faith because he didn’t sell the Christian faith well. Perhaps, what spoke to people was that it was
real. Life doesn’t get easier once you
commit your life to Jesus. It gets
harder. Yes, there is immense joy in knowing that God loves us deeply and
unconditionally, but Jesus also tells us that we have to open our heart to the
suffering in our world. So even if we don’t have personal suffering (which is
unlikely), we are called to care for those who do…we refuse to close our eyes
to the injustice in our midst and then act in a way that will bring about
justice. All of that is hard…but I don’t want to be part of a faith tradition
that refuses to acknowledge the pain in our midst. Since you are here, I don’t think you want
Before I end, I have to clarify that I
don’t look down on Evangelicals. A good
portion of my family is Evangelical and they care for the suffering. They don’t pretend to have all the
answers. When I was in college, those
talks were coming from college students.
My guess is that if I tracked those people down, they would admit to
some questions and doubting after their conversion. They would tell me there journey was just
beginning. Even the pope, who so many
people go to for answers, has said publicly that doubt can help us understand
While I respect the denominations that
focus on certainty, I still prefer the way we do it in the Episcopal
Church. I have never found a single
Episcopalian who has made me feel bad about my questions and doubts. Never.
While I find these words from Paul challenging, I also find them
comforting. Because I still have a lot of questions. In 2 months, I will have
been ordained for 18 years. If you had asked me 18 years ago if I would have
more answers in 18 years, I would have said, absolutely. I would have been
wrong. Wherever you may be in your faith
journey, don’t you dare be ashamed of your questions or doubts. Don’t think you are a lesser Christian
because you don’t bounce out of bed in the morning full of joy. Embrace the challenge of Paul, but also bask
in the comfort of the knowledge that you don’t need to know the answers. It’s
ok to crave assurance and joy, but not yet have it.
Paul ends by saying that he hasn’t yet
reached the goal. He is still straining
forward and pressing on. That’s what we all must do, in the face of suffering
and injustice…we press on. In the face of our own sins and failing, we press
on. In a country where churches are getting smaller and some would say
irrelevant, we press on. We carry a message that matters. We carry a message of love and truth. We
carry a message that can bring healing to the wounded. So we press on my friends. We press on.