By Paul Koch –
What we do here in this place seems, at times, to be disjointed from the world in which we live. I suppose it has always been so: the rhythm and focus of the church is not governed by the cares and fears of our world. It offers something more, something unmovable in the shifting sands of our age. So, there is something of an expected difference that comes from a church. But there are times, and I think this is one of them, where the casual observer of our fellowship might find what we are doing here a bit naive, and perhaps even a little offensive considering what is happening all around us.
We gather here after the largest mass shooting in American history, leaving 58 dead and wounding hundreds more. And that came on the heels of devastation in Puerto Rico, and a massive earthquake in Mexico. At the same time there were riots in St. Louis, right after Hurricane Irma and Harvey laid waste to people’s homes in Florida and Texas. In the face of all that, what do we do when we gather together today? Did we come here weeping and pleading for intercession by our God? Did we fall on our knees confessing that truly this must be the end, this must be it, for it can’t possibly get any worse? No, we gathered here at the front of the church and celebrated. In the midst of all the suffering and tragedy, we celebrated as another child was embraced by our Lord through washing of Holy Baptism. But are we out of touch? Does this even make sense in our day?
You see, when we are faced with tragedy one of the things we often do is take time to reevaluate what is truly important to us. This happens not only with a national catastrophe but even when there is personal tragedy in the life of one you know and love. For me, it has happened when I’ve sat at the bed of a brother in Christ and he speaks about how he no longer wants to fight to live. Out of his pain, he longs for God to call him home. As you try your best to offer words of comfort and promise you begin to think things through. What would you do in that situation? How would you react? And you are reminded of what is really important in your life. You begin to question why you do the things you do an ask yourself how you might live a better life.
Such reflection is important, I think. It is too bad that we usually have to experience some great tragedy or sadness to bring it to the forefront of our minds. For the desire and ability to step back and examine oneself is a powerful thing. It leads us to ask important questions. In fact, such reflection often leads to the most important questions of our life. Questions of our standing before God, of our salvation, of our assurance in that salvation. Are you saved? How do you know? Can you be sure? How would you answer? What measure would you offer up for the assurance of your eternal life?
In Philippians chapter 3, we find Paul in the midst of just such an assessment of his life. Now to be sure, he writes down this reflection not as a result of some national tragedy, but rather as a sort of warning for the faithful in regard to where they place their trust. He is ruminating on the underlying question: what is the basis for your confidence? He reflects upon himself saying that if anyone ought to have confidence based in the flesh – that is, based on the deeds of human life – it is him. Circumcised on the 8th day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. This man walked the walk and talked the talk. He was faithful, righteous, and deserving of the gifts of God.
But something happened to Paul. It was not a new knowledge or a better understanding of the world. It was not another insight for a more noble way of living this life. No, Paul met Christ himself. There on the road to Damascus, as he was off zealously persecuting the church, Christ calls him by name and changes his life forever. By coming in contact with the risen Savior, with the One who shed perfect blood for a sinner like Paul, he found that all his works, all his deeds, all his amazing accomplishments as a Hebrew of Hebrews amounted to nothing. In light of the sacrifice of Christ he is left in a state where he confesses that whatever gain he had in all his works, he now counts them as loss. In fact, he says,
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ… (Phil 3:8)
See, if you are called out of your slumber to assess your life, to measure how you’ve been doing, how you measure up to the law of God, what do you think you will find? No one here, of course, would say that they have perfectly kept the law of God, there are abundant examples of your failures. Failures in thought, word and deed. There are the things you have done that you should not have done, the things you should have done but you avoided. Over and again you have failed in your love for one another. But I know that you all know that. But there are moments of genuine goodness, right? The times you really tried, the times you went out of your way to lend a hand to someone who was in need. There are the times you swallowed your pride to be gracious and kind to another. And so, when you assess your lives you will downplay those not so glorious moments. You will hold up these few genuine moments of faithfulness and service to one another as an example, perhaps, of your assurance that you have done enough or some guarantee that you are indeed saved.
But what Paul is reminding us, what he is proclaiming to you and me this day is that even the very best stuff of your life, even those moments that others would applaud as good, right and salutary, even those must be counted as loss for the sake of Christ. For this losing is a joyful thing. This letting go, not only of the bad but of the good, is to confess with St. Paul that you do not have a righteousness of your own that comes even a little bit from the law, even a tiny bit that depends on your doing the right things. Rather your righteousness comes through faith in Christ alone. And so, when you step back and reevaluate your lives, when you examine yourselves and question how you’ve been living and where your hope is found, there is only one answer. Your hope is found in Christ alone – everything else you must count as loss.
In losing it all, you are given everything. In losing it all, you gain eternal life in Christ alone. This, then, is what you cling to in order to press on through this age. This is your hope and assurance even as the world around you seem to be falling apart. When you are faced with tragedy and despair, with destruction and terror all around, there is still hope. For there is still the love and the promises of Christ alone who has called you by name and promised you something more, something greater to come.
And so, no, what we are doing here is not disjointed from the world around us. As we are sent reeling by the horrors of our day we gather here, in this place, at this time, so that our Lord might call another child by name. We gather here to lose everything and gain eternal life. Here we meet our Savior who empties your hands of all the bad, all the evil, all the fear and trembling in the world. He empties your hands of all the bits and pieces that you would offer him, hoping that they are good enough or faithful enough or righteous enough. Instead he will fill your hands with his love, with the assurance purchased by his blood that you are redeemed, you are forgiven, you are the children of God.