An older man looks out from prison bars. It’s a sight he’s seen many times. He’s been arrested many times. He has suffered numerous beatings. Humiliations. Suffering.
There was a time when he had been a prominent man. A man of influence. Well educated. Well respected. He had the right name, the right job, the right connections.
But he lost it all. His own friends wanted him dead. How do these things happen? After all, he had been somebody. Now he was a no body. And all because of one decision – a decision he would have made over again if he had to.
The gentleman sits down and grasps a pen. Who knows how much time he has left to tell the story? For all he knows – this could be his last letter. There’s even been talk about his upcoming execution. Amazingly though – the man is not afraid. He squints down at his piece of paper, and he begins to write:
I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing
Jesus Christ 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.”
Ah – you recognize those words, don’t you? A man by the name of Paul – St. Paul – the Apostle Paul – wrote those words almost 2,000 years ago to the believers in the city of Philippi, Greece. How could a man who has lost everything write words like these that are so full of hope?
We first meet Paul in the New Testament book called the Book of Acts – the Acts of the Apostles. At that time he is a young man. When we first meet him he is not yet known as Paul. His name is Saul.
He has a family lineage to brag about. He is a native of a city called Tarsus. Tarsus is a capital city – prosperous – cosmopolitan. Saul is well educated. And he is a zealous member of the Jewish religious group known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were biblical scholars who followed the Law of Moses in every aspect of their daily lives.
Saul loved being a Pharisee. He was convinced that his zeal for God – and for the laws of God were so great that he himself was without sin. Completely righteous. And better than other people.
Onto the scene came these followers – these disciples – of a crucified man by the name of Jesus. They called themselves Christians. They actually believed that this man Jesus was God’s Messiah – the Christ – the anointed One. And that three days after he died, that he rose from the dead.
Saul believed so strongly that these Christians were wrong, that he made it a point to persecute them – round them up – put them in jail – and yes, at times, even put them to death.
So zealous is Saul for the Jewish faith – and filled with so much hatred for the followers of Jesus, that one day he sets out to a city called Damascus, to arrest the Christians he might find there. But as he approaches Damascus, Saul is blinded by a flash of light. He is confronted by the voice of Jesus. And in that moment – in that moment Saul’s life is changed. And he becomes Paul – a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple. And he commits the rest of his life to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ everywhere he goes. Preaching and teaching. Starting churches. Writing letters.
And they all lived happily ever after, right? Wrong. Paul lost his position as a Pharisee. Some of his old friends turned against him. He was now the persecuted one – persecuted for sharing the same faith of those he himself once persecuted.
Paul never again had a home of his own. He traveled around from region to region, staying anywhere from several weeks to several years at any one place. He spent years in prison. He was beaten and abused. And eventually he was executed by the Romans. All of this for the sake of Jesus Christ. And in spite of it all – in spite of everything he lost – in spite of everything he gave up – he never lost his faith in Jesus Christ. His was a life of joy. He lost everything – he gave up everything – for the one thing that truly matters – being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Listen! I’ve just shared with you a brief overview of Paul’s life. In this reading from the book of Philippians we’ve learned just what it is Paul gave up – how much he gave up for the sake of Jesus Christ. AND just what it is that he gained as a result of losing everything.
So let me ask you a question – what is it – or what are the things – that you have lost or given up for the sake of Jesus Christ? Now – we all know that Lent is seen by many people – maybe even many of you – as a time to give something up. You know – give something up for Lent. By the way – how are all you chocolate lovers out there doing?
Can we agree that giving up something like chocolate for Lent – or for that matter – giving up anything for Lent is probably not the kind of thing that Paul was talking about when he said, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things.” Let me say that giving up something – even something like chocolate – for Lent is fine as far as it goes. But may I suggest that there are other things in your life – other things in my life – that we might want to think about letting go of – perhaps even permanently letting go – of things that are keeping us from being fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
Now, notice what I am not saying. I am NOT saying that if you don’t give certain things up – if you don’t let go of certain things – that you cannot be a Christian. That you cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am NOT saying that. So whether you are a super Christian – or just starting out in this thing called faith – there are always areas in our lives that we can examine – the things that we might think about getting over – or giving up.
Now, I happen to know what some of the things that I need to focus on – what some of things that I am working on – working on giving up. Would you like to know what they are? I’ll just bet you would. It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it, to give up or to let go of some things – things that are keeping us from being the fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ that Jesus is calling us to be.
And let me also suggest that the things that stand in the way are probably things that we value – and not necessarily in and of themselves bad things. Not necessarily sinful things. But still – they may be things that are – well – keeping you and me from being everything God wants us to be. Or doing the things God is calling us to do.
Listen. Let me ask you – what are some of the things that are getting in the way? I mean, it’s different things for different folks – and this is certainly not an exhaustive list by any means – but let me just ask you to think about it. What might – might – we need or want to give up?
· The need to impress others?
· An “I don’t care” attitude about God?
· An “I don’t care” attitude about the church?
· Fear? Guilt? Shame?
· A destructive habit?
· The need to always insist on having things your way? (Oops! I wasn’t going to tell you what mine are!)
· OR maybe what you need is just – an attitude adjustment.
Think about it. What one thing – just one thing – if there is anything at all – do you need – or maybe I should say what one thing that you want – to get rid of that’s keeping you from being a fully devoted disciple of Jesus Christ? If you’ve got more than one thing – well – let me suggest that you might just want to work on them one at a time.
I haven’t done it in a while, but there was a time – mostly in my single days – that I enjoyed a hobby of furniture stripping. Old tables. A bedroom set. In the first house I owned when I lived in Ohio – a house that was built in 1915 – I stripped, stained and refinished several doors. The front door – the back door – and the basement door. On a visit back to Dayton some years later with my wife and sons – I drove past that house to show the boys where I once lived. The owner of that house was outside – and I stopped the car to introduce myself and tell her I used to live there. Much to my delight – she invited us in. Much to my chagrin – they had repainted that basement door. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.” And I said, “No. It’s your house. It’s your door.”
Well. If you’ve ever stripped furniture – or a door – you know just how challenging the task can be. Those chemical strippers are pretty powerful! But usually I found myself stripping several layers of paint off things. Like that basement door. Usually came off just one layer at a time. By the way – stripping old varnish is easier than stripping things that are painted – like that basement door.
But – I did it for two reasons. First it was to get rid of the old paint – the old varnish. In other words – all the old junk. The second was to see what the original thing looked like. To find the beautiful wood beneath with its rich wood grain – hiding beneath all the junk.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Sometimes I find myself to be like an old door – or a chair or a table – that needs to undergo the stripping process. To strip away all the junk – sometimes one layer at a time. To strip away the tired, old qualities that are keeping me from being the kind of person – the kind of disciple – God wants me to be.
And as that old stuff – that old junk – is being stripped away – and yes, sometimes I know it hurts – I find it most helpful to replace it with something new. For me – when stripping furniture and doors – it always meant a fresh coat of stain and polyurethane – buffed to a smooth, semi-gloss finish with 0000 steel wool.
For Randy the man – sometimes it means stripping away old attitudes – old ways of thinking – and taking on a whole new attitude – a whole new way of thinking – a whole new way of being or of doing things.
It’s not always easy though, is it? But is it worth it? Is Jesus Christ – and being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ worth it? Are we willing to give up those things that are keeping us from being everything God wants us to be?
Listen. Listen once again to the words of a man who lost everything.
“I regard everything as loss for the sake 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.”