Unlearning Righteousness (A sermon from Philippians (3:4b-14)

In order to understand this text, we have to understand the ancient, sacred meaning of two key words Paul uses in this text and frequently in his letters. The two words are faith and righteousness. I think many Christians misread Paul because we understand these words in light of modern English meanings, rather than the way they were intended. The ancient meaning of faith is not primarily the doctrine we believe about God or Jesus or anything else. The ancient Greek and Latin meaning includes belief, but it is more about trust and faithfulness than it is about belief. Belief, however, is the common modern English meaning.

In the NRSV there is a footnote that points out that the expression translated “faith in Christ” could equally be translated the “faith of Christ.” Faith could better be translated faithfulness. So when Paul uses that expression in connection with righteousness he is not talking about believing things about Christ. Rather, he is talking about a righteousness that comes by way of the faithfulness of Christ or by way of our faithfulness to Christ.    

The second term that Paul uses frequently that is just as misunderstood as the word faith is the word righteousness. In the Bible righteousness and justice are two interrelated, equivalent, and interchangeable terms. Both terms are about “doing what is right” – personally and privately, yes, but even more importantly, it’s about doing what is right socially, economically, politically, and corporately. To do righteousness or justice is about doing what is right for others and all society. It’s about living out the golden rule on all levels – in our families, in our church, in our community, and in the world. It’s about how we vote, as well as how we pray.  It’s not just about helping out in the soup kitchen and doing acts of kindness, as important as those things are. It’s also about speaking out and working for just laws, policies and practices in society that reflect the golden rule and love of neighbor as oneself. This understanding of righteousness was a major concern of the Hebrew prophets.

There are numerous texts I could reference, but one of my favorite is Isaiah 1, which is a prophetic indictment against the society of Israel. The prophet calls them a “sinful nation,” even though they were extremely religious. They faithfully observed all the religious sacrifices, holy days, and rituals, never missing a beat. They were in church on Sunday. Some however, perhaps many, were oppressing others. As a society they had failed to take care of the poor and vulnerable. Isaiah calls them out as a “sinful nation” and “a people laden with iniquity” (his words). He calls upon them to put away their evil and “seek justice/righteousness.” Then, in the next sentence he clarifies the kind of justice/righteousness he means: “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Most people today when they hear the word “justice” they think of retributive justice as in our criminal justice system. While the word is used in the Bible of punishment for wrongdoing, that is NOT it’s primary meaning in scripture. Its primary meaning in scripture relates to social justice. This is how Jesus uses the term when he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness, for they will be filled.” When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice/righteousness,” he is not talking about private morality or punishment. People are persecuted by those in power not for private beliefs or morality. People are persecuted when they challenge the injustices and unfairness of the system controlled by those in power. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Strive for the kingdom of God and God’s justice/righteousness.” Jesus dreams of a day when all is made right, when every person has not just enough to survive, but enough to thrive – in all ways – economically, spiritually, physically, psychologically, and socially. This is the righteousness of Christ and this is the righteousness/justice emphasized in this passage and in a number of other places in Paul’s letters.

How did we ever miss this? Why were we not taught this? We were taught to keep our faith separate from our politics and economics and our social life as if our faith is just a personal matter. Faith is faithfulness to the way of Jesus. And the way of Jesus is about doing what is right personally, socially, economically, and politically. It’s about creating a world where everyone thrives. Of course, it’s easy for us to keep our faith separate from other things when we make our faith only about what we believe about God, the Bible, and the church. Next Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, which is observed by pastors and churches that follow the lectionary as either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, so let’s be clear about this. Jesus wasn’t killed because he believed in God and did religious stuff. Jesus was killed because he preached and taught and lived the kingdom of God and God’s kind of justice/righteousness, which always challenges the religious, social, economical, and political structures of the world. The very term that Jesus chose to talk about doing God’s will was a subversive one, namely, the kingdom of God. There was only one kingdom in that world, and that was the kingdom of Caesar, the kingdom of Rome. Jesus said, No, God’s kingdom comes first, and it’s a kingdom to be structured according to the golden rule and love of neighbor. If we can accept both Jesus’ and Paul’s understanding and practice of righteousness, then we can no longer hide our own greed and acts of injustice behind the cloak of religious faith and zeal.

Paul shares a little bit of his story in this passage. He tells us that he had to “lose” his false righteousness in order to find the true righteousness or justice of Christ. The contrast Paul develops in this passage in not a contrast between Judaism and Christianity. The contrast Paul is talking about is between a false, self-righteousness pervaded by the ego and a true personal and social righteousness pervaded by compassion. Both kinds of righteousness, one evil, the other good, can be found in all religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion. The one essential, primary quality of authentic religion is that it teaches us how to love.

The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movie list. It is punctuated with some great lines and rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of the kind of false righteousness I’m talking about. He stands out like an overblown character in a Flannery O’Connor short story.  When Andy and the other prisoners make their first appearance before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. He has one of the prisoners beaten for asking, “When do we eat?” Holding a Bible, he tells the prisoners, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.”

The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. In one scene the warden enters Andy’s cell and picks up Andy’s Bible. Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth. (The Bible can be used to prove anything. You can find scripture to prove your point.) The warden does not open the Bible, which is good because the hammer that Andy used to tunnel through the cell wall is hidden inside the Bible. When the warden hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.” Little did he know. Clearly, Andy and the warden have very different ideas about salvation. That whole interchange is a wonderful piece of irony. The final verse that the warden quotes is John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion about what it means to actually follow Jesus, or what the light of Jesus actually represents. The warden walks in darkness and is about as spiritually and morally blind a person as you would ever find. But, he is a Christian – clearly a self-righteous one.

Paul thought he was righteous. We might think we are righteous, even while we support or participate in injustice. Today, where a Christian stands on immigration and on asylum seekers says a lot about the kind of righteousness that Christian has. Paul thought he was righteous. In his self-righteousness he persecuted others without any sense of personal guilt or regret or remorse, because he had convinced himself he was doing it for God. But then, one day, Paul met God. Paul had a life changing encounter with divine love. According to Luke’s account in the book of Acts, Paul was on a road headed to Damascus to persecute Christians there. According to Luke, Paul encountered Divine Love personified in the person of Jesus. Paul doesn’t give us any details. In Galatians he calls it a “revelation of grace.” Whatever form it took, Paul encountered the divine love of Christ and that experience changed everything for him. Paul says that for the sake of knowing the passion of Christ for a just world, for the sake of gaining the righteousness/justice of Christ he had to suffer the loss of all things, which he did, counting it “rubbish” so he could walk in the righteousness of Christ.

Paul says now, “I want to know Christ,” that is, I want to know the passion of Christ for doing what is right, for helping to make our world a just world. He says, “I want to know the power of his resurrection,” that is, I want to know the power of Christ’s love that is life-producing and life-generating and that will never die. Paul says, “I want to share in Christ’s suffering by becoming like him in death,” that is, I want to share Christ’s empathy and compassion for this suffering world. This is what the new Paul wants to be and do. But in order for that to happen he has to “lose” the old Paul. He has to “unlearn” the toxic, self-righteousness he had been taught and that ruled his life for so long. 

Sisters and brothers, what is it that we have to “unlearn” in order to know the passion of Christ for a just world and pursue fairness and equality and dignity for all? What do we have to “lose” in order to experience the life-generating, life-inspiring, life-enhancing never-ending love of Christ for the world? What do we need to “let go of” or “renounce” in order to share the empathy and compassion of Christ for all those who suffer?

Perhaps I need to “unlearn” patterns of grudge holding where I replay the painful hurts of my past and let them make me bitter and resentful. Several years ago I read a book on leadership that drew upon the leadership and experiences of Nelson Mandela. On the day Mandela turned 84 a worker at one of the insurance companies in Cape Town told about rushing out to buy a newspaper the day Mandela was inaugurated as State President. He said he was amazed to read that Mandela had invited one of his former prison guards to attend. He recalled how that day was the first day he had ever seriously thought about forgiveness. On that same day of Mandela’ inauguration the leader of the opposition party said this of Mandela: “I cannot understand how a man who personally suffered so much can champion forgiveness and reconciliation to the extent that he has done. Madiba does it with such ease that, in spite of my skepticism, I feel invited to try exploring the extraordinary power of forgiveness.”

Now, according to Bishop Tutu, who knew Mandela well, when Mandela first went to prison he was angry. When Mandella was arrested for speaking out against injustice he had been leading the armed wing of the African National congress. According to Bishop Tutu, he was belligerent and quick-tempered. But in prison, of all places, Mandela was able to “unlearn” patterns of bitterness and “lose” any need for revenge. He was even able to joke about it. In a ceremony to open a Childhood Development Centre Mandela said that people often ask him why he is so active – he was 83 at the time. He said it was because of his secretary: “She tells me: You have been loafing for 27 years. Now you must do some work.” Mandela was able to “unlearn” and “lose” his anger and need for retaliation. Maybe some of us need to “unlearn” that as well and cease replaying those grievance stories in our mind.

Maybe I need to lose my sense of entitlement so others may have what I have. That could be about adequate health coverage for all, equal opportunity for a college education, or any number of things that are about how a righteous society should be structured. It’s very simple really. It’s all about the golden rule that Jesus taught and lived: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When it comes to health care, that may mean “losing” my right, my sense of entitlement to the best coverage simply because I can afford it. In my judgment, if I am not willing to “unlearn” my sense of entitlement, if I am not willing for others to have what I have, then I don’t qualify as a follower of Jesus. It really is that simple.

So let me ask again. What do we need to “unlearn” in order to nurture a passion for the righteousness/justice of Christ? What do we need to “lose,” perhaps even count as “rubbish” as Paul did, in order to pray for, work for, and live for God’s righteousness, God’s good, just, and compassionate will being done on earth as it is in heaven?

Gracious God, help us to see that what you want from us is not specific beliefs, but a way of life – a life of faithfulness to the way of Jesus. Help us to see that what you want for us personally, you want for all the rest as well. Help us to “lose” and “unlearn” whatever we need to lose and unlearn in order to be more loving persons and to live for the just world you want for all of us. Amen.


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