St. Paul begins this section of the letter with the word that congregations look forward to as they attend to the words of the sermon—“finally.” Of course, those who have listened to enough sermons realize that there is probably little connection between the word “finally” and how much time will pass before the sermon actually ends. But, at least it hints that preacher has come to the last “point” that he intends to expound.
I personally imagine that St. Paul’s “finally” in Philippians 3:1 points to a resumption of the letter after a break of some kind. Perhaps he was interrupted; perhaps he set the letter aside to focus on something else for a time. What follows after the “finally” is almost as long as what precedes it, so I have a sense of Paul getting his “second wind.” That, of course, is pure conjecture on my part. The topical transition to warning the church against false teaching, in any case, is swift and urgent.
The Apostle moves into this second section with an exhortation to rejoice. The theme of rejoicing has already pervaded the letter to this point. In 1:18, he rejoiced that in spite of his own imprisonment, the Gospel was gaining wider proclamation, even if the motives of some who preached it were suspect. In 2:17 he reassured them that even if his ministry for their sakes cost him his life, he would rejoice and urged them to rejoice with him. We can further note that in 1:25 he would get to be with them again for their progress and joy in the faith, that in 2:2 he had asked them to make his joy complete, and that in 2:29 he had urged them to receive Epaphroditus with all joy. When St. Paul’s “finally” introduces a call to rejoice in the Lord, he admits that he is not breaking new ground, but reiterating a familiar theme.
In this particular instance, though, we understand that there is an emphasis on “in the Lord.” He is leading into a warning against false teachings and influences, so it is important that they make room for no other source of strength and confidence than Jesus himself. He is our strength against temptation and a spirit of discontent. He is our only righteousness and ultimate standard of truth.
Paul characterizes those who pose a threat to the church with three strong, uncomplimentary terms—dogs, evil workers, and those who mutilate the flesh. Moreover, he repeats the word of warning, “Watch out,” with each; emphasizing the serious threat that each poses. It may be that three terms point to three different dangers to the faith of the church, some originating in the pagan culture, while the third clearly is posed by those who want to insist on certain Jewish practices. In any case, Paul’s words of explanation and correction focus primarily on the latter concern.
In contrast to those whom Paul labels “those who mutilate the flesh”---a play on the word “circumcision”—he insists that the church is the real circumcision. This simply means that the church is the true heir of the covenant promises made to Abraham, the true Israel of God. As he will make clear in his own words of testimony later in the chapter, these are received and possessed by faith, and not by following the customs and traditions surrounding the Jewish law, and which helped to give Jewish people of that day a strong sense of national identity. Paul further clarifies this new identity of the new Israel with three phrases—the ones “who worship in the Spirit of God, who boast in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.” These three phrases stand in direct contrast to the practices of those who insisted on the observance of Jewish customs.
This morning I want to focus on the second of these descriptions of the true covenant people as those who “boast in Jesus Christ.” Boasting is a prominent theme throughout Paul’s letters. Of the over thirty times boasting is mentioned in the New Testament, all but two belong to the Apostle. For us, boasting tends to suggest something inappropriate, and there certainly is a boasting to be rejected. However, boasting can also clearly be a positive thing for Paul—he plainly says here that he boasts in Christ Jesus—so this morning I will be exploring the positive significance of boasting. Even though boasting strikes us as mainly negative, it is actually the case that there are some forms of boasting that we not only tolerate but approve.
None of us, of course, likes to listen to someone who goes on at length about their considerable achievements, particularly when they seem to give themselves all the credit. Perhaps what is most unpleasant of all is boasting that involves a claim to superiority. I recall when a much-anticipated speaker addressed our faculty and student body in seminary chapel. His opening words of introduction included the claim that he came from a church that was much more “Calvinistic” than our own. Moreover, he went on to justify his claim with all seriousness, dispelling any sense that he was just joking, or “poking fun.” As you might imagine, the audience was hardly receptive from that point forward. (We, of course, thought that our own heritage was actually more “Calvinistic” than his, but we at least had the manners to avoid boasting.)
Yet, there is a kind of boasting, or expression of pride, that is generally acceptable—clearly so to Paul and likewise in our own culture. I would define or characterize this as an expression of confidence, grounded in identity. This kind of boasting affirms an identity that gives us a sense of significance and joy and purpose in living. It is the opposite of being ashamed. So, St. Paul could speak of boasting in Christ Jesus (3:3) and not being ashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:17). Bragging is not necessarily the opposite of not being ashamed. But, the opposite of not being ashamed has to involve some unapologetic, positive expression of pride.
There is a ready example at hand to illustrate this in the neighborhood where my wife and I live. There are several houses in our neighborhood that have little signs in the front yards that read, “Proud union home.” Now I’m sure that these neighbors, if you were to meet them, would not come across as pathological braggarts. In fact, for many, I suspect that these signs would be their most comfortable way of expressing themselves. But the message is clear. They want it to be known that they identify with the trade union movement. This an essential component of their sense of identity and one that they share with many others. They are “union people.” And they are proud of it.
Now, not everyone in a right to work state would agree with these neighbors about the trade union movement. But very few would find it intrinsically objectionable, as boasting that crosses the line, for folks to put signs like this in their yard. It is a kind of boasting, to be sure, but a positive kind of boasting that our society accepts as appropriate.
By contrast, there is a house on our street which, until it changed hands a few months ago, had quite a large plaque by the front door, legible from the street, proclaiming, “This is a Christian home.” I have to confess that I found this sign harder to interpret. Was it the equivalent of the union signs meaning, “Proud Christian home,” or was it meant to serve some other purpose of self-disclosure. Whatever the intended meaning, I’m sure it was well-meant. But, it was more ambiguous than the union sign and a little harder to assess, if intended as an appropriate boast.
When Paul speaks of “boasting in Christ Jesus,” he clearly has a sense of identity in view that he shares with others and by which he desires, unashamedly, to be known. This is strongly implied by the contrast with the ethos the false teachers who wanted to insist on retaining Jewish practices. Remember that all three characteristics—worshiping in the Spirit of God, boasting in Christ Jesus, and having no confidence in the flesh—stand in contrast to the ethos of the Judaizers. Though it is not explicitly mentioned in this text, Paul elsewhere refers to a boasting that characterized some of the Jewish people in his day. Romans 2:17 provides the most helpful example.
“But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God...” (NRSV) We should note that the last phrase, literally translated, would be “boast in God” and therefore equivalent to Paul’s “boast in Christ Jesus” in Philippians 3:3. Note especially, though, the opening words of Romans 2:17. “If you call yourself a Jew...” Many of the people St. Paul contended with in the early church proudly identified themselves as Jews. They were not ashamed of their Jewishness. (Nor, of course, was there any reason that they should have been!) It was, to them, an expression of national pride or, if you will, a nationalistic spirit. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with pride in one’s ethnicity or nation. What Paul stood against, though, was an attitude that, by his own admission, he himself once shared. This was a boasting in God that, as James G.D. Dunn puts it, tended to be “nationalistically exclusive.” This was a boasting in God as theirs alone simply by virtue of their ethnicity. If God was theirs alone, then becoming Jewish was the only sure way to God.
Paul saw this as a turning back from the way of salvation, rather than moving ahead with God’s purpose coming to fulfillment with Christ. He reminds the Philippians that their boasting in God must now be a boasting in Christ Jesus. Instead of an identity grounded in national or ethnic markers, their identity as the people of God is now grounded in their union with Christ Jesus, through faith. In this the Christians are to boast.
Here, of course, we are confronted with the paradox of Christian boasting. To boast in Christ is to boast in the one who made himself of no reputation and took the form of a servant. The one in whom we boast is the one who abandoned all ground of boasting in himself and submitted to the most shameful death the powers of this world had contrived. The Christian boasts in one who was despised and rejected. But God raised him from the dead and has given him the name above every name. We cannot boast in Christ, the exalted one, apart from the “mind” of the exalted one, who gave himself over completely to the glory of his heavenly Father.
This is who we are. Christ Jesus is the one in whom we find our confident identity as children of God, as the sons and daughters of Abraham. We are not ashamed to call ourselves Christians and we will boast in his name. But, because he was the one who emptied himself, our boasting can only be in the spirit of meekness and humility, never an “in-your-face” arrogance.
As our call to worship, I recalled the words of David in Psalm 34:2. “My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad!” I hope you heard the striking pairing of boasting and humility. The humble are, in fact, those who are poor or afflicted. They have nothing in their lives to boast about. They have no identity which helps them stake a confident claim in the world.
This reminds me, in an indirect sort of way, of another common form of boasting in our society which is widely and positively practiced. I refer here to vanity plates on the front of cars. In our West Lafayette community it is not uncommon to see cars with some sort of Purdue University vanity plate on the front bumper. This is a normative form of polite boasting. Some vanity plates now celebrate the university’s sesquicentennial: “150 Giant Leaps.” These are expressions of a shared, proud identity in the achievements of the university. There is nothing wrong with these sorts of expressions of pride. But, they take me back, by contrast, to the humble, the poor and the afflicted of the world.
So many in the world have little to point to by way of achievements in which they can share, either directly or vicariously. But those who boast in the Lord share with all people the good news of an identity freely offered to who have faith in the Savior. The good news is that the surpassingly great achievements of Christ Jesus—victory over sin and death and the powers of darkness, the securing of an everlasting righteousness, a salvation to be worked out in the community of faith—are offered to all, to be shared with him, through faith.
“My soul makes its boast in the Lord. Let the humble hear and be glad.” May this be the spirit in which we approach the table of the Lord this morning. May this be our prayer as we proclaim his death, until he comes again. Amen.