Philippians 3:17-4:1 – Righteousness does not equal morality

In Romans, chapter 10, Paul makes a comparison between the two ways to seek being right with God, what we call righteousness: ‘Moses writes,’ says Paul, ‘concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith, according to Paul, ‘says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:5-9; NRSV)  I used struggle with this passage, ‘What does it mean: up and down, down and up?’, but it struck me as I listened to it last Sunday, and reflected on it during the week, that it was really quite simple.

Our righteousness, our being right with God, cannot be sought anywhere else but within us.  We don’t have to go to heaven, achieve nirvana, to be right with God, nor do we have to go to hell, endure suffering and death.  Jesus Christ is here and present wherever we may be, and it is trusting in Jesus death and resurrection that we are made right with God, by God, which is what we mean when we talk about salvation.

There is nothing new under the sun.  There is something within us, what we might call the sinful nature, the original sin, that continues to nag at us, saying, ‘I must do this or that, go this or that place, in order that I might make myself right with God.’  This, I think, is the root of the crucifixion of Jesus and share in his crucifixion.

The Old Testament gives us a clear picture that there is nothing new under the sun.  What was intended to be a relationship between God and his creation became a religion of people trying to please God by what they did.  This has continued in Christianity where we have made it a religion of morality.  If my experience is the norm, those who object most to the idea of becoming a Christian, or reject it outright, is on the basis of unwillingness to behave in a particular ways, that is according to a particular moral code, or to claim that they can be a good person without having to believe in God, read the bible, pray, or go to church.  That this idea of what it means to be a Christian is so entrenched in us that, even when I mention the idea that Christianity is concerned with relationship with God, not behaviour, those who are a part of the church still find themselves needing to say, ‘but there must be some standard of living.’  It may be that in relationship with God we are convinced by what we are discovering about the nature of and character of God to do and not do particular things, but what makes us right with God has nothing to do with morality, or an accepted way of behaviour.

If an unmarried couple, living together, sharing a bed, come to worship amongst us, I would not say you are not a Christian until you are married or split up.  If a homosexual couple came to worship amongst us, I would not say your life is inconsistent with being a Christian.  If a prostitute were to come and worship amongst us, I would not say to him or her, you cannot receive communion until you give up your way of life.  But I would keep preaching the gospel message that ‘if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,’ (Rom 10:9; NRSV)  because being right with God, being saved, has to do with what God has done for us.  It is in relationship with God that God convinces us of those things in our own life that are damaging our relationship with him, with others and with our self.

The desire to make ourselves right with God by what we do and how we behave is not the way of God’s kingdom and the citizens of heaven; it is the way of the world.  If you have any doubt of this, consider the way Jesus confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees, as we read on Friday morning, ‘For I tell you, unless you your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’  (Mt 5:20; NRSV) As the teaching continues it becomes obvious that the Pharisees have not obtained righteousness by their abiding by the law and it is impossible for anyone to do so.

Continuing from this, we hear Paul’s words to the Church at Philippi, this morning, ‘For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.’  Paul is not speaking about people who are outside the church.  He is speaking of those who are inside the church, who are a part of the church, those who are amongst the believers.  They may even be amongst the leaders of the church because what they are teaching is driving him to tears of frustration.

Having said that being right with God is not determined by our moral behaviour, the teaching of these enemies of the cross, driven by ‘their god is their belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds set on earthly things,’ is neither a blatant lack of morality or a continued call for adherence to the law.  It is not about their behaviour; or how they are teaching others to behave.  According to Ralph Martin (The New Century Bible Commentary: Philippians) they have forgotten the apostolic teaching of the cross and are making a proud claim of moral and religious superiority that they have already reached purity.  This, in turn, is affecting their behaviour.  They are acting in ways, and teaching, which is full of their own self importance.  There is immorality in their behaviour because there is no longer any dependency upon the work, or significance, of the cross.

Paul continues by saying, ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.’ (Phil 3:20-21; NRSV)  In other words, we have been made right with God by his work in Christ on the cross, there is nothing we can do to make ourselves right with God, BUT we are also a work in progress.  In a relationship with God, Jesus Christ will transform our body of humiliation that it might be conformed to the body of his glory.  It Christ’s job, by the Holy Spirit, to convince us of the things in our lives that are damaging our relationships with God, with others and with our self.  Our behaviour is determined not by our need to make ourselves right with God, but because we have been made right with God and we are being transformed by our relationship with God.

Our portion of this letter to the Philippians concludes with encouragement, ‘Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.’ (Phil 4:1; NRSV)  This is an encouragement not to imitate Christ’s life literally (thank God, I truly don’t fancy being crucified), nor even to imitate Paul’s actions and behaviour, but to imitate Paul in standing firm in our dependence upon the work of God in Christ on the cross to make us right with him.  This, in turn, means standing firm against anything that would cause us to believe that we have to behave in a particular way in order to be right with God.

Our faith, Paul’s faith, the faith that Christ invited us into, is first and foremost about having a relationship with God.  Everything else is concerned with nurturing that relationship and out of that relationship comes the inspiration for what we do, what we call ministry, what we call mission.  God wants to have a relationship with each and every one of us, he is offering his friendship and the invitation is to accept his friendship – to choose God as a friend as he chooses you.  If you haven’t done this, then encourage you to do so.

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