Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.Philippians 3:7-8
The apostle Paul had every reason to be “confident in the flesh,” as he tells us in today’s second reading (Philippians 3:4-14). A proud member of the people of Israel, a Pharisee, a leader, respected by all, and a persecutor of the church. Until he met Jesus, in a vision on the road to Damascus. And that experience changed Paul’s life. Whatever gains he had in this life, he came to regard as loss because of the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus.”
Nothing was more important to Paul than knowing Jesus, and serving him. And so, he devoted his life to sharing the gospel, to telling others about Jesus, even when that meant persecution. And he was persecuted. And ultimately killed, simply because of his Christian faith. But before he was killed, he was imprisoned. And from his prison cell, Paul wrote many of his letters, including one of his most beloved letters, his Letter to the Philippians, which we heard in our second reading.
The Source of All Hope
Imagine, for a moment, being in a prison cell, simply because you are a Christian. And then, imagine being given a pen and paper. And an opportunity to write a letter to encourage other Christians. What would you write? How would you offer your fellow believers hope, and encouragement to remain steadfast in their faith?
Paul offers us an incredible example of that, and today’s passage in particular offers us a reminder of the hope and encouragement that comes only from the gospel. But this hope and encouragement are not what we might expect. Paul is not promising a better life if we follow Jesus. It might even be harder. Instead, Paul is reminding us that what really matters is found only in this life. It is found in the resurrection, in the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
These words that Paul wrote are actually quite challenging to us. Paul writes that he counts “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). He gave it all up, regarded it all as rubbish, so that he could “gain Christ and be found in him.” Most of us, probably all of us, are not used to thinking in this way. We tend to think that what we have is pretty important. Not rubbish. And even in our good Christian moments, we tend not to think of everything as rubbish – we tend more often to regard everything as gift. We give thanks for our house, our family, our job, our health, our life, as a blessing from God. And well we should.
But Paul’s words still echo down to us through the centuries to place the question before us: Doesn’t our Lord want more? Doesn’t he want more than for us to give thanks for what we have? Doesn’t he want us to be so filled with love for Him that we are willing to count everything else as loss? Doesn’t he want more than simply our gratitude; more than our worship, more than our tithe, more than our daily prayers and devotions? Doesn’t he want our very selves?
Mary’s Gift to Jesus
Paul is not the only one in our readings today who challenges us with this question. There is also Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Most of us remember Mary from another story about Mary and Martha, one told in Luke’s Gospel. Remember? The story about Martha getting angry with Mary when Martha is doing all the serving while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Martha seems to have a point, but Jesus tells her that Mary is the one who has chosen the better part! Maybe all that time sitting at Jesus’ feet helped Mary to understand what so few in the gospels do – that Jesus wants more from us than even our time, talents, or treasure: he wants our very selves.
Perhaps that is why Mary was able to do what she did in today’s gospel reading (John 12:1-8). This story takes place the evening before what we observe as Palm Sunday – Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has stopped at his friends’ house for one last quiet evening, before entering Jerusalem and all that he knows will take place there. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are dear to Jesus. Faithful, trusted friends. And so, Jesus goes to their house, to share a meal with them. Martha, as usual, is serving, while Lazarus is one of those at the table with Jesus. And then, seemingly out of the blue, Mary does something truly remarkable. She takes a pound of costly perfume, and pours it on Jesus’ feet, and wipes his feet with her hair. No words. Just this amazing, even shocking act. An act that defies understanding or explanation.
And in this act, Mary is showing Jesus that nothing matters to her more than the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus her Lord. Mary shows us, in this act of love, what Paul tells us, in his Letter to the Philippians. You might think of her act as “show-and-tell” on how to be a Christian, on how to give ourselves to Jesus. He wants more from us, so much more. And Mary shows us what that means. By falling to her knees, and anointing Jesus’ feet with her costly perfume. Martha, you remember, is busy serving while Mary is doing this. And, yes – to all the Marthas among us – it would have been helpful for Mary to be serving with Martha! And, yes, Jesus does want us to serve others! But Mary’s simple act shows us that Jesus wants more than that: He wants our very selves.
Judas, you remember, is the one who vocally challenges Mary’s act. Couldn’t she have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor? And yes, in truth, she could have. Just like – I suppose – we could sell this church and give the money to the poor. But Jesus wants more than for us to help the poor – he wants us to worship him; he wants us to love him; he wants us to give our very selves to him.
Helping the poor is surely important. And, sadly, Jesus was altogether too right when he said that we would always have the poor with us. We will always have opportunities to help the poor. Jesus wants us to do that, to help the poor, just like he wants us to serve others. Just as he served so many while here on this earth. He wants us to follow his example. He wants us to help the poor. But, more than anything, what Jesus wants is us: our very selves. Mary’s amazing act of love, Paul’s powerful words, remind us all that above and beyond everything is the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. All else is but loss compared to this one thing.
Pressing on Toward the Goal
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear about Mary’s beautiful deed, and when I read Paul’s powerful words, I can’t help but think – will that ever be me? Will I ever get there? Will I ever do something so amazing for Jesus as what Mary did on the eve of his entry into Jerusalem? Will I ever be able to say, as Paul once did, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”? And mean it, from the bottom of my heart? In truth, I don’t know.
But Paul himself offers me encouragement from this passage when he goes on to say: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul and Mary are both showing us the goal today. But even they would say they did not reach it in this lifetime. They are simply on the way. They are pressing on to this goal, because Christ Jesus has made them his own.
None of us are there yet. But we are on the way. If we are baptized, Christ Jesus has made us his own. It is real. And it is complete. And nothing can take that away from us. But baptism is not the end; it is the beginning of our journey. We still have a goal; and we are called to press to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has already made us his own.
If you like theological words, you might think of the words “justification” and “sanctification.” In baptism, we have been justified – made right with God, through Jesus Christ. Period. But in baptism we have also been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and made a part of a church community, so that we could grow in our faith. So that we could “press on toward the goal for the heavenly prize of God in Christ Jesus.” We won’t reach that goal until the last day. But “sanctification” describes the process that is taking place now. The process that began in our baptism, that takes place every day as we follow Jesus.
One of my favorite passages from Martin Luther from a sermon of his where he reflects on this idea, almost in a poetic way. Here are his words:
This life is not a being holy but a becoming holy; it is not a being well but a getting well; it is not a being but a becoming; it not inactivity but practice.
As yet we are not what we ought to be, but we are getting there; the task is not as yet accomplished and completed, but it is in progress and pursuit.
The end has not been reached, but we are on the way that leads to it; as yet everything does not glow and sparkle, but everything is purifying itself.
(Martin Luther, What Luther Says, p. 235)
The end has not been reached by us, but we are on the way. We serve; we give; we pray; we sin, and confess; we fall down and get up. We come to church to be fed and encouraged on the way. Yes, we are on the way. And one day, we hope to be able to say, from the depths of our heart, that compared to knowing Jesus, all else is but loss. In the meantime, we press on to the goal, knowing that our Lord and Savior has already reached the goal on our behalf. We press on, as best we can, grateful to follow the one who promises to show us the way. We are not there yet, not what we ought to be. But thanks be to God, we are on the way. Amen.