We are familiar with St. Paul’s story. He was a young man who had it all. He grew up with all the advantages a young person of his time could have. His family was well to do, members of the Jewish aristocracy, and he, by rights, enjoyed all the privileges of being a Roman Citizen. He was educated in both Jewish and Greek philosophy. And then, as he became of age, was just lucky enough to fill a need as an upstart religious group came into vogue.
They called themselves members of the Way. They were followers of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth. They were a developing problem to the tranquility of the Peace of Rome and a threat to the tenuous Jewish/Roman relationship.
This upstart group offered Paul a chance to make his mark. As a passionate and energetic young man, Paul knew just what to do, and with the permission of the Temple authorities, Paul had what he needed to eliminate what was becoming a black mark on Judaism.
For Paul, the only good Christians, were dead Christians. Even before the formal persecutions of Rome, Paul was executing followers, the most famous of which is St. Stephen, the first deacon of the church.
But as we know, all this changed for Paul one fateful day as he walked the road to Damascus. To say this event was pivotal in Paul’s life doesn’t do it justice. In fact, Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ transformed his life in such a way that everything he knew or understood about God was changed.
If the account in Acts is true, Paul’s life instantaneously turned 180 degrees.
This is what it means to be converted, to be overtaken by something so
totally new and different that the trajectory of your life is forever changed. Paul’s life in an instant went from eliminating Christians, to creating Christians. But this change did not come without hardship and sacrifice. The costs for Paul were huge. His conversion cost him family, work, status, and ultimately his very life.
This is what Paul is talking about in this morning’s letter to the Philippians. The opening of our passage this morning consists of Paul basically telling his audience, “look, before I found Christ I had it all, and if there was anyone who understood and knew how to obey the laws of Torah, it was me. I knew it all, had it all, and gave it all up to follow Christ.”
Why did Paul choose to give it all away? Because as Paul writes, “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, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” What Paul is proclaiming is a huge shift in his understanding as to where the root of righteousness is found. Prior to his conversion, righteousness, the right relationship with God, was attained through the external means of the law. The entire onus of our relationship with God was dependent on our ability to keep the Law. But through the redemptive act of Christ, the onus of responsibility becomes shared and dependent, not on our outward achievements, but on our trust and love of God.
As St. Paul makes evident in this morning’s passage, the two most valuable things he could have in his life were righteousness and the unconditional love of God. For him, everything he had ever had before, paled in comparison to the love of Christ.
The redemptive grace of God is what Paul celebrates throughout his letters and shares with all who listen. As we scan through the ages, we find, St. Paul is not the only one who was willing to give up everything he had because the gift of grace is worth more. As we read the stories of the great medieval saints we find many of their stories follow the same script.
Today we celebrate one of such saint, St. Francis of Assisi. Francis, like St. Paul was born into great privilege. His father was a wealthy and powerful Italian merchant. Francis was given the best possible education. As the obedient young man he was, he trained as a soldier in the Assisian army. He fought alongside his peers against Perugia’s best. In battle, he was severely injured. Then one day, while in prayer he heard the call of God to repair the church. In time, he realized, in order to follow God’s dream for him, he could not follow his father’s dream for him as well. His father refused to accept Francis’ decision to follow God. So one day, Francis committed a bold act, in front of the Bishop, his father and the people of Assisi, Francis stripped off his clothes, returned all his father had given him and entered into his life with Christ.
It appears Francis never regretted his decision, in fact, he celebrated his life of simplicity. He found great joy in being part of God’s simple creation. Today, Francis’ most celebrated poem is his canticle to Brother Sun and Sister Moon in which he celebrates and rejoices the love and grace of God through and with creation itself.
Divine forgiveness, transforming grace, unconditional love, and righteousness, these are the gifts of the cross. Gifts that each of us have been given. They are gifts from God so freely given and so easily available that we have lost a sense of their value. But these are the same gifts that St. Paul and St. Francis found to be so valuable In their lives they made everything else they had pale in comparison.
I invite you to ask yourself this question, what do you have that is more valuable than the unconditional love and forgiveness of God. Is it health, wealth, family, work? All of these things are temporary. As Isaiah proclaims to Israel, “They are like grass, the grass whitherS and the flower fades when the breath of the Lord comes upon them.” But the gifts of God, when given to us through the Word of God are eternal and, as the Psalmist tells us, “they are sweeter than honey, sweeter than honey in the comb.”
This month our annual stewardship drive begins. It is the time of year when we are intentional about taking stock of all that we have and reflect on the words, “ all things come of thee oh Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Health, family, forgiveness, hope and most of all grace are just some of the gifts we have received from God, they are the foundation of contentment and fulfillment. Everything else is secondary. It is only when we come to appreciate all God gives us that we can begin to be stewards of God’s love.
Stewardship begins with gratitude. Stewardship begins when we, like Paul, accept that any loss we may experience for Christ is but rubbish in comparison to what we gain.
In the week to come, I invite everyone to take a cue from Facebook by setting aside time each day to list three things you are grateful for. At the end of the week, ask yourself this question, how much of what you are thankful for is from God, and how much is from this earth. Who knows, at the end of the week you too may find yourself rejoicing over the role God’S grace plays in your life.