“I was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews. I was a Pharisee, well-thought of by all. I could come and go as I pleased.
“Yet all this, I now think of as crap.”
That is the word Paul uses, literally translated. “It’s all a bunch of you-know-what,… when I compare it to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
“For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things…”
Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell. And people were slandering him, ridiculing him, discrediting him. He went from the top to the bottom. For Christ, he had suffered the loss of all things.
How would you feel, if you were in prison for following Christ? Some of the most faithful, ardent followers of Jesus have found it necessary to go to jail…
Dorothy Day. Martin Luther King, Jr. William Barber.
Maybe we should risk a little time in jail. There are certainly causes worth fighting for. There is injustice in our world; would you and I be willing to join a nonviolent protest, and risk going to jail for what we believe in?
I don’t know about you, but I’d be afraid.
I’ve always been the type of person who likes to play by the rules. I’ve never even faked being sick to stay home from school or work.
So I don’t know if I could ever do anything that would risk putting me in jail or prison.
Yet I know that sometimes, for some people, in some situations, faith demands just that.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote a letter in which he mentioned the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These three felt compelled by faith to break the law set by King Nebuchadnezzar, even though the penalty they faced was being thrown in the fiery furnace. They knew what the penalty was, yet they did what they believed they had to do.
Maybe I could do it: risk going to jail. I don’t know. I’d have to learn to overcome fear.
I’d have to overcome the fear of jail itself, the experience of being locked behind bars. I’ve never been in jail.
I’d have to overcome the fear of what I would lose. Freedom. Reputation. The ability to check “no” on job forms that ask if you have a criminal record.
Paul was not afraid of that.
The only thing Paul was afraid of was losing Christ.
Paul writes: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
“I want to share in his suffering by becoming like him in death, trusting that somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
“Everything I had, everything I valued, everything I was once afraid of losing, I have left behind. Now I strain forward to what lies ahead, the only thing that matters. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Could I be as bold and as fearless as Paul? Could you?
Paul knew that following Jesus involves putting fear aside.
We don’t do much of that. We cling to our fear. Everywhere you look, people are afraid.
We live in a very fearful time.
And fear does terrible things to people.
Fear does terrible things to society.
Gun sales are up.
Animosity toward immigrants and refugees is up.
Vandalism and hate crimes against religions – especially Islam – are up.
We have metal detectors in our schools and bars on our bedroom windows.
We have the largest prison population of any nation in the world.
New housing developments, even here in Bixby Knolls, are being planned as gated communities.
They tell you to be afraid….
“Breaking news: What you need to know to keep yourself safe… They’re coming after you. They are going to take away what’s yours… You need to protect yourself…”
None of this is part of the kingdom of God that we are called to make real on earth. None of it is part of God’s beloved community.
This is the world we live in. Like the world Paul lived in, it is a world of fear.
How can we respond? How do we respond to fear?
That’s one way to feel safe.
The first option is, perhaps, easier. But it provides a false sense of security; and it is certainly a long way from the kingdom of God.
Feeling safe doesn’t come from walls or fences or alarm systems or iron bars or locked gates.
Feeling safe doesn’t come from arming yourself against unknown intruders.
Feeling safe doesn’t come from stockpiling weapons building prisons and closing borders.
All these things are rooted in fear. And things that are rooted in fear cannot possibly make us feel safe.
Only the second option will make us truly safe and at peace. However, the second option involves working through our fear; the second option involves work. It involves getting to know our neighbors, getting involved in our communities, breaking down divisions and disparities that exist between us. It involves caring for the least of these, our brothers and sisters in need. It involves acts of compassion and justice extending across lines of race, class, and religion, even if such acts of compassion and justice risk us running against commonly held views.
Yet only this second option provides real, lasting, peace and security. Only this second option has the potential to bring wholeness to our fragmented world.
It started with Jews, but very soon the question came up: What about Gentiles?
Jews and Gentiles did not always get along. Throughout the New Testament you can see the fear and animosity that existed between the Jews and other groups of people: Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, Gentiles.
And many wanted to build a wall around their growing Jesus movement, and allow inside that wall only certain people, or only people who could meet certain requirements.
Let’s only allow in Jews, and those who show they accept Jewish law by being circumcised.
Let’s only allow free men, not slaves.
Let’s only allow men to be leaders, not women.
Let’s do these things to protect ourselves, and keep those we fear out.
Paul said no.
Paul said, You are following the path of fear, but there is no fear for those who are in Christ. And therefore there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, woman or man, slave or free, for all are one. All are welcome.
This is God’s kingdom.
God’s kingdom is when all the barriers are removed.
The road is smooth.
The obstacles are gone.
The walls are torn down.
The mountains are brought low and the valleys are lifted up.
God’s kingdom is removing the bars from the windows and the fences around our yards.
God’s kingdom is not watching our neighbors with suspicion, but greeting them with kindness, getting to know them. By name.
God’s kingdom is tearing down the “keep out” signs and surveillance cameras, and tearing down the prisons.
What are we afraid of?
Why do we arm ourselves with guns, why do we build walls and fences?
If we work to build God’s kingdom, and start doing so in our own neighborhood, then we won’t need guns and walls and fences.
In God’s kingdom, there is no fear.
I mean, what if we took all the time and effort and money that we spent on fear – all the time and effort and money we spend on home security systems and surveillance cameras and metal detectors and guns and bombs and prisons, and instead spent it on building a better community, a beloved community?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m too naïve.
In his letter from that jail in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr., made reference to the fear-drenched communities of the south – that’s what he called them: fear-drenched communities – and he expressed his hope that one day the fear would give way and the radiant stars of love and brotherhood would shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
We can use King’s life as an example. We can use Paul’s life as an example. Paul shows that following Jesus is about putting fear aside. Following Jesus is about building bridges, not walls. Following Jesus is about taking risks, and trusting the outcome to God.