A few weeks ago, I excitedly took part in one of my favorite traditions this time of year: filling out my NCAA tournament bracket. It’s no secret that I’m a huge college basketball fan, unapologetically biased to the University of North Carolina Tarheels. In my family, we are each allowed two brackets: one that is what you think might actually happen, and another a fantasy bracket for if whatever you say goes. This year, mine had a lot of similarities. Because of the busy nature of this time of year, and the realities of life with two small children, I didn’t have the time to pour over each pairing and do a lot of field research, although ESPN and CBS and other places would have gladly fueled that opportunity. Instead, I relied on quick decisions and basic facts. One of them, naturally, was the win-loss record of the teams. And, going a bit deeper, the strength of schedule and key wins and losses. Sometimes, reputation plays into the picks, too. Remember when Shaka Smart was at VCU and they stunned the field as a powerful Cinderella? They had some staying power for a few years after that. Other programs are known as powerhouses, and tend to get more nods even with a less than stellar year. Finally, you might consider how they are playing going into the tournament: are they on a winning streak or have they lost momentum, or are there injuries that are plaguing their chances. There are a lot of rabbit holes here, aren’t there? I’ll also allow that it’s perfectly ok if someone (ahem, my mother), chooses based on things like team colors or mascots or just liking a school. All of this to say that “March Madness” brings out a lot of evaluating and conversation about who might be the winners and why.
If we were filling out brackets for followers of Jesus in the early church, I wonder who would come out on top? Judas clearly gets out in the early rounds. Peter would be an interesting debate, a favorite going in because of his enthusiasm and hustle, but his courtyard denials might spell elimination early. There would be plenty of Cinderella stories – unlikely characters who suddenly pull ahead. Think: Zacchaeus or the Woman at the Well. If we venture further into the New Testament, though, I think we might discover that there is a solid argument for Paul being named the champion.
In our text for today, Paul outlines a lengthy list of his own accomplishments. He does this often in his letters to the early church, in part as a common way of giving credibility to what he was going to say in line with the rhetorical patterns of the day, and also because he often was up against others who claimed to be the religious authorities on this newly emerging Christianity (see the “Super apostles” in 2 Corinthians). At the beginning of our passage, Paul again lists his resume, and it’s a good one. He talks about his background and heritage, his education, his passion and religious convictions, and his righteous lifestyle. This is the total package. It’s like a basketball team that has a dynamic point guard, a 7-footer on the inside, someone who can sink 3s from deep, and an impenetrable defense all led by a coach who has cut the nets down from a record number of championships. Laid out on paper, it should be an easy road to victory with this pedigree.
“So, how’s your bracket doing?” is a question you might ask a sports fan. Sure, you may have picked the right 12-5 upset, but few ever name all the Cinderella stories. Mine? Totally busted. I made it through the first weekend just fine, but then, as number one seeds and personal favorites fell, I got down to nothing. The little icon on my ESPN tournament challenge app reflected an ice cube to indicate it had gone cold. If it had been printed out, I would have ripped it up into little pieces and thrown it into the trash.
Paul writes about a similar dismissal of his stellar resume. Eugene Peterson’s The Message interprets verses 7 and 8 like this:
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash – along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ.
That’s right, friends, Jesus Christ is a bracket buster. Before you get after me for being too heretical, think about it. Jesus could be seen as the ultimate Cinderella story – with humble origins from a tiny little town. Didn’t the people judge him for that at one point – can anything good come out of Nazareth (See John 1:43-46)? It was not a location known for producing Messiahs. He was an outlier, with a motley crew of disciples and followers – fisherman, tax collectors, sinners and all – a rag-tag team at best. He got into a lot of foul trouble and acted in ways that defied many traditional strategies. The entirety of Jesus’ story, though, shines at the ending for Paul. Christ’s suffering and resurrection changed everything. It shattered expectations and turned things upside down. It busted Paul’s bracket of faith, and for the better.
Paul is so compelled, so transformed by the good news of the gospel that he cannot help but leave all that he knew, all that he had worked for and gained, all that he was, behind. It’s important here to note that what he was leaving wasn’t bad. As Fred Craddock reminds us:
Paul does not toss away junk to gain Christ; he tosses away that which was of tremendous value to him. Therein lies the extraordinary impact of his testimony and the high commendation of faith in Jesus Christ . . . What Paul is saying is that Christ surpasses everything of worth to me[i].
Often times in talking about letting go of things in faith, especially during this season of Lent, we talk about giving up the things that are “junk” – our sins and shortcomings. But here, we are also reminded that sometimes developing our faith involves giving up those things that can be seen as good, but still get in the way of our best relationship with God. Our status in society and the successes can lead us into a sense of self-righteousness and boasting, and make us think that we can do things all on our own without any help. They make us believe that we, too, are like a Savior. Theologian Karl Barth offers that giving these things up is an important part of our lives of faith. He writes:
Faith in its decisive act is the collapse of every effort of his own capacity and will, and the recognition of the absolute necessity of that collapse. In it he is truly lost. If man sees the other aspect: that as lost he is righteous, that in giving himself up he can take comfort in God’s righteousness, then he sees himself – but it is ek theou (from God) that this vision comes – from God’s point of view. That happens in faith. That is the positive thing that happens in faith[ii].
For Paul, that is what happens when he lets all the other things fall away and instead is simply focuses on knowing Jesus Christ. This knowledge of his Savior is what allows him to remember what truly matters, and more importantly, who matters. He can only get there by letting go, and pushing forward into the future.
I hear the words of the prophet Isaiah echoing in the background:
“Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. [God is] about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?[iii]”
We are on the road. Easter is just around the corner. But are we really ready for Resurrection? Both Paul and Isaiah remind us that we can only prepare for the new and transforming good news if we are willing to let go of the past. You can’t cling to the bracket that has been busted, even if your teams were great. You have to tear it up and put it in the trash.
This is important for us to do as individuals, as Paul did, and also as communities. To grow as a church and as a society, we have to adapt and change. But culture pushes back mightily against this most of the time; we’d rather cling to what we know, even if it no longer is working for us. Barbara Brown Taylor notes:
Churches have resumes too. Some are proud of their long histories and the distinguished preachers who have filled their pulpits, while others focus on gains in giving and membership in recent years. Some can tell you how many members of their youth group have gone on to become ministers themselves . . . none of these things is bad, Paul says. It is just that none of those things will get a congregation one inch nearer where it wants to go[iv].
What will get us there, is a desire to know Christ, and become focused on the all-surpassing, all-encompassing love that comes to us through Jesus. And once we let that take hold of us, and become our motivation for living, it is truly all that matters. So as we approach these final days of Lent, may our eyes be continually on the one who walks the road ahead of us, who indeed will be crowned the champion, on the cross and on Easter morning. Let us not be afraid to leave some things behind, so that we can press on to what lies ahead. Resurrection is on the horizon. Thanks be to God. Amen.
~Sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, Heritage Presbyterian Church, April 7, 2019
[i] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Philippians, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press 1985).
[ii] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians, 40th Anniversary Edition, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
[iii] Isaiah 43:18-19, The Message
[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective: Philippians 3:4b-14,” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).