Stepping beyond thou shalt not

Message preached on October 8, 2017
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Philippians 3:4b-14

Order of Worship

Listen to this message

I like telling the story of a simple gift I received as a teenager. The giver was Ina Shank, the mother of a good friend, in whose home I spent many hours in those adolescent years. She was also church secretary. Her gift to me was a button. It had 9 letters on it: B P G I N F W M Y. The good thing about wearing such a button is that it makes no sense to another person until they ask about it. Thus, it encourages conversation. When asked, I could reply, “the letters stand for Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet.” And so, a chat begins.


            One thing I like about this letter of Paul to the folks in Philippi is how Paul invites them into a conversation about what it means to follow Jesus. Yes, he has some fairly sharp things to say about those who might lead them astray. Indeed, he is goading them into thinking deeper about discipleship. However, as he does so, he admits that he, himself, is unfinished. He doesn’t have it all together. He’s still a work in progress. “I do not consider that I have made it my own (vs. 13, NRSV), he writes, “I don’t feel that I have already arrived (CEV), I don’t mean to say I am perfect. I haven’t learned all I should even yet (Living). In other words, “Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet.” Furthermore, be patient with yourselves, for God is not finished with all of you yet.


            Paul once thought he had it all together. This ten commandments thing? No problem! He’d nailed the exam in multiple ways. All the “thou shalt nots” were a piece of cake, along with all the “thou shalts” of the law of Moses. By birth, by education, by practice – Paul once thought he had arrived. So much so, in fact, that he was convinced that those who led God’s people away from the Torah path – folks like the followers of a rabbi named Jesus – needed to be stopped … permanently. Little did he know at the time that God wasn’t finished with him. No, indeed! A great deal more was in store for this Pharisee. After a blinding encounter with God in Jesus Christ along the road to Damascus, all that Paul was so certain about was called into question.


We hear a bit of this shake down in what we just read from his letter to the Philippians. All the things he once considered as important, before that encounter with Jesus, found its way to the trash can. That’s what he wrote. Actually, his wording was a bit more graphic. He called it all “dung (KJV, in Gk - skybalon, vs. 8). That is, to translate it into first grade language: he said it all was “poop.” Now, I imagine a few youngsters long ago trying to hold in their laughter as they listened when this letter was read aloud in church in Philippi. I further imagine a few elders being a bit shocked by the word choice. Now, was it Paul’s intention to stun his readers in order to get them to seriously question anyone who said they had to become everything that Paul had once been so certain about? Or was he using a bit of potty humor to help them snicker at the silliness of it all? Good question.


            A question for which I don’t have a good answer. I do know, however, that all the things that once gave Paul a sense of purpose and meaning: his good standing as a descendant of Benjamin (one of the twelve tribes of Israel); his entrance as an infant into the covenant by way of circumcision; his education and training to become a Pharisee; and his devout adherence to the ten commandments and all the Law of Moses – all of this, which once gave him purpose and meaning, was insignificant in comparison to his new life with the risen Christ.


            This is a very radical step Paul undertook. Now, it’s not like he let go of all his past. In fact, he used it quite effectively. In another letter, he revealed that he leaned on his heritage and his training in order to better connect with those who, like him, were raised Jewish, in order to help them to trust and follow Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:20). But that was the whole point. “All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life,” he wrote the folks in Philippi. “I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow I also may be raised to life (3:10-11, CEV).


            Now, please don’t misunderstand me to say that, according to Paul, the Torah, the Law of Moses, even that portion of it that many of us have memorized – the ten commandments – are just a bunch of dung. That’s not what he’s saying, nor am I. It is tempting to jettison those parts of the Bible that are often the most difficult to understand, or to put into practice. Granted, much of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy needs to be heard in the context of a very different culture, from a long-ago time. Still, what the Torah gives to us are boundaries. Down through the years, the rabbis in the Talmud (a Jewish commentary on the Torah – the first 5 books of the Bible) interpreted the Law as a hedge around God’s people to protect them from danger.


A hedge, a boundary protects. Today we talk about the importance of boundaries in relationships. We get into trouble when we don’t pay attention to them. “Thou shalt not” take advantage of a child, for instance. Or ‘don’t touch another person without their consent.’ The latter portion of the ten commandments are about interpersonal boundaries – respecting others and not stepping all over them – stealing their stuff or even salivating over it, breaking apart a marriage, taking a life, telling lies about a neighbor, mistreating elders. These are important boundaries. Paul was not calling the wisdom of respecting them “dung.”


            Perhaps a good way of understanding what Paul was saying is to remember an encounter Jesus had with a man who came and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Matthew (19:16-30), Mark (10:17-31), and Luke (18:18-30) all tell this story, each with a slightly different twist. Jesus first responds by questioning why he should be referred to as “good.” God alone is good. Jesus then points the man to the ten most familiar commandments. “I have observed these from my youth,” the man replies, indicating an itch that still needs scratching in his life. He’s paid attention to all the “thou shalt nots,” after all. But something is still missing, and he knows it.


            Do you recall what Jesus then said? His response still catches us. It’s a difficult teaching to bear. My favorite telling of this story is Mark’s version, which records at this point that Jesus looked upon the man and loved him. The words to come would be hard for this man, but they would be spoken with love. Jesus simply tells him to “go, sell all you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The man walked away full of sadness, for he was very rich. He found himself incapable of letting go his stuff. His wealth possessed him, instead of the other way around. He knew something was missing in his life, and it was nothing his money could buy.


            Please note, this story is not about a transaction. This man could not have “bought” eternal life by selling everything he had and giving it away. It is not something we can buy. Which is the problem with wealth. We see life as a series of transactions. We think everything, ultimately, can be bought or sold. On a deeper level, however, there is something to be said about letting go – not in the sense of buying or selling, of a transaction that gets us something we want – but of releasing our grasp.


            Earlier in Paul’s letter to the Philippians he quoted, or so we think, a song that was popular in the early church. I sang my rendition of it last week. The song tells of how Jesus released his grasp upon his divine nature. He was God’s Son, we say. The song says he was in the form of God, but he let that go and took on our human form, walking our walk, faithful to the commandments of God. You could say that Jesus sold all that he had and gave it all away and then lived as a servant among us. That, by the way, is basic Christian creed: fully God, fully man. And the rest of the song tells the kicker of how he so deeply walked our walk that he died our death. Again, Creed! Therefore, God raised him up (from death), and gave a name above all names (Christ/Messiah), that at this name all knees should bow and every tongue confess that ….”Jesus Christ is Lord.”


            Are you paying attention? The rich man struggled to release, to let go… Jesus released, he let go of his God form. He didn’t see it as something to be grasped, to be possessed, to be owned. In quoting this “The Christ Hymn,” Paul was inviting, he was encouraging, he was calling the folks in Philippi (and, through them, us today) to have that same mind, the same outlook, the same approach to living (and dying). The portion of the letter from the next chapter that I read earlier continues that line of thinking. The things he had once considered important, he writes, are really not so important anymore. In calling them “dung,” he is releasing them, letting them go. This releasing leads to the ability to step beyond “thou shalt not,” if you will.


Life in Christ is not about making sure we don’t do certain things, and only do other prescribed things. It’s not about refraining from – and here many of you raised in the church could add a litany of things you were instructed as young people to avoid: drinking, smoking, dancing, etc.; Life in Christ is not about all the do’s and don’ts, the “thou shalt nots” and the “thou shalts.” Now, please don’t misunderstand me - it’s not that these things are unimportant, that we shouldn’t pay attention to them. However, they aren’t the sum total of our faith, they aren’t what make us who we are. That’s a temptation many of us face. We think that as long as we behave just right, that we mind our “P”s and “Q”s, that we don’t do bad stuff and only do good stuff; then we are on the right track. No, like that rich man who came to Jesus long ago, we all come to a point where we have a sense that this is not enough, that there is more.


            Which, to be honest, is good. There should always be a sense of incompleteness to our life in Christ. It’s an itch we scratch, a race than we run, a path that we walk. The rich man who came to Jesus was on the right track. However, he stopped at that point, unable to let go. “Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet.” Indeed, I wonder if there wasn’t more to his story after that point. “Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet.”


            Let me conclude with a song I wrote several years ago, based on this scripture. You’ll find it on your bulletin insert. Please note, I altered a bit of what Paul wrote, leaving out the “dung” part. I guess I believe that our past is the soil that God cultivates and plants seeds which grow. It isn’t worthless. Of course, manure, “dung” makes good fertilizer. What’s important is what grows out of it, as we “press on toward the goal for the prize” the voice of the One who made us and calls us onward, stepping beyond “thou shalt not” toward where Jesus is leading us.


Please join me in singing as you catch onto the tune.

©2017  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page