Every once in a while, I wonder if one day God looked down from heaven at the man who would eventually become the Apostle Paul and said, that guy has got to become one of ours. We can use him. I wonder that, because sometimes I do the same thing. Well, I don’t look down from heaven, of course, because I’m not there yet. But I do sometimes look at somebody, and say to myself, you know, that person would make a really neat follower of Jesus.
Unfortunately my perspective on the matter is almost always completely different than God’s perspective. On the good side, I look at the person’s personality, I look at their character traits, I gauge the level of their friendliness, and the degree of their compassion. But on the not so good side, I also look at their standing in the community, their profession, their family status, and of course, their money. Now, fortunately I don’t dwell for very long on this foolishness, and so I ask myself, why is it that you think this person should become a follower of Jesus? Is it because you honestly believe that this person would be an asset to God’s kingdom, or is it that you think that they would make a pretty good member of Thomaston Baptist Church? It is really a question of which kingdom that I am trying to build. Sometimes I confuse the two, and I am not alone.
Fortunately, for all of us, our passage this morning addresses this issue rather directly. It is a passage that speaks of circumcision, but for the Apostle Paul, circumcision and the practice of it, is merely a jumping off spot. Among the early followers of Jesus, circumcision was a major hot-button. Most of the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews. Circumcision was a very visible sign of the Hebrew covenant that God had made with this people. Several times a day, Hebrew men were reminded of the covenant that God had made with them. And even though female circumcision was anathema to the Hebrew people, Hebrew wives were frequently reminded that they, too, were amazingly and intimately included in this covenant. I cannot imagine a more powerful, more visible symbol of God’s abiding faithfulness to all of his people, male and female alike. Circumcision is a profound sign, and loaded with significant meaning.
And yet, as the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ began to move across the face of the earth, non Jews, or Gentiles, began to respond to the good news of salvation. And this is where the trouble began. How do we include these Gentile believers among the followers of Jesus? The obvious answer was that they must become Jews first. They must undergo circumcision. They must become a part of God’s covenant. After all, Jesus was a Jew. He was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He chose Jews to be his disciples. His followers, then, should also be Jews.
But there were others who believed differently, and the Apostle Paul was among them. There were some who believed that God was doing a new thing and making a new covenant that surpassed even the covenant of circumcision. And new is never good, and it almost always destroys tradition, and so there was a fight. And eventually, after much talking and much prayer, at something called the Jerusalem Council, a new covenant was forged. And God’s people decided that it was no longer necessary for a Gentile to convert to Judaism before they could become a follower of Jesus.
But like most agreements that settle something, the Jerusalem Council didn’t really solve anything. It turns out that the matter of circumcision was really a matter of the heart. And matters of the heart, even when they are wrong, are not easily changed by new rules and regulations, nor by council agreements, even if all of that stuff is very good, and very proper, and very wonderful.
And so there developed an “attitude”. And the attitude went something like this: sure, you don’t need to be circumcised in order to become a follower of Jesus, but doesn’t it make sense that you should be circumcised? Don’t you really want all of the fullness that a relationship with Jesus has to offer? Don’t you want to experience, first hand, the beauty and the glory of God’s ancient covenants? Don’t you really believe that you ought to be circumcised, as was your Lord?
And, as this attitude of not so gentle Gentile coercion spread throughout the churches, more and more Gentiles were submitting to circumcision, for fear that they really weren’t having an adequate relationship with their Lord, or that they weren’t really connecting with their Jewish brothers and sisters who could look back over a very long and very ancient and glorious relationship with God.
And so the Apostle Paul, in the opening verses of this passage, expresses his extreme dissatisfaction with those followers of Jesus who were promoting circumcision among Gentile believers. He calls them “dogs”, “evil workers” and “mutilators of the flesh”. None of these terms is pleasant. One of them is a racial slur, that Paul uses in a shockingly backwards way. And Paul uses these offensive terms because he wants to drive home the absolute truth that nothing in any person’s past qualifies them for a better relationship with Jesus Christ, or disqualifies them for experiencing the fullness of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
And if anyone knew this truth, it was the Apostle Paul. The Apostle Paul was all of these things. He had a past that eminently qualified him to be the most famous apostle on the planet, and he had a past that might have completely disqualified him from being even the lowliest of the followers of Jesus. On the plus side, Paul had the greatest pedigree going. He was a model Jew among Jews. The was the cream of the crop, the top of the heap. He had a lineage that would have stuck him in the Mayflower Society. He was circumcised on the eighth day, in full accordance with the law. Both of his parents were from the tribe of Benjamin, not one of those lesser, or rogue tribes that some other Jews came from. He studied hard, and became a Pharisee. He was a Jew in the fullness of everything that Judaism is.
But he also had a negative side that tossed him to the bottom of the rubbish heap. For a while, he was personally committed to erasing the memory of Jesus Christ from the earth, and the most efficient way to do that was to remove from the earth as many of the followers of Jesus as he could. And he did that, until in my imagination, God looked down from heaven and said, that lad has got to become one of ours, before he does any more damage. Go get him. He’s on his way to Damascus.
Paul’s point is that there is no plus side and that there is no negative side in any of us when it comes to experiencing the fullness of a relationship with Jesus Christ. None of us is qualified, and none of us is disqualified.
It does not matter, Paul says, how wonderful we are. It does not matter what our standing in the community is, or even who we think that we are, or wish that we were, or weren’t. What matters is that we are in the process of learning and discovering the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord.
Conversely, on the other hand, it does not matter how rotten or miserable we are; it does not matter how deeply or egregiously we have sinned. All of our failures, all of our squanderings, and all of our wasteful existences have become completely irrelevant. What matters is that we learn to know Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.
The ground is completely level at the foot of the cross. The good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly must all gather there to shed their pasts, to let go of what once was, and to lay hold of the newness that now is. And that newness is nothing less than God’s mercy and God’s grace, which unites us with one another far more profoundly than circumcision could ever have done, even though it was an awesome and wonderful sign, and the mark of the covenant of grace and mercy that God made with his people.
In a figurative sense, there’s tons and tons of rubbish piled up around the foot of the cross. It has all been left there by those who know Jesus as their savior, and who have shed their pasts. Some of it is bright and shiny, and it glitters like gold. And some of it is smelly and rotten and disgusting, but all of it is rubbish. None of it has any value, however lovely or disgusting it may look.
What does have value, however is this business of knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection. The power of resurrection is transformative, to say the least. It takes that which is dead, and makes it alive. With that power at work in our lives, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish for the glory of God. Everything is possible. It is only our disbelief that throttles the power of Christ’s Resurrection within us. That disbelief is cured by setting our own righteousness aside, and knowing Christ with all of our hearts.
The other half of the power of Christ’s Resurrection at work in us is the sharing of Christ’s suffering. That really isn’t any place that any of us wants to go. Being engaged with the power of resurrection is challenging and frightening enough. But in order to know Jesus in his fullness, we must also be willing to be participants in his suffering. We speak of being Christ-like as if it were a pleasant or a lovely thing. Paul says that being Christ-like is not only a powerful thing, but also a dreadful thing.
The visible, powerful, deep and profound mark of God’s covenant with his people was once circumcision. The mark of the covenant of God’s people united in Jesus Christ is the power of resurrection and the scars and wounds of suffering on his behalf. When we see those scars and marks, let us be reminded of what God has done in our lives, what God is now doing in our lives, and let us look forward with eager anticipation to what God will be doing in our lives, from now and throughout all of eternity.