Warning: Following Jesus Makes You Weird

Philippians 3:4b-14     Fifth Sunday in Lent     April 7, 2019


Following Jesus makes you weird.

I just felt like I had to warn you that that’s true.  Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into Paul’s letter to the Philippians – because that’s what Paul is telling the Philippians: Following Jesus makes you weird.

The city of Philippi was a Roman colony located on a major overland road.  There was a great deal of commercial activity and a diversity of people in and out of the city.  There would have been a diversity of deities and faiths, a great deal of religious ferment.  In other words, it was a perfect place for a new congregation of Jesus followers to take root.

Paul loved the Philippians he was writing to.  The congregation was very unlike the congregation in Corinth, for instance, with all its problems: where there were power struggles among the members; and there were members suing each other in civil courts; and there was a man who was sleeping with his step-mother; and when they gathered for the communion meal (which included bringing food and drink to it), those who were affluent ate too much and drank too much, and they weren’t sharing their food and drink, so the poor in the congregation were going hungry.  These are the kinds of things Paul addresses in First and Second Corinthians.  You know those famous words by Paul that you often hear at weddings, about love?[1]  Paul wrote that to people who did not love each other, or him!  But here are some of the first words Paul writes to the Philippians: I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now….It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.[2]

Yes, Paul is in prison while he is writing to the Philippians.[3]  Why is he in prison?  Is it because his proclamation of Christ has been hurting the economy?  (That’s why Paul was imprisoned one time (in Philippi, in fact), for proclaiming Christ crucified and risen.[4])  Was Paul imprisoned because his proclamation of Christ was causing a riot?  (That was another time, when Paul was arrested in Caesarea.[5])  Is Paul being held by guards, in protective custody?  (That was another time Paul was imprisoned, to prevent a group of assassins from carrying out their plot to kill him.[6])  In fact, the last thing we read about Paul – as the book of Acts ends – is that Paul is in the custody of Roman imperial guards.

It’s hard to know which prison Paul is in while he is writing to the Philippians.  Scholars have difficulty dating the letter.  But here’s what’s important: when you read the short letter to the Philippians, you find that Paul’s imprisonment is making him unusually reflective.  He meditates on whether he will survive the imprisonment.[7]  He meditates on the example of Christ Jesus, and how he has modeled his own life on Christ Jesus – and this is where he describes how following Jesus will make you weird.

He writes these words to the Philippians that sound weird to any culture, back then or today: If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.[8]  Humility?  Regarding others as better than yourself?  Caring about the interests of others?  Who does those weird things?!

Then he quotes a hymn that, according to many scholars, Paul knew because it was in use in worship:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.  

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross. [9]

Paul bases his argument in Philippians on that hymn.  Christ Jesus himself is our model for the weird behavior of “[doing] nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard[ing] others as better than yourselves!”  Imagine this: Christ Jesus was God!  And he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave!

Those of you who were in worship last Sunday heard amazing presentations from our Lutheran Student Association speakers.  As I’ve been working on this morning’s passage from Philippians, I’ve been thinking about Elizabeth Acors’ remarks, because she reflected on the struggle: between the need to build her resume, which she said she was aware of beginning in middle school – to get into William and Mary and, now, to get into medical school two years from now – with what she knows about Jesus’ love and grace.  I have often found myself called to tell a college student, “God loves you, and that’s not dependent on your GPA.”  But isn’t that incredibly weird, in the terms of the world?  I don’t have to worry about my GPA, about building my resume?  (Well, yes you do, but …)

On Jesus’ resume, he could list this: “I am God!  But he emptied himself.  He took the form of a slave – to serve us, for our salvation.

In this morning’s reading, do you notice that Paul makes the same move?  Did you notice that, first, he lists his resume of religious accomplishments?  He writes: If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (Benjamin!  One of Jacob’s favorite sons!  The tribe that remained faithful to the house of David when others engaged in insurrection!), a Hebrew born of Hebrews (He was no convert who had been born a pagan.); as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  (Look at what Paul has on his resume: he had not only followed the law, he had been a Pharisee, one of those in charge of upholding the religious law!  He had not only been zealous, he had tried to stomp out the Jesus movement!  And then, this: “as to righteousness under the law,” Paul writes, he was “blameless.”  Blameless!)

What a resume!  But listen again to the weirdness in what Paul writes next: Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  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.  Paul has thrown away all of his religious accomplishments on his resume.  That’s because his former righteousness based on his accomplishments according to the religious law is now worthless.   It is “rubbish!”  (And that is a polite translation of the Greek word.)

Paul’s weirdness is this: all that matters is the faith that we can only receive, and nothing that we can accomplish.  Our lives are only our response to that.

Do you know that there were a couple of important college basketball games played last night?  Last night, the tournament was down to its final four teams.  For the first time, Virginia coach Tony Bennett got a team into the Final Four.  What an accomplishment!  It’s the pinnacle of the coaching profession!  He was asked how that felt.  And he responded with these weird, weird words: “Of course, it’s exhilarating!  It’s great! … There was a burning desire to get these guys to a Final Four and, hopefully, beyond.  The moments are good.  But I remember 19 years ago, sitting in the back of a press conference when my father took his team to the Final Four; they beat Purdue; and I memorized his quote.  He said this: ‘From a feeling state, euphoria, yes it is.  But is doesn’t compare with faith, with kids, family, grandkids.’  He said, ‘Because I know what truly matters, it enables me to enjoy what seems to matter, like this.’”  Bennett said: “I’ve remembered that quote and tried my best to live by it.”[10]  For a basketball coach to say that winning and being in the Final Four isn’t the most important thing?  That’s just weird!

Well, there are other heroes of the faith (yes, even more heroic than a basketball coach!) who provide models of becoming very weird because they were following Christ.  St. Francis, Dorothy Day, and Henry Nouwen come to mind immediately.  (I don’t have time to talk about them in detail, but I’d love to do that sometime over a cup of coffee or a beer with any of you!)  I’m glad to say, though, that none of us need be so heroic.  We all have opportunity to become weird, as followers of Jesus!  In fact, this season of Lent offers us opportunity to practice.

Michael Gerson wrote this, in a remarkable newspaper column: “Of all the sacred holidays and seasons, surely Lent is the least congenial to the modern spirit.  We move forward in life through accumulation.  In Lent, we move forward by renunciation.  Those who would call this “un-American” are correct, given that our economy is based on consumption and credit.  There are no “Merry Lent” signs at the department store, no designer collection of hair shirts….

“A Lenten discipline is not the holy equivalent of a New Year’s resolution.  It is the annual invitation to focus on spiritual matters — on penance and prayer — by giving up certain luxuries or accepting certain charitable duties….

“That type of denial often reveals that the richness of life is found elsewhere — in moments of spiritual reflection that are molasses-thick with meaning.  In the experience of gratitude — not for this thing or that thing — but for God’s radiating presence in all things.”[11]

What is this that Gerson is talking about?!  Turning away from our culture’s worship of acquisition and compulsion for buying more stuff?  Giving of ourselves to serve those in need?  Experiencing gratitude?  That’s just weird.

Blessings on your continuing journey through Lent.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.



Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] 1 Corinthians 13

[2] Philippians 1:3-5, 7-8

[3] Philippians 1:13

[4] Acts 16:16-40.  See also Acts 5:12-26 for another story of apostles who are imprisoned for damaging the economy.

[5] Acts 21:27 – 22:29

[6] Acts 23

[7] Philippians 1:20-24

[8] Philippians 2:1-4

[9] Philippians 2:5-7

[10] Look for this on the Virginia Men’s Basketball page on face book.

[11] https://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/commentary/article/Lent-an-annual-invitation-to-focus-on-spiritual-13718504.php

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!