“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.” (Philippians 3:7-8)
Earlier this week I woke up with the song “Old Rugged Cross” playing in my mind. I was actually singing along to the chorus:
So, I'll cherish the old rugged cross
'Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it some day for a crown.
I don’t know why that song came to mind - it’s not really a favorite of mine. Still, there it was, and I was singing it, but the second line of the chorus caught my attention and gave me pause: “till my trophies at last I lay down.” It gave me pause...What does that mean? What are my trophies and why do I need to lay them down?
I have some old hockey trophies on a bookshelf at home... I was on the championship team three different times as a kid and those trophies are living proof! Sue doesn’t know why I keep those old trophies - she’s been after me to pitch them out... but I’ve resisted, even though two of the three are broken. They’re a symbol of my childhood love of hockey and of a wonderful childhood, and even my athletic prowess... so they’re still with me after five moves.
The author acknowledges that trophies aren’t easily relinquished, but ultimately, we must lay them down. And he’s talking about trophies in a broader sense... he’s referring to anything we might boast in and about ourselves. Our trophies are those things we hide behind under the guise of our identity. Trophies are the school we attend, the degrees we earn, the occupation we choose, the person we marry, the friends we associate with, the car we drive, the designer clothes we wear, the things we achieve or accomplish in life. What are the trophies in your life? What possessions, achievements, relationships make up your identity?
It’s kind of fun building an identity – like dressing up for Halloween, but the truth is, it’s all just window dressing. The identity we build for ourselves is just temporal and ultimately inconsequential. We are more than the car we drive. We are more than the school we graduated from or the degree we obtained. We might fool ourselves into believing this is our true identity, but these things really aren’t... because they don’t last forever... and at some point, you will start laying down all your trophies. Willingly and unwillingly, you will start to lose the things you thought made you who you are. And then what?
It happened to Paul – he could boast a resume as good as anyone. In his own words: “If anyone else has reason to be confidence in the flesh, I have more.” Paul was a Hebrew born of Hebrews... a member of the tribe of Benjamin no less... and he was a Pharisee who followed the law to the letter so that he could claim to be completely righteous and blameless under the law. Oh, and he was a Roman citizen, too, something he fails to mention but that’s the only reason he writes to the Philippians from Rome – because being a Roman citizen he was able to appeal his case to Rome instead of being tried in Jerusalem.
Paul’s list of trophies is impressive, “Yet,” he says, “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.” You see what Paul is doing? He’s laying down his trophies. Everything he used to hide behind as his identity, he’s letting it go. Why? Because as he sits in prison awaiting trial and his possible death, he realizes none of his trophies can save him. So, they’re stripped away, and Paul is left with just one thing – the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. His faith in Jesus as Lord remains important to him.
My mother-in-law sits in a prison of her own right now. She has a rare eye disease that has taken away her sight over time, and now she’s completely blind. She used to love to read and now she can’t. She also has Alzheimer’s and has been slowly losing her memory so that even the most important people in her life she no longer calls by name. The fear is that we’ve become strangers to her. And most recently she’s even given up or lost the ability to speak. So, what’s left? When you lay down your trophies what’s left of a person?
Providentially, a colleague of mine put all my thoughts into the words in a poem and posted it on Facebook recently:
Who am I?
When all is stripped away
What is left?
When words begin to fail me
And my voice no longer echoes
in the ears of the Saints,
Who am I?
When my hands become so frail
And my feet become so slow
That a life given to serving others
Evolves to a life of being served,
Who am I?
When my mind forgets
And my memory fades,
And my vision is blind
To any cries but my own,
Who am I?
When my beating heart slows
And no longer breaks over that
which breaks the heart of God,
Who am I?
When I am no longer what I do,
Who am I?
Who are we?
Bob Melone, Oct. 2017
So, what’s the answer? When we strip away all of our gifts and abilities, all of our achievements and accomplishments, when we lay aside our degrees, honors and recognitions, and let go of all our connections to others, when we lay down all our trophies – what’s left? Who are we? Paul knows! What’s left, he claims, is our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. What’s left is our identity as children of God – we are created by God, in the image of God. We are redeemed and made righteous by Christ, and promised a resurrection to eternal life. So Paul comes to this conclusion: “This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus... Let those who are mature be of the same mind... let us hold fast to what we have attained.”
So, on this Commitment Sunday the message is simple – remember who you are and whose you are. Remember at the font you were claimed as a child of God, remember back in Sunday school you were steeped in the love of God and Jesus as you learned those stories, remember that you embraced your true identity when you confirmed your faith as a young person, and remember that Christ feeds you and sustains you for the road ahead every time you gather at the table and receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
This church reminds you week by week of your true identity, so today we come to show just how important it is to us. We pledge ourselves to this church and its mission, we support the church of Jesus Christ and claim our membership in it, and we go from here to proclaim to others their true identity as children of God. We, too, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Who are you? Today you get to answer with your feet!