The blog below was written by Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA). Blogs written by ABCUSA Leadership Team members will be published periodically on the website. Views expressed are the sole opinion of the author. (Interested in submitting a blog for publication? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
While baseball and football may be our national past-times in the United States, our third is complaining about taxes. This is true especially as we are approaching April 15th, the day our income tax filings are due. State governments across the country are raising revenue by promoting gambling and heavily taxing the proceeds therefrom. What we are reluctant to hand over to Uncle Sam, we seem very willing to risk on the throw of the die or the luck of the lottery. Today we find ourselves with a casino right across the street from the ABC Mission Center.
Countless thousands crowd the tables, shake hands with the one-armed bandits (also known as slot machines), count on the spin of the wheel, or the draw of a card, the hoped for charity of the slots, or the luck of their “lucky” number in the lottery drawing – all on the chance that their lives will be changed by that one big win. And our media fuel the allure and the illusion by parading every winner before the cameras with the message “THIS COULD BE YOU.” One never sees on the media the huge numbers of those who leave empty-handed, have lost their mortgage money, or their grocery fund. We never see them on the media with the message, “Warning: THIS COULD BE YOU!” “Warning: gambling is not a charity but a profit making enterprise.” “Warning: they only make money because you lose money.”
We all take risks. That’s really one of the subtexts of Philippians 3:2-11, isn’t it? Risk. The big gamble.
Paul lines it out pretty well for us. He lists one after another the circumstances that gave him privilege (think Downton Abbey – a British television series currently quite popular in America, which recounts the lives and doings of the fictional aristocratic Crawley family, who lived around the First World War.) Like the Crawleys, Paul was born to privilege and he recounts for us those accidents of birth that lifted him above others in his world. First, he was a member of the people of Israel, the chosen people of God. In Paul’s day, gentiles were commonly referred to as dogs. They had no part in the promises of God. Not only was Paul an Israelite, he was of the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe second only to Judah in prestige. In Europe, he would have been part of the nobility; in American a Kennedy. I am sure you can name the family or clan or tribe in your own context that stands above the others in prestige. That was Paul’s lineage. But there is more. Not only was he part of the chosen people and a member of the second most hallowed tribe, he was also a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He was born into a family that spoke the mother tongue, that had not abandoned their identity in a highly Romanized culture. He was a Hebrew among the Hebrews. All of these accidents of birth set Paul apart in prestige and honor among his peers. In American vernacular we would say that Paul from his birth had everything going for him.
But that wasn’t all. Paul was also an achiever. Unlike the popular image of the ne-er-do-well sons of the wealthy, Paul was not only born into privilege, he added to privilege prestige. He became a Pharisee, notably the strictest of all the Jewish schools and sects. In the United States, we would say that he was a graduate of Harvard or MIT or Princeton. Pharisees were not buffoons. They were learned and committed to the purist form of Judaism. That brings us to his next accomplishment: “he was zealous.” For the Psalmists and the prophets, zeal was the apex of religious experience. Paul’s zeal for the law was so great he became a persecutor of the church. Like any brave soldier who pursues the enemy, Paul was winning plaudits and prestige for his daring, his zeal. And like the rich young ruler he can say that he had kept all the commandments from his youth. Paul was disciplined and principled. Here in the US, someone would certainly have been eying him as presidential material. He had the right family background, the right connections and he was a proven patriot with the self-discipline that would allow him to go far.
All of that sets the stage for Paul to tell of the great gamble he has made. He has given it all up for the sake of knowing Christ. He has made the grand gamble: he has tossed away everything that secured for him privilege, power, prestige and a future. No one would want him running for president now. He would no longer be a candidate for the “Man of the Year” cover of Time magazine. Gone were the product endorsements. No one was going to pay him to wear Nikes, drive a Mercedes, or use Gillette razors. Gone were the invitations to speak in the most elite venues. No invitations from Pat Robertson, TD Jakes, Willow Creek, or Joel Osteen. Gone were families hoping a daughter might marry him. You can hear the tsks, tsks, tsks; the conversations about “what happened to him?” as he is being dropped from invitation list after invitation list.
Paul had gambled big time for one thing: to know Christ, to know the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
Today, I think of the first Hopi Indian Christians who embraced Christ knowing fully well they would be forced off the mesas losing family, inheritance, everything for the sake of knowing Christ. I think of thousands of Christians in the Middle East, Egypt, Southern Sudan, Northern Nigeria and you can name other places where people risk everything, even life itself for the sake of knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.
Christ invites each one of us to make that same grand gamble, that same glorious gamble.
Christ invites his church to live in the power of his resurrection as it shares in his sufferings. Paul earlier in this letter mentions Epaphroditus who “came near death because of his work for Christ, hazarding his life.” The word “hazarding” Paul uses is a gambler’s term. William Barclay points out that in the Early Church there was a group of men and women who bore in Greek the appellation, “parabolani,” literally the gamblers. This group of gamblers risked their lives in burying the dead and nursing the sick affected by the plague, knowing full well that they might die the same death because of their ministry of love. In the same fashion, Paul risked everything he had to identify with the dogs, to become the apostle to the Gentiles that we might have the surpassing joy of knowing Christ.
The church today is asked by Christ to risk it all for the sake of the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, to share in his sufferings for the sake of his beloved children, and thereby know the power of his resurrection. To know the joy of life given by the Father. Without holy risk, without the grand gamble, the church withers and weakens. A risk-adverse church whose sole goal is privilege and prestige, a church which has forgotten the cross is a church with no spiritual power. She like Esau has traded her blessing for a mess of potage.
In these difficult times for the church throughout the world, I have often thought of Polycarp, an early leader in the church, a good and holy man who was arrested at the age of 86 during an outbreak of persecution. When he was brought before the Roman Proconsul, the proconsul urged him to renounce Jesus rather than be burned alive. “Eighty-six years have I served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Polycarp wagered as did Paul: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
I have often mused that if the township would allow a billboard on our property facing the casino, it would simply say, “Jesus, your one sure bet.”