I had a friend named Jack Robinson growing up. It’s true. You millennials might not know that people used to use that name to explain quickness: “Are you going to the beach?” “Just as quick as you can say Jack Robinson.” Well, my friend was quick, but not always as quick as I was. We competed in everything. Running. Throwing sticks. Wrestling. Climbing trees. We even competed in selling vegetable seeds door to door. But every time we competed, the winner had bragging rights. That’s why we competed, so whoever won could brag. The winner would always brag about how much he trounced the other, and the loser would always have an excuse for why he did not win. Bottom line? We wanted to be the best.
So did Paul, known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion. With all seriousness, Paul included a list in his letter to the Philippians about why he had more reason to brag about his past accomplishments than anyone. He says, in effect, “You think you have reason to brag? Step aside, son. You ain’t got nothing.” I’ve noticed that when Paul brags, he uses poor grammar, just to make a point. Paul continued, “Let me tell you about a man who was a legend in his own time. That man, my boy, would be me.” I am using poetic license, of course, but Paul did brag to the Philippians, in order to make this point: though he climbed to the top of the ladder as a religious person, when he arrived at the pinnacle he discovered his ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. Paul discovered, through a blinding flash, that salvation is not a do-it-yourself project.
Had it been, Paul would have been a rock star in his day. I imagine a first century show called “Israeli Idol” that Paul would have won, every single year. Because the show wouldn’t have been about singing or dancing, but about reciting memorized Scriptures. Praying long, elaborate prayers. Fasting. And of course, Paul’s favorite talent: persecuting Christians. He makes the case in his letter that there was no one who even came close to having his devotion, his zeal, and his righteousness under the law.
Ahh, there’s the rub. The law cannot make one righteous any more than a mirror can clean one’s face. The law, like a mirror, shows us our need for cleansing. In the midst of his busy pursuit of making himself acceptable to God, Paul was apprehended by the Lord himself. On his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, Paul met the Savior and exchanged his pharisaical robes of self-righteousness for the righteousness of Christ. Paul’s life was turned right-side-up. But, wait…
What about his resume? His pedigree? His studies at the feet of Gamaliel? His blamelessness “under the law”? Paul uses a crude expletive to describe all of his past accomplishments. He calls it rubbish, or, “dung.” The word was sometimes used in the Greek to describe the piles of, umm, stuff you see people scooping off the ground with a plastic grocery bag on their hand and then turning the bag inside out. I saw a lady do that recently while she was walking her dog, and then I watched in amazement as she put the grocery bag in her purse. Paul would be horrified at that, but even more, he was mortified at the wobbly foundation of do-it-yourself salvation that he had been standing on until he met Christ.
I don’t know what happened to my childhood friend and competitor. I just know that as quick as you could say “Jack Robinson,” 50 years have gone by since we were racing up Walden Avenue together. Maybe I will find one day that Jack came to the same place I did, and that he put his life and his faith into the hands of the One who can turn anyone right-side-up. I hope so.