Knowing Christ

In order to gain Christ and be found in Him, we must regard what we may have thought “made us righteous” as “rubbish,” and not look upon it any longer.

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,
a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;
as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
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.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings
by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 3:4b-14)

During the recent Olympic games, we witnessed many significant moments in sports, but nothing was more significant to me than the interview that aired the night before the Opening Ceremonies. Did you happen to see Bob Costas’ interview with Michael Phelps? Michael Phelps will long hold the distinction as “the most decorated Olympian ever.” Phelps has earned an astounding 28 total Olympic medals, 23 of them gold. But Phelps had to nearly lose everything in order to be found.

In October of 2014, less than two years ago, Michael Phelps received his second DUI, driving under the influence, and, facing serious challenges in the civil court and court of public opinion,
he entered six weeks of rehabilitation. Michael Phelps spoke of the days before that second DUI:

Phelps: “For me, I think I had to reach my absolute rock bottom in order for me to kind of get a wake-up call. And that was it. Those mornings waking up, not wanting to be alive…”

Bob Costas: “You’ve said that without swimming, your sense of yourself, your identity, was lost, and you had no real direction. And this led to some dark places, right?”

Phelps: “Oh my gosh. I mean, still, remember the days locked up in my room, not wanting to talk to anybody, not wanting to see anybody. Really not wanting to live. I was on a downward spiral and I was on the express elevator to the bottom floor, wherever that might be. And I found it…”

As Peter Schmuck from the Baltimore Sun wrote, “What happened then does not need to be fully recounted (here), but forays into golf and high stakes poker did not fill that void and neither did the drinking and partying that led to his lowest point.”

Phelps: “…The thoughts (of suicide) were…really heavy. And I kind of just started making some progress, and then I just decided that something had to change.”

After emerging from that deep and dark time in his life, Phelps said, before the Olympics started, that he was as happy as he had ever been. Since leaving rehab, he has gotten engaged and had a son. And significantly for someone dealing with depression, Phelps said he has not consumed alcohol since Oct. 4, 2014.

The medals and the accolades are important to Phelps. They are an honor and a privilege, and the result of tremendous work and talent, but compared to the salvation he experienced in the fall of 2014, literally salvation from death, those earthly, material things are not the most important after all. The most important thing in his life, he claims, is that “I’m closer to the people who like me and love me for me than I ever have been in my life – and I would never change that. I truly am living a dream come true.” (

Vernon Gramling writes, “We do not have any choice about whether God loves us.
That is God’s promise and unilateral covenant. Our only choice is will we enjoy that love.”

As the Apostle Paul writes, salvation in this life or the life to come does not come through any worthy attainment or any privileged background. Salvation for the Philippians did not come through the rite of circumcision nor through obeying the Mosaic law. Salvation for Decaturites today does not come through the sacrament of baptism nor through following all the rules of our parents or our elders. Salvation comes by the grace of God alone. The grace of God is what makes us right with God.

Paul does not say that his impressive background in the Jewish faith is worthless nor that his former way of life was of no value. What Paul describes is his new perspective, his consuming desire, to know Jesus Christ, to be in communion with Jesus Christ. As a result, Paul now counts as loss that which was of tremendous value to him previously.

Notice that Paul’s conversion talk is not like someone’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes conversion speech that talks all about former sins and the former life that they gave up in order to follow Jesus. Those with conversion stories often list bad habits, toxic relationships, illicit sins, and bad attitudes that were all tossed in the garbage when they came to know Jesus. That message claims that the worth of knowing Jesus Christ is far greater than the worst things that had happened in one’s former life. That message may be worth hearing, but Paul’s message in Philippians is far different. Paul says that what was the greatest of his former life he now counts as rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ.

What I heard between the lines of Michael Phelps’ interview is similar. Sure, the life of partying and seeking to fill the void in destructive habits had to be given up, but it was that deeper issue of identity, the challenging issue of sense of self, the question of his direction in life, that had to be reconciled. In October of 2014, Michael Phelps was not at peace with himself or with God.

Not long after his interview aired, the AJC published an article about elite athletes and depression. We have discovered that the rates of depression and suicide are significantly higher among elite athletes than the general population. And, as we know, depression and addiction are closely linked. Beyond the biomedical explanations, there is something deep within the psyche, something related to identity and sense of self, related to the seat of one’s worth, and whether or not one is worthy to be loved, that must be reconciled.

We need to talk more openly about the illness of depression. Depression affects some 15 million Americans, nearly 7 percent of the adult population, many in a debilitating fashion. As a pastor, I am aware that this time of year, this time of transition, the change of seasons, times of new beginnings, and remembrance of loss over what was, can become difficult for many. There is much we do not understand about brain chemistry. What we have come to understand is that, over the next several months, because of a number of physiological factors, a significant portion of the population will struggle with addiction and other symptoms of depression, some to the point of suicidal thoughts and even actions.

“Striving for success, education, attractiveness or anything else is not in itself bad. It is the way we compare and give ourselves credit that is dangerous. A lawyer worked 81 hours last week; a young woman worried she might be marrying down to a man who was ‘only’ getting his masters; and a man with no budgeting skills believes that (because he is the husband) he should control the family money. All are heavily invested in their striving. The question will be can they discern what is really important? That is Paul’s exhortation and the challenge for us… We turn differences into rankings and self-righteousness. And that is what Jesus refused to do. He regarded himself as a child of God no matter how the world viewed him or treated him. And he regarded everyone else as a child of God no matter how the world ranked them. His life and his teaching were a radical departure from the secular attempts to define worth by accomplishment… We will not find God in our accomplishments or our obedience…”

Instead, we give ourselves up to God in total trust, claiming nothing, seeking nothing that would advantage, but humbly serving God and one another, leaving our status before God entirely in God’s hands.

All the accomplishments that I could call my best, all the advantages I could list in my life, all this I consider loss or rubbish, not because it’s invaluable in and of itself. No, these attributes can be extremely valuable in this world. But compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ, all worldly goods are set aside. They are not rubbish in and of themselves; but they are rubbish when compared to knowing Christ. And unless we treat them as rubbish, unless we put them behind us and never consider them again as valuable to us, we will not fully come to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ. This may be counter-cultural. This may be the opposite of what many have been taught, but this is the good news of the gospel. This is the heart of what we preach.

As Karl Barth wrote in his commentary, “It is settled, fundamentally and immutably, that there can be no going back to (this former life)–be it well noted, not my wickedness but – my goodness. That goodness is over and done with and abides under judgment, must not have any form of lurking-place alongside of Christ. Why not? Because otherwise he, Christ, is not what I gain: he can only abide in me, only be my gain, when I have no other gain.”

When we fully confess our sin, when we turn in trust to God, laying our life before him, when we stop trying to earn God’s love by good deeds, but simply respond in love to the merciful love we have received, then we begin to loosen our tight grip on what is not so important after all, and begin to hold fast to that which is true and good forever.

Do you know the power of Christ’s resurrection?
Have you witnessed the power of the risen Lord?
Have you known that energy that can envelop your whole life and make you feel as though you can conquer everything?

I believe that Michael Phelps discovered a taste of that power two years ago, and his life, and the life of everyone around him, will never quite be the same.

Beloved, we do not consider that we have made it our own; but this one thing we do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
August 28, 2016