Philippians 3:4b-14 and John 14:15-21
If ever there was a man who could boast of his credentials, it was surely Saul of Tarsus, who came to be known as the Apostle Paul.
His dramatic conversion while traveling to Damascus was a defining event in the history of the early church. So prestigious was his pedigree, and so impressive was his résumé, that many scholars believe the great Apostle to the Gentiles would have left his mark on the pages of history even if he had not encountered Jesus Christ.
That may be. But in the surprising, unlikely economy of God, Paul did encounter Christ and found in following him a purpose and a passion, which surpassed all of his previous accomplishments. To Paul, the present opportunity of knowing Christ, and the future possibility of becoming like Christ, far outweighed the worth of a past without Christ. “Whatever gains I had,” he says, “those 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.” (Phil. 3:7-8). And so, rather than be satisfied with his successes, or flash his credentials, Paul resolved to “press on” toward greater goals: knowing Jesus Christ and becoming like Christ.
Now, any way you look at them, one has to admit, those are worthy goals, noble and lofty goals. But is Paul serious when he looks at all he once thought was worthy and calls them “worthless”? And here’s an even more unsettling question: Is Paul saying that we should do the same? He doesn’t say so directly but he does imply that the Christians of Philippi, to whom he was writing, and you and I, would do well to follow his example.
What is your response to that?
This is a highly credentialed community of faith, full of “high achievers.” You’ve worked hard, and spent lots of time, lots of resources, to get to where you are, to achieve what you’ve achieved. And I suspect many of you value your reputation even more than your position.
So let me ask you: how do you hear Paul when he lists all of his achievements, his advantages, his credentials, and his status, and declares them to be “as loss,” mere “rubbish”? Can you say that? Should you?
Before we answer, let’s look at what Paul was up against:
Like most of the churches Paul planted, Philippi was predominately made up of Gentile Christians, believers from a Greek cultural background. But like many of these young churches, the Philippians had to contend with “Judaizers,” Christians from a strict Jewish background. They insisted that the Gentiles must not only believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but also submit to circumcision, as a sign on the body that they too, like the Jewish Christians, were keepers of the Law of Moses.
Paul saw rightly that this was not only unnecessary, but also a complete denial of what it meant to be saved by grace. It amounted to mere rule-keeping, through human effort, human action. What he called “confidence in the flesh” – rather than being confident in Christ’s action, through faith.
In order to stress his point, Paul tells the Philippians, “Look, if being right with God is a matter of human credentials, I’ve attained more than any of you. And if God is impressed with pedigrees, mine is most impressive. And if righteousness is a matter of rule-keeping, well I’ve got a perfect record. In other words, if that’s the name of the game, then I win!”
But that’s not the name of the game.
Paul knew that the only attainment, the only pedigree, the only righteousness that brings us closer to God is that of Jesus Christ, “the God-Man,” whose selfless, blameless life, whose sacrificial death, and whose victorious resurrection, has opened the door of salvation – real life – to all who believe.
A door opened by grace, entered by faith.
So there are two solid reasons why Paul puts his human gains behind him:
1) First, because they cannot earn him any advantage with God; and
2) Second, because they cannot compare with the surpassing value of a real relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself tells his followers what they, and we, can expect in such a relationship. In today’s gospel reading we hear these assurances:
“… because I live, you also will live. … know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you… Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
And also, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Someone has said that these and other promises that Jesus makes to his followers could be summed up this way – that we should expect to be absurdly joyful, amazingly powerful, and always in trouble!
Now we’re ready to look again at our own credentials. What about our attainments, our degrees, our position, our reputation? Does God intend that we should discard, or disregard, all we’ve achieved?
Let me answer that question just for myself, using two examples:
First, every time Priscilla and I go to the Philippines, to visit our family, there are things we have to leave behind. Some aren’t suitable for the climate. Some we leave because we know they’ll be provided there. And some things we leave behind because they’re too heavy. We simply cannot bring them all, because they won’t help us get to where we want to go. In order to move toward our destination, our goal, we need to leave those things behind and press on.
My second example – At the end of 2007 I retired from full-time pastoral ministry. A few weeks before that, the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge celebrated our 25 years there with a very special service and a grand dinner. As part of the service, we asked a dear, long-time friend, a wise older sister in Christ, named Eunice, to give us a “charge.” We wanted her to remind us and the congregation that this time was not just an ending, but also a new beginning. We wanted everyone there to savor the present, and to look towards the future, and not just remember the past. Our sister Eunice gave us this word: “let go!”
It was a necessary, timely word for us all. “Whatever has been accomplished in these 25 years,” she said, “is history. Whatever is finished or unfinished, leave it behind. Let go of the past. Don’t go back to it. Don’t repeat it. Don’t live there. Don’t get stuck there. You’re moving on. Let go!”
So I decided to leave things behind as if they were “rubbish.” And I decided to let go of the past as if it was “loss.” Why?
Because my things and my past won’t help me move forward in my life with Christ, won’t help me know more of him, to grow in him, to become more like him.
That can only happen if I “press on,” beyond where I’ve been, beyond where I am now.
As someone has said – and wisely so – “the dedication of yesterday is no match for the challenges and the opportunities of today.”
And so, yes I do hear Paul’s resolve to “press on” as an invitation to follow in his footsteps. I hear it as an invitation not just to the first century Philippians, but also to us 21st century believers.
Let me offer you three reasons why we of the Union Church in Waban should accept that invitation, both individually and as a faithful community of Christ’s people.
1) We need to press on because all of our successes and all of our failings are not the last word.
There’s more to come. We can’t stop now. Paul himself says that he hadn’t yet reached the goal, the goal of being like Christ. “Beloved,” he says, “I don’t consider that I have made it my own yet; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
In other words, we must not be overly content with our successes, not overly discouraged by our failings. We don’t obsess on what has or has not already happened. We press on to what can happen in Christ.
I read an interview with an Olympic runner. He was commenting on the one essential thing for winning. “The only way to run a race,” he said, “is to forget all previous victories that would give you false pride, and all previous failures that would give you false fears. Each race is a new beginning. Pressing forward to that finish tape is all that matters.”
2) Here is the second reason why we should accept Paul’s invitation: We also need to press on because life’s pleasures and peak experiences are not the last word.
Have you ever had an experience that was so profound, so rich, so intensely alive and enjoyable, that you wished time would just stand still? You want to freeze-frame that precious moment, that sense of intimacy, or maturity, or harmony or well-being, or wonder, and go on living in it forever! We who are husbands: sometimes we manage to do or say just the right thing at just the right time; and we wish it would always be that way with the wife we love. But it’s not.
You who are moms: your child makes you a gift, a project. He or she has put a lot of time and thought and effort into it. “This is for you, Mommy!” And of course you say, “Oh it’s wonderful! It’s the macaroni necklace I’ve always wanted!” And you’re both so proud, and you wish that special moment that special age, would last. But it can’t.
Maybe you’d like to preserve this church just the way it is now – for always. There is so much to appreciate about this church. There are many things that you do so well, from programs to partying. But what really stands out for me is the way you give yourself to others in time and effort, by helping those in need, by teaching, by seeking justice, by attentive, caring conversation.
And I’m sure you can point to some peak experiences you’ve had with this church family: a mission trip, volunteering at the Russell School, a visit that you will never forget, a particular sermon of Stacy’s, or a musical gift that you treasure.
It is natural to wish that what we value will always remain, and stay as it is. But God, in wisdom and in mercy does not exempt either people or churches from change. Thankfully, God has ways of using change to grow us and shape us and spur us on.
As we journey on with Christ, through change, we come to realize that those treasured moments, those peak experiences, are only hints at the higher peaks and deeper joys to come. Christ has greater things in store for us to experience. So don’t stop now.
There is one more reason why we should accept Paul’s invitation to “press on” in our life with Christ.
We need to press on because our difficulties and sufferings are not the last word either. Sometimes life overwhelms us with trouble. Illness, unemployment, grief and a host of other sufferings are not respecters of race or culture or level of education. And it is in times of pain and suffering that Christ’s people most need one another’s support and encouragement. We need to be reminded then that the fellowship of Christ is often one of suffering, which we are called to share with him and with one another. It is far from easy, being in community. Yet, Jesus calls us, through that shared suffering to a companionship so rich and deep, and to an ongoing journey so adventurous, that not even our troubles will turn us back.
We’re committed. We’re in it to the finish. And therefore nothing can be allowed to divert us, to detour us, to dissuade us from following and growing to know Christ for the whole of our lives.
From one life stage to the next, from one level of maturity to another, we “strain forward to what lies ahead.” “Press on” says Paul. Press on in the power of the resurrection. Press on toward the prize: the upward, onward, forward call of God, to know and become like our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.