15 June 2015

Sermon – “I press on” (Philippians 3:4b-16)

If you take a look along the boulevard in front of the church, you will see four fairly decent-sized boulders. They were dug up this past week during the excavation of Ford Parkway and someone thought that they might make an attractive addition to our garden. I understand that people can pay large sums of money to acquire boulders like that to place on their lawns, but we’re going to get them for free!
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells the story of a man who is out tilling a field, when suddenly his plow scrapes against something hard. Thinking it’s a rock, he digs down and what does he find? A treasure! Without wasting any time he rushes off and sells everything he owns so that he can have enough cash to buy the field and claim the treasure. That, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. People say, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” That may be true in the financial world. But Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is worth it.

False Confidence

In many ways what we have in this morning’s Epistle reading from Philippians is a real-life version of Jesus’ parable. It was on his way to Damascus that Paul (then Saul) discovered in Jesus the treasure that made all his worldly advantages seem worthless by comparison—and those advantages were considerable. Paul lists them out for us in the opening verses of this morning’s passage. First of all, he had been circumcised on the eighth day in precise accordance with the Old Testament Law. Once in a while I hear people describe themselves (often with a certain level of pride) as “cradle Episcopalians”. Well, Paul was a cradle Jew, raised from birth in the religion of his ancestors. Secondly Paul describes himself as “a member of the people of Israel”—and not only that, but also a member of the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe from which Israel’s first king, Saul, had arisen and the only one of the twelve tribes that had remained true to Judah when the kingdom had split after Solomon.
Added to that, Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews”. That is that, although born in southern Turkey, where people communicated in Greek, Paul spoke the Hebrew language. (What he does not mention in this passage, although he does elsewhere, was that his teacher was none other than Gamaliel, one of the leading rabbis of the first century.) And so Paul could claim not only religious and racial purity, but cultural purity as well.
However, the list does not end there. Paul had also been a Pharisee, a strict adherent to the laws and traditions of Israel. His devotion to Judaism had been such that he had been a sworn enemy of the newly founded sect that claimed Jesus as the Messiah, going to great lengths to hound and persecute its followers. Looking back on it all, he could in complete honesty declare that he had fulfilled all the demands of the Law. It was an impressive list, of which he could be justifiably proud—and no doubt it need not have ended there. Paul was still a young man and his star was still rising.
Now let’s just stop there for a moment and think about what Paul has been saying about himself. Have you ever considered how different Paul’s story is from so many of the testimonies that we hear today? It was not as though Paul had been a hopeless alcoholic unable to wrest himself from the lure of the bottle. He had not been a lawbreaker committed to a life of violence and crime. In every sense he had been a model citizen, successful in everything that he undertook. Yet, says Paul, it was those very things, those good things, that he now counts as loss “for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.
In the nrsv Bibles in our pews we read that he “suffered the loss of all things”. I think the New Living Translation gets closer to what Paul meant when it uses the word “discarded”. Paul didn’t have these privileges taken away from him. He threw them away. Indeed, he says, he considers them rubbish. The word in Greek is skúbala and the seventeenth-century editors of the King James Bible weren’t afraid to translate it with the much earthier word “dung”. It is like something that some careless dog owner leaves behind that somehow finds its way onto the sole of your shoe. You scrape it off and fling it into the garbage. That was Paul’s attitude towards everything that had once brought any sense of significance, any sense of accomplishment, to his life.

Surpassing Worth

Why was this so? Why the 180° turnaround in Paul’s life? The reason was that, like the man plowing the field, Paul had found a treasure of infinite worth. Like the merchant in search of fine pearls, he had found one that was worth cashing in all that he possessed. What Paul had discovered was that he had been measuring his life by the wrong standard. As Paul had once done, our world puts a great deal of store by the accident of birth. Think of all the attention that has been focused on the birth of Princess Charlotte to Prince William and Kate Middleton over the past few months. Adorable as that little baby may be, what makes her more worthy of interest than any other child? Like Paul, our world is often dazzled by personal achievement. We ooh and ah at great sports champions or movie stars—and in many cases their accomplishments are not insignificant. But does that really make them better than other people?
What changed Paul along the Damascus Road was God’s revelation to him that his value, his personal worth, was measured neither by the circumstances of his birth nor by his personal attainments. Rather, it was measured by the only true measure of human worth, which is the cross of Jesus Christ. And the cross tells us, in letters written in the blood of God’s only Son, that you and I are of infinite worth to the one who created and sustains the universe, to the one who knew us before we were formed in our mother’s wombs, to the one who stands with arms outstretched waiting to welcome us into his eternal joy. That’s what Paul means when he writes about “not having a righteousness of my own…, but one that comes through faith in Jesus Christ”.
Scientists like to talk about paradigm shifts—the one that took place in the sixteenth century, for example, when Nicolaus Copernicus and others began to realize that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but vice versa. Suddenly with that discovery everything began to make sense in a way that it never had before. What the apostle Paul experienced and what he shared with believers who had already gone before him and those ever since, could also be called a paradigm shift. But it was also far more than that. It was something that would not merely affect the way he thought about things. It was not just an intellectual choice, but a conversion, an all-engaging process that would affect every area of his being.
Now it does not always occur in such a dramatic fashion as what happened to Paul. For many of us (including most of the apostles) it happens in a quieter, more gradual way. When did Peter’s conversion happen, for example? Was it when Jesus found him by the seashore and greeted him with the words, “Come, follow me”? Was it when he came to the profound realization that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God? Could it have been when he arrived at Jesus’ tomb and found it empty or when after the painful threefold question, “Do you love me?” Jesus invited him again to “Follow me”? Or was it on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon him and the other disciples in the upper room? Or might it have been a combination of all these things?
There are some of us looking back on our own lives, who can point to a day or even an hour when that happened. On the other hand I suspect that there are many of us who would find it difficult to pinpoint exactly when the paradigm shift occurred. For those brought up in Christian families there may never have been a time when Jesus was not a reality for you. The point is not when it happened or how it happened, but that somehow we have come to perceive our worth in terms of the cross—in terms not of the world’s values or our whatever values we may set for ourselves, but the value that God himself has placed upon us in Christ.

Pressing On

While we may not be able to point to its beginning in our own lives, what we do know is that what Paul is writing about is the preoccupation of a lifetime. And he goes on to describe what it means for him in the final verses of this morning’s reading. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal,” he writes, “but I press on…” The word is one of earnestness and striving. Paul will use it once again when he writes to his young friend Timothy:
But as for you, man of God…, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called… In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus…, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ…, the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. (1 Timothy 6:11-15)
“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on,” says Paul for a second time. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” What Paul had embarked on, what he was inviting the Philippians to join him in, was an adventure that, if they were willing, would involve their whole being—all their physical energy, all their intellectual capacities, all their courage, their imagination, their moral stamina, their tears and whatever else the Holy Spirit might muster within them.
The Christian journey is not for the lazy or the half-hearted. Yet again, like that treasure in the field, like the pearl of great price, and as Paul had discovered in his own experience, there is nothing that can compare with it. “Ours,” wrote Bishop Handley Moule a century ago, “is the happiness of wondering discovery, and rich possession, and ever-opening prospects.”[1]
It has been my privilege to share in that adventure with you over the past ten and a half years. And I pray for you, as I hope you will for me, that by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, you will continue to keep moving forward, to keep pressing on, to explore the vastness of its implications, to let it capture more and more of your mind and heart, to live it out amid all the unexpected twists and turns of life, and that you will never cease to be amazed by the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.

[1]     Philippian Studies, 178

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