March 13, 2016

Philippians 3:4b-14

“Striving for Christ”

How are you doing with your life? Would you say that you have achieved your goals? Would you say that you have been successful? Do you have the life you hoped for? The career you strived for? The status you reached for? The family you worked for? Have you made the contributions that you wanted to make to the church, the community, and the world?

However you may answer those questions… whether you are feeling good about your accomplishments, or whether you are discouraged by challenges and setbacks, I want to invite you today to consider what is truly valuable in your life. What are you striving for? What are your goals? And do they match up with what God wants for your life?

A little over a year ago, we had a visit from the Moderator of the 140th General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church in Canada, and at the evening service here at St. Andrew’s, Stephen Farris preached on today’s text from Philippians.

Whenever I read this text again, I’ll likely remember Stephen dramatically walking back and forth at the front of the church, just a few steps in each direction, demonstrating the small space Paul would have been living in when he wrote his letter to the Church at Philippi.

Paul was in prison. He’d lost everything, and his life was in danger. Just think, Paul used to be free. He used to be an important person – a person with status and power and respect due to him. But now the authorities have identified him as a trouble-maker, and he’s pacing back and forth in a tiny jail cell, with a good chance that this will be the end of him.

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t see it quite like that. Amazingly, he doesn’t even seem to be all that discouraged by what is happening. And the reason is that Paul’s goals, his values, and his measures of success have radically changed since his conversion to Christianity.

I think that Paul was always a very driven man, striving with all his might to live as God intended. But after encountering Christ, the way he measured his success changed completely.

He explains to the Christians at Philippi that he used to have plenty of reasons to be confident in his ability to live a righteous life before God. He was born a Jew, a member of God’s beloved people Israel, and he was even part of the favoured tribe of Benjamin.

He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, with no question as to whether he belonged to God’s people. He lived as a Pharisee, faithfully interpreting God’s laws and living strictly by them, and he demonstrated his great zeal for religious life when he persecuted the church – those he believed at that time to be rejecting God’s laws and following a false Messiah. Indeed, he was so good at following God’s laws that he would describe himself as blameless.

But as Paul sat in prison thinking, and praying, and considering how to advise and encourage his Christian friends in Philippi, he came to realize that everything he used to think of as an accomplishment or an asset was actually rubbish. Indeed, although “rubbish” is the English word used in the NRSV, good translators say that a better translation of the Greek word that Paul used to describe his former qualifications, would be “excrement.”

In other words, Paul was discovering that everything that he used to think was important and valuable, everything that he used to strive for and rely on, was actually a load of crap! He had come to see these things for what they were – rubbish! – compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

You see, Paul used to strive every day to follow God’s laws and live a righteous life. And he was pretty good at it. He was very religious and very good. But even Paul struggled with sin, and selfishness, and failure. He obviously made some wrong choices in persecuting others, and he admits elsewhere in his letters that he struggled to do the things that he wanted to do, and to avoid doing the things that he did not want to do.

Sound familiar? I’m sure that we can all relate to the desire to live righteous and good lives, and the struggle to actually put it into practice. In his letter to the Romans, Paul argues that “There is no one who is righteous, not even one… All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Paul discovered that it wasn’t down to him to live a perfectly good life. He did not need to earn God’s love. He did not need to win his own salvation, because in Christ – through Christ’s faith and Christ’s faithfulness – we have been forgiven and made righteous before God.

And that’s what Paul is talking about when he explains what holds the most value for him. Not his background, not his accomplishments, not his status or his reputation… But the most valuable thing for Paul is the gift of knowing Christ.

Let me be clear. When I say that knowing Christ is the most valuable gift, I don’t mean the gift of knowing “about” Christ. A lot of people know “about” Christ. They have heard the stories about the life of Jesus. Maybe they have read the Bible, or studied the historical Jesus, or explored books about Christian doctrine and theology. Paul himself knew “about” Christ even during the time when he was actively persecuting the first Christians.

But now Paul values the gift of actually “knowing” Christ, of being in relationship with Christ, and through Christ, being in relationship with God.

When Paul was converted to Christianity and discovered the amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ, he didn’t stop his striving. He just changed his goals. He stopped being concerned with external things – with status and accomplishments and honours – and started striving to immerse his life in the life of Christ.

Very much like us, Paul never got to meet Jesus in the flesh. But he must have heard the stories about what Jesus did and taken in the accounts of what Jesus taught. The Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John weren’t even written down yet, but Paul must have listened, and learned, and gotten to know Jesus through the witness of those who were with him during his ministry.

And then Paul strived to follow Christ’s way. The grace of God in Jesus Christ meant that Paul was no longer responsible for his own salvation, and he was free to give himself completely to striving to be like Christ without worrying about whether he was perfect or not.

Pacing back and forth in his jail cell, he could have been feeling like a failure and lamenting the fact that he was not making progress in the mission. But instead he was aware that Christ also experienced rejection and suffered greatly. Rather than give up hope because of his circumstances, he committed himself even more fully to his goal, knowing all the while that resurrection and new life are the gifts of God, not our accomplishments, so that none of us can boast.

So, what about you? What are you striving for? Are you worrying about building your resumé of accomplishments and honours and achievements? Or are you putting aside concern about those things to immerse your life in the life of Christ?

Laura Mendenhall describes the season of Lent as a time to reconsider – a time to set aside distractions in order to focus on our relationship with God and with Christ’s church, a time to let the Holy Spirit work on us in order to remold us into the image of God as individuals and as the body of Christ. And she describes this passage from Philippians as bringing the season to its peak.

Hopefully some of us have used this time to set aside some priorities that we normally consider quite important, in order to spend time getting to know God in Christ and to follow Jesus more closely. And hopefully, like Paul, we have rediscovered the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

But Lent is just a fairly arbitrary time period, and it is always the right time to reconsider what has the most value in our lives and what we are striving for day-by-day. May this be a day for such consideration and the beginning of a new thing that God is doing in our lives and in the church. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [let us] press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Amen.