Part III of Philippians Series
Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
You can download a PDF version of this sermon for easier reading.
“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.” -Phil 3:7-8
Despite my best intentions to remain focused on my goals and priorities, I get easily distracted. No matter how certain I may be about my life’s purpose, I still find myself lured away from the task at hand. Jesus’ words to his disciples as they poorly kept watch in the garden with him speak to my experience: “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mt. 26:41)
Although I may know what I am to do, I easily find distractions and excuses for why I am not ready. Such was the case as I sat down to write this sermon; rather than diligently begin my work, I opened my web browser and spent close to 45 minutes reading various websites. It’s no wonder they call it the web; once you’re in it, you’re trapped. Fortunately, I remembered the task at hand and returned to work. Yet I couldn’t help but be amused that as I was about to write a sermon about setting aside all things and focusing on our ultimate goal, Jesus Christ, I wasted time finding useless information online.
I suspect I’m not alone given the number of books and articles I see on productivity and maintaining goals. It seems all of us find it difficult to keep focused on what is important to us. To be sure, there are some things that simply get in the way of our priorities. Yet I also believe it takes considerable energy and focus to keep to our goals. We have to be willing to let some things go in order to achieve what it is most important to us.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve reflected on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In the first week, I considered Paul’s charge to us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” and to selflessly care and love one another as Christ loved us. (Phil. 1:27) Last week, in my written reflection, I considered Paul’s exhortation to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus and to let go of our pride and self-interests and to give of ourselves totally and completely for others as Christ gave himself for us. (Phil. 2:4-5) This week, in our third and penultimate reflection upon Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, I want to consider our final and ultimate goal: “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:4)
Today’s lectionary selection of the Letter to the Philippians challenges us to consider our priorities: what is most important to you and what are willing to let go for Christ? These are good questions for us who are surrounded by so many distractions and immersed in a world that tries to convince us that true happiness and fulfilment derives from our life’s achievements and accumulation of wealth. We are told that to be happy, we must find the perfect job and have the perfect home and family. Yet we live in a day and age where people feel more isolated, anxious, and depressed than ever before. Might we just be missing the point of this life?
Paul might just have the answer for us. As you heard the first few words of today’s reading, you might’ve wondered what Paul was getting at when he tells his readers that “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” (Phil. 3:4) At first I found these words puzzling and wondered what he meant. However, as I read them carefully and consulted a few of my helpful commentaries, it became clear to me that Paul is offering his readers a testimony. Before anyone can question the cost of his faith in Christ, Paul makes clear that by the Jewish standards of the day, he was a good and devout Jew. All throughout his life he faithfully adhered to the Law. Moreover, there can be no question about his identity for he was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. Finally, he was a zealous Pharisee who not only persecuted the early Church but also enjoyed all the privileges of his pharisaical status. Yet, he tells his readers, he regards it all as a loss.
To be clear, Paul is not rejecting the Jewish Tradition nor is he diminishing its significance. As New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd makes clear in A Theology of the New Testament, “Paul never ceased to recognise his Jewish heritage (Rom. 11:1) and the privileges and the glory of the divine calling of Israel (Rom. 9:4-5); but all such religious matters came to be viewed as part of the worldly system and no longer as an object of pride or glory.” Instead, Paul perceives the privileges as something belonging to this world and not assisting him in achieving his original purpose, a faithful relationship with the Living God. More importantly for Paul is his relationship with Jesus. His encounter with God in Jesus Christ has literally changed his entire perspective and he can no longer continue in the ways of his past. His knowing Jesus has literally altered his life.
Once again, to better understand our reading today, we must consider the meaning of some important Greek words. The first is the Greek word Paul uses for knowing God, namely the Greek verb ginōskō. In English, the word is simply translated as “to know.” Unfortunately the English doesn’t do justice to the Greek. The Greek carries a much more intimate, personal meaning, and draws deeply from the Jewish experience of God in the Old Testament. When the Old Testament speaks of knowing God, it doesn’t speak of a speculative knowledge but rather of our personal relationship with God. Furthermore, the verb expresses a close relationship between the one who knows and and the person known. Finally, the verb carries even more personal meaning for Paul as it also speaks of his encounter with Jesus and his acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.
So when Paul writes of his regard of everything “as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” he is stating that nothing can compare or match the profound relationship he now has with Jesus. (Phil. 3:8) His knowledge of Jesus, his intimate and loving relationship with Jesus, “takes shape in a new obedience” to Jesus and to share in the “fellowship with Christ’s sufferings” so as to one day share in his resurrection. Simply put, Paul’s experience of Jesus has been so profound that he can do no other but let go of his former ways, forget all that is behind him, and embrace Jesus and share in his divine life. There is only one priority for Paul in his life and that priority is Jesus.
Imagine for a moment what your life would be like if your relationship with Jesus was a priority. What would change in your life? How would you live differently? What would you let go so as to allow that relationship with Jesus grow and flourish?
Were we to fully consider our relationship with Jesus and its transformation of our life, and the lives of those around us, we would immediately align our goals with this new priority, much as a married couple would do as they begin their new life together. It is no surprise then that Paul states what his goal is and aligns everything in his life with that new goal:
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. (Phil. 3:12)
Again, the original Greek text is so much more nuanced than our English translation. In the ancient Greek world, every object and being has an ultimate goal, or end, in life. The ancient Greek sense of goal is of purpose and destiny. Although we strive to attain the goal in this life, it is something that is achieved at the very end. In other words, a goal is something to which we mature into and strive for all our life.
As Jesus revealed himself to Paul and drawn Paul into an intimate relationship with him, Paul understands Jesus as his ultimate purpose and end. Therefore, Paul’s entire life focus is Jesus; everything he does is for Jesus and not for himself. The same ought to be so with us. According to Paul, as disciples of Jesus Christ we are to strive to not only live in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel of Christ but to also live in such a way that we ultimately seek union with Christ at the very end of our earthly pilgrimage.
Yet to achieve our ultimate goal, we must be ever vigilant and let go and ignore all that might distract us from our ultimate goal. Perhaps a fitting analogy of this would be archery; an archer must set aside all distractions and solely focus on the mark before him. He can’t let past failures or present disturbances deter him from making his mark. We, too, must have the same vigilance as the archer in our Christian life. Not only must we let go of all pride and false ambitions, but also all that might hold us back from living life as God intends us to live. And sometimes that will be painful, because it may force us to come to terms with our past and to not let the past deter us or hold us back from achieving our ultimate goal: relationship with the Living God.
Last week, I noted prayer and service as two essential practices we can embrace to nurture within us a humble heart. This week, I like to suggest in addition to prayer and service, the practice of confession. Let me say a few words about this.
The practice of daily prayer not only helps us learn our right relationship with God and each other, prayer enables us to cultivate our relationship with Jesus. Paul experienced radical change in his life because of his relationship with Jesus; he knew Jesus and experienced Jesus on a deep and personal level. And Jesus yearns to have a relationship with you. For that to be possible, you have to intentionally set time each day for prayer. Otherwise, you will never fully come to know the God who calls you.
As we come to know Jesus in our prayer, we will find our hearts slowly transformed by his grace. We will feel ourselves moved to acknowledge the many ways we may not have loved God and neighbour fully as we loved ourselves. It is not uncommon for persons of prayer to be moved to make a spiritual confession, an act by which we name the many ways we have not loved others fully as we have been loved. This is a healthy practice; it’s an opportunity to fully examine our lives and to invite the living Lord to heal us.
One way that I try to do this is by an examination of my day. As night falls I like to spend a few minutes considering how well I lived the gospel that day. As to be expected, I often recognise the various moments and occasions in the day where I failed to live my Christian vocation. I do this not to feel guilt or shame, but rather to be honest with myself and to ask God forgiveness and invite him to transform my heart to be like his own. In other words, I make a simple confession.
There is another form of confession known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Although not a required sacrament in the Anglican church, it still is an important practise in our tradition. In classic Anglican style, we suggest that “all may, none must, some should” celebrate confession. During the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we sit with a priest and name those things that we have done that have wounded our relationship with God and each other and ask for God’s forgiveness. The priest, acting on behalf of the Church and with the authority entrusted by Christ to his ministers, prays a prayer of absolution over us and charges us to sin no more but to live in love and charity with our neighbours and with God. While the sacrament may seem intimidating to some, when celebrated well, sacramental reconciliation can be a great source of healing and comfort.
However you so chose to pray and make your confession of sins, know that our tradition understands our God to be a loving and compassionate God who yearns and desires to be in relationship with you. This was the entire purpose and intent of Jesus’ ministry among us and his life-giving sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. Through his life, passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus opens the way for you and I to enter into a deep and personal relationship with him.