Sunday 5 October 2014
World Communion Sunday
Paul is in the midst of an argument with Judean missionaries who are trying to convince the Christian community in Philippi that they need to adopt the practice of circumcision in order to be truly right with God and be accepted members of God’s family. They seem to be making their argument based on their own position as circumcised members of the Jewish community, with good genealogies to back it up. They are appealing to their own holiness as validation of the message that they have for the fledgeling church at Philippi.
And so Paul engages in a bit of one-upsmanship. If those people think they are righteous under the law, let me tell you, I am more righteous under the law than they could ever hope to be. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, in exact accordance with the law. I come from a good Jewish family with deep roots. You may remember that other guy named Saul—remember him, the first king of Israel—well I come from the same tribe. My whole family has been observant and faithful to the law for generations. In fact, I’m so observant of every detail of the law that I’m a Pharisee, and I was so devoted to the cause that I persecuted the church. I have never broken a single commandment. So take that! If you think your observance of law gets you any clout, just try to beat my observance of the law.
No one has ever accused Paul of being too modest. No one has ever suggested that he had an underdeveloped sense of ego. And here he is putting his self-confidence on full display. Paul is engaging in a bit of braggadocio. He’s fronting. He’s grandstanding. If he were writing it today, no doubt he would say something about how he never drinks or smokes, about what a good parent he is, about how much money he’s given to Lutheran World Relief and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, about how he only uses organic locally sourced produce, and about how his entire life is carbon neutral. The specifics aren’t that important. What’s important is that whatever his opponents are, he is more. If Paul’s opponents want you to listen because they are good, you should listen to Paul because he is better. Paul is trying to be the Chuck Norris of ancient Philippi.
But then Paul turns the argument around. These missionaries, he says, take a lot of pride in their pedigrees and their works. On the other hand, I have an even better record, but I don’t take pride in it at all. In fact, I think it all adds up to a stinking pile of garbage in comparison to the grace that comes through Christ Jesus. I’d much rather have the power that comes from Christ’s death and resurrection than be the most blameless observer of the law. And you Philippians have that. You have the Spirit of God already working in your midst, so don’t give it up for a bunch of rules and regulations, and certainly don’t give it up for a surgical procedure that proves nothing so long as your hearts remain unchanged. Put your trust in Christ, not in a scalpel.
So let’s you and I do what Christ did. Remember, he had all kinds of honor given to him as a birthright, but he gave it up in order to be obedient to God and receive an even greater glory. So let’s do the same thing, give up any honor we might have from our birthright or from our flesh in order to be obedient to God, and thus receive an even greater righteousness through Christ.
Now, that’s all pretty standard theology. But Paul is about to get a bit more unorthodox. He’s about to say something that tends to make Protestants a little uncomfortable.
Paul continues by saying, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal.” That’s trouble. If Paul has already accepted Jesus, then isn’t the story of his salvation finished? It’s about faith and belief in Jesus, right? So how can he now say that he hasn’t reached the goal of obtaining resurrection in Christ. Doesn’t that seem contrary to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone?
It’s because despite what we have made out of Paul’s words in the ensuing 2000 years, the truth is that the Christian life, the Christian journey does not end at conversion. It does not end the moment you accept Jesus as your personal savior. The Christian journey continues.
John Wesley called it Sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit continues to work on Christians to make us more holy, to bring the fruits of our lives in line with the words of our mouths. It moves beyond the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone to the Doctrine of Sanctification, by which our works are brought in line with our faith. It’s not that we are justified by works: we are not. But if we are indeed justified by faith, then works will follow. Works will follow in response to our experience of God’s overwhelming grace and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. God works in us to make us more holy, to sanctify us.
Paul says, “Press on. The journey isn’t over yet.” Too often modern Christian churches have gotten so caught up in the singular goal of conversion that we have neglected everything else. Just get people to say yes to Jesus, just accept him in your heart, and the story is over. Now you’ve punched your ticket for heaven, and no one can take it away from you.
But Paul says, “Press on.” Press on to make resurrection your own because Christ has made you his own. It may not be a question of salvation, but it is a question of faith. Are we done once we have punched our ticket? Or are we called to something more? When we say yes to Christ, shouldn’t we also say yes to Christ’s message? If Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, liberty to the oppressed, shouldn’t we as his followers work toward those ends. If Christ came to usher in the Kingdom of God, shouldn’t we live as citizens of that kingdom first, instead of as citizens of this nation? Shouldn’t we seek to live out our faith for the benefit of the world?
Paul says, “Press on.” Now that you’ve accepted Christ, it’s time to do the work of the Kingdom. It’s time to show the world a good example of what it means to be a Christian, and prove to the world outside that we aren’t just a bunch of hypocrites. It’s time to move our concern beyond the four walls of the church and put our faith to work in the world. It’s time to address the problems of hunger, poverty, and violence that dwell all around us. It’s time to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s time to love our enemies, even, and pray for those who persecute us. It’s time to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. It’s time to refrain from judging others, lest we ourselves be judged. It is time for us to die to sin and live for Christ.
“Press on,” says Paul. Don’t wait for your life to end before you are transformed by the grace of God. Let your life be transformed now. Let the Spirit work on you now. Be made like Christ now. And enjoy the fruits of faith now.
“Press on.” Take a risk for your faith. Step out boldly. Don’t worry about looking silly or losing face. Give up your ego and let Christ live in you. Live your whole life, every part, every moment, for the glory of God. Press on, as Paul said, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the elevated calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Press on justice for all God’s people. Press on in care for the sojourner among you. Press on to correct the wrongs of our society. Press on to welcome all to the love of God. Press on to expand our understandings of who it is that God is capable of loving. Press on as the whole people of God, gathered around the world, to live the love that God has poured out on us. Press on. Press on.