Listen to the sermon from Sunday, March 13, 2016 titled “Pressing On” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Only two weeks left in Lent, the most spiritually focused season of the Christian year. Yet there are so many distractions: Spring break, South by Southwest, political campaigns, business as usual – the world doesn’t stop for Lent, does it? So we have to find the time, take the time out to pray, meditate, practice our Lenten contemplation. Perhaps it easier for those who have been given a time out by age or health or other circumstance.
Paul was in time-out when he wrote his note to friends at Philippi. Imprisoned in Rome, on trial for his life, the apostle was allowed visitors, but prevented from travel. The letter reflects messengers going back and forth between Paul and the Philippians over a two year span. Don’t you know that was a long time for the roving apostle to be stuck in one place?
Scholars agree Philippians is among the last of Paul’s correspondence. He was writing old friends, a church started from a women’s prayer group (Acts 16:13) – women being notoriously more emotionally intelligent listeners – and they supported Paul in various ways ever after. He was getting up in years and in constant pain from his hard travel, beatings, and imprisonments. And now he was on trial for his life. All of these factors put Paul in a mood to reminisce, and Philippians is his most personal and vulnerable letter. Rembrandt captures the mood well in his painting of Paul in prison. You might say he was on a two year Lenten journey of contemplation.
In his confinement he worries about some Christian teachers perverting his churches. Called “the Judaizers” because of their belief that Christian converts should live as Torah obedient Jews, they were troubling Paul’s churches to convince them to keep kosher. Paul attacks their views in his letters to the Galatians, the Corinthians, and the Romans, and in our reading today to the Philippians as well.
He begins by reviewing his resume as a good Jew: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” The Judaizers have nothing on Paul! He is a better Jew than any of them.
Paul is not denigrating his Jewish identity. He is proud of it! He has good claim to be a better Jew than any of his opponents. He does not say he was a Pharisee, but that he is a Pharisee. He does not say he found God’s law impossible to follow, but that he is blameless under that law. In fact, Paul never saw himself as starting a new and better religion, but as perfecting and expanding Judaism now that Messiah has come.
These are Paul’s trophies, hard won over years of work, and he is naturally proud of them. What are your proudest accomplishments? When you look back over your life, what achievements do you treasure most? Do those tell you who you are?
You know, sometimes with people you trust, you can be a bit more vulnerable. You might even worry less about using the most polite language. So in Philippians Paul uses some salty imagery. As proud as he is of his religious accomplishments, he says “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. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” The word translated “rubbish” here is much stronger in Greek. It’s too vulgar for me to use in church. It actually means…
well, you get the picture. But don’t miss the point. Paul is not saying his proud accomplishments are meaningless waste, but that they pale to nothing in comparison to the one thing that matters: “that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 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.”
Here again Paul is using strong imagery from the intimate, even erotic courtship practice of the Greeks. David Frederickson notes Paul’s use of verbs frequently found in Greek love poetry and art. The lover pursues the beloved, who runs and eludes capture. At the same time, the Beloved looks over her shoulder to be sure the Lover is still in pursuit.
The next verse or the reverse side often shows the end of the chase, the fulfillment of the embrace, the union, the marriage.
But when Paul says “I press on” in Philippians, he is using this strong verb which describes the all-encompassing hot pursuit of passion. He makes it clear that his passion is not yet fulfilled, he is in the chase, but he looks forward to the fulfillment of his desire for union with Christ. Paul reflects the emotion of the Christian mystics who also use the language of love to describe their spiritual quest. Wrote Jacopone da Todi,
Once I spoke, now I am mute;
I could see once, but now I am blind.
Oh, the depths of the abyss in which,
Though silent I speak; fleeing, I am bound;
Descending, I rise; holding, I am held;
Outside, I am within; I pursue and am pursued.
Love without limits, why do You drive me mad
And destroy me in this blazing furnace?
(tr. Serge and Elizabeth Hughes, Jacopone da Todi: the Lauds, 261)
In this most vulnerable language, in this most reflective moment, even in his pain-filled old age, Paul does not claim victory as an apostle, but writes from the leading edge of his life about spiritual perseverance. “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” He isn’t finished. He hasn’t arrived. He continues his pursuit. He won’t hold on to the past, won’t even look back to it now. He turns to the future and keeps going.
Paul says he wants “to know Christ,” which he specifically defines as following in the steps of Christ’s cross and resurrection. In much of Paul’s writing the cross and resurrection symbolize the now and the not-yet of our faith, the before and after of our spiritual journey. Here in Philippians, the cross represents his sacrifice in order to serve.
Paul is near the sunset of his life. It’s a natural time to polish your trophies and look back on your accomplishments with satisfaction.
But the past can also be limiting. Making an idol of the past can keep us from moving on to the new things God promises to do. As William Bridges suggests, sometimes the most important question we can ask ourselves is “What is it time for me to let go of?” As one person put it, “If the past is the only future you can imagine, you are already dead.”
Celebrate the good, but let it go. That goes for churches as well as individuals. For us to move forward we have to let go of what the church used to be, of what used to work, of the pain and the pride and the prejudice of days gone by which will never return, and turn towards the new creation. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” God says through the prophet Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Do we trust God enough to let go and look forward? Are we resting on our laurels or persevering in hot pursuit of the Christ is always a step ahead of us? In this way we embrace the resurrection, and lean into the future God holds for us.
I imagine old Paul, writing his friends in Philippi not to go back to what they used to glory in, but to move ahead into what God is doing now. It lifts his spirits. It leads him to realize he is still on the journey to discover who the living Christ is and what he is up to. Maybe the old get clarity finally about what matters most and what should come first.
Two weeks left in Lent but we still have time today to stop and remember all the good we have received from God, to celebrate that grace but also find the courage to turn from it towards the next chapter in our journey together. So let’s come to the table and be nourished spiritually in remembering God’s ever present grace. And then let’s press on in the journey of becoming the people of God in our time, in this place, for the people waiting for us to bring good news. That we may know Christ. That they might know Christ in us. Amen. May we pray?
Now, O Christ, meet us in this table. Reveal the depth of your love. Fill us with your grace. Heal us from all enmity and strife. Help us to let go of what has been and turn with you to what will be because we trust our tomorrow into your hands. Most of all, beloved Christ, let us pursue your presence above all else that we may know you and follow in the path of the cross that we might somehow reach the resurrection for the sake of your dear name. Amen.