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The Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2016
The Epistle: Philippians 3:4b-14
Sermon: "Go Forward"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 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.
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, in order 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.
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. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but 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.
Every group has folks who just want to go back. We see it everywhere. Whether the group is a political party, a civic organization, or a church, there are persons who want to turn the clock back, no matter what the current circumstances. They always want to go back to the way they remember things used to be, whether things really were that way or not. Gus Harris, my first mentor as a pastor, used to call such folks, the "Back to Egypt Committee." He so named them for the Israelites who always called for turning back to Egypt whenever the trek to the Promised Land got tough.
In our Epistle lesson this morning from Paulís letter to the Philippians, Paul confronts his own Back to Egypt Committee. This particular committee of early Christians wanted the church to remain a Jewish sect; no Gentiles need apply unless they first became Jews. This meant strict adherence to the old covenant; which included not just the Kosher laws, but also circumcision.
To combat this backward look, Paul challenges them to go forward, not back. He starts the challenge by reminding his congregation that his own past was far superior to theirs. If anyone had reason to go back, he had more. In other words, his credentials as an observant, and superlatively faithful, Jew were impeccable. As an infant he had been circumcised on the eighth day. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He had been a Pharisee; a zealous advocate of his faith; so zealous in fact that he had persecuted Christians for not being Jewish enough. If anyone had reason to ďgo backĒ, he had more. But something had happened to Paul. He had been encountered by the living Christ, and now, going forward with Christ was all that mattered. He had found something in Christ that he had not found in the faith of his fathers; three things in fact that you and I can have as well.
The first thing Paul found in Christ was this: HE FOUND FREEDOM. Paul had spent much of his life trying to save himself through strict adherence to the Law. But somehow, this was not enough. It never is.
Being good simply because it is required has no saving power. That was the discovery that Paul made; keeping the Law for its own sake would never fill his deepest spiritual hunger. It wasnít for lack of trying. Paul had kept the law. By all rights he had earned whatever benefits should come to him from God this way. Yet, this had only left him empty; a fact he realized the day Christ encountered him on the road to Damascus. Being good according to the law, just to get God's favor, has no power to transform a life. Such tit Ėfor- tat, bargaining our behavior for Godís favor will never cause your life or mine to live. Paul had discovered that the spiritual Egypt of strict adherence to the law of religion to win God's favor was nothing but a kind of slavery.
The gift of God's unmerited favor, given through that encounter with Christ had set him free; free from worrying about salvation, free from having to earn Godís love, free from wondering if heíd done enough, lived the standards enough, sacrificed enough. That's where real freedom is found. Not in being good for goodness sake, but in an encounter with Jesus Christ where we simply accept his favor. In such acceptance we become free to be good and to do good. Free, because now we do it out of love and gratitude to the one who has set us free; full of a loving and grateful desire to do good. We don't earn God's favor, we are gifted with it in Jesus Christ. That sets us free; free from guilt, and free from self-focused, fear-driven religion. That was the first thing Paul found: freedom.
The second thing Paul found in Christ was this: HE FOUND UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. Paul discovered what it is to be loved unconditionally. Itís not a big surprise that many people of faith believe that Godís favor and love are conditional; subject to approval, and subject to revocation. Many of us have been raised with that message clearly proclaimed. It often starts in the earliest years.
As children we are constantly seeking approval from the significant people in our lives. If those significant people show their approval for us only when we do things right, then the message that we get is that when we are good, we are loveable. When we are not good, we are not loveable. Love, then, we learn, is something that we earn. If we have to live up to someoneís expectations to win or keep their love, that's conditional love.
Rigid obedience to the Law of God, as a condition of Godís approval, makes God's love conditional. The message of such faith is, "I love you only when you are obedient, only when you are sinless, only when you measure up to my standards." Can you imagine what a giant leap of understanding happened when Paul was able to write in his letter to the Romans, "But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us?" (5:8) That is unconditional love. There is lifechanging power in that kind of love.
Maxine Waters is a member of Congress from Watts, in Los Angeles. I taught school for a short time in her district. Maxine once shared that one of the first people to make a difference in her life was her fifthgrade math teacher. The teacherís name was Louise Carter. Waterís said, "Beyond her skill at teaching math, Ms. Carter was a very loving woman." Waters recalls one Saturday morning in particular. Ms. Carter had planned a class picnic; a rare special treat for kids in her economic strata. However, Waters' mother had not been able to get little Maxine ready in time to go. Waters had 12 brothers and sisters. It was quite a chore for her mother to get them all prepared, especially the girls, because it required that she spend time getting their hair all braided. Her mother was so busy trying to do everything, she just hadn't gotten to little Maxine yet. Waters was crushed knowing that she would be left behind.
"Then Ms. Carter came," says the Congresswoman. "She would not leave without me. She took me to her own home and washed and braided my hair herself and got my clothes together so I could go on the picnic. And it stayed with me forever that she would do that. I wasnít her best student, or even all that noticeable. But, if you think that a teacher really cares about you, then you want to live up to their expectations. You want to please them, and make them happy. Ms. Carter had high expectations for me, and, especially after that picnic, I tried my best to live up to them."
Thatís something of a picture of our relationship with God. God loves us even while we are unlovable. God takes us into his home, his presence, and washes us clean, as it were. God accepts us just as we are. Because we know that we are loved already, no preconditions, no fear of rejection, no constant re-approval process, we want to live up to God's expectations. We live a worthy life, not to earn God's love, but as a result of that love. Unconditional love is the second thing Paul found in Christ.
Here's the third: PAUL FOUND LIFE. After his encounter with Christ, Paul had a life that was more than just a living. Our lives often become consumed with just making a living; filled with small purposes, and little dreams. That may be a living, but it's not a life; not as Christ gives us to live life. All of us have lesser goals and purposes from which we gain a certain satisfaction in life. But these all tend to wear thin at some point. Especially in mid-life, or later in retirement, we will often find these things to no longer quench the inner thirst or the driving hunger that they once did. Such dreams or purposes can concern our jobs, or our social positions, or our desires to achieve social prominence, or recognition in some field, or to just gain success in an endeavor at home, or in relationships. When these no longer speak to us as they once did, or when we conclude that we have reached our limit, dreams can die and purposes grow stale.
But it is at just such a time that the larger purposes of Christ can renew us and draw us out and up again. At just such moments we can ask Christ for a new vision, a new way of seeing our lives and our works and hopes. God has always had greater and more wondrous purposes and plans for us than any of us have ever even dared to dream. If the dreams that fired your past no longer satisfy as they once did, it's not because you weren't big enough for them; it's because they were never big enough for you. Christ stands beside you, ready for you to ask, wanting to share with you and me God's vision for the rest of our lives; the vision that will fill our living with life.
Now, listen to St. Paul's words: "But 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 upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (3:13b) Paul discovered that there is no ceiling on discipleship; there is no limit on growing closer to God. We can grow to be better followers of Jesus at seventy and eighty and on than ever we are at twenty or forty. We can be more loving, more joyous, more focused. The mistake too many folks have made is taking their identity from a career or an endeavor rather than from Christ. If our dream is to be like Christ, we will never reach the point where it will wear out; where we will be forced to say, this is it. This is far as I can go.
For Paul there was no turning back, no winding down, no giving up. He had discovered freedom. He had found unconditional love. And, in Christ, he had found life filled with life. Itís all there, for you and me too, in Christ. Call upon him. He already loves you just as you are right now. Catch from him the vision of the upward way. Go forward for life!