A sermon based on Philippians 3: 4-14
In conventional models of mission or evangelism Christianity is often presented as the answer to all of life’s problems, but what Paul writes here in Philippians points to quite the reverse being true.
Having faith in Christ gave no answer to Paul’s problems; On the contrary, faith in Christ disturbed the answers he already had (!), those answers he had worked out and lived by all of his life and sent him looking for new answers.
A pious Jew, he had life sown up or so he thought. A scrupulous Jew, who followed the law with vigour and relish. There is no hint here in what Paul writes that he had any problem in following the Jewish law in its entirety and complexity. He was accomplished and secure and settled in what he thought and believed.
But without going into any details about his conversion experience, he tells us graphically the result;
It turned his life and belief system upside down. In fact everything he previously believed and lived for and took pride in was revealed to him as rubbish. This translation softens what Paul actually says because in Greek he says that everything he had is now like “dung” to him.
So being “in Christ” did not bring serenity but upset. It’s as if someone had approached his life with a big wooden spoon and just stirred everything up leaving him feeling disorientated.
His religion, which had given his life structure and stability and imbued his life with certain values he now understood as being rubbish in comparison to the new revelation that he calls “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.
This knowing he calls being “in Christ”. It’s like his whole life has been grabbed by God and given a huge shake.
This knowing Christ Jesus, being “in Christ” he describes as being of surpassing value – it is overpowering in fact but it doesn’t necessarily give neat answers to anything. These have to be sought after and struggled over.
He acknowledges that although he wants to know Jesus, he doesn’t know him fully and has “not reached this goal but I press on to make it my own because Christ has made me his own”. In other words we might not know God but God already knows us.
So he presses on, straining forward to what lies ahead, not knowing what lies ahead, but sure that in the Christ event he has heard the call of God urging him onwards.
Hearing the voice of God, the call of God urging you to explore is rarely a physical literal thing. The call of God I would try and describe as an urge, a psychic pressure, an inner compulsion to do one thing rather than another thing. The only control on those inner compulsions to go one way rather than another way is to ask the question “do they comply with the law of love or not?” Discernment is needed here both personal and corporate.
The Christian way is a voyage of discovery and it should be a comfort to many of us that the letter we are poring over and trying to decipher is written by someone who freely admits that he has not reached spiritual maturity either. He has not reached his goal but he is on the way. It is a classic case of faith seeking understanding.
What Paul is sure of is however is what all Christians should endeavour to make their own – that they are living in God’s Grace. God’s love surrounds them and they need not feel afraid. In this love and freedom we stand – but not necessarily understanding all the ramifications of living in that love. Freedom can be a bit scary for people who have lived their whole lives in a guilded cage, having religious structures and dogmas and laws which have transpired to construct a mental prison for themselves. Religions can be beautiful constructions, as religions usually are, as Judaism was for Paul, and yet still be, as Paul discovered, spiritually empty. Jesus said of such people inhabiting these constructions that they were are like “Whitewashed tombs”. Looks lovely from the outside, but dead inside.
Secure in God’s Grace we stumble onwards drawn by the call of God, deeper into life, and seek to understand guided by the light of Christ’s example to follow. So though we strain and stumble forwards – seeing through a glass darkly - we are nevertheless secure in God’s love.
What we are doing by living this way Paul encapsulated neatly in last week’s offering from Philippians, in the sentence that precedes what we heard today.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” says Paul. What your salvation looks like and how it is expressed in your life will look different from how my salvation is worked out in my life. It will look different because it will be filtered through, and moulded by your life and experience and culture.
Crucially, the onus is on you to work it out in your own life. There is no template. No easy ready made answers. No one size fits all. Freedom is scary, but take heart - you are secure in God’s love every faltering step of the way.