Sunday, October 08, 2023

That I May Know Him

This is the written version of my sermon for this week!

The audio version of the sermon can be listened to at this link:

That I May Know Him

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 3:4-14

Our second reading today is one of my favourite passages, although that description doesn't really do it justice. I don't know about you, but when I hear the word ‘favourite’, I can't help but think of Julie Andrews and the Sound of Music. ‘Favourite’ in the sense of the sort of things that Julie Andrews sings about are not what I mean in talking about this passage! Favourite simply doesn’t do it justice. This passage gets to the heart of what being a believer in Christ is, or should be, all about. It is a life changing passage - at least it changed mine.

St Paul writes:

‘that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10–11, LSB)

Last week, we saw how St Paul dealt with personal differences and disagreements in the church at Philippi by urging the Philippian believers to have the ‘same mind’ in themselves that was in Christ Jesus. While there were some personal conflicts in the church, we said that church in Philippi does not appear to have had any serious theological issues in the way, for example, that the churches in Galatia had.

St Paul’s experience, however, was of people who were determined to cause theological problems in his churches by challenging his understanding of the Gospel. This challenge came principally from Jewish believers in the Church who felt that St Paul was wrong about God's Law and its role in the life of a believer. St Paul was concerned that these people might one day make their way to Philippi and cause trouble in the church. He wants to warn the Philippian believers in advance before they get there. He does not hold back. St Paul writes:

‘Beware of the dogs! Beware of the evil workers! Beware of the mutilation!’ (Philippians 3:2, LSB)

I said last week that it was amazing that St Paul, himself a devout Jew and a contemporary of Jesus, could write about Jesus in the exalted way he does in chapter 2. It is also amazing that he can talk of his opponents in this way. What St Paul's opponents were advocating was everything that St Paul himself had devoted his life to before he became an apostle. What they advocated was not in itself so revolutionary. They simply taught that if someone believed in God's Messiah, they should also keep God's Law.

One of the central commandments of that Law was that a male must be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant and their commitment to God. God himself had said when he gave the commandment to Abraham that a person could not be a member of God's people, if they were male, unless they were circumcised (Genesis 17:14). Jesus himself was circumcised, as was St Paul. And yet here St Paul calls those who advocate circumcision ‘the mutilation’. Instead, St Paul tells the Philippian believers that it is they who are the ‘circumcision’. They are the ones who worship in the spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3).

The word ‘flesh’ in the New Testament can refer both to the physical stuff of which we are made and to our nature as humans, that is, our ‘self’ and our identity. St Paul sees circumcision as a mark in a person’s physical flesh that symbolizes a person's confidence in themselves. Certainly, St Paul’s opponents were proud of their Jewish heritage and all that went with it.

The obvious response to what St Paul writes here was to suggest that perhaps St. Paul said this because he himself had nothing to be pleased about and little to boast of. In fact, this was something St Paul's opponents did say to Corinthian believers when they turned up at the church in Corinth to cause trouble there. They accused St Paul of being unimpressive physically and inferior to other leaders in the Church (2 Corinthians 10:10). In our passage today, St Paul responds directly to this accusation.

He writes that he was circumcised on the eighth day. In other words, as a Jew he was the genuine thing: he was of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of Hebrews. When it came to the Law itself, he writes, he was a Pharisee, that is, he was a member of one of the groups within Judaism that was most committed to the Law. As for zeal, he was a persecutor of the Church; in other words, he had actively opposed those whom he saw as the enemies of God's Law. As to righteousness which came by obedience to the Law, he was blameless. He had had and had done everything that his opponents valued and advocated.

But here's the thing, says St Paul, whatever had been to his own personal gain, he now counted loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, he claims, he counts all things as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. This could all sound like mere rhetoric or just well-meaning words, except that St Paul continues by writing that he actually has suffered the loss of all things for Christ. Rather than missing them, he counts them as rubbish that he may gain Christ and have a righteousness that is not his own, gained by his own effort keeping the Law, but a righteousness that comes through the Gospel and which is from God by faith.

It is, then, after explaining all this, that St Paul makes this powerful statement. St Paul writes:

‘… that I may know Him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10–11, LSB)

St Paul has had and has done all that his opponents advocate and boast about, but he has given it all up, not reluctantly but gladly. Nothing compares to knowing Christ. Even so, St Paul writes that he has not yet obtained all that he wants but he presses on looking forward to what God has promised to give him.

He tells the Philippian believers that he wants them to see him as a role model and to do the same. Knowing Christ now, they too are to press on to what God has for them in Christ in the future.

There is so much I wish I had the time to say about this passage, but perhaps I can highlight the following three points.

1. Losing all things for Christ

St Paul had literally lost all things for Christ, including his freedom. St Paul you will remember is in prison for Christ when he writes this letter to the church at Philippi. It is important, however, to make a distinction here. There are some things it is necessary to lose either because they are bad in themselves or are bad for us. Killing, stealing, and lying are examples of things that are bad in themselves. Alcohol, while not bad in itself, may for example, be bad for someone who finds it hard to stop drinking. There are other things, however, that while not necessarily bad either in themselves or for us that we still have to be prepared to lose if God wants us to.

St Paul judges all things in relation to the value that Christ has for him. We too need to see the value of things in the light of Christ. Seen in this light, things that previously we saw as not only good but of great value become of much less value. St Paul writes he regards them as rubbish. Most of us do not find ourselves called to lose all things, but we are all called to value things differently to how society around us values them, and this can be hard.

The other day, I was watching a documentary about women who wanted to become nuns. In it, some nuns were filmed going into a school to talk to young teenagers about what being a nun involved for them. They describe how they took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These young women had literally given up all things. What do you think the teenagers found hardest to believe the nuns had given up? The first thing on their list was their phones!

Now we may not value phones as much as the teenagers did (although I expect we may!), but there are things that each of us do value. These are things which are really important to us and which we cannot imagine doing without. They may not be materially valuable. They may be more the sort of favourite things that Julie Andrews sings about. But they are things that we find the thought of losing difficult even distressing. We need to ask ourselves what it is that we would find most difficult to give up for Christ.

2. Gaining Christ

Secondly, we need to see that we are not called to give up things for the sake of it. Indeed, most of the time, apart from things that are intrinsically wrong, most of us are not called actually to give things up at all. What St Paul is concerned about, however, is the value we place on things compared to the value we place on our relationship with Christ. St Paul is happy to lose all things because in losing them he gains Christ.

People will often make sacrifices for something they believe in, even being willing to die for a cause. This is not what St Paul is talking about here. St Paul is concerned here not so much with what we believe, although that comes into it, but with how important our relationship with Christ is to us and what we would be prepared to give up in order to know him, irrespective of whether we are in reality called to give them up or not.

Often, we are emotionally attached to things whether they are intrinsically valuable or not. They can dominate our lives and occupy a central place in them. It is Christ and knowing him who is to be the centre of our lives and, for St Paul, it is the surpassing value of knowing Christ that makes it possible for us to give up things that we value.

We are always going to be attached to things and find them hard to give up if we don't have a relationship with Christ. It is not easy believing in God and living a life of faith, and if we remain at the level of seeing our faith as a philosophy of life or a code of ethics, we will never quite understand what St Paul is talking about here. When, however, we see our faith as being about a relationship with Christ who is himself the source of all things, including life itself, that we will gain a different perspective on life.

3. Forgetting what is behind

Thirdly, St Paul knows that although we can truly and personally know Christ now, we know him as people who are mortal and who will one day die. St Paul’s own hope is that that he will attain the resurrection of the dead, that is, that after his death he will be raised from the dead to live with Christ eternally, and so his relationship with Christ will last forever. This is the goal he is pressing towards and what he is looking forward to, and he wants the Philippian believers and us to do the same.

It is hard to look forward, however, if you are always looking back. This is why St Paul writes that in reaching forward to what lies ahead, he also forgets what lies behind.

Some people have problems remembering, either because they have a bad memory or, more seriously, because of a terrible illness such as Alzheimer's. Others of us, though, have a problem forgetting. We have difficulty forgetting, for example, the wrong we ourselves have done and because of the guilt we now feel; or in forgetting harm or injury that has been done to us in the past; or in forgetting opportunities that we missed or were denied to us. Life is full of ‘if onlys’: if only I had not done that; if only that had not happened to me; if only I had been given the opportunity or taken my chance when I had it. If only …

At one level, of course, it is impossible to forget, if by forget we mean ‘erase all memory of the past’. St Paul does not forget that he was a persecutor of the Church. He even mentions it here in this chapter. But we can let go of the memory; we can let go of the guilt, the regret, and the resentment; let go of all that might have been and focus instead on all that we now have in Christ and what we have gained in knowing Him. We all have things holding us back that we need to break free from, so we too can press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

When it comes to what we have given up for our faith, little is achieved if we continue to look back and to long for what we have lost. We are to forget both the good and the bad in our past and hold on to what we have attained in Christ and look forward with hope to all that God promises to those who are faithful to him.

May God grant us the will and the strength to do so.


No comments: