A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Philippians 3:4b-14
We need some context to understand why Paul is talking the way he is in this scripture passage. The Philippian church (which Paul planted!) has apparently, in his absence, been hearing from Jewish-Christian teachers who are claiming authority because of their Jewish-ness.
So what does Paul do? He out Jewish-es them!
He challenges their cred by showing that he has even more. He offers his resume and credentials and dares anyone to top him.
And then, having made such a bold claim, he instantly declares that all that former stuff – all of his status and achievements and whatnot – is all rubbish compared to knowing Christ. The word for ‘rubbish’ here also means garbage, or even dung!
That’s pretty colourful and salty talk!
We need to be careful to remember that Paul isn’t saying “Jewish-ness” is rubbish – he simply means anything and everything related to human achievement or status pales in comparison to intimately knowing Christ.
What Paul’s doing is weighing human accomplishment against spiritual depth.
Paul is challenging them with a paradigm shift. He argues that Christianity is not concerned about the keeping of the Law of Moses (which would have been the focus of Jewish-rooted teachers), but that righteousness comes through one’s relationship with Jesus. If you know and love Jesus, deeply and intimately, and follow Jesus’ Way, then you, through your faith, inherit Jesus’ righteousness.
Philippians 3:8-9 “…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.”
That’s a paradigm shift.
It’s troubling that Christianity so often still reverts to moralism and rule following, rather than intimacy and relationship in and with Christ.
Maybe this will help us hear Paul’s message more fully. I’m going to offer a paraphrase of this scripture passage, but instead of it coming from Paul’s perspective it’ll come from mine. It’s a little bold, but that’s for effect.
So, Philippians 3:4-14 rewritten for today:
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in their accomplishments, I (the Reverend Doctor Larry Doyle) have more: baptized as an infant, a member of the United Church my whole life, a Christian born of Christians; as to theology, an academic; as to fervour, an unapologetic evangelist and prophet; as to righteousness, an ordained minister (got the collar, and degrees, and everything!).
“Yet all of that stacked up is nothing compared to the gift of being in a deep relationship with God through the Way of Jesus. In fact, all that stuff is utter crap if it even for one second somehow keeps me from knowing and trusting God more fully – because degrees, and speaking, and writing, and credentials don’t lead you to faith – a passionate, open, humble heart does.
“I want to know Christ intimately, and to long for God, and to love like Jesus did so that I can be more like him – and I can only do that if I die every day to my old self and become reborn into new life and a new Way, the Way of Jesus, every day – every hour – every minute.
“I am in hot pursuit of experiencing oneness in my relationship with God because Christ has pursued me, and caught me, and become one with me. My friends, I haven’t done it myself – but I will do this: I will leave my old self behind and throw myself, heart and soul, into the new life that God is calling me to. I’ll stay in pursuit of the ultimate prize – the holy call of God that I have found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That call – to love God, to love people, and to love one another – is all!”
This whole passage is built around one Greek word: diokein. It gets translated with two or three different English words here (depending on your bible version), but it’s all the same word 3 times in these 10 verses!
The main expression is ‘press on’. To press on means to pursue, as in hot pursuit – it’s actually a hunting term.
But really interestingly the exact same word is translated as ‘persecute’.
When Paul says in verse 6 that he’s a ‘persecutor of the church’ it’s a double meaning. Once he persecuted against Christians – that’s our usual understanding of ‘persecuted’. But it can also be understood positively.
A ‘persecutor of the church’ can also be someone who is utterly passionate about it, positively.
So, to press on, to persecute, to pursue – what?
Philippians 3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Press on toward the goal for the prize.
Not the prize of a heavenly reward upon a life of good deed-doing. That’s more like a scorecard; like worrying about keeping the law.
That’s not our paradigm.
Paul makes it crystal clear that he’s not talking about a destination; he’s talking about a lifelong journey of going ever deeper into the Way of Jesus.
It’s a shame that we’ve inherited this tradition of what some call ‘destination Christianity’ when we should be focusing on ‘relationship Christianity’ – our ever deepening relationship with Christ, and all the love that produces in us and through us.
That’s the goal. Now, generally speaking, we like goals.
I bet you have goals. Career goals. Fitness goals. Monetary goals. Maybe relationship goals.
Do you have faith goals?
If so, what would they be?
How will you know if you’re making progress?
How will you know if you’ve attained it?
Will you ever attain your faith goal?
Should you ever attain your faith goal?
(Will he ever stop asking questions?)
I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about this in the days to come.
Think about your journey in faith, your faith life.
Say to yourself: I used to… Now I… My goal is to… What?
I know this kind of thing is hard for us to articulate, but hopefully as you look at your faith life you’ll see all sorts of ways you’ve deepened in understanding and in loving-kindness.
But what’s your goal?
Can you put it into words?
Are you pursuing it?
Are you pursuing it passionately?
Are you persecuting it?
Are you hunting it?
Are you constantly pressing on toward it?
(Geez, he’s back to all those questions again!)
I think the most important part of this teaching is to realize that we will never ‘arrive’ but will always be ‘pressing on’.
My way to say it is to journey ever deeper. Paul with all his credentials, and life experience, and religious leadership is constantly journeying ever deeper.
Philippians 3:12 Paul says, “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.”
I’ve got my own share of credentials, and life experience, and religious leadership and I am still constantly striving and pressing on toward growing ever deeper in faith – and ever broader in compassionate love and justice as a by-product of that faith.
Our reward, our prize, doesn’t get handed to us like a participation trophy one day when we’ve ticked enough boxes, or shown up often enough.
Our reward, our prize, is an ever deepening love of God, love of neighbour, and love of one another that we experience, and are immersed in, and express along the way.
Persecute that, hunt that, press on toward that and you will know Christ, ever more deeply.
I wrote a song about this a few years ago.
The chorus says, “Along the way, I found my way along ‘The Way’” – with that last The Way being the Way of Jesus.
The first verse talks about music and how that is, for me, a vital way I express my faith.
The second verse tries to acknowledge that this journey is not always sunshine and unicorns.
It goes like this:
Along the way I’ve stumbled, tripped, and fallen
Lost my nerve and dropped the ball
And yearned that there could be Something More
Along the way I’ve learned to drop my guard
Wondered why I fought so hard
And marvelled how my spirit now soars…
Our faith journeys have bumps and bruises – lots of them self-inflicted.
Rule following is easy – surrendering in love, setting aside your ego, allowing your true self to be known and loved anyway, dying to what was and being reborn into what’s deeper – that’s a harder journey.
But it’s the only spiritual journey that really matters.
Knowing and loving Christ and being known and loved by and in Christ.
That’s the journey.
Everything else is crap.
I pray that along the way, you too have found and are continuing to find your way along ‘the Way’.
Press on, friends.
That’s the goal.
Here’s the song…
Along the Way
Along the way I’ve heard life’s melody
Tasted sweetest harmony,
Felt the depths that song moves my soul
Along the way I’ve breathed your rhythm in
Seen my music rise again,
Sensed that I’m in tune and I’m whole
Along the way I’ve danced and I’ve grooved and I’ve prayed
Along the way I’ve sang the spirit songs you gave
Ch: Along the way I’ve found my way, along The Way
Along the way I’ve stumbled, tripped, and fallen
Lost my nerve and dropped the ball and,
Yearned that there could be Something More
Along the way I’ve learned to drop my guard
Wondered why I fought so hard, |
And marvelled how my spirit now soars
[Words and Music by Larry Doyle ©2011 WayJ Music]