Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
One Sunday not long after I became a pastor here at Blythwood we were worshipping together one Sunday morning. We had finished a song, I was playing guitar and getting into it a little bit. The next thing I had to do was to go down to the floor of the sanctuary to lead the children’s time – tell a story and pray with them. I found when I came down from the platform that I was a little bit out of breath! I thought “This is no good!” I hadn’t been doing a great deal of activity but I did not realize to what extent this was affecting me. I thought I should start to do some aerobic type activity and started running on a treadmill. This was good, but soon I wanted to progress to actually running outside – which in my case is really more like jogging. I soon realized that running outside was a lot harder than running on a treadmill. I don’t want to get into too much detail but it was a lot more physically demanding. I had to watch out for people and bikes and dogs on the running trail and when bugs were bad kind of strain them through my teeth (gross). I’m still enjoying it though.
I don’t tell this story to hold myself up as a model for exercise or anything like that. I tell it because this experience led me to view this part of Philippians as one of my favourite images of the Christian life (walk, or run). I was already a big fan of the Bob Dylan song that we’ll hear in a little while, but the idea of running a race in which Christ has taken hold of us took on a lot more meaning. Let’s look at our text this morning about pressing on and hear what God has to say to our hearts.
V. 12 “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal…” Paul is referring to where we left off last week – his hope, which is our hope as followers of Christ, in the resurrection body on the day of Christ. This is the goal. We’re talking about looking ahead this week. Not that Paul has reached the goal, or has already been made perfect, as it can be translated. This idea of perfection is no so much in the sense of without flaw as much as it is something being brought to completion.
V. 12“I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” What a beautiful image. When I consider it I think of us running, or walking, or sometimes limping. Christ having taken hold of us, alongside us. Our series is entitled “In Christ” and we must always come back to this, particularly when we talk about the part we have to play in what one writer calls the “dance of discipleship.” We’re called to get out on the floor most definitely, remembering always that this is because Christ is the one who is inviting us to dance. We are in the middle of a great mystery again. A great paradox. We live in the in-between time that we call the already and not yet of the Kingdom of God – the time between Christ’s ascension and exaltation that we talked about in the Christ Hymn of chapter 2 and the day of Christ’s return. To follow Christ is to have been taken hold of by Christ. Paul knew what it meant to be taken hold of by Christ from the day he met Christ on the road to Damascus. The Psalmist expresses the same idea like this – “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:8)
At the same time there is work involved. There is struggle, there is effort. “Go to the world, go struggle bless and pray” is a line that we sing in our sending song all summer. Paul describes the struggle in terms of an athlete straining toward the finishing line – again he’s using a sports metaphor that resonated and still resonates so well. This is a full on sprint Paul is talking about, runners straining toward the tape. The forward lean. Going full out. This effort is founded and predicated on who Christ is, what Christ has done and will do. Fred Craddock puts it like this – “Trust in God’s grace did not make Paul less active…but rather set him free now to run without watching his feet, without counting his steps, without competing with other servants of Christ. His goal is clear: to be with Christ in the resurrection. To that end he can seek, because he has been found; he can know because he has been known; he can apprehend because he has been apprehended. In a word, Paul sought to lay hold of him who had already laid hold of Paul.”
It is in Christ that we live in this paradox. V. 13 “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.” Forgetting what lies behind. Both the things that we used to rely on and what Christ has already accomplished through us. This is not to say we put them out of our mind, but rather that we don’t rest on our laurels or sit inactive and pine for what we see as the glories of the past. I press on toward the goal, writes Paul, for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
The prize is our calling friends. The prize is both the journey and the destination. To be in Christ means to hold the prize and to look ahead to the prize. This is our calling. The prize is both the end and the means. To be called of Christ is a gift of grace. We are called to respond to that gift. Not to live our lives grasping, clinging to what we might see as honour, as glory. To come rather before God with empty hands like the hands of the runner straining toward the finish line, and to find in so doing that our hands our filled, with peace, with joy, with mercy, with love, with softened hearts. We become ever more fully human. Karl Barth puts it like this – “Each stage of the way is at once also a goal. We become, we grow, we acquire, we appropriate, we become ever more devout, ever purer, ever surer. Our own righteousness is like a capital that bears compound interest, however small it may be… the process must go on…” As we press on together. The prize is in the process of being transformed by and into the likeness of the one who emptied himself and took the form of a servant and was obedient to death even death on a cross. The one that has been highly exalted by God. The one we call Lord.
The question for us is – “How are we responding?” How are we responding to this gift? This was the concern of the holiness movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Wesleyans. The Methodists. It was rightly their concern. How are we leaving ourselves open to God working his transforming power within us? V. 15 “Let those of us then then who are mature be of the same mind...” Let those of us in whom the Holy Spirit is working maturity, working toward the goal, be of the same mind, the same orientation. An orientation that is rooted and founded in the crucified and risen and exalted Christ, who showed that the essence of divinity is self-sacrificing love. To believe that we can attain some measure of this love, that God’s love can be perfected in us, a love that’s described by John like this – “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” It’s a worthy belief! To leave ourselves open to the Holy Spirit making God’s love complete in us. To be a student of Christ. To sit at his feet. To practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, study, solitude, acts of service, worship together, gathering around the Lord’s Table – all the ways in which we strain forward together.
It makes us imitators of Christ. Examples of Christ. How could such a thing be? This is the outworking of all this pressing on. The outworking of our movement toward the goal for which Christ Jesus has made us his own. To become imitators of Christ. Examples of Christ. We press on together. I was talking about running at the beginning. It’s usually something I do on my own. It’s been great though when I’ve had the chance to run with other people. The last time we were in Bolivia some of us would go out in the early morning in Mizque and run around the town square. The local residents were no doubt going “What are these crazy people doing running around in circles?” It was good though. It’s an encouraging thing to do in a group, to cheer each other on, to not want to fall behind, to think “If they can keep going, so can I!” To imitate one another, as it were. “
V. 17 “Brothers and sister, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Like we were observing one another running, observe and imitate those who are running well. You might think this is a pompous claim to make – if you want to be following Christ well, just do what I’m doing. Remember though that the boasting that Paul has been talking about is boasting in Christ and in what Christ has done in and through him. Imitate me, writes Paul. Imitate those who I’ve been talking about like young Timothy and Epaphroditus who are genuinely concerned for their welfare and do not seek their own interests. They follow the example of Christ. He’s writing these things to the Philippians as a safeguard and we should read them the same way. You know how damaging it is when church leaders are not practicing what they preach. I often say that unless people have the unmistakable impression that we care about them, all our talk of God’s care for them will be simply that – talk. Meaningless. I don’t say these things because I think they’re not happening, I say them to remind us, myself included. These things will only come about from a mindset, a disposition, an orientation that leaves us wholly dependent on God for our holiness. Someone has said “Humility and simplicity help us better than anything else to acquire the right frame of mind to grow towards perfection.” Towards completeness. Towards the goal as we press on together. Of course this is not just for leaders. It’s for all of us. All of us are called in this Christ following life to be examples of Christ. “May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day, by his will and power controlling all I do and say.” We sang those words a couple of weeks ago. In this way we become imitators of Christ. Someone has put it this way – don’t preach the good news and be the bad news.
If you’re going around with a Jesus fish on the back of your car, you had best not be yelling out the window at people in rage. Or cutting people off.
Actually don’t do those things even if you don’t have a Jesus fish.
I say these things as a safeguard.
As we look forward. To look around us during this race is to get distracted by what this world sees as glory – self- interest, vain ambition, conceit, grasping, living with clenched fists. To live in such a way is to have a mind set on earthly things, Paul writes. We’re racing with open hands and finding that in so doing Christ fills them. The one whom we are expecting. Paul returns to language of citizenship, language that his Philippian family understood so well living as a kind of colony of Rome. V. 20 “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note the language Paul is using here. It’s not in terms of “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through” or even “We’re here living in exile waiting to be taken out of this place.” It’s more like we’re a colony of heaven awaiting the visit of our Lord. Our church, along with all the other churches around us, exist as outposts of heaven, called to press on together toward this goal. The church is the location of God’s delivering saving work. Our team going to Bolivia is going to find out how God is delivering on the other side of the earth and share about how God is delivering up here – that’s amazing! On that day V. 21 “He will transform the body of our humiliation (these bodies that are subject to loss, to decay) that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” On that day we’ll hear a voice saying “Look I am making all things new” and God himself will be with us and he will wipe every tear from our eyes and death will be no more and mourning and crying and pain will be no more for the first things will have passed away.
This is our hope friends. This is the goal toward which we press on to grasp that for which Christ has taken hold of us. He’s with us every step, holding us up. Let us stand firm in these great truths together as we keep on pressing on.