This sermon was given on the seventh of November 2010 at St. John the Baptist Church in a village near Oxford whilst I was on preaching placement. It was a long passage but I was only given 8-10 minutes to speak, so the message is compact, it leaves out much, but I hope gets across nonetheless the hope to which we hold on - that King Jesus died and rose again to save us from all that we have done to offend God and rightly and justly deserve eternal punishment - and that the process of sanctification is found in living a life before and in Jesus the Messiah.
Breaking with the Past
To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
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.
Pressing towards the Goal
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 towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so 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.Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
There is much I wish to say and explore about this chapter but time eludes me. To begin let us look at the passage as a whole. The chapter can be seen as having three sections. The beginning is a powerful exhortation and warning against those ‘dogs’ – dogs who are trying to undo the grace of Christ by insisting that Christians must follow the Jewish Law, that we must be circumcised. Paul makes clear that they are not the true ‘circumcision’ but rather we Christians, circumcised in spirit, we Christians who worship God our Father by the Holy Spirit and through Jesus the Christ, are the circumcision. Real progress in life then is not found in keeping all of the laws of Deuteronomy; it is found only in being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ – worshiping the One God and serving Him with praise. Obeying the Law can only give a superficial and incomplete righteousness; perfect righteousness is only to be found in the gift of the death upon the cross of Jesus the Messiah.
Paul moves on to speak to the Philippians of his own life, and how all that he was he now considers as being more worthless than garbage. If anyone on the planet could ever have claimed to be sinless and righteous before God it was Paul. He kept all the laws, he was circumcised on the eighth day, an Israelite of perfect lineage, and a man so zealous for the Law that he persecuted the Church - standing by and watching as St. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. Paul thought he was righteous, yet when on the Damascus Road he bore witness to the boundless righteousness of Jesus he found himself blinded by its glory. Now Paul sees again, and he sees that all he thought he was he was not, and sees that only in Christ can he be made righteous. For righteousness is not of the realm of humans, righteousness is a divine virtue imparted to us by grace, imparted by our living, broken, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul finally goes on to explain how to attain this righteousness, how to attain eternal life, and he calls on the Church to follow his example and devote their entire selves to Christ that they may be transformed into glory by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is largely on this final aspect of the passage that I wish to speak, to explore, to exhort, and to prayerfully seek understanding.
If Paul was so wrong about what righteousness was, then it remains to be asked what it truly is. For the Pharisee Paul, righteousness was a doing, an acting, a mechanical virtue found in living blamelessly, a ‘thing’. But Paul now sees that he was wrong – indeed was it not in ‘doing’ something to gain knowledge and righteousness that Adam and Eve fell from their relationship with God? Paul makes it clear that righteousness is this relationship with God. Righteousness is how a person relates to God who is the only truly Righteous and Holy One. And it is not Law that opens up the door to a relationship with God. No, God Himself opens it by sending His only Son to save the world, it is opened by God sending His Son to die, to rise, to ascend – and in doing so clear the path to a relationship with Him - if only we believe.
I remember as a child always wanting to be a soldier, a policeman, James Bond or Robocop. I watched all the movies, I read all the books. I even began practising martial arts and learnt archery and shooting. I did all of this because I wanted to be someone who could protect others, could protect myself. I took on role models from the movies and the books, from my Martial Arts instructor and my elder cousin who joined the Armed Forces. It is not surprising that being so committed to fulfilling this role and by pursuing it with intense desire I am now a Black Belt, a nationally qualified martial arts instructor, and a Yeoman Archer of Burton Constable Hall.
The message here is that we are formed into the image of what we desire. I am sure that all of us here have followed dreams, and chased personal goals, and in doing so found ourselves to have grown as people. This is exactly what Paul is speaking about in this passage. How are we transformed into glory? We are transformed into glory by desiring above all Christ.
It seems to be almost every day that I hear the term ‘five a day’ on the television or in a magazine. Dr. so and so says you should eat five a day to help keep the doctor away. And if you desire good health then Dr so and so is right. Paul himself followed a five a day plan as well – there were five things he needed and we need to do every day to keep ourselves in Christ.
- Firstly, Paul says that we must know Christ Himself – not just know about Him but know of Him, have a relationship with Him.
- Secondly, we must know the power of Jesus’ resurrection and what that power means for us.
- Thirdly, we need a healthy portion of fellowship in the life of Christ. That is to say that we must give ourselves freely, empty ourselves selflessly, and equally we must be elevated with Christ to the glory above.
- Fourthly, we must accept that death is coming; death is the great leveller of all that lives. We all die, even Jesus died.
- And it is in His death that we find the final portion of spiritual fruit, the cherry on the top as it were – Jesus died, the Son of God died, as absurd as such a proposition sounds, for each one of us individually Jesus died. But He was resurrected, He trampled down death by death – and opened the gates that we may do the same. So, finally and above all, we must desire the resurrection that is to come, the new life on the new earth where there is no more pain or suffering, death or fear, darkness or dissension.
And just as when I zealously desired to be an action hero I trained and dreamed every day - so I made myself that little bit closer to being one. And so each day we desire to be resurrected in Christ so that happens. For sure, and as Paul makes clear, we are not yet resurrected, we do not live in the Kingdom yet to come, but to think of ‘the resurrection’ as this single event in a far away unpredictable time is to miss the seed of the Kingdom of God already in us – the ray of heaven that lightens all of our lives if only we let it out of the box. The resurrection may only be completed at the End of Days, but the resurrection calls here and now for death. A death to those aspects of our lives that distance us from Jesus and His life – that distance us from one another – that they may be resurrected and thus reformed, made holy, and be aspects of our lives found in Christ and not in darkness.
I recall some years ago getting off the school bus and a girl named Katy coming to talk to me. Now I had known Katy since she was born, and I waved my hand, I was about to say hello when somehow I found I had forgotten her name! I am sure we have all had experiences of forgetting small details, names, phone numbers, did you lock the door – you go back and check and it is locked and then you head off again and find five minutes later you still can’t remember! Sometimes forgetting can be embarrassing, insulting, and annoying.
But in this passage Paul teaches us that forgetfulness can be a blessing. As I am sure you are all aware, there is another side to memory – not being able to forget things, not being able to forget things we have done or thought. I know for certain I will never forget accidently breaking a shed window and paying for it out of months of pocket money! Nor will I forget the insulting things I have said at times of anger or frustration to my dearest friends. Looking back can bring joyful memories, but also memories that cause feelings of guilt, disappointment and discouragement to rise up, memories of sins and bad attitudes to things that have gone on around us. However, there is hope.
Paul, who of all people could claim to have been righteous without fail, looked back and saw mistakes, saw his persecution of his Messiah, looked back and felt guilt. Paul in this passage tells us that even though he is an apostle (and as we know, destined to become one of the greatest of the saints) he is still running the race, still aiming for the treble-twenty on the target. Paul, even though in prison and at the end of his life, is still pursuing Christ, is still desiring the resurrection, is still being transformed from glory to glory. And Paul knows two things:
– Firstly that God is Good. It cannot be stressed enough how truthful that statement is – God is Good and God not only forgives all who repent but forgets.
- Secondly, that when a runner runs a race, it is when they look back at the other racers that they slow and stumble. Paul calls for us to leave behind the past and be reborn – be resurrected – here and now in Christ, to put to death our faults daily and let them be risen in Christ. And may Christ bless us that this be done!
So, brothers and sisters, with this in mind let us push on towards what is ahead – a life with Jesus – that we may be defined and transformed by Him. Let us desire to fulfil “that high calling of God in Christ Jesus” for us – to be citizens of heaven, just as in fact we are. And as Paul concluded this passage so may I humbly say to you: “brothers and sisters… stand firm in the Lord in this way – my beloved.”
[a wordle of Philippians]