Press on toward the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ
- Philippians 3:1-4:1
Joy in Tough Times
“Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ…
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” — and in Seattle.
Do we recognize that greeting? Where does it come from? Yes, this is Paul’s opening greeting to his beloved sisters and brothers at Philippi (Philippians 1:2, 1).
This greeting is music to our ears, yet it was a greeting heard in troubled times.
Another opening, more startling but also relevant to the times, are these words:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.” — Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
Where does that quote come from? Yes, Charles Dickens opening words to his classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities.
Christians gather for worship under the shadow of imperial power. Sisters and brothers in the faith know oppression and suffering, even imprisonment and facing death for their faith. These are troubled times. Nevertheless, God is worshiped and God’s Word is proclaimed.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, are we speaking of first century Christians living under Roman imperial rule? Or are we speaking of 21 st century Christians living under American imperial reign?
A couple of decades after Jesus left the earth, Paul wrote a letter to his beloved community at Philippi. A Letter assumes a distance between writer and reader even while seeking to bridge that distance.
In an age of instant e-mail and text messaging, we may be loosing a sense of the power of letters to do just that: witness to distance and bridge distance. Letters offer the paradox of absence and presence.
The reality was that Paul was absent from the Philippians and longed to be present. His absence was due to being in prison for his faith under imperial power. Paul hoped to see them soon and yet knew he faced death and may never see them again. Yet Paul also knew that being in prison, “actually helped to spread the gospel” as he says in this letter (1:12).
Marilyn reminded us in her introduction this Letter to the Philippians 2 Sundays ago, that Paul’s Letter to the Philippians serves as a distant mirror for Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963 or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and papers from Prison” in 1943. They are modern models of pastoral letters from prison.
This letter offers us a powerful window into the poignant relationship between Paul, the servant of Christ for the Gospel, which is how he identifies himself in this letter rather than as an Apostle, and the Christian community founded around Lydia at Philippi (Acts 16), which was his “partner in the gospel” (Fred Craddock, Philippians , Interpretation, vii).
A Word on Paul
I confess my long-standing quarrel with Paul. I have had a love-hate struggle with this great early Christian leader. To follow up the sports and coaching metaphor that Emily shared with the children, sometimes Paul sounds more like Bobby than John Wooden. Nevertheless, I admire Paul for his unswerving passion and undeterred commitment to Jesus Christ in the emerging Christian movement of the first century. I listen to Paul as a primary leader and teacher in the church and interpreter of Jesus Christ not only for the specific faith communities to whom he wrote but for all the church in all times and places including SMC today. For now I set aside questions of which letters Paul actually wrote, although it is fairly clear that he wrote this Letter to the Philippians as one of his first letters and earliest New Testament writings. I also set aside debates about whether Paul has largely been misinterpreted across Christian history or whether he is indeed interpreted correctly for his time and place in ways that render some of his writings troublesome to so many of us in our time and place. In any case, the Apostle Paul is so prominent and passionate that it is impossible for us not to pay close attention to his writings which loom so large and central to our Christian scripture called the New Testament.
Paul’s letter is a devotional word rather than a doctrinal word. It implicitly is a worship book focusing our allegiance on Jesus and the reign of God over the Roman empire. It includes the great early Christian hymn which we have sung and heard each Sunday. Paul rejoices in Christ even in troubled times and while suffering even facing death.
Fred Craddock, one of the great preacher-teacher’s of the past half century, has written a wonderful commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Interpretation). In the preface, Craddock urges us to read this letter as a letter and read it out loud (vii). Remember we heard the whole letter read out loud in worship two Sundays ago, September 14.
Last Sunday you heard from the first half of Philippians, chapters 1 and 2. This Sunday we hear chapter 3. Next Sunday we will hear chapter 4, the final portion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Try reading and praying the whole Letter this week or at least read chapter 4 in preparation for next Sunday.
Words from Paul…..Philippians 3:1 – 4:1
I want to highlight an endearing term Paul called his community at Philippi and 4 instructions or words of encouragement Paul gives us in chapter 3. The words taken from different parts if this chapter and put together name us and encourage us in the faith of Jesus Christ. They are:
Beloved rejoice, beware, press on, stand firm.
Paul so loves these dear friends in Christ at Philippi and calls them “Beloved.” They are beloved friends in Christ to him. And Paul knows that they are beloved by God in Christ as well. Being God’s beloved children makes it possible for them to be beloved sisters and brothers for Paul.
Lat summer in a conversation that Sarah Klaassen and I had as we reflected on what she was learning in her ministry internship among us, I shared with her what I have found to be central to pastoral ministry. I asked it as a question: Do you feel loved by these people and do you love them?
That question has become a central marker for me as a pastor. It isn’t the only question for a pastor but as long as you can answer “Yes” to that question you can face any questions or challenges ministry sets before us in the church. I count it as gift and blessing that my answer to that question has always been “yes!”
In this portion of Paul’s letter, calling them “beloved” comes further along in verse 13. We’ll hear it again next Sunday in chapter 4 (verse 8). And he has called them “beloved” already in chapters 1 and 2 (verse 12 in both). Paul also repeatedly calls them his “brothers and sisters”– which for Paul is equally endearing. In the portion of the letter we heard today Paul begins by saying:
Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord (3:10).
And we concluded today’s scripture with Paul’s passionate naming and encouragement to these dear friends. He begins by saying “Therefore.” In the Bible, when we hear the word “therefore” we need to ask what it is “there for?”
Hear Paul’s words and you will know the answer.
“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” (4:1).
Next Sunday we begin with those words and hear the conclusion of Paul’s Letter to his beloved friends in Christ at Philippi.
Rejoice is our first of four words of instruction in this chapter. It is a word we have heard often from Paul already in this letter. So I won’t say more about it except to repeat Paul’s refrain, even though we have heard it before. He begins this part of the Letter by saying, “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in Christ” (3:1).
The next word of encouragement is really a warning. Paul tells them to “Beware!” But “beware” of what? The specific concern is circumcision as a mark of male Jewish identity but there is more going on than circumcision. It is about how and who we are in Christ and in the world.
I like how feminist biblical scholar Pheme Perkins puts it in her short commentary on Philippians in The Women’s Bible Commentary (343):
The problem is caused by missionaries who insist that non-Jewish converts ought to adopt Jewish practices….Paul rejects this attempt to establish one’s religious identity in the flesh. He had abandoned all the special privileges of a faithful Jew when he recognized that salvation comes to all people in Jesus….In this context, Paul refers to Christians as persons whose commonwealth is in heaven. The word “commonwealth” refers to the political organization of a minority community within a larger nation-state….As in the Christian hymn (ch 2), [Paul’s] advice might suggest that Christians divorce themselves from political struggle [because they are part of the commonwealth of heaven with the risen Christ]. However, it was just such a gospel of salvation for all peoples, without regard to ethnic identity or gender, that has led to Paul’s imprisonment. The social challenge of the gospel was felt in Paul’s world.
In a few words here Paul ranges from the personal, the bodily, to the political and universal. Paul tells them that they are citizens of a “commonwealth” that calls forth our one allegiance beyond any allegiance on earth. Indeed you can only have one allegiance.
It is a word worth hearing — especially in an election season. Paul warns us to beware that ritual accommodation and allegiance to earthly rites and reigns are “rubbish,” as he calls it in verse 8. Doing all the “right stuff” he “counts as loss because of Christ” (3:7). What matters is to “know Christ and the power of [Jesus’] resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like [Christ]” (3:10).
The next word from Paul is to “press on.” Paul uses metaphors from different arenas of life: the body (3:3ff), the military (2:25), and now sports. He encourages the Philippians to “press on” whatever comes even in our suffering. Paul compares Christian life to an athletic contest:
Beloved….forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (3:13-14).
Paul is telling us that our life of faith, our spiritual life is not measured by religious performance yet we also dare not be passive spiritual “couch potatoes.”
I am reminded of Francis Thompson’s great short story, The Hound of Heaven , a poem about passionately pursuing God who already and always passionately pursues us.
Paul presses on in Christ and toward Christ calling us to do the same until our full identity is in and with Christ in the community of faith, the body of Christ (Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Walter Brueggemann, Eugene Peterson, Spiritual Formation Bible NRSV , 2135).
The final word to highlight that we heard from Paul today is to “stand firm.” Paul is not calling us to just any way to “stand firm.” This is not an stubborn standing still or obstinate standing apart from life. It is not a blind insistence on “staying the course.” No! How are we to stand firm? Only one way: in Christ. That is to stand firm in total allegiance to Jesus Christ. You cannot “stand firm” in two directions or with two allegiances. Only one is possible and that one is “in Christ.”
Hear Paul’s passionate powerful words in this concluding word this morning:
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in [Christ] in this way, my beloved” (4:1).
Good and gracious God, we have come here today to worship you in spirit and in truth. We come to be instructed in your Holy Word and inspired to live your Holy Way together in Christ. We hear your Word and Way in Christ through your servant Paul to his beloved sisters and brothers in Philippi then and in Seattle now. Empower us now and always through your Holy Spirit to rejoice, beware, press on, and stand firm in Christ as your beloved people. We pray with gratitude for your servant Paul who inspires and instructs us as he did his beloved sisters and brothers at Philippi. We pray in the name of the living, crucified, and risen Christ. AMEN