Sunday, October 18, 2020

Agreement in the Lord: Sermon on Philippians 4:1-3

How does one denomination become two broken pieces? In the waning years of the nineteenth century, people in one of them were about, to their sorrow, to find out. And to think: it all started with just the ordinary tensions and rivalries of a couple people. Things began with a conflict between a bishop and the editor of the church newspaper. At first, it was a picking here, a picking there, an unpleasant word, a critical action. By the late 1880s, their friends and associates were coming to take sides. By 1890, bishops on each side of the dispute were being put on trial by the opposing faction. Before long, they were meeting in rival conferences, each claiming to be the true voice of the church. As things spiraled, nasty words came into play – 'vile,' 'despotic.'

And it filtered down to each local church. Every church building was owned by the conference, so if there were two groups each claiming to be the one true conference, who owned what? And each local congregation had to decide where to stand. In some places, they managed to keep the peace. One church was split in their views, but they managed to work out a sharing arrangement: each group got to use the building at alternate times, with their own preacher sent by their preferred conference, until the matter was settled. In another place, the factions treated each other graciously and parted amicably, bidding each other success in the gospel.

But those were, alas, the exception. Other churches divided in rather more acrimonious ways. In Reading, where each conference faction sent a different pastor to the same church – each of whom had previously served there and was known to the people – the whole ordeal was divisive and tense. So much so, in fact, that crowds of neighbors showed up one Sunday morning to watch the anticipated drama unfold. In Lancaster, the majority of the congregation made their choice, but fifteen people who disagreed left the church and started over. Some places, groups in the congregation played a cat-and-mouse game, each taking turns changing the locks on the doors to keep their brothers and sisters in Christ away. And from where the fight began in nastiness between a couple men in positions of influence, it snowballed, degenerating to a point – and it repulses me to say it – that in one church in Iowa, members from one faction allegedly barged into a church service to serve legal papers against the other side, confronting the pastor and serving him the papers while he was at the church altar, praying with some people to lead them to salvation in Jesus Christ! Yes, from where it started, the fight spiraled to the point of interrupting and endangering the rebirth of souls. This was no laughing matter.

In the end, one faction at last won the title to all the church property and to the old name, leaving the other side nameless and homeless – all banned from the church buildings they'd built. In some places, Christians in the losing faction had to immediately start raising money to buy new plots and build new church buildings. Others – especially if they were united and in a place where the winning faction didn't have anybody, meaning the court decision resulted in a vacant building – raised money to buy their churches back from the winners. In one case, the winning faction wouldn't sell... until the church was hit by lightning and suffered some damage, and then at last they sold it back to the congregation rather than deal with the repair bill.

It's a sad story. And it's our story. In case any of you haven't realized it yet, the denomination I'm talking about was the Evangelical Association. The winning faction got to keep the name. The losing faction had to adopt a new name: the United Evangelical Church. And then, in the 1920s, when the United Evangelical Church itself split over the question of whether to bury the hatchet, the stubborn hold-outs who again lost the rights to the old name in a court fight adopted a new name: the United Protestant Church. But when they realized they should've checked first whether anybody else already had the rights to that one, they hastily switched to a different option, calling themselves the Evangelical Congregational Church. Which is us. This congregation shared in that sad and sordid story. Fact is, we had to vacate our old church building for a while, having lost the legal title to it, and worshipped in the Smoketown schoolhouse while the church building stayed vacant, 'til we could raise the funds to buy it back. This nonsense is part of our history. And the fight remained a great sore spot for people – until all the original participants were dead, after which the heat gave way to a profound sense of embarrassment for a lot of people. From one seed of conflict came a devastating divide.

Something like that is what Paul worries about in Philippi. As we reach the section of the letter we've read this morning, Paul addresses a situation about which we eavesdroppers from the future have hitherto known naught. You see, there were these two ladies in the congregation – and perhaps they were a bit well-to-do, perhaps they were sponsors of house churches, but whatever their income level, they were certainly prominent, everybody knew them and respected them. And these Greek-speaking women were named Euodia and Syntyche. They've had a falling out in recent times. They don't see eye-to-eye. They're feuding with each other, not unlike became the case between the Evangelical Association bishops. Now, for Euodia and Syntyche, the original seed of conflict may have been a petty issue. Certainly it wasn't a matter of doctrine or of ethics or of anything else very substantive, or else Paul would address the issue on its merits. But if the seed of conflict was petty and petite, the result promised to be anything but that. The ripple effects were already getting bigger, and Paul could extrapolate from the ascending amplification he was hearing about. If he didn't see this as a problem, in his culture he'd never name Euodia and Syntyche and associate them with the trouble.

Which is why Paul wants to be clear, as he raises this issue for the entire church to hear, that both Euodia and Syntyche have been faithful gospel co-workers in his experience. In the split of the Evangelical Association, both factions tried to dig back through the histories of their now-rivals and discredit their past character and accomplishments. Paul refuses to let that happen here in Philippi. Euodia and Syntyche apparently converted during Paul's original season of ministry in the city, and they threw themselves energetically into evangelism right there at his side. That's why Paul explicitly says that both of them had “labored side-by-side with me in the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3bc). Both women's lips have announced that Jesus was crucified for their sins, that he is risen from the dead, that he has ascended into heaven, that he's exalted as Lord at God's right hand, and that he'll come again as their Savior. Both women have their names written down in the heavenly register of heavenly citizens called the book of life. Both women have been working out their salvation and continue to harbor immense potential. And so Paul doesn't dismiss or deny any of that. Neither Euodia or Syntyche is merely a problem. Both of them are, in Paul's eyes, beloved friends in need of help – whether they want it or not.

We can no longer know what Euodia and Syntyche were feuding about, but Paul's adamant that it can't be allowed to eat the church – or, of course, the women themselves. Now, today, one or both of them might just 'solve' the issue (or, rather, pretend to solve it) by just quitting that church fellowship – maybe switching to the church down the road, maybe dropping out for a while, maybe taste-testing a few here and there. But that wasn't a live option for the Philippians, unless they wanted to move to a different city altogether.

What Paul does want, though, is clear enough. He wants Euodia and Syntyche to both listen to him. He begs, he urges, he pleads, he beseeches each one of them separately, individually: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche” (Philippians 4:2a). He wants Euodia and Syntyche to remember the common ground they have, the common ground that whatever this issue is can't erase: Jesus. That's why he insists on redirecting their attention to “the Lord” (Philippians 4:2c). He wants Euodia and Syntyche to each adopt the Jesus Mindset toward their issue, because it isn't worth the damage they're risking to Jesus' body. That's why Paul instructs them to “be of the same mind” or to “agree in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2bc). And, because that's clearly going to be difficult for the two of them now that matters have spiraled, Paul calls on church leadership like Epaphroditus and like Clement to get involved in mediating and reconciling these two members and their factions. Paul asks these people to “help” or “assist” – it's a very active word, very much an involvement in their broken relationship (Philippians 4:3). And perhaps Paul wants the rest of the church to step in as well. He thinks pretty highly of the church: “my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown..., my beloved” (Philippians 4:1). And since nobody can figure out who Paul means when he addresses his request for help to a “true companion” or “noble yokefellow,” one option is that it's a role open to the whole church or anybody in it.

So that's what Paul hoped would happen then. I don't know how it played out in Philippi. But I'd like to think that Euodia and Syntyche patched things up, and the crisis was averted – unlike what happened in our circles 130 years ago. I can see at least three different ways in which this saga might play itself out in today's churches.

First, this can become deeply relevant in the case of a personal offense or a personality clash. That type of thing happens in churches, doesn't it? And it's not just limited to women. This might be the most common way we replay the Euodia and Syntyche act. Maybe a modern Euodia says something that a modern Syntyche finds offensive and hurtful – a snide or careless remark, a tone that comes off too strong. Maybe Syntyche forgot to invite Euodia to her party, and it came across as a snub. Maybe Euodia critiqued Syntyche's work a little too harshly. Maybe Syntyche broke Euodia's confidence, perhaps without even realizing, and so jeopardized trust. Maybe Euodia made a decision that Syntyche won't respect. Maybe they're neighbors and Syntyche's dog keeps barking and Euodia can't sleep. Maybe the two just rub each other the wrong way somehow, giving off an air that the other dislikes or resents.

I'm sure you can imagine what it's like to get offended or irritated by a fellow church member, or to have them get offended or irritated at you. I'm sure you can imagine what it's like to just not click with somebody in the congregation – and if not in this congregation, then in one from your past, or with another Christian of your acquaintance. All of us, I'd surmise, have gotten these little glimpses of what it might be like to be Euodia or Syntyche in this kind of scenario. And all of us have probably seen Euodias and Syntyches fighting around us in churches. Sometimes it's loudly, sometimes it's passive-aggressively, sometimes it's privately in ways few realize but themselves. In many cases, it isn't positioned in a place for the ripples to be too jarring. But make it too central, or put it on the wrong fault-line, and watch out. In the case Paul's looking at, he sees a grave and genuine threat to the health and unity of the church, precisely at a time when the outside pressures of Philippian society mean they all need each other the most. And so he wants to nip things in the bud. He doesn't insist that Euodia and Syntyche have to become best friends. But Paul does insist that they take their differing attitudes and steer them into a convergence on the way Jesus thinks about life. And if they need help getting there, they'll get it, like it or not. It might feel odd or even invasive for Paul to enlist church leaders or other church members to step into something that strikes us as very personal. But it was so important that the awkwardness was a risk they'd just have to take. By the end of the intervention, the issue at play might or might not get settled, but the parties in question will at least be able to reconcile and move on with more the mindset of Christ.

A second way a church today might see a replay of Euodia and Syntyche is in a disagreement over a church decision, the way things are done. Now, in some decisions that a church has to make, one direction has a clear 'gospel advantage' over another. To preach the word of God faithfully has a clear gospel advantage over failing to do so – even if we don't all like what God has to say. To raise a collection for the needy has a definite gospel advantage over a collection to reupholster our cars. And when it comes to that cathedral in England that made the call to replace their sanctuary with a mini-golf course? Yikes, almost any other outreach idea would've had a gospel advantage over that rot.

But then other decisions are more gospel-neutral – neither direction, at least when considered in a vacuum, will clearly present Jesus in a way that the other options won't. Those decisions still have to get made, and they do; but the people involved in them can sometimes get awfully passionate. Sometimes, they're financial decisions. Some scholars think this was what the original Euodia and Syntyche were fighting about: whether to donate to Paul's upkeep in Rome or to spend the money toward supporting local Christians under economic pressure. We can imagine a financial choice being controversial. Or maybe it could be about the décor. Euodia wants a green carpet, but Syntyche wants a beige one, and if the argument gets too heated or if one feels unheard, it can lead to trouble in the church. Yes, I've heard horror stories of churches splitting over carpet color. Or maybe Euodia's grandpa donated a certain piece of furniture, and Syntyche wants to replace it with something new and fresh and different. Or – here's one to try on for size – maybe Euodia only feels like singing hymns, while Syntyche has a desire to sing something peppy and modern. I've seen people fight over this. I've seen people leave churches and break fellowship over not getting their way on this.

So imagine a Euodia and a Syntyche divided on a church decision – maybe music, maybe something else. Both are passionate about the direction they want to see the church go. Both stick to their case tenaciously. Both are more concerned with winning the fight than with the impact their combat – or their secession – has on the church. Of course, Paul might say, as he said to the Corinthians: “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). This sort of issue is why it's good when we have clear mechanisms to decide on a direction, like pastoral direction or a board vote. And then it's incumbent on us, whether we like the direction or not, to reconcile ourselves to it or to at least not disrupt. These mechanisms make reconciliation easier in these scenarios, because the goal to be achieved is much clearer.

One of the earliest Christian writings we have that isn't in our Bibles is a letter to the Corinthians written by a man named Clement, around the same time John was getting his Revelation. We can't be 100% sure, but I like to think that the Clement who wrote this letter is the same Clement whom Paul a few decades earlier called his co-worker in this passage. And in that letter, Clement has some tough love for folks who disturb the unity and tranquility of a church by rebelling against settled decisions or the authority of the leaders who make them. He says that if somebody is so dissatisfied that they really can't help themselves, then if they have even an ounce of love and compassion in their hearts, they'd say: “If on my account there are sedition and quarreling and division, I'll leave, I'll go wherever you want, I'll do what's enjoined by the community – only let the flock of Christ have peace with its appointed elders.” Because, the way Clement sees it, to try to upend things and rock the boat is really an attempt to tear Jesus limb from limb. Because the church isn't just a consumer option in a marketplace – it's the body of Christ. That's what's at stake in church unity when we make it a family feud.

And a third way churches might sadly revisit Euodia and Syntyche is through politics. In the past few years, I've spoken to Christians who are more up-in-arms about political issues, about what they see and hear and read in the news, than ever before. It's a harder and harder topic to avoid in the church, or in any social setting. We've seen an upswing in disaffiliation – people leaving their church, or even church as such, over political division. We've seen it break and damage assemblies of the people of God. This happens. Political division can be a powerful dividing force in the church if not handled carefully. So let's sketch a picture.

Suppose, if you will, that Euodia is a registered Republican, and Syntyche is a registered Democrat. Maybe both of them are sincerely trying, in their political behavior, to live up to the Lord's requirement that we all “do justice” and “love mercy” and “walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). Both have compassion for the poor and sick and weak and downtrodden. Euodia thinks private charity and incentives toward employment are the more helpful option, while Syntyche thinks public assistance programs are still necessary for the common good. Euodia thinks a competitive marketplace for healthcare will spur innovation and excellence so diseases can be treated that never could be before, while Syntyche wants to distribute the bill through government to make sure we all can be well. Euodia says that discipline and structure are indispensable safeguards for human flourishing, and Euodia worries that Syntyche's policies would lead to chaos, upheaval, and harm. Syntyche calls out injustices that go unanswered under the current order and structure, and Syntyche worries that Euodia's approach turns a blind eye. For Syntyche's heart breaks for racial minorities who still get singled out and targeted, for immigrants told they don't belong, for women whose traumas are dismissed, for prisoners whose surroundings give them no view up to a better life. And she wonders if Euodia really cares about any of that, or if she's willing to sacrifice the exploited on the altar of an unjust peace. For her part, Euodia hates racial discrimination and every kind of exploitation, too. But she worries that racializing and problematizing every human interaction can only make a community worse. She believes that human dignity requires that each person be seen as an individual made in God's image, not as an avatar of intersecting demographics. And she wonders whether Syntyche's vision doesn't make excuses for violence or fail to restrain sin and crime.

When they talk about it, Euodia admits she likes the current president. She's troubled by the excesses of the other party; she feels duty-bound to never vote for their agenda. She thinks the president has done a fine job under circumstances that Euodia sees as relentless opposition from established institutions. She believes he's yet to be given a fair shake. She thinks he's the only major-party candidate who'll let her live in peace according to her most cherished convictions. She thinks he's less likely to lead the nation into insanity or perversion. She also thinks he's the only major-party candidate who will speak out against waves of lawlessness and social decay, who will allow her to protect her family, who will let her invest in her community according to her own wisdom instead of someone else's alien judgment. So Euodia hopes the president will get a second term, and she plans to vote accordingly. In that hope and that plan, Euodia can count Billy Graham's granddaughter Cissie on her side. You've probably met fellow believers who think like Euodia thinks. Maybe you are one.

But Syntyche doesn't see eye-to-eye with Euodia. Syntyche looks at the Oval Office now, and she doesn't like what she sees as vulgarity and mockery and boastful pride. She doesn't think the administration has a solid relationship with truth-telling. She doesn't believe the president has ennobled the presidency or elevated the way we treat each other. Syntyche is concerned by what she believes is the way the president encourages sinful elements buried in our national psyche – elements we've spent centuries trying to exorcise. She wants civic leaders who will help mercy triumph over judgment, who will lead the way in confessing and repenting our past wrongs, who know that all truth is God's truth and not to be neglected. And Syntyche just doesn't think she's seen that in the Oval Office lately. Syntyche thinks the office's latest resident is unstable and dangerous, that he's leading us away from becoming our healthier selves as a nation, and that we need a breath of fresh air. So Syntyche hopes to avoid a second term. She plans to vote accordingly. And in that hope and that plan, Syntyche can count Billy Graham's other granddaughter Jerushah on her side – yes, even the Grahams can take opposing views. You've probably met fellow believers who think like Syntyche thinks. Maybe you are one.

Now, both Euodia and Syntyche have thought through their politics. Both are acting from motives that are as fair as two redeemed sinners can muster. But when Euodia and Syntyche look at each other through a partisan lens, what happens? Each judges the other's faith and witness to be compromised. Each trusts the other less. Each is more repelled from the other, more inclined to cut the other off, to stop listening. Euodia shares a post on Facebook, a talking point she heard on Fox News. Syntyche gags and argues back with the talking points she heard on MSNBC. Syntyche calls the other party a nasty name, and even if she wasn't talking to Euodia, Euodia feels hurt and takes it personally. And as it keeps going, their long history of faithful ministry gets eclipsed or erased. The unity of their heavenly citizenship is overshadowed by the petty politics of earthly mud.

Now, are there political topics that are issues of serious moral divide – political opinions that are more or less faithful to the Lordship of Jesus? Yes. But on most, the line from Bible to ballot is pretty squiggly, running through a variety of prudential considerations on which even Jesus' disciples or Paul's co-workers in the gospel might end up differing. Christians who check different boxes on the ballot can find “agreement in the Lord” – it begins with firm fervor for those first fundamentals, it leads to serious and charitable dialogue, it flowers in grace shown to each other as prudential wisdom proves to differ. Euodias and Syntyches may agree in the Lord even when they don't come to agree on policy positions, or who the right person to vote for is. If you're with Euodia here, you can afford to listen carefully to how Syntyche can challenge you. If you're with Syntyche here, you can afford to listen carefully to how Euodia can challenge you. If you're with neither, you can afford to listen carefully to them both.

Let me admit something to you: my wife and I know that, when we vote in a couple weeks, it won't be for all the same people. And that's okay. In the past few years, I've talked with pastors about how they'll vote, even gotten some insight into how our bishop votes – and let me tell you, it's not all unanimous. And that's okay. We can agree or disagree with Euodia, we can agree or disagree with Syntyche, we can agree in part and disagree in part with each. We ought not let differences of earthly politics overshadow the unity of our heavenly citizenship in the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor should anything else petty or personal or pragmatic or prudential overshadow that unity of mind in the Lord – never, never, never.

Whatever the situation, know and understand that Jesus Christ died for Euodia and for Syntyche and for me and for you. He died for our sins; he died to save us. But he died so that his tomb could be the womb of something new: a church indivisible. He prayed earnestly for us to cherish the unity he gave us, the unity we demonstrate when we love each other across personal slights, across personality differences, across decision-making, across the political landscape, and find common ground in our Risen Savior, who is coming again to settle everything at last. Let's not repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. For we are called to agree in the Lord, to have the attitude of Jesus, to be one in the Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Citizenship Up Yonder: Sermon on Philippians 3:17-21

One October afternoon, a fierce battle raged in the plains west of the city. It was a pivotal engagement in the civil war. Not the American Civil War – the Roman. It was the second battle on that field. With their backs to the city were the soldiers employed by Marcus Junius Brutus, betrayer of Julius Caesar. He and Gaius Cassius Longinus, his brother-in-law and co-conspirator in the Caesar assassination two and a half years earlier, had been marching through Macedonia, pressing back toward Rome. But here at Philippi, the advance of their seventeen legions had been halted by the nineteen legions of the Triumvirate for Confirming the Republic. Two of the triumvirs, one being Mark Antony and the other being the late Julius Caesar's adopted son 'Octavian,' had come to stop them. The first battle had culminated in Cassius' suicide. And for the twenty days since then, Brutus and his men had stayed holed up in their fortifications on the hilltop as Antony and Octavian, their troops hungry and lacking supplies, had come daily to taunt them, hoping to goad Brutus into a second battle. Alas, Brutus' men felt cowardly trying to wait out the clock, and so against his will, Brutus had finally led his army out, lining them up southwest of Philippi. As Brutus gave his soldiers a pep talk, so Antony and Octavian readied their troops: “This very day must decide for us either a complete victory or an honorable death.”

And then the battle was joined. The armies rushed together into close combat. Tens of thousands of soldiers on either side – all Roman – hacked at each other with their swords, falling in great numbers like a slaughterhouse. But at last, the forces commanded by 21-year-old Octavian managed to push back Brutus' line until their ranks broke. While Octavian's men seized the gates, Antony had his forces go on the maddening offensive. It was chaos, it was massacre, it was violence. Brutus beat a hasty retreat into the mountains with what men he could escape with, no more than four legions. Through the night, he entertained hopes of fleeing or retaking his camp, but with the Triumvirate forces guarding the roads and his own officers proving cowards, Brutus gave up the fight – and did as Cassius had done, having himself killed on the spot. The so-called Liberators had lost – that day, October 23 in 42 BC, spelled the end of the ringleaders of the assassination of Julius Caesar. One later Roman historian explained that “Heaven was incensed against them and often forewarned them of their doom” (Appian, Civil Wars 4.134). It was that day that decided the future of the Roman people, set the stage for the creation of the Roman Empire itself. It was the final day of the Battle of Philippi. Philippi would go down in Roman history not so differently than Gettysburg would in ours.

With Cassius and Brutus both dead, and Antony and Octavian the clear victors, something had to be done with the troops. Antony and Octavian declared, on the spot, that Philippi would henceforth be a Roman colony city, meaning it had rights and institutions equal to any city in Italy. They mustered out soldiers into retirement there and confiscated the lands around Philippi from the local Greek and Thracian elite, dividing the territory into a grid of farmland for the veterans to settle. And so began the colony. Eleven years passed, and when Octavian and Antony finally came to blows, their dispute was settled at the Battle of Actium in September 31 BC. The following year, Octavian returned and settled many of Antony's former troops, as well as a whole cohort of the Praetorian Guard, at Philippi, refounding the colony anew. In the years ahead, Octavian would claim sole power in the newborn Roman Empire, renaming himself Augustus and priding himself on having saved the Roman people. Meanwhile, at Philippi, the Roman veterans established themselves as the upper class.

But Philippi was in Macedonia, near the border of wild Thrace, and every now and then the Roman army would have to come and put down invading raids. Between 12 and 9 BC, for instance, a Roman general had to come defend Philippi and places like it in a three-year war: Lucius Piso is credited with having “brought these fiercest of races to their former state of peaceful subjection: by putting an end to this war, he restored... peace to Macedonia,” including Philippi (Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.98). And so went the history of Philippi. By the middle of the first century when Paul's writing his letter, Philippi has about ten thousand people living in the city and another five thousand in the fifteen or so villages of the surrounding territory – making it a bit less populated than Ephrata's borough and township here. About 40% of the townsfolk were Roman citizens, many being descendants of the veteran colonists and others being ex-slaves who gained citizenship on being set free. But even with Romans as a minority, the town's whole culture looked up to Roman culture, Roman institutions, and this Roman elite. The signs in town were in Latin, the town library collected books in Latin. It was the local Romans who owned all the land, the local Romans who had all political control. And they ran things like it was a miniature Rome. The church looked a lot like the town – about a third of the Philippian Christians Paul is writing to are Roman citizens, but the other two-thirds of the church lacks citizenship, they're merely Rome's subjects but not citizens. Citizen or not, the Christians still live in a culture dominated by Roman influences.

And that's why it comes across so strikingly when Paul just declares to them all: Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Only a third of the church could say they were Roman citizens, but the whole church – even the slaves, even the poor, even the disenfranchised and perpetually second-class in Philippian society – were extended the dignity of being citizens of a different empire, a different city. And the capital of this empire isn't Rome (and neither is it London or Harrisburg or Washington DC); it's heaven. You could also translate Paul's phrase a bit differently, maybe as “our commonwealth is in heaven,” or as “our constitution is in heaven,” or “our government is in heaven” – the word Paul uses comes from the same root as 'politics.'

Rome and its Italian territories were the ancestral homeland of the Roman citizens colonizing Philippi, and so Philippi's Romans knew that they had settled among many non-Romans, and that most Romans lived back in the homeland, in the old country. And that shaped the way they thought. Just the same, heavenly citizens living in the earthly colony have to realize that we've settled among many non-heavenly neighbors – people like Paul describes as “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “god is their gut” and who “glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). But most heavenly citizens live back in the homeland, in the old country up yonder. It's a current reality: most of our people are not here where we are, they're in heaven – they're the saints whose stories we tell and the loved ones whose memories burn in our hearts. And the fact that the majority of our population is back in the homeland – well, that should change the way we think.

See, Roman citizens in Philippi knew that being a citizen meant having a core allegiance to Rome's constitution and commonwealth. And that core allegiance created an obligation for them to act in distinctively Roman ways, to embody Roman values and support Roman institutions. That was Roman patriotism. That was citizenship. And from what Paul says, it becomes clear that being a heavenly citizen means having a core allegiance, not to Rome's constitution or America's constitution, but to heaven's; not to Pennsylvania's commonwealth, but to heaven's. And that allegiance creates an obligation for us, as citizens of heaven, to act in distinctively heavenly ways here on earth – to embody heavenly values and support heavenly institutions which can regulate our lives here and now. And that means we mustn't worship our guts. It means we mustn't celebrate disgraceful ways. It means we mustn't make mud the measure of our minds (Philippians 3:19). It means we look up to what's up.

And that's why Martin Luther King, looking at this passage, once shouted out: “Although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. … Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God's will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it.”1 But 1800 years before Dr. King came around, a second-century Christian was already reflecting on this passage. He said that Christians “live in their native countries, but only as outsiders. They participate in everything like citizens and tolerate all things as foreigners. Every foreign place is their homeland, and every homeland is foreign. … They spend time on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the fixed laws, and their lifestyle rises above the laws. They love everyone and are persecuted by all. … When being punished, they rejoice as people being brought to life” (Ad Diognetum 5.5, 9-11, 16).

And in light of Paul's words here and these witnesses to it, I wonder if we've yet learned to think the same way. We can get awfully wrapped up with what's in the news. We can obsess and fixate on American politics to the extreme. We might be quick to stand up for the US Constitution than for the Bible sometimes, and to treat the Declaration of Independence like a lost book of scripture, and to cherish the blood of battlefields over the blood of the Son of God, and to be imagine that the starry blue canton on the American flag is the sapphire pavement beneath the foot of the Almighty's throne (cf. Exodus 24:20). I'm not sure if, in our hearts, we've really learned what's being said here. Do we live in America as a foreign land – understanding that we're still outsiders questing for our home? We may be prepared to participate in civic life according to our legal privileges, but are we also prepared to tolerate the twists and turns of this land's political turmoil like the foreigners we are? Do we have the fortitude to take a stand if the earthly institutions we like the most should be the ones that come into conflict with God's will? Are we willing to admit that our real constitution is the one written in heaven?

Because these words from the Apostle Paul change things. First and foremost, we are heavenly citizens: that's our capital city. And then we're a bunch of other things, and further down the list are we American citizens. And then it's a lot further down the list before we get to our political ideologies, to our partisan stances, to our feelings about Trump or Biden or Wolf or Smucker or about any politician. And the way we think and behave ought to reflect that order. Our political modes of thinking and acting shouldn't be conformed to what we think is more patriotic or more progressive; it should be conformed to what's heavenly. The questions of heavenly politics have to be settled first, and the smaller earthly questions will trail in their wake. Who is really Lord?

Paul's answer is very forthright: “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20)! And this Lord Jesus Christ has an energy or “power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). And any Philippian would have recognized the imperial language there. Remember how a Roman general had power enough to bring the Thracians into “peaceful subjection,” and how Brutus had brought Macedonia into 'subjection,' and how Antony and Octavian had brought the rebellious army into subjection. Jesus, Emperor of the 'Empire of Eternity,' is equipped to conquer, Paul's saying. But no Brutus or Cassius can stab him in the back. No Antony can try to wrench his power away. And all the Caesars, though they marched with enough force to subject cities and provinces and nations to themselves, pale next to Jesus' power to subject all things to himself. For Jesus has power enough to subject to himself even rebelliousness and death and the faithless human soul.

And Jesus is no less powerful today! He can still march in and subject our faithlessness to himself. He can still march in and subject our fearfulness to himself. He can still march in and subject demons and diseases to himself. He can march in and subject time and history and progress to himself. He has power to subject death itself to himself. There's nothing that the Lord Jesus doesn't have power and energy to conquer and to bring at long last into subjection, putting it in its proper place and overturning the old, obsolete rules of a fallen world.

But Paul continues by reminding the Philippian church – and our church – that the Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven as “a Savior” (Philippians 3:20). And that would have really hit the Philippians in their hearts, because 'Savior' was one of the titles used by the Roman emperor. Before he died, Julius Caesar was called “savior of human life.” Octavian, after he became Augustus, was hailed as “a savior who put an end to war and established all things.” The Emperor Claudius was celebrated as “savior of the world.” To the mind of a Roman, there was a mental link between power to subjugate, power to save, and authority to rule: Living in a world as rough as theirs, the Romans entrusted the imperium to people they believed could save them by making invaders and other threats subject to their rule, thereby preserving the Roman peace. And Paul, knowing he's talking to Philippians who think like Romans, is highlighting that God has empowered Jesus to subjugate all things to himself precisely so that he can save his heavenly citizens. Like an emperor marching from Rome out to the provinces to defend Roman citizens in a colony city under siege, so Christ will one day march from heaven out to this province of the universe, to defend heavenly citizens besieged in the city of man. Besieged by what? By sin and corruption and death. And Christ's arrival will be as the Savior from it all.

Jesus remains the Savior we desperately need today. I tell you, if you're waiting for a savior to show up from the Republican Party, you're looking in the wrong place. And if you're waiting for a savior to show up from the Democratic Party, you're looking in the wrong place. And if you're hunting through third parties for a savior, you're looking in the wrong place there too. The hunt for other saviors, political or otherwise, is a market of idols. Our Savior doesn't march from the White House, and our Savior doesn't march from the campaign trail. Our Savior marches from heaven. 

He already once “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), when we were yet assassins and crucifiers. As every Philippian lived in the shadow of the showdown between the Triumvirs and the Liberators, so we live in the shadow of the old rugged cross and the empty tomb. 

And yet we also read: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). See, it's true that we “have been saved through faith... by grace” (Ephesians 2:8), and it's also true that each one of us right now, as a heavenly citizen, is still “being saved, if [we] hold fast to the word” of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:2); but it's also true that our salvation is also a future reality. “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13), when a Savior comes from heaven. We can still, like Jacob, say: “I wait for your salvation, O LORD (Genesis 49:18).

For when the Lord Jesus Christ comes as Savior, he'll save by using his power, his energy, his mighty working, to “transform our body of humiliation to conform it to his body of glory” (Philippians 3:21). Just as he once took on the form of a servant for us and was found in human likeness (Philippians 2:7), he'll give us the gift of the opposite. For while Jesus is still the Son of Man, his human body is now all glory. It burns and shines with might and awesome energy (cf. Revelation 1:14-15), and “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). In the meantime, we know that our bodies are humiliated by weakness, humiliated by sickness, humiliated by the temptation to sin that has its hooks in our fallen flesh. We're susceptible to so much, and shame has been a part of our embodied existence since we lost our glory in Eden (cf. Genesis 3:7). Our bodies are vulnerable, lowly, and inglorious. They are cursed to rejoin the dust from which they're made. 

But that won't always be the story. For when the Savior comes, he'll save us from corruption, he'll save us from dissolution, he'll save us from this mortal humiliation. And he'll do that by raising us up and conforming our bodies to his body of glory. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the Man of Heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). “When he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). He'll give these bodies of ours imperishability and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-54). Our bodies will be raised up “in glory,” “in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43); “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

With that in store for us, with that hope in mind, “we eagerly await” our Savior's arrival from the heavenly city (Philippians 3:20). Paul's choice of word here underlines our intense eagerness for rescue, a constant yearning for a Savior – it's the sort of anticipation that tends to crowd out other thoughts, that puts everything else on the back burner. In Paul's time, if the emperor came to visit a town, the people would all come out into the streets to see him, greet him, celebrate him and his victorious troops. And it's that kind of excitement, but bigger, that Paul wants to cultivate in his churches. For the Lord Jesus Christ will come “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28), those who have been loyal citizens of his empire of eternity, who keep their ears attuned to heavenly news and their hearts fixed on heaven's politics: the politics of Jesus, Emperor of Our Salvation, the Conqueror with power and promise to make all the petty politics of earth subject to himself.

Eagerly awaiting the arrival of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, coming with power to transform our bodies to be like his glory, we mustn't set ourselves up as enemies of his cross, disdaining the road of suffering, loving to satisfy our guts and our shame. No, but we will “join in imitating” the Apostle Paul and will “keep [our] eyes on those who walk according to the example” of the apostles and prophets, the martyrs, the confessors, and all the saints who have journeyed back to the old country up yonder. And we will live as citizens of a different empire, an empire that isn't of this world but is already over this world and coming to this world. For this earth is a province under eternity's empire, and we are heaven's colonists planted here to defy the devilish rebellion out from which we've been redeemed, as Brutus' and Cassius' surrendering troops found pardon.

As we engage here with our earthly neighborhoods, we are called to bring heaven to them in ways that seem strange, maybe even to us. We're called to learn and embody heavenly values, to write our days as installments of a heavenly story, to stoke our heaven-hankering hearts with a hunger for a home. We are called to champion heavenly institutions, first and foremost the church. We are called to fill the libraries and the signs of the town square, not with the sounds and syllables of an earthly tongue, but with the wiser language of grace and mercy. We are called to build what imitates heaven here, all while knowing we wait for a salvation from corruption in which the whole creation will obtain its freedom with us (Romans 8:21). 

As for now, the siege of sin, the siege of sickness, the siege of corruption, the siege of violence and madness still rages on against us. But a Savior is coming from heaven where our citizenship lies. He, as Lord of Heaven, is incensed against all that besieges us. And when he comes, he will subject all things to himself and transform our bodies to match his, as he's already transforming our souls to be like his (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16). We will see heaven come true on earth when all things are made new – then earth will be all heavenly. Until then, our citizenship is held up yonder. Let us live by heaven's constitution and for heaven's commonwealth as we eagerly await from heaven our coming Savior!


1 Martin Luther King, “Paul's Letter to American Christians,” sermon given on 4 November 1956 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Only Say the Word: Eucharistic Homily on Matthew 8:5-13

Throughout the Gospels, there's only one time when Jesus is portrayed as being impressed. Oh, other people, yeah – they're often impressed by Jesus. They ooh and ahh, they marvel, they wonder, they're awestruck. But only twice is Jesus said to marvel, and one of those is a negative astonishment at the lack of faith he finds. Only once does Jesus marvel positively, with a delighted amazement. This is that story.

The setting is Capernaum, the Galilean fishing village where Jesus has been hanging his hat ever since he left behind his lifelong home in Nazareth (Matthew 4:13). Capernaum is his town now. Jesus is freshly back from delivering the Sermon on the Mount from the side of a hill outside town. The people who heard it were amazed by it, and as he strolled off the scene, big crowds hounded him like a pack of puppies at his heels (Matthew 8:1). Along the way, a leper ran ahead, fell to his knees before Jesus, and begged for healing – and was given it, then and there (Matthew 8:2-4). And then Jesus makes his way to Capernaum, this flock of followers trailing behind him. They believe; they're entranced; they can't wait to study this Jesus fellow in greater detail.

But as Jesus makes his way into town, the streets flooding with his eager followers watching him, someone else steps forward to meet with Jesus: a centurion (Matthew 8:5). A centurion might be an officer in the Roman army, a unit commander appointed over about eighty soldiers; but in this case he's likely a mercenary captain in the service of Galilee's ruler Herod Antipas, who tried to imitate the Roman military organization on a smaller scale. Matthew doesn't go into it, but Luke tells us that this Gentile centurion or mercenary captain went out of his way to be friendly to the Jewish people, to the point of using his own money to sponsor the construction of a Capernaum synagogue, and so gaining the friendship of local Jewish religious leaders, who testify that “he is worthy” to have Jesus act on his petition, “for he loves our nation” (Luke 7:5).

And this centurion continues demonstrating his positive disposition by interceding, not for his own benefit, but for his servant. As a centurion, this man couldn't be married; he was, as we say today, married to the job. So his household was him and his staff who served him, aiding him in his practical needs. The centurion's servant, however, had gotten sick. He's paralyzed, bedridden, can't get up, and is suffering badly from the condition, and perhaps is knocking at death's door (Matthew 8:6; Luke 7:2). It would have been easy, for a man trained in the military efficiency of Rome's imitators, to look at that and just post a job opening in the town square. But this centurion is attached, valuing this man not just as a tool or a servant but as a friend, as family, even as a son.

So the centurion has come to Jesus. What has the centurion heard about Jesus? We know that, before this time, Jesus “went all throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people; so his fame spread all throughout Syria... and great crowds followed him” (Matthew 4:23-25). That's what the centurion has heard. He's perhaps met people who had been healed by Jesus. The centurion's religious background was no doubt pagan – the Herods got their mercenaries from places as far as Germany, Bulgaria, and France. But one historian of the Roman military writes that “as men were shifted from one installation to the next, they would also gradually acquire new spiritual ideas and cultic practices which they would carry with them from place to place.”1 And given this centurion's sponsorship of a synagogue here in Capernaum, his old pagan ways have already been cracking to an openness to the God of Israel. And what he's seen and heard so far has given him a clear-eyed glimpse that this God is mightily at work in Jesus.

The centurion comes and presents his trouble to Jesus: there's a servant suffering at home, wherever home is – maybe that town, maybe a few towns over. Some translators render Jesus' reply as a statement: “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7). Others understand it as a question: “Shall I come and heal him?” Because the thing is, there was a Jewish taboo against physically entering the home of a Gentile. Peter will later admit “how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28) – popular Jewish thought held Gentile homes to be unclean. Jesus is certainly willing to go, just as he was willing to lay hands on a leper (Matthew 8:3). But in both cases, there is a taboo to be broken.

In the next verse, the centurion acknowledges the taboo – and he doesn't mention it with a hint of resentment; he accepts it, he acknowledges it. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Matthew 8:8). Part of the reason why is that the centurion is a Gentile, yet he accepts and appreciates the purity strictures of the Jewish culture that surrounds him. He doesn't resent it, doesn't disdain it, doesn't mock it or rebel against it, the way we might take offense in his shoes. He accepts that his home is ritually unclean to his neighbors, he maybe even accepts their verdict as he's begun to catch their belief-system. But more to the point, this centurion has come, in some way, to identify Jesus with the presence of the God of Israel; and the centurion sees the vast moral and spiritual gulf between himself and Jesus, the one he addresses as 'Lord.' Where Luke envisions the synagogue elders declaring that the centurion is worthy” (Luke 7:5), the centurion himself shuns their praise and confesses himself unworthy (Matthew 8:8; Luke 7:6).

The centurion explains, though, that Jesus doesn't even need to set foot in his house, doesn't need to get dirty, in order to make all the difference. The centurion looks at Jesus and sees a man who wields spiritual authority. In that, the centurion has a framework to understand him. Because the centurion, too, is embedded in an authority structure: the army. The centurion has people above him, like the legate of his legion and the tribune of his cohort. In that, the centurion is “a man under authority.” And so the centurion also has people below him, who answer to him, who take his orders: all the soldiers of his century, and the servants of his household. When the centurion speaks orders, his words shape reality because, bearing his authority, they move other agents to act and accomplish what he's spoken. Authority, to the centurion, is the ability to accomplish your will at a distance through delegation – through the obedience of other agents. “I say to one, 'Go!' – and he goes; and to another, 'Come!' – and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this!' – and he does it” (Matthew 8:9).

And the centurion reasons that Jesus can do the same thing. Only, all the invisible powers of the world are the servants of Jesus, the soldiers under Jesus. Jesus is no lower-level functionary who can only make a difference in the world in the places he can physically reach. Nature itself, and the spirits that indwell it, are as fully responsive to Jesus as mortal soldiers and servants are to the centurion. Therefore, the centurion believes, Jesus can give the order, and waiting angels will salute and rush instantaneously to implement those orders anywhere in the universe, vanquishing with overwhelming force any demons of sickness and paralysis, any powers of disease, that have his servant in their grip. “Only say the word,” the centurion implores Jesus, “and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Think what an exalted view of Jesus this is, for someone to already have before his resurrection and exaltation! This centurion already sees Jesus at the top of the cosmic chain of command.

No wonder Jesus marvels, no wonder Jesus is amazed, no wonder Jesus turns to the crowds – these crowds that came to Jesus from all over Galilee and beyond, these crowds that have listened to him preach the Sermon on the Mount, these crowds that saw the contagious purity of Jesus infect a leper with health – and tell them, “With no one in Israel have I found such faith!” (Matthew 8:10). People brought their sick, their seizure-seized, their demon-ridden to Jesus – and that's a measure of some faith, but not this level of faith. People saw and listened to his words, treasuring them – and that's some faith, but this centurion has blown them out of the water. The leper that Jesus healed came, knelt before the Lord, and confessed a belief that Jesus could fix what ailed him, then and there, by touch – but this centurion says Jesus doesn't even need to touch. Peter doesn't yet have that kind of faith. John doesn't yet have that kind of faith. No disciple does. But this centurion – an outsider to the heritage of Abraham and the teaching of Moses and the promises of the prophets – he does have faith that outshines everything this generation of Israel has mustered.

So Jesus will fulfill the centurion's request, telling him, “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed” – and, Matthew whispers to us, “The servant was healed at that very moment” (Matthew 8:13). But first, Jesus offers the crowd this teachable moment. The faith that even they haven't yet measured up to, this centurion outsider, this military man, has discovered and disclosed. And he'll be the first of many – the first of many outsiders to Israel who, by having the faith Israel ought to have had, will lay claim to Israel's inheritance. “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11-12). Plenty of Jesus' Jewish neighbors in Capernaum expected that, when God's kingdom came in full, it would spell the destruction of the Roman military, it would mean that the Messiah would lead them in combat to overthrow Rome; but here Jesus, the Messiah himself, says that this Gentile military man is the first of many like him who will come take Israel's abandoned seats at God's table, and will spend eternity breaking bread with Father Abraham and all the holy ones of old, dining on the delicacies of the Almighty. That's not what they expected. It may have confused the crowd. But from all those pagan nations would arise a faith worthy of dwelling under God's roof forever.

And then there's us. We are called to rise to the level of that centurion's faith. Jesus is the Lord of authority, he really is at the top of the cosmic chain of command. Through that authority, his presence and power stretch out through the whole universe. A word he whispers, be it on earth or in heaven, can launch anything into action as all the powers of nature and supernature leap into obedience. And therefore, the word of Jesus is a guarantee. He only has to give the order, and what he speaks will be accomplished. So trust him. Appeal to him for your soul and your life, trusting that he's able to abolish sin, that he's able to vanquish death, that he's able with a whisper to rearrange galaxies and rewrite the tablets of destiny. A word from Jesus, and every particle of the coronavirus would humbly dissolve into atoms or be swept up by legions of angels, if that's his will. A word from Jesus, and the raging rebellion of the nations would be overpowered and tamed. All we need to hear is what the centurion heard: “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed” (Matthew 8:13).

We are called to the centurion's faith, because we follow in his footsteps. Most of us here, I would surmise, are Gentiles – people whose ancestors, two thousand years ago as Jesus trod the world, were not Abraham's sons and daughters but were, instead, among an assortment of pagan tribes, foreigners to Israel, excluded from the kingdom of God. We here are just part of a vast crowd drawn from many nations, many ethnicities, many tribes, many languages. In this teaching, Jesus proclaims the start of people like us being included, being given a hope that – by catching faith like this – we'd win those forfeited seats at the table. Jesus' picture of eternity – a picture popular in the prophets and among the rabbis – was as a banquet, a celebration party with a feasting table. That's the image we're given. And we're all looking forward to making our way to that feast and sitting with the great heroes of faith – splitting a steak with Elijah, toasting a glass with Isaiah, singing along with David, breaking bread with Abraham. That's the joy of the age to come!

As an appetizer and a foretaste, the Lord sends down a table now, an altar of the sacrifice of the new covenant, for the church's regular meals of thanksgiving. Plucked from the end-time table of heavenly delight, we sample eternity on our tongues. As we eat the loaf and drink the chalice provided for us at the cost of the life of the Son of God, we the faithful have the precious opportunity to peek behind the curtains of eternity and taste what's in store. At this table, fused by mystery to the table that's to come, Abraham joins us, Isaac joins us, Jacob joins us, the apostles and prophets and martyrs and confessors and the righteous made perfect join us, while angels sing in stunned and wistful awe! The table of the Lord is the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

In some church traditions, for hundreds of years, one of the last things called out by the congregation before receiving this communion has been the word of the centurion's faith: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Confessing our unworthiness, yet we welcome the Jesus who speaks to us in bread and wine, in body and blood. He exchanges our roof for his roof: we are unworthy to be his hosts, so he makes us his guests. And it isn't a servant who needs healing in bed at home, but our very soul, our whole self, in desperate need of being healed from month to month and week to week and day to day. How much more zealous should we then be in coming like the centurion to Jesus, crying out these words, humbly approaching his table? All Jesus has to do is say the word. And his word is: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). “Take, eat: this is my body” (Matthew 26:26), “which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). “Drink of [this cup], all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27). He used his authority... to give himself away.

Lord Jesus, we are not worthy that you should enter under our roof,
but only speak this word and our souls and our world shall be healed. Amen!


1  John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army, History of Warfare 61 (Brill, 2010), 41.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Forgetting What Lies Behind: Sermon on Philippians 3:12-16

It was the last lap of the mile race. Tens of thousands of spectators in the stands, including Prince Philip, were fixated on two men, nearly on top of each other, barreling down the track. It was the afternoon of Saturday, August 7, 1954, and John Michael Landy was out in the lead by a hair. The Australian runner was in a near-deadlocked competition against his English rival Roger Gilbert Bannister. They were the world's best runners. Just three months before, on the same day my stepfather was born, Roger Bannister had been the first man in the modern era to ever run a mile in under four minutes, on a track in Oxford. Forty-six days later, John Landy had beaten that record on a track in Finland. And now the two of them were racing each other – two trendsetters. Bannister, twenty-five, had just qualified as a doctor less than a month earlier. Landy, twenty-four, had just earned his degree in agricultural science. Today, unbeknownst to most, Bannister was trying to get over a cold, and Landy had fresh stitches in his left foot from stepping on a photographer's discarded flashbulb the other night. And yet here they were, both on track to yet again break the four-minute barrier in the same race, at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada.

The starting gun had sounded at 2:30. Before 2:35, it would all be over. Landy had been out in front since the first lap. Indeed, for a while he'd been fifteen yards ahead of Bannister, not to say the other six runners – well, five, now that David Law had dropped out after losing his shoe. But Roger had caught up to John, and now seemed bound to him by an ever-shortening leash as they approached the final bend. These were the decisive seconds. Both were pushed to their physical limits, drained yet drawing deep from wells of impossible reserves. The slightest quiver of a muscle, the barest fraction of a second – everything counted. The world was transfixed, marveling with awe, whether in person or on their TV sets, at this 'miracle mile' race.

And then it happened. As Landy rounded that final bend, running counterclockwise round the track, he glanced for a moment to his left, turning his head to see if he'd finally ditched Bannister, as he could no longer see his competitor's shadow. It was a hesitation of a split-second, reducing Landy's momentum almost imperceptibly. But it was enough. Bannister had been waiting for exactly that moment for his final kick. As he put it in his memoirs a year later, “The moment [Landy] looked round, he was unprotected against me and so lost a valuable fraction of a second in his response to my challenge.” Bannister burst past Landy on the right, with just seventy yards left to go. Disregarding the excruciating pain of his muscles screaming out, but invigorated by adrenaline and the uproar of the crowds, Bannister let everything fade out of vision except one fixed point: the tape of the finish line. Landy attempted to catch up again, tried to tap his wells for any last power – but came up empty. He'd already exhausted his acceleration and then some. Bannister broke the tape, having finished the mile in 3:58.8 seconds. Landy crossed the same finish line just eight-tenths of a second after him (3:59.6). Both had broken the four-minute barrier. It would be another five seconds before their nearest other competitor, Rich Ferguson, would cross that line (4:04.6), followed by Victor Milligan (4:05.0), Murray Halberg (4:07.2), Ian Boyd (4:07.2), and William Baillie (4:11.0). Caught on camera being interviewed in those next moments, Landy said, “When I looked down on the final back straight and he was still with me, well, it was curtains.” Landy looked back. Bannister kept his eyes ahead and surged. I'm not, in general, one for sports... but to review the fuzzy black-and-white footage of the event last night, I must say – even knowing the result in advance, it made for a captivating race.

Judging from today's passage, I'd like to think the Apostle Paul would have thought the same, had his apartment in Rome had a television set and had it been able, in the year 62, to pick up a broadcast from 1954. Not that the world in which Paul lived was short of athletic competitions! The games were everywhere – the Olympic Games, the Isthmian Games, the Nemean Games, the Pythian Games – (I've actually run on the track used in that last one). While Paul may not have been a fond attender, given that sporting events tended back then to be held to celebrate this or that pagan idol, he and the Philippians were familiar with the scene, because in today's passage, nearly everything Paul says is couched in images from the world of runners – images Bannister and Landy would've understood crystal-clear. Paul has racing on his mind.

Last week, we listened as Paul talked about his Christ-obsession – the healthiest fixation a man or woman or universe can have. Whatever records Paul had broken before, he counted them as losses, as failures, for the sake of Christ. That we've heard. Today, perhaps the most important confession Paul will make is this: “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12c). That truth is at the foundation of everything Paul is and of everything Paul does. Jesus acted first. On that road to Damascus one fateful day a few decades back at the time Paul's writing, Jesus came along and caught Paul in his grip. Ever since then, Jesus has had Paul in his possession, has owned Paul. Laying a claim on Paul's life, a claim Paul ultimately decided not to contest, Jesus is the one who's got a grip on Paul, Jesus is the one who put Paul in this race called the Christian journey, Jesus is the one whose own race to the cross was the qualifying heat Paul needed for entry.

And the same is true for me and you, friends. Jesus has laid claim to us. Jesus has bought us. The fact that we are here, where we are, is not chiefly of our own choosing. It's because Jesus has picked us out and possesses us. His is the initiative. We respond freely, as freed to by his grasping grace. We could not even enter this race without his blood to qualify us, without his choice to sign us up. We are only here because Christ Jesus first made us his own. In the race of love, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Because of that, because Jesus has in his grip, we have those things Paul mentioned – a righteousness based on Christ's faith, a divine gift, not our own manufacture from legal bits and scraps, so that we may “know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings” (Philippians 3:9-10). We can honestly say that we know the power of Jesus' resurrection – now, here, in the present, in this moment. It's the power of Jesus' resurrection that animates everything about our Christian life. For a prayer to be a fully Christian prayer, it's powered by resurrection power. For an act of generosity to be fully Christian charity, it's got resurrection power behind it. But if that's so for us, it was much, much more so for Paul. He exemplifies these words. If you go back and read Acts, one trend you'll see is how Paul is growing steadily more conformed to Christ's death, as the persecution grows against him, as he comes under fire from the same people and gets treated in similar ways. But alongside that trend, you'll also see Paul more and more filled with resurrection power. By ten chapters after his conversion, Paul is so filled that even fabric that absorbs his sweat gets so supercharged with the power of Christ's resurrection that the fabric can be used to expel demons and diseases (Acts 19:11-12); in the chapter after that, Paul raises up from death or the brink of death a young man who falls out a window (Acts 20:10); and in the last chapters, Paul prophesies survival to a whole ship of people (Acts 27:34), is totally immune to the venom of a viper's bite (Acts 28:5-6), and goes around healing people with the touch of his hands (Acts 28:8-9). Now that is intimate acquaintance with the power of Christ's resurrection!

But on the other hand, Paul wants in today's passage to say that, although he knows that power, he has “not already attained or already been perfected” (Philippians 3:12a). He does not consider himself to have yet “made it my own” or “taken hold” in the way Christ “took hold” of him (Philippians 3:13a; cf. 3:12c). Why did Paul think he needed to clarify that? Some experts guess that the Judaizing opponents he mentioned at the start of the chapter believed that committing to the Law of Moses would classify them as 'perfect,' so Paul says this to warn the Philippians. Other experts guess that there were Philippian perfectionists who thought their Christian walk had reached its summit, making them spiritually elite. I don't know about any of that. What I do know is that Paul is writing this letter after the Philippians know that Paul's sweat can cast out demons and that his touch can heal the sick or even raise the dead, and so Paul doesn't want that thought to get in the way of their understanding where the goal really is. Because it's not that. It's something more, something Paul is still after.

The point he's stressing is that the Christian race is not won at any point in this life. There's always, of course, more growing to do. Even Paul can probably grow even more detached from sin, even more attached to the holiness of Christ. But that's not quite his point. Even if you side with John Wesley and his belief in 'Christian perfection' or 'entire sanctification' – the notion that we can achieve perfect holiness in this life – that's not yet the goal either. Even if you could be entirely sanctified right now, that's not the end. Because what Paul is after is to be totally conformed to Christ. And in the end, that doesn't just mean morally; it means physically. As Paul says by the end of the chapter, our “lowly body” must be transformed to be conformed to Christ's “glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). For that to happen, we will need to “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11) – the very thing Paul's working toward. Only then will we 'arrive.' Only then will we be perfected. Everything else is still lacking this. Until you can say that you're truly like Jesus in soul and body, you don't have the prize. That's what Paul thinks. And he adds, “Those who are perfect should think this way; and if in anything you think differently, even this will God reveal to you” (Philippians 3:15). Christians with 'perfect' understanding will understand what it will actually take for their journey to reach 'perfection' – and will know it hasn't happened yet. The more we see, the more we realize the process is still an ongoing one.

So Paul is in Christ's grip and possession, and Paul knows the power of Christ's resurrection, but that has not yet blessed Paul with what he considers perfection: full conformity to Christ in soul and body. Paul is still running the race. And as he describes that for us, he first mentions “forgetting what lies behind” (Philippians 3:13b). Running the race well begins with an act of forgetting, of disregarding, of excluding what's behind. Remember: that's what cost John Landy those precious split-seconds in the 'Miracle Mile': he couldn't forget what was behind him, but turned his neck even just a few degrees so as to look back over his shoulder. He looked back with his eyes because he first looked back with his mind. And it was a costly move.

So what might be behind us that we need to forget? Off the top of my head, I can think of four sorts of things we might have back there, four things behind us we need to forget. Each of them could be a sermon of their own, I reckon. But first up, behind us is sin and guilt and shame. Remember how scripture speaks of the need for a Christian runner to “lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). That's this, right here. Sin easily entangles us. When we commit a sin, it will keep trying to reach from our past into our present to trip us up and weigh us down. And the way to get free isn't by just ignoring it. The way to get free is by repentance. Only the mercy of God can break the long arm of sin. That's why it isn't enough to one time pray a “sinner's prayer” and then go whistling your merry way. The mercy of God is our constant need – we need an ongoing receptiveness to God's ever-active gift of grace, freeing and unburdening us anew as often as we accept his invitation. Repentance is the only way to forget sin's active reach.

And yet even when sin's been killed, the ghost of its reach can still be felt in guilt and shame that we carry with us, sometimes. Until we've repented, that guilt and that shame can be an expression of divine conviction. But after we've repented and received mercy, sometimes that guilt and that shame are kept alive, not by the Spirit convicting us, but by Satan's haunting voice in our ears, telling us we're still bound to it. If you've ever carried guilt and shame past your repentance, past having been forgiven, you know what that's like. And again, the sole way to be released from it is to turn again to the mercy of God, to listen to his forgiving voice about the devil's condemning voice. It can be a challenge to lay aside those needless weights, to release them into God's grasp, to bear them no more. It is not easy to forget them. But once repentance has really cut off their objective basis, they're behind you. They need to be forgotten, for the sake of your race.

Another thing that can lurk behind us, tempting us to look back at it, is not our sin but the sins of others against us (whether real or perceived) – the anger and hurt we carry from offenses. That's especially so in the case of real offenses committed by people who remain totally unrepentant of what they've done to you. I'm sure each and every one of you, if you thought about it, could recall something like that. I know I can, and I freely admit, to this day I struggle with letting go of the way I've been hurt in some supposedly Christian settings. It's like the gash in Landy's foot, taped and stitched, but every now and then I've felt it start bleeding all over. It still hurts, and that pain, resurfacing daily, makes it very, very hard to forget what lies behind me. But I have to get there, if I want to pick up the pace and run the race well. So do you, if you're still carrying anything like that around. And once again, the mercy and justice of God are the best hope we have to forget what's behind us.

There's a third thing, too, back there – and it's called accomplishment. If we focus too much on how far we've already come, while that might boost our self-esteem and inspire confidence, it also runs a certain risk. And that risk is complacency. When you think you're out in front, or at least think you've reached a good pace, you can be tempted to settle for that. You can focus so much on what you've already done that you forget the race is still going on. And that, I think, is why Paul stresses so hard that he himself can't afford to be complacent. All he's done in his ministry, and he never says, “Well, I put in my time.” He forgets even his accomplishments that lie behind him, refusing to take pride in them.

Finally, a fourth thing, and this one might sting a bit. The fourth thing is nostalgia. Nostalgia, from Greek roots suggesting 'homesickness' for a bygone era. Our country is awash in various sorts of nostalgia. It's why many movies that come out these days are remakes of older movies or TV shows – it's to feed that nostalgia. A few years ago, a political commentator named Yuval Levin wrote a book where he analyzed how both major parties in American politics are engaged in what he calls “the politics of nostalgia.” He says that one party will “talk about public policy as though it were always 1965,” while the other party will “talk as though it were always 1981.” He said that “we have spent the beginning of this century drenched in nostalgia..., and the particular form that our nostalgia has taken renders us incompetent, or at least badly confused.” So America is trapped, he says, by “our politics of competing nostalgias,” each a “blinding nostalgia” that needs to be overcome if we're ever to address the nation's problems with solutions indigenous to today.

What's true of the culture and true of the nation is also true of the people, like us, who make up that culture and that nation. I'm all for remembering history – you'll seldom find someone more enthusiastic about it than I am – but I also know that I've sat by plenty of 'seasoned saints' in the later years of life who struggle to do anything but muse nostalgically about what they miss. They miss the church of the 1950s. They miss the people who've crossed the deathly river before them. They miss Mayberry. And they get so fixated on what they miss that it seriously hinders them from living effectively for Jesus here and now. There's a reason our church no longer bills itself on its bulletins as “Old-Fashioned Revival Hour.” That was an exercise in nostalgia. Nostalgia may sometimes be comforting, and sometimes be depressing, and sometimes be a feeling all its own. But while history is helpful, and tradition is helpful, nostalgia is generally not helpful. As it keeps us looking back at what we miss, it turns our neck or even makes us run backwards. Neither is good form in a race. And this is a race.

So, “forgetting what lies behind,” Paul speaks next about “straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13c). Remember how Roger Bannister kept pushing his legs harder and harder, and gave that last kick of energy that propelled him those final yards. He – like any top athlete – was straining forward to what lay ahead. And this requires concerted effort. Straining is strenuous! It's not enough to say, “Well, I don't have to be a Roger Bannister and come in first, just so long as I cross the finish line eventually.” That attitude won't do. Nobody enters a race like this one with the intention of finishing in last place. David Law didn't plan to lose a shoe. Bill Baillie wasn't aiming for seventh place. They all strained forward toward what was ahead, all put in the effort. That was the point of their race. And it's the point of ours. Yes, at some points we'll need to ration strength – both Bannister and Landy did that, there was a fair amount of tactical thinking that went into it. But the Christian race is strenuous, it will take discipline and effort: we need to strain forward and work at it.

Doing that, we can echo the Apostle's words: “I press on to take hold” (Philippians 3:12b), “I press on toward the goal” (Philippians 3:14a). That word for 'goal' there – could be used for the target at which an archer aims, could also be used for a marker or banner put up at the finish line of a race, intended to serve as a focus on which runners could concentrate their attention. And because Jesus has taken hold of Paul, Paul wants to return the favor by taking hold of the goal, the finish, the victory. Fixation on the finish line is key. That's why the Bible talks so much about the end, about glory. We press on, we keep running, we stay in the race, with our eye zeroing in on that target, that goal. We fix our eyes on Jesus as everything we want to be like, body and soul.

Paul's hoping, he says, for “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14c). We aim to be called up to the victor's box. In the athletic races of Paul's day, a king or even the emperor might have waited on a tall platform to hand out the wreaths to the top finishers. But in our race, it's no less than God himself – the God we come to know in Christ Jesus – who calls overcomers up, up, up to the platform to be recognized as winners and have the final scores announced. And there, Paul mentions, overcomers in the race will receive “the prize” (Philippians 3:14b). Those called up will “attain the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:11) – and Paul means a resurrection to life, to glory, to have Christ as much as Christ has us – to “know fully, even as [we] have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12), to “see him as he is” and “be like him,” fully conformed to Jesus in every way (1 John 3:2). That should be what we focus on becoming. It will take strenuous effort to get there. But, forgetting what's behind and straining toward what's ahead, press on to the goal for the prize at the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Go forth, church, and run for the gold medal 'til the race is won! Amen.