Sunday, July 19, 2020

Approve the Excellent: Sermon on Philippians 1:9-11

October 1942 – Karol Józef Wojtyła, age 21, lies face-down on the floor of his apartment in Kraków, absorbed in prayer, as he and God go 'round and 'round. Karol has thrown himself on God's mercy. Karol is wrestling to discern between two paths in life he might take. He's been wrestling for months and months, like Jacob with strangers in the night. Karol just needs to know what he was made for, what kind of life would be best not just for him but for the world. It's been three years since his land was invaded from one end by Germany; the other end, by Russia. Kraków fell under Nazi rule. In the months following that dread day, Karol had joined some friends to read classic Polish literature together, and Karol had started writing plays. They were determined to resist the wave of barbarity, not by taking up arms and doing violence, but by preserving culture itself, the last bastion against barbarism. Last August, six months after Karol found his father dead, he'd joined an illegal theater company, dedicated to staging secret productions – all with the knowledge that, if caught, it meant the firing squad. Karol was charismatic, a gifted actor, born to play lead, and it was what he'd always wanted to do. And with the fate of culture at stake, it was clearly good of him to act. But was it what was best? Day after day, he hurled himself into prayer, grappled with the growing sense of another call. And this autumn day, Karol rose from prayer, left his apartment, made his way to the bishop's house, applied to the clandestine seminary.

Five months passed, during which Karol tried to remain fully engaged in the Rhapsodic Theater while carrying out his night-shift job hauling lime at the chemical plant and doing his assigned philosophy studies. It was too much of a load. He couldn't keep riding both trains. And so after finishing one more play in March 1943, Karol walked up to his director Mieczysław Kotlarczyk and asked not to be cast any longer. He could no longer act; he was going to be a priest. Well, the whole company was shocked! And the director spent days trying to talk Karol out of quitting, talk him into sticking with acting, until finally they brought in an old college friend to spearhead an intervention, a night-long debate with Karol about what Karol should do. They told Karol not to squander the talents God gave him, that he must multiply what he's been given to steward. They told him not to shut himself off from the world, that light wasn't made to be hidden under a bushel. Karol listened patiently, but he had already spent months and months discerning his vocation. He'd tested and found what path was best; he could not be swayed into thinking it would be better for him to be an actor than a priest. And so his time with the theater company drew to an end.

Did Karol make the right call in his discernment? Did he really take the better path, in his case – the one where he could do more good – even at a time when culture was threatened by the occupation? Well, he studied in secret throughout the war until the Nazis were defeated – though soon Poland would be under a Communist thumb. In November 1946, Karol was ordained a priest. He served a village church first, and then a city parish. In September 1958, he was made a bishop; then, in January 1964, an archbishop. And in October 1978, Karol Wojtyła, who could have been an actor, found his new final role: Pope John Paul II. In addition to the service he rendered to global Christianity, his influence led to the fall of dictatorships and, ultimately, to the collapse of Communism and the close of the Cold War. When he died in 2005, his funeral was the largest ever held in the history of the human race, attended by millions. Could he have done good for the world as an actor fighting for culture? Sure. Could he have been a fine playwright? No doubt. But with the wisdom of discernment, he took the road in life that was not just 'good enough,' but that was most excellent. God called him to nothing less.

Over 1900 years before Karol Wojtyła moved to Rome as its bishop, the Apostle Paul was imprisoned there in house arrest, and was writing words of wisdom to the Philippians. Paul told them about his prayers for them, his hopes and dreams for them – how grateful he was to be in the gospel business with them, how joyful their dedication made him, how confident he was of their bright future, and how he yearns for them affectionately, holding them in his heart (Philippians 1:3-8). And he wants to see them grow even more. He wants the love he has for them to be reflected in more and more love for each other, so that their “love may abound more and more.” He wants them to get deeper knowledge of God, to get a firmer grip on God's truths. He wants them to live with insight, practical discernment skills to live moral lives and make good choices (Philippians 1:9).

That's what's necessary, the Apostle says, “so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:10-11). That phrase – 'approve what is excellent' – it means to figure out what matters the most, to pick out what's best, to find the best way to go about things, to test and determine the real value of something. Paul doesn't want the Philippians to settle for going through the motions. He does not want them to lead a life of 'good-enough.' And he does not want them to clap and cheer for what doesn't really deserve it, for what's mixed with flaws and drawbacks, with could-have-beens and should-have-beens. No, Paul's message to the Philippians – and to us – is that we need love, we need deeper knowledge, we need wise insight and discernment, because we have to “approve what is excellent.” Only by approving things that are excellent can we be most fully ready for “the day of Christ,” the time when Jesus returns.

Now, how do we do that? How can we gauge the value of something? Paul offers here a few hints. First, all this discernment is to make sure we're kept “pure” on the day of Christ. And when Paul talks here about being pure, he means something that can outlast the test of sunlight, something that can be fully exposed without a problem. In other words, he means that there are no hidden motives lurking around. The opposite of this word would be hypocrisy, insincerity, inauthenticity, pretense. When Jesus comes back and shines his spotlight on our hearts, he wants to find that we've acted out of pure motives in what we've chosen, what we've approved, what we've endorsed. Why are we approving that, why are we applauding that, why are we taking that course? Is it out of fear? Is it out of a ploy for power? Is it out of anger and resentment? Or does this approval come from a sincere will for the good, a true desire to be conformed to Jesus? Trying to scrutinize our motives, and to see what will let us keep them pure, is one way to put value to the test. Now, that's harder than it may sound sometimes. We know that the psalmist reminds us, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults!” (Psalm 19:12). We know that the sage tells us, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit” (Proverbs 16:2). “Who can say, 'I have made my heart pure, I am clean from my sin'?” (Proverbs 20:9). We have remarkable powers of self-justification. Careful examination of conscience is needed, in light of abundant love and growing depths of knowledge and insight. There's no other way to securely safeguard the purity of our hearts – the purity Jesus wants to see on his day.

Second, this discernment is to make sure we're kept “blameless” on the day of Christ. Now, to be blameless is, of course, not to be stained or blemished in God's sight, to have kept our conduct above-board. But it has the added connotation here of behavior that doesn't cause other people to stumble, behavior that doesn't drive other people away from Jesus. This is why we can't afford to approve of sinful ways of living. Sin is not excellent. Sin is not healthy. And if we approve of sin in the world – if we applaud it, endorse it, shrug it off – then our failure to witness to a better way, our failure to keep the behavioral witness of the church intact, will keep letting the world trip all over itself, 'til it fall into the ditch that has no bottom. Just the same, we can't afford to approve of sinful ways of living for ourselves, ways that stand out of harmony with the hope we proclaim. For that's an even worse witness to the world, an even greater cause of stumbling. No, as we discern what to do, we need to ask ourselves whether this will be a path that steers us clear of blame, that keeps us from tripping people up, as we journey to the day of Christ. If we do this, endorse this, will that path get us there blamelessly? Be like the psalmist who vowed to “ponder the way that is blameless” (Psalm 101:2) – and take it.

Third, this discernment is to make sure that the day of Christ will find us “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” The third test of value is fruitfulness – what is most fruitful, in growing fruit for God's glory and praise? Which option says the most about how great God is? Which option yields the biggest gospel harvest for Jesus? Which option produces the most benefit? That's the point that Karol Wojtyła had most to wrestle with – where God had equipped him to do the most good. But in the end, he discerned he could best invest his talent in the priesthood – could plant his seed there and see the most plump fruits grow, to God's glory, more so than in acting. For others whom God has made differently, it may be the other way around: they'll grow more fruit in other fields.

Purity, blamelessness, fruitfulness – three core tests for value in what we approve, what we applaud, what we endorse, how we choose to live day by day. All anchored in the Christ who acted only out of purest motives, the Christ whose every way was blameless, the Christ through whom all the fruit of righteousness grows. How does that look? Paul wants us to apply this in our personal lives. He wants each of us, as individual people, to endorse and enact excellence, as revealed by these tests. To do that, we'll have to get to know God better and sharpen our discernment. How can we do that? Well, we start by spending time in scripture. Paul elsewhere speaks of those who seek to “approve what is excellent because you are instructed from the law,” that is, from scripture (Romans 2:18). Getting deeper into the Bible is meant to reshape how you see God, how you see the world, how you see yourself. It's meant to be the master story in your head and heart and hands. Really getting into scripture is one key way to sharpen your discernment, because scripture is meant to “train [you] in righteousness” and “equip [you] for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And then, just like Karol Wojtyła did, we sharpen our discernment further by spending time in prayer. Prayer is the arena where God invites us to grapple in his presence with our questions and his answers – or, sometimes, our answers and his questions! But in this arena, Karol eventually found what he later called “interior illumination” about what was excellent – and so, in time, can we. But then, we also sharpen our discernment even further by spending time in worship with the church. Not made to go it alone, we were made to worship according to rhythms. The patterns of worship, of ordered exposure to God as an intact body, shape and grow us. Things become clearer in light of it. In these ways, we grow in love, in knowledge, and in discerning insight, so we can approve what's really excellent.

But what goes for our personal-life decisions also goes for our political lives – and we all have those. And here we sometimes get tripped up. What do we endorse, not just with our votes, but with our advocacy and attitude? Both sides of the aisle – make no mistake about it – will pressure and tempt us to endorse anti-gospel options. And from whatever corner it comes, once we've adopted a partisan way of thinking, we will seek to justify our political choices by making them out to be better than they really are. We will aim to present as 'excellent' what does not really deserve our endorsement, our stamp of Christian approval. So, for instance, we endorse an idea or a politician – we start out by admitting it's the 'lesser of two evils,' but over time we get defensive and start trusting them uncritically, giving three cheers where at most two or one is deserved. Or we behave politically in certain ways (or see our chosen heroes do it), and when called out on sin, we say we're just responding in kind to the partisans on the other side. Or we tell ourselves that the status quo is fine, because deep down we're afraid that change is too hard, too risky, too inconvenient. Brothers and sisters, we get tripped up here! How well do our political attitudes and actions pass the three tests of value. Number one, is it pure – does it come from pure and genuine motives? We tell ourselves it does, but if we're bent on retaliation or blinded by partisanship and prejudice, then it doesn't. Number two, is it blameless – does it lead people to stumble into sin? It very well may. Many in the younger generation have sworn off the church after seeing their elders compromise their professed standards, to justify in their side what they condemned in the other. And number three, does it fill the world with fruit that glorifies God? When Jesus comes back, what kind of endorsements would we want him to catch us giving? Approve the excellent. Love God and neighbor abundantly.

Lastly, what goes for our personal lives and political lives goes for our ecclesial life – that is, the church. As a church, we as a body are responsible to discern what is church excellence in our time and place. Where are we best called to act? What is worth most from the church? Sometimes, churches can easily get sidetracked into majoring in jobs that aren't our excellence. In some places, church becomes a social club, geared primarily to serving people's desire for company. In other places, church becomes an advocacy machine, churning out position papers on every conceivable subject, throwing itself into activism. In yet other places, church becomes a charity, devoted to the practical needs of the neighborhood. All these reflect parts of what the church is. The church should be social, the church should speak out, the church should be charitable... but these things draw their power from what is unique to the church. And that is our calling to save the world through worship and witness, which empowers and gives meaning to our work and unifies it in a common mission. I've seen churches waste too many resources on things that fall so short of church excellence. Let us place prime focus on being and doing what only the church – and, in particular, this church – can excel at. What this church does, let it be pure. What this church does, let it be blameless. What this church does, let it fill this mountain with the fruit of righteousness that grows only through Jesus, so that God our Father would be glorified and praised!

For the day of Christ is coming. By our calendars, it may be long. By our calendars, it may be near. As people, as citizens, as a church, as the day of Christ approaches, chase what has worth – approve what is excellent!

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