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.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

A Life Overshadowed by Life: Sermon on Philippians 3:1-11

By the mists of the morning one day around the year 641, a peculiar confrontation took place at the gates of an English monastery. The king of East Anglia, Ecgric, and his troops had marched the twenty-six miles from the fortified city of Gipeswic all the way to Beodericsworth to call upon one monk in particular: Sigeberht. It was, they said, a matter of utmost urgency, a matter of national security. They needed this monk's help in a dire way.

For this monk had not always been a monk. Once, he had been a king. Sigeberht had been raised in the royal house of the East Angles, the stepson of King Rædwald. Rædwald had been somewhat of a half-Christian, in an effort to appease all the neighbors. He had a temple where there stood a Christian altar for the celebration of communion next to a pagan altar for the offering of sacrifices to the gods of English tradition. And Rædwald had raised his boys to reverence those gods. As Rædwald was in his late years, he banished his stepson to clear the way for his natural-born son Eorpwald to inherit the throne unhindered. Under Eorpwald, East Anglia lapsed further into dark idolatry. Meanwhile, Sigeberht, forced across the sea to the Frankish dominion of Neustria, sought shelter under King Chlothar II who ruled from a town called Paris.

It seems like it should have been a tragedy. But in fact, it was the best thing that could've happened to an exiled prince. For in the lands of the Franks, he heard and beheld the gospel. In the absence of political pressure, he was freely baptized, and received a Christian education in the scriptures. Sigeberht had been deeply impressed by what he saw in this foreign land, and realized that knowing Christ was so much greater than all he'd ever known before. Over the short years of Eorpwald's reign back home, Sigeberht grew as a disciple of the Lord. But one day, news reached his ears. Thanks to the influence of the Northumbrian king Eadwine, a Christian, Eorpwald himself had been baptized early in the year 628. And shortly thereafter, Eorpwald had fallen victim to a pagan assassin named Ricberht. And the kingdom had slid into chaos and lawlessness.

For three years, Sigeberht laid plans to prepare himself for what was to come. He bid farewell to Francia, took ships back across the English Channel, and joined forces with a kinsman named Ecgric. They claimed kingship together and retook power. Among all the dozens of kingdoms on the island we now know as Britain, Sigeberht became the first man to ever ascend a throne as a Christian. And he was determined to see his people receive with willing joy and gladness the blessings he had come to know. He established some of the first schools there so that children could learn to read and write. He welcomed missionaries from Burgundy and Ireland. There were many enemies to the west, and Sigeberht was not shy about leading his troops into battle. He was a model warrior, vigorous and strong and decisive in battle, bravely defending the people of his realm during his rule.

And then one day... King Sigeberht laid aside his crown. He handed the kingdom over fully to his junior partner Ecgric. And Sigeberht walked away from it all. It was the strangest thing, to those who heard it! But Sigeberht walked away from the levers of earthly power for something he believed was a higher calling than kingship. He became a monk. There was a monastery he'd sponsored from the royal treasury – one of several, dedicated to a life of prayer and study. In place of the royal crown of thisworldly power, he let them shave the top of his head, leaving a crown of hair ringing 'round. Sigeberht tossed aside command and submitted in obedience to an abbot among other monks. As once ancient Englishman quipped, King Sigeberht the warrior “made it his business to fight instead for the heavenly kingdom.” Perhaps he'd heard what one earlier Christian had written, how “a man who is strongly seized with the desire of following Christ can no longer be concerned with anything pertaining to this life.” Sigeberht was strongly seized with a desire to follow Christ. Of that there can be no doubt.

Sigeberht, you see, had had plenty of reasons for confidence in his flesh. He was of royal stock and princely upbringing, of the tribe of the Angles, a native-born speaker of Old English. He held power and rule in his hands as a mighty warrior-king who benefited the lives of his people and the health of his kingdom. But whatever gain Sigeberht had from that, he chose to count as loss for the sake of Christ. As his heart surveyed the wondrous cross of Christ, Sigeberht's richest gain he counted as loss and poured contempt on all his kingly pride. Sigeberht no longer desired power and riches and fame. He just wanted to gain Christ and be more fully found in him. He'd seen a glimpse of heavenly life and beheld heavenly realities worth chasing, and he wanted to chase them in prayer and song all the live-long day, to dwell in secret with saints and seraphim. He wanted to be a disciple unhindered by the concerns of the world. So Sigeberht stepped, not down from the throne, but up.

Years passed: Ecgric as king of the East Angles and Sigeberht as an obedient monk, sworn under strict vows in his cloister. But then came that day – that day when Ecgric and the whole army came a-knockin'. Ecgric had an urgent plea for Sigeberht. The East Anglians were under attack, threatened by an invasion from the northwest. The Kingdom of Mercia had long been contesting the East Anglians for influence over the fenlands and midland peoples. And now they served a vicious and ravenous king named Penda of Mercia, who wished to enthrall the peoples to himself. Ecgric wanted to fight, but the Mercians were mighty and the Anglians were fearful. The troops needed a dose of old-fashioned courage to stand even a chance. And nothing could inspire them like being led by their hero, King Sigeberht. Ecgric had come to the gates of the monastery to ask Sigeberht to leave it and go fight for an earthly kingdom again. And to that, Sigeberht said no. For to go back was to turn again from the songs of angels to the clatter of shields, from simplicity to chaos, from glory to dust, from gain to loss.

Ecgric would not take no for an answer. He had his bodyguards grab hold of the monk Sigeberht and drag him away from the monastery by force, and took him against his will – from the field of spiritual warfare against the passions of his own flesh to the field of political warfare against the flesh and blood of others. And they tried to thrust a sword into his hand. But Sigeberht would not take it. Having taken up the sword of the Spirit, he never again would clutch the weaponry of the world. He would not take off his cloak and cowl, he would not lay aside his simple staff. But if his presence would remind the troops of a higher truth and cheer their hears, out of charity he would stay by Ecgric's side through the battle. He knew violence would surround him, but he would lay down his life as a soldier of heaven, dead to his credentials but vibrantly alive to God in Christ. And so he did. Sigeberht died that day. So did Ecgric and a great many Anglians, at the hands of Penda and his men. But Sigeberht died to share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death, with the ardent hope of then attaining some day to a more glorious resurrection like his. So forth he went to be crowned with loftier crown. Because once you've found Life itself, all else you once called life just pales in its brilliant shadow.

The Apostle Paul could relate. As he's writing his letter to the Philippians, today's passage represents something of an abrupt change in tone, a sharp and sudden turn that makes you wonder if, while he was writing what he thought was a conclusion, a messenger showed up with an urgent news report that got his heart racing and his blood boiling. Some Judaizing missionaries had been spotted somewhere in Macedonia, perhaps, and so while they hadn't yet made it to Philippi, Paul suddenly realized they might get there soon after Epaphroditus returned home with this letter. And Paul needed them to be ready.

The Judaizers – our name today for a group of opponents Paul was constantly dealing with – were missionaries, of a sort, but not the kind Paul liked. This was an infectious movement in the early church that was especially troubling when they hoodwinked the Galatians, but they believed that the only way Gentiles could ever be fully included as God's covenant people was to become Jewish. And what they meant by that was, in order to be part of God's people, they had to accept all the old Law's marks of customary Jewish practice, things like food rules but also especially circumcision, which was the mark of the old covenant. For the Judaizers, until you had that, you were still an outsider, still in need of conversion, still had no basis for confidence. And probably one of the reasons why their message caught on was that Judaism had legal protections under Roman law, it was a permitted religion. It was a lot easier to make the case against persecution if the church were to present itself as simply one more Jewish sect. That was the safe and respectable option.

Only, in Paul's eyes, it's neither. To tell Gentile believers to bow down to the old Law is to tell them to walk away from the Spirit. It's to tell them that Jesus isn't enough, that he isn't the Savior of the world. The whole point of Christian faith is “to be justified by faith of Christ and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). To run to what can't justify you, can't establish you as part of God's end-times covenant people, is to retreat into infancy, is to abandon freedom for slavery, is to spit on a glorious inheritance. Like Paul told the Galatians, “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole Law. You are cut off from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:2-5).

Paul is nothing if not passionate about this. And so, by the late point in his career when he's writing to the Philippians and hearing that the same issue might crop up again there, he's exasperated. He tells them simply, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evildoers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (Philippians 3:2). If the Judaizers come, the Philippians should be on red alert about it. Paul does not want the Philippian church to let the Judaizers make them feel inferior. The Judaizers might come with their oodles of Israelite credentials, reasons they say to listen to them. But Paul says to this Gentile church: We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). In other words, the Philippians, without ever having their flesh circumcised, have already had it done to their ears and hearts and souls – they don't need the symbol, they've got the substance. They already are God's end-times covenant people, already are the Israel of God made new. Being what they are, they've no need to accessorize with things that amount, Paul says, to putting “confidence in the flesh.”

And then, Paul adds, if the Judaizers want to compete for the Philippians' allegiance by trotting out their fleshly credentials, Paul could just as easily beat them at their own game. “I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6). Those are Paul's credentials. If you really want to hear a fully authentic and robust Jewish take on Christianity, you should not even bother with the Judaizers – Paul outdoes them in Jewish credentials with ease! Paul makes it clear that he's fully a native. Paul is a born member of ethnic Israel, inducted into the Mosaic covenant from the earliest possible moment. Paul is no proselyte, no secondhand Israelite without a tribe. He's got a tribal affiliation with the Benjaminites, who stayed loyal to the house of David even when most of the tribes were torn away. Even though he was born and initially raised in the Jewish dispersion outside the promised land, Paul grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home – which means his parents were incredibly dedicated. When he turned teenager, they sent him to Jerusalem to personally study under the famous rabbi Gamaliel, whose grandfather Hillel was one of the two leading lights of the Pharisaic movement. As a card-carrying Pharisee, Paul was educated to be a legal expert. Did he take it seriously? So seriously that he was willing to hunt down and kill blasphemers for it – he persecuted the church, which he at first saw as a threat to Israel's hope. And was he a hypocrite, a screw-up trying to mask his failures? No, he was blameless as to legal standards of rightness – he really was the very model of Jewish excellence under the Law. Paul was everything the Judaizers were trying to create!

To the Galatians who had already fallen under the Judaizers' bewitching spell, Paul had to confront them with argument after argument. But to the Philippians who love and support Paul with a deep personal affection and attachment and who haven't had the Judaizers come to town yet, all the argument they need is Paul's personal testimony. But Paul here is doing more than warning against the Judaizers. The way he lists out his credentials is structured exactly like the inscriptions that were etched all over the walls and pillars and stones of Philippi, where people would brag about their credentials and achievements. Officers and officials would write out their story by specifying first their name, then their heritage, then their Roman tribal affiliation, and then the honors they had achieved in life. The Philippian way of life, too, was to put 'confidence in the flesh' and glory in it.

And then Paul promptly takes a sledgehammer to the monument. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith of Christ, the righteousness of God on the basis of faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).

Paul had plenty of credentials and achievements he could easily inscribe on a mighty monument – reasons why anybody with his background might take confidence in the flesh. But he refuses to hang his hat there any longer. Because now he's seen Jesus Christ. Jesus isn't just 'the Lord' to Paul. Not even just 'our Lord.' No, in one of his most deeply personal lines, Paul calls him 'my Lord.' And now “the things of earth have grown strangely dim / in the light of his glory and grace.” Jesus and his good news loom so big to Paul that everything else shrinks into oblivion. Catching sight of Jesus, Paul races so fast toward him that all this other stuff – all the awards, all the honors, all the birthrights – drift away like litter. Beholding Jesus in front of him, Paul chooses to loosen his grip on everything else he once held dear, chooses in a reflective way to be less impressed with its impoverished value relative to Christ. Because in Jesus, Paul can have a more stable righteousness – not just the kind he concocts through lawfulness but the kind God bestows into faith's waiting hand because Jesus Christ is faithful. In Jesus, Paul counts it as a privilege and an honor to share in his sufferings, to be conformed daily toward the cross. And in Jesus Christ his Lord, Paul can – in the willing embrace of those sufferings – already taste resurrection-power, as he races toward resurrection-life in the glory of God.

Paul glances back at his old life – the very sort of old life that the Judaizers might want to set up as a permanent crib around the Philippians – and he admits his flesh had a lot to be proud of. But to sit in a crib and miss Jesus, or even to lose sight of Jesus because you're staring out through bars, would be an absolute loss. That's what will happen if the Philippians give a hearing to the Judaizers. It's also what will happen if the Philippians get caught up in the flesh-confidence trumpeted by the monuments of their own culture all around them.

Take it from Paul. His old life had a lot to be proud of. But Paul's life has since been overshadowed by the One who is Life itself. In Jesus Christ the Life, Paul has flown past the flesh and met the Spirit. He's finally stepped from dust to glory. He's finally found everything that Israel was ever meant to be. And so, if they hold firm the gospel, have the Philippians. And so, if we hold firm the gospel, have we in this church. Now that Paul knows Jesus – now that Paul can speak of Jesus as 'my Lord' – there's no going back. To reclaim old trophies and old victories would be to pick up litter while there's a race to be run, while heavenly realities are out there to be chased and caught in Christ. To be elsewhere than in Christ is to be in the wrong place. To hang your hopes in yourself when his hands are so near is to lose it all. But to hang everything on Jesus your Lord is to finally know Life itself. And when you know the Life, leaning on him to justify you is the only credit you need, and sharing his sufferings is a taste of his surpassing worth, and meeting his resurrection-power is a bright promise. In the 1500s, a Dutch scholar named Desiderius Erasmus paraphrased Paul's sentiments like this – he said:

I attribute so much to the gospel of Jesus Christ my Lord that I... regard as a liability whatever this world anywhere holds as worthy or welcome. Therefore, as soon as I began to have a taste of this, there was no profit in anything, however splendid, that I do not consider a loss, or indeed that I do not regard as rubbish or something more despicable than rubbish, if only at its expense I am allowed to gain Christ, the Source of all the goods that truly are good.

Which brings us back to where we started, with Sigeberht at the monastery. Once Sigeberht signed up to fight the good fight of heaven, all the royal armaments on earth couldn't lure him back. His old royal life came to be overshadowed by Life itself. And in that brilliant shadow, his old sword seemed a toy, his old crown a trinket, his old realm a passing fancy. He counted them as rubbish, not because they had no value, but because Christ was too beautiful to let things like that keep Sigeberht distracted when Sigeberht could be gaining him. No credit or achievement was worth gripping onto, at the expense of missing out on more of Christ the Life. No political power or influence was worth achieving – (nor are our preferred outcomes in American elections!) – at the expense of our spiritual health or the credibility of our witness to Christ the Truth. No thrill of battle could compete with chasing after Christ the Way. Paul and Sigeberht, the rabbi and the royal, saw their old lives overshadowed by Life – so they suffered the loss of all things and counted their old honors and delights as rubbish, in order to gain Christ and be found in him. May we be more like Paul, more like Sigeberht. May we regard as a liability and a loss anything in our lives that hinders us from drawing near the Source of All Good, who is our True Gain. May we learn to love to share in Christ's sufferings and to know him intimately in all the power of his resurrection. Nothing the world holds worthy or welcome is so worthy or welcome as this. May your life be blessedly overshadowed by Life, the Life that is Christ Jesus, the High King of Heaven! Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Crooked and Twisted: Sermon on Philippians 2:12-16

The people of Rome, packed into the stands, cheered, roared, and yelled at the spectacle in the arena below, as sword clanged against shield, and shield against sword. The gladiators were putting on a fierce show, sweaty and bloodied. And it had the crowd in a tizzy. They cried out for more violence: “Kill him, lash him, whip him, burn him!” Nothing was ever enough for them. The crowds of Rome bayed for blood – the blood of criminals if possible, so they could feel justice was being done, but slaves and others would do nicely, forced to fight for the amusement of the masses. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, described how the crowds would get bored in intermissions and cry out to watch an execution. He admitted that, after spending an afternoon at these games, “I come home more greedy, more ambitions..., more cruel and inhuman.”

And the emperor was a prime example. In March of 59, before the Apostle Paul arrived in Rome, a struggle for power had led to the Emperor Nero ordering the assassination of his own mother Agrippina. He descended ever deeper into depravity. Left without checks and balances on his behavior, and increasingly ignoring Seneca his advisor and tutor, Nero liked to spend his nights carousing, beaten men in the street, stabbing any who resisted him and tossing the bodies into the sewers; he'd rob shops and auction his loot openly in his palace. Nero had affairs with married women and abused younger boys. Much of this was going on during Paul's years of house arrest. In the years after Paul's first release, Nero got worse still. He put on a bridal veil and became the so-called 'wife' of a man named Pythagoras. He's rumored to have lit the fire that burned much of Rome to the ground – a fire he blamed on the unpopular group called Christians, whom he then began persecuting in violence that swept the Apostle Paul finally to his expected departure. The next year, with a sharp kick Nero ended the life of his pregnant wife Poppaea. Nero later made a boy named Sporus into a eunuch and had a 'wedding,' after which he presented Sporus to the public as his 'empress' with whom he engaged in considerable indecency in the public eye. Nero's depravity was notable – but then, he had the power to fulfill his desires, desires many Romans may have shared, whether they admitted it or not.

A few centuries later, a Latin observer of society could still look around himself and remark: “There's no trust, since people grab what they can for themselves. There's no sense of duty, since greed spares neither parents nor family and since lust resorts to poison and the knife. There's no peace and concord, since war rages openly and even private hatreds are made enough for blood. There's no shame, since lust runs loose in man and woman alike, corrupting every act of the body.”

The Philippians of the first century, as enthusiastic imitators of all things Roman, naturally had many of those same traits among themselves. This was the world from which the Philippian Christians had been drawn, and which tempted them daily with familiar habits, familiar pastimes, familiar pleasures and customs. And as Paul, writing from Rome, thinks about the culture that Rome and Philippi share, his mind flashes back to an ancient story from the Bible. The people of God, as the nation of Israel, had been walking around the desert for decades – marked by grumbling and complaining aplenty (Exodus 16). And as one of his final acts for them, the elderly Moses had sung them a song. Moses celebrated God's greatness for all heaven and earth to hear, “a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). But as for the generation that had been roaming the desert all those years, “they have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation. Do you thus repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people?” (Deuteronomy 32:5-6). What made Israel so 'crooked and twisted' in the desert was that, in their complaining and carousing, in their impatience and their idolatry, they had mirrored the pagan nations they encountered, they had imbibed and imitated pagan culture, they had practically forgotten God's special call on their lives.

With that as a touchstone, Paul had to admit that the church in Philippi was situated among a people not much different from the ancient Egyptians and Edomites, Midianites and Moabites, Ammonites and Amalekites – all the bad examples that Israel chose to follow. And so the Philippian church, while not themselves so depraved, were nevertheless living “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” – Paul's using the same words that Moses used (Philippians 2:15). The culture around the church there was hostile and depraved, was full of bad examples, was a “crooked and twisted generation.” It was bad.

Over seventeen hundred years later, a nation called the United States of America was born. Among its founders was a man named Alexander Hamilton, then still rather young. Just a few years before these people declared their independence from the British Empire, he spent his teen years on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix under the tutelage and sponsorship of a Presbyterian pastor named Hugh Knox. And Rev. Knox, in 1775, published a sermon in which he reflected on these words of the Apostle Paul. And Rev. Knox said:

My brethren, we need not go back to antiquity to justify and illustrate the observation of the Apostle. In every age of the world, God's true church and people 'live in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.' … What faith is nowadays to be put in the promises or professions of men? The very form of religion is in such sovereign contempt that it is deemed highly impolite to introduce even the mention of it into company. How few in Christian countries, comparatively speaking, attend the ordinances of Christ or pay any regard to the public worship of God? What are the lives of that generality but a course of mere extravagance, sensuality, and dissipation... without a single serious thought about the state of their souls or eternity? If we inquire into the source of mirth and pleasantry in most companies, shall we not find the laugh almost perpetually raised either at the expense of religion or at the natural and moral failings and infirmities of our fellow-creatures? … To all this, may I not add that some of the most scandalous and filthy vices are become so common and fashionable in Christian countries that to resist or decline them would be deemed an almost unpardonable singularity. Surely nothing more need be added to prove that the world in which Christians live is a 'crooked and perverse generation'...

Hugh Knox lived in the late eighteenth century. We live in the early twenty-first, but is our surrounding culture any less crooked and twisted today? As we live through what countless commentators assess as the collapse of civil society itself, racial prejudice in multiple directions has surged into the open, propagated even by the Smithsonian. Just this year, the nation was horrified by an outright lynching in Georgia after a posse hunted a man down, hurled racial slurs at him, and shot him to death. Meanwhile, some elite schools around the country have experimented again with segregating children by race. And an influential prize-winning journalist today is infamous for once having called members of a different racial group “barbaric devils.” This is a crooked and twisted generation. The riots that have seized our nation again this year – not for the first time – have brought with them a rising tide of church vandalism: we've seen statues of Mary beheaded, graffiti spray-painted on cathedrals, church arsons. Violent street battles between political extremists from both sides have led to a rising casualty count. And National Public Radio recently profiled, with glowing praise, a just-published book seriously titled In Defense of Looting. This is a crooked and twisted generation.

Meanwhile, among Americans under the age of forty, a national survey found that 46% admitted to having used pornography just in the days before they asked the question. Prior to the pandemic, a number of libraries in the country had begun what they called Drag Queen Story Hour, which had even begun expanding to elementary schools. We've seen news reports about couples pledging to raise their child as neither a boy nor a girl but as 'gender-neutral.' We've seen an increasing proportion of entertainment media choosing to highlight cast and characters of varying sexual lifestyles, and also media centered on the sexualization of younger and younger children. This is a crooked and twisted generation. In a few days, a new film will release that purports to be a comedy about abortion. Polling conducted last year indicated that 61% of Americans support legalized abortion in all or most cases, and while the abortion rate is declining, that still means that over 600,000 children made in God's image are intentionally killed in the womb every year. This is a crooked and twisted generation.

Setting homicides in utero aside, America sees over 16,000 other murders yearly. What wonder that the USA has been ensnared in one war after another for all but 21 years of our history as a nation. Meanwhile, the poor are downtrodden and oppressed in countless ways, as the rush toward renewing evictions has shown and as the prevalence of scams targeting the elderly reveals. And our nation's political life is certainly no healthier. For perhaps the first time, both major parties have nominated candidates who've been accused, credibly or not, of sexual assault; and as our division ripens, 62% of Americans – including a majority of people from both major parties – now censor themselves out of fear that other people would react poorly if they actually shared their political views honestly. This is a crooked and twisted generation.

The mystery is why that seems to shock us! Paul tells us that first-century Philippi was a crooked and twisted generation. Hugh Knox admits that seventeenth-century America was a crooked and twisted generation. If that's true “in every age of the world,” it shouldn't shock us that twenty-first-century America is a crooked and twisted generation. But what should horrify us is the prospect of the church becoming a mirror of the darkness. That's what was of deepest concern to Paul. When Paul looked back at the Song of Moses, he saw that Israel's biggest trouble was having themselves become a “crooked and twisted generation,” being disinherited children through being “blemished” (Deuteronomy 32:5). And so his urgent plea for the Philippian Christians was to be the opposite – for them to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish,” even though they were surrounded by “a crooked and twisted generation” (Philippians 2:15). The worst thing would be for the church to do as the desert generation did – become blemished and lose that family resemblance and even status.

That prospect should be our biggest concern today. We know of clergy scandals – not only cover-ups that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, but also numerous megachurch pastors brought down in our lifetime by sexual misconduct, including one of Billy Graham's grandsons. In the past months, the president of one of our country's biggest Christian universities was let go, not after his atrocious and abusive treatment of others, but after credible claims of sexual misconduct came to light, including the possibility that he awarded his wife's other partners with lucrative business deals. The church in America often remains de facto segregated. We would struggle to say that even the professing evangelical church is free of committing or condoning the habits that have brought our nation to where it is – socially, sexually, economically, rhetorically, politically, you name it. And we can also be found committing the precise sin that brought Israel's desert generation down: bickering. To our ears, as used to it as we are, it seems out of place in that litany, doesn't it? And yet it's Paul's great worry for the Philippians. The way for them to be blameless and innocent is to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14), in other words, without the bickering that was beginning to take over the church. We certainly see that in some churches today, even here in Lancaster County. And what Paul wants us to know is that, if we give in to church bickering and church grumbling, that right there is already blemishing us, that right there is already twisting us into the crooked shape of the world, as much as all the rest. For all these things were included in Paul's reminder to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11). So what should the church be like instead?

As Paul's brain plays hopscotch through the Old Testament, mulling over the Philippians' problem, he jumps from Deuteronomy and lands on the prophecies of Daniel. An angel sent from God explains about a future time when the people of God would be in serious trouble. But “at that time, your people shall be delivered – everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake – some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3). In saying that, the angel was looking ahead to the end – and we already live in the dawn of the end. So did Paul and the Philippians. So Paul took the angel's words, about those who are wise getting to shine, and he hands them to the church. The church may be surrounded by the darkness of a crooked and twisted generation, but that's all the more reason to stay bright! “In the midst of a crooked and twisted generation..., you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15-16).

Look up at the night sky – especially if you can find a far enough field to escape the light pollution that takes the beauty away from us – and you'll see the blackness of space consumed by shimmering seas of enchanting light. Those are the skies that smiled down on Paul and on Daniel. Paul implores the church to keep its light intact – to keep clenching the word of life, the gospel of salvation, the wisdom of hope. The song Moses sang was, Moses said, “no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land...” (Deuteronomy 32:47). Our song is an even higher song. The gospel is no empty word, but our very life, and by this word we will live, not just long in an earthly land, but eternally in a new creation, if we endure to the end. And this good news of Christ, this word of life, must be clenched firmly and tightly and joyfully in how we live.

Paul commands us to cultivate light in the church – to intentionally let ourselves be formed by the word of life. A star doesn't have to do much to keep being bright. It just has to keep burning its fuel – the uncontrolled thermonuclear fusion at its heart will keep unleashing energy. And the 'word of life,' God's word spoken into us, is the explosive power at the heart of the church, and at the heart of each disciple. That's why the Apostle Paul calls us to be “blameless and innocent” – we cannot afford to be dimmed by bickering or the other ways of imitating the world. We must intentionally let the word of life form us, as individuals and as a church body. We must intentionally cultivate life. A star is formed through gravitational collapse, the clouds of gas and dust falling in on themselves in space; and it's this gravitational containment that lets the process of nuclear fusion continue. And by letting the word of life draw us together around the crucified and risen Christ, the same thing – a spiritual 'gravitational containment' – lets the explosive power in our heart shed more and more light.

For it's only by keeping our light bright that we can catch the attention of the world. The darker the rest of the field of vision, the more a star stands out – hence why we drive out beyond the light pollution to catch our best glimpses of God's handiwork above. If first-century Philippi and twenty-first-century America both look like a “crooked and twisted generation,” well, Paul's audiences then and now have more and more chances to stand out – provided we stick together, provided we keep burning the right fuel, provided we don't trade brightness for dimness and darkness. In other words: provided we steer clear of bickering, grumbling, disputing, and other pagan imitations, and so live as “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish.”

Part of the problem sometimes has been that, as very 'mission-minded' evangelicals, we've been so determined to plunge into the world, to disperse our way through its back alleys, that we haven't seriously let the word of life form us – we haven't stuck together in thick community, but contented ourselves thinly with occasional moments of 'fellowship.' We haven't kept much brightness. The more light pollution we've had around us from living in a 'culturally Christian' bubble, the less we've noticed our dimness. But as the light pollution clears, it will be plain which stars have fizzled already, which stars have dimmed to imperceptibility, gone dim and dark.

Only by being bright can we truly brighten the darkened world below. Only by holding fast the word of life can we also hold out the word of life. It's easy to point at the darkness and yell. It's harder work to offer light. But that's why we're here, in this hour, on this hill: to be light and offer light. In Daniel's prophecy, the ones with the promise to one day “shine like the stars forever” are those who “turn many to righteousness” by sharing the light of their wisdom (Daniel 12:3). Our wisdom is the word of life. Only by letting it fuel us can we shine, and only as we shine ourselves can we offer our light to the world.

Doing this is how we, in Paul's words, can “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). God is active in our midst through the word of life – his is the explosive power in our heart, his is the generation of the light – but our job is to be in awe of his active presence in our midst, his saving presence through Jesus Christ, and to work out in practice what it means to be saved, what it means to be enlightened by heavenly light, what it means to be filled with light and power. And that outworking means to keep ourselves blameless, innocent, unblemished, and bright. It means to stay uncrooked and untwisted, but to offer the brilliant word of life to a generation that is crooked and is twisted, without letting ourselves be made crooked and twisted. For as Paul writes elsewhere, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord: walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that's good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8-10).

May we keep ourselves blameless and without blemish. May we be innocent children of God. May we shine like the stars forever, in the midst of a nation and among neighbors who need the wisdom of the gospel and the hope we've found. May the gravity of God keep us together, and may the word of life fuel our bright living, that we may stand out brightly against the backdrop. And as we preserve our life together uncrooked and untwisted, may others receive the light we give off, the word of life we hold out, and be turned to the righteousness we find in Jesus Christ. In his name we make this our prayer. Amen.