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.

No comments:

Post a Comment