First Congregational Church
May 18, 2014
Fifth Sunday after Easter
“Bookkeeping, Runners and Citizenship: Oh My!”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
For those who have been unable to join us this month, we’ve been working through the book of Philippians. It’s a perfect book to ‘drink in’ after Easter, because of it’s uplifting reminder of what following Christ is all about. If you think of it as an academic review, we’ve had the “psychology” lesson, so to speak, in remembering the necessity of joy in our lives from the first week, along with factors that can attempt to rob us of our joy: circumstances, people and things. We’ve had the spelling lesson around joy in the second chapter of Philippians - j for Jesus, o for others, y for you, and in that order. This week we cover a couple different areas: math, phy ed. and social studies.
Speaking of phy ed., few people realize that there are sports in the Bible. From the very beginning there is baseball - In the Big-Inning God created. And there’s tennis - when Moses served Pharaoh in his court.
Philippians 3 The Message
1And that’s about it, friends. Be glad in God! I don’t mind repeating what I have written in earlier letters, and I hope you don’t mind hearing it again. Better safe than sorry—so here goes.
2-6 Steer clear of the barking dogs, those religious busybodies, all bark and no bite. All they’re interested in is appearances—knife-happy circumcisers, I call them. The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ’s praise as we do it. We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.
7-9 The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
10-11 I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.
Focused on the Goal
12-14 I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.
15-16 So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision—you’ll see it yet! Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it.
17-19 Stick with me, friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal. There are many out there taking other paths, choosing other goals, and trying to get you to go along with them. I’ve warned you of them many times; sadly, I’m having to do it again. All they want is easy street. They hate Christ’s Cross. But easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live there make their bellies their gods; belches are their praise; all they can think of is their appetites.
20-21 But there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him.
Thank you, Andy. To get everyone on the same page - or letter - as the case may be, there were no big issues going on in the Philippian churches. The congregation in Philippi was one of the first established by Paul and Timothy on their first missionary journey. The entire book was likely written by Paul while he was imprisoned for two years for the crime of preaching the Gospel of Christ. While Paul was in prison, the Philippians sent him a gift, by way of Epaphroditus. In essence, Philippians is a rather thank you note. But it contains a lot of encouragement and is “scented” with a great deal of joy - deep, hidden joy as well as immediate and practically visible joy.
So in this third chapter, we get a good dose of Paul’s credentials: as a Roman, as a Jew and as a devoted follower of Jesus. If we were to think of him as a bookkeeper, he gives us a credit side and the debit side, warning us not to put all our time and talents into one side or the other, because they both figure in on the profit column.
We, like Paul, could “credit” our lives by laying out all of the things of which we could boast. “I’m a good person; I pray at church, I manage to tell the truth,” and all sorts of religious credits. Yet despite all the religious “good” he had stored up, Paul realized - in his debit column - that he was lacking; that just going through the motions, being a good Jewish man, (we would say being a good Christian), left him spiritually bankrupt. Without Christ, there was little that was going to help him when the hard parts of life came up. In essence, Paul realized that he would be willing to lose all his “credits” so that he might win Christ, that he might gain - or profit - Christ.
In regards to the profit column, in another version of verse 8 Paul says, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. Because I hang around on Sundays after church, let me tell you - there is a definite joy when the money counters figures add up. And there is a definite prolonged air of frustration when the numbers don’t come out right. To make it very simple: Life plus Christ equals relationship, and that’s makes our faith alive.
Than Paul gives us the phy. ed reminder in likening our life of faith to a runner. It’s interesting that the apostle Paul is such a sports fan. In 1 Corinthians (9:25), he talks about boxing, saying "I'm not a shadow boxer." In the King James Version, he talks about wrestling in Ephesians 6. In this morning’s passages, he mentally revisits a stadium; witnessing a foot race, drawing the comparison that we, in the Christian life, are like runners in a race.
For Paul, his starting line was the Road to Damascus. We all have starting lines when it comes to faith. Some of our lines are very specific, some are so far back in time, it seems as if there never was a time when life wasn’t about pressing on toward the goal.
Sometimes we fall down on the track, and we skin up the palms of our hands and our knees. Many of you have read the story of the Special Olympics race - or some race like it - where one of the members of the race falls to the track, and other runners stop, go back and pick the fallen one up, and run with that one until they finish all together. I think there was a story about that happening at the Boston Marathon this year, too.
In our modern culture, it can feel like we’re surrounded by the messages of win - no matter what, the last one really is the rotten egg, the winner takes it all. Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us that the joy is not in “winning”, but in the finishing the race. I don’t think Paul is saying that we shouldn’t have winners and losers in foot races. But in the realm of faith and spirituality, we all need to keep helping each other, or no one will win, and we could all fall over when the starting gun is shot, our joy scared to death.
In the last part of Philippians 3, we have Paul’s Social Studies lesson. Incidentally, in a nifty little definition: civics is dealing with rights and duties of citizens, social studies is study of social relationships and functioning of society. We get that lesson from the intersection of easy street and the cross in our scripture passage. As followers of Christ, we belong to an heavenly-minded eternity while living on an earthly-minded planet.
In another letter to the Colossians (3:2), Paul says, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Sometimes when “earthly things” are not going so well, we can find the ability to press on when we remember that we will be living in eternity, where earthly things will not really matter. Sometimes when we’ve just been figuratively kicked in the gut, we can be left wondering if this “race” we’re on is worth all the pain. That’s when we need to remember that our time here is such a minuscule part of our total existence. I don’t know how it is for anyone else, but the older I get, the more “life” that happens, the more I need that reminder of where I have my citizenship.
When we remember our citizenship, it is easier to remember our rights and duties as such inhabitants. Once in a while, when I’m out fishing, I might see an object floating in the water that doesn’t belong there - a styrofoam cup, a plastic bag, a boat paddle. I don’t own the lake, I don’t own any property around any lake, but as a citizen of this world, it is incumbent on me to pick it out of the water - regardless of how it got in there. It is not for me to judge the person that is behind that foreign object, but it is my duty to do what I can do, and most all of us know what we can - and can’t do - in most situations.
When we do what we know is right - in large part because of the realm of which we are citizens, there is a certain joy that comes into being, spreading around our hearts, fortifying and strengthening our hearts in ways we might not otherwise imagine. When we do our “civic” duty - most especially as citizens of heaven, our joy doesn’t allow our chests to puff up or our arms to be longer - to pat ourselves on our backs.
Sometimes we have to walk away from our spiritual abacus’ - or would that be abaci? Sometimes we have to set down on the track of life so we can get back up and continue the race. Sometimes we have to retreat to our own little pity planets for the healing of citizenship to begin. But always there is Christ, always there is grace, always there is prayer. So shall we?
Gracious God of numbers, tennis shoes and passports, we are grateful for this day and this chapter of Philippians, to remind us that you created us as humans. Sometimes life can seem to get the best of us, but help us to see the bigger picture, what is really important in terms of all of life, and how we best continue our own, true journeys of faith. Help each of us to be better than we think we can be, to be true followers of your Son, and reflectors of your love, mercy, grace and most certainly, of your joy. We pray all these things in the name of your Son Jesus, as we all say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.