Straining forward to what lies ahead ...
| Philippians 3:4-14
||Sun, October 3, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|It is almost half a century since Vancouver hosted the British Empire Games. Half a century since one of the most famous sporting events of the 20th Century. Long gone is the brand new 'Empire Stadium' that was constructed to host the games. But the memory of a blistering hot day in August lives on. Lois Kerr remembers the sweltering heat ... she and Bob were sitting front and centre because of Bob's role as honorary physician for the games. Don & Gerry McKenzie were there, too ... as Don was one of the organizers of the Games themselves. It was the day of the 'Miracle Mile'. The day that saw Roger Bannister and Frank Landy - the only two men who had ever run the mile in under four minutes - meeting on the same track for the first time. You can see that race immortalized in the statue that now sits at the corner of Hastings and Renfrew. A statue that portrays those two runners as they approach the finish line in the fateful moment when frontrunner Landy looks back over his left shoulder to gauge his lead at the very moment that Bannister is passing Landy on his right.
Paul has just such a moment in mind when he writes: "This one thing I do: forgetting what lies
behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the
heavenly call of God". Sitting in his prison cell somewhere in Rome, awaiting trial, Paul thinks of
the races that he has witnessed ... races in which the winner's laurel is placed above the finish line so that the runners can keep their eyes focussed ahead, on the prize that awaits them. One might expect Paul to be mulling over the past, going over what might have been and what could have been. Instead, he is forward driven ... full of energy for "what lies ahead".
It is, of course, one thing to be full of hope on the first lap ... in the fall of first year, say, or approaching your first anniversary. It is another thing to still find yourself looking ahead not with dread but with excitement years later ... after more than a few missteps, accidents and betrayals along the way. Remembering our beloved Bill Taylor this past week ... we were still marvelling at how, even in his tenth decade, Bill continued to strain forward to what lies ahead ... eagerly
learning how to use computers to communicate and to learn. It is this hopeful personna that Paul
embodies ... and encourages. "Brothers and sisters", he writes, "join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us" (Phil 3:17).
"Join in imitating me" says Paul. Join in straining forward, not in looking back over our collective shoulder at what could have been and should have been. There is just such a temptation for us to do just that these days. The church is tempted to look back at the 'glory days' when a new United Church seemed to be being constructed somewhere in Canada every week ... days when Sunday School was overflowing with hundreds of children from the neighbourhood. Those were the
heady days of forward looking promise. Now, many laps around the track later, the energy and
enthusiasm of that time seems long gone. It is easy to understand the temptation to focus on the
past, wondering where things 'went wrong'. Yet somehow Paul finds himself looking forward ...
straining forward ... to the future. And he invites us to join in imitating him.
Now this all sounds like the kind of sage advice you'd expect in any useful collection of wisdom:
'Don't dwell on your mistakes ... be a forward thinker'. Paul sounds almost practical ...
common-sensical even. Except that there is more to imitating Paul than meets the eye. Back up a few verses in Philippians chapter three and you'll see what I mean. For all of his delight over the little congregation in Philippi, Paul is still concerned about it ... and about the direction that some are urging it to take. Some, you see, are promoting the notion that being Christian ... being saved ... means doing certain things, keeping certain laws, being a certain kind of person. Being Christian means following a certain set of rules. This kind of thinking is anathema to Paul. This is the very opposite of his understanding of Christianity. And he knows of what he speaks: "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh", says Paul, "I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." Paul is afraid of what he has heard emerging from Philippi. It is the sound of a Christian faith which no longer has the ring of the gospel to it but, instead, sounds suspiciously like the way of the world. Paul hears the sound of credentials and of privilege. You know how it goes: "My father is a United Church minister. I was baptised in my first month, confirmed at the
age of thirteen and ordained at twenty-six. I have a Master of Divinity ... I keep the Sabbath ... and I bring food for First United every Sunday morning." Look at how quickly our confidence comes to be placed in who we are and the credentials that we manage to amass. Look at how easily we point to our life as a congregation ... our determination to remain on campus or our evocative worship life or our promises to First Nations in BC and orphans in the DR. Look at how easily we accrue credits before God. Then look at imitating Paul.
Imagine imitating Paul, who says "yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss
because of Christ. For his sake ... I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ."
Whatever else he has in mind, Paul does not imagine looking forward to being more 'credentialed' or being regarded more highly. He no longer cares about meeting requirements. ... real or imagined. In the light of Jesus Christ everything else that Paul has relied upon to give him valueand worth is now 'garbage' ... in Greek literally 'human excrement'. In its place he wants to "gain Christ" and to "know Christ". He speaks of being "found in Christ ... not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes though the faith of Christ".
Now, to be fair, this is peculiar language. It is 'thick' language ... language that is unfamiliar to us and not easily comprehended by us. We are used to speaking of 'following Jesus' and of 'loving our neighbour'. We are used to speak in terms of what we Christians are 'to do'. Paul, on the other hand, seems to speak almost mystically of entering into so close a relationship with Christ that his identity becomes that of Christ. "I want to know Christ", he says, "and the power of hisresurrection". Well this is something that we can imagine imitating. Yes, Paul, this is why we are here. We want to know the power of Christ's resurrection. Look at how far behind we seem to have fallen in the race ... look at how exhaustion and fatigue and injury have depleted the energy that was there at the starting line. Resurrection indeed. We long for it, too. We're with you Paul.
But Paul longs for more. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the
sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death". Paul wants to know Christ by sharing
in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death ... and he wants us to join in imitating him? The short and blunt answer is 'yes'. Paul's focus is not on the past. Nor is it on bettering himself by accumulating a curriculum vitae of achievements or a scrapbook full of successes. Paul's focus is on Christ ... Christ who is enthroned on a cross. Sitting in his prison cell, Paul does not imagine that he is even now at one with Christ's sufferings: "Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." For Paul the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is not limited to the past. He seems to know it not only as past event but also as present experience and as future reality. It is as if Paul lives his life between Good Friday and Easter Sunday ... and encourages us to do the same.
A few Sundays ago our worship elder, Aldyen Donnelly, testified in worship that, for her, the
resurrection was the very heart of the Christian faith .. and that in her eyes the church too often
seems to avoid proclaiming this provocative and difficult truth ... and wrestling in the pulpit with what it means for us. I thought of Aldyen's comments as I read Paul this week: "I want to know
Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings". Paul ... Saint Paul ... Paul the apostle and martyr for the faith ... Paul who can say "Christ Jesus has made me his own" ... still wants to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. It is still out ahead ... still in the future ... still the goal for which he strains. Paul is not one who can simply say "I have been saved". For him the process of salvation ... the return to being a whole person ... is not a static, once and for all event. Salvation is for Paul like a race which catches up all of his energy and focus. Salvation is the goal ... the finish line ... still out ahead.
Yet there come times in the midst of the race ... times when the runner is saved before the final
lap. The power of the resurrection is not limited to the end. You know how it happens. There
comes a time when you are sure that you can go no farther. Your lungs burn and your legs ache.
The stress of family ... or the pain of the world ... simply becomes too much. You know that you cannot go on. A congregation finds itself aging rapidly, dwindling in energy and numbers, the roof leaking and the bills piling up. The race seems over long before the final lap. Runners have a name for it. They call it 'the wall'. We have another name for it. We call it 'death'. Paul would have us runners imitate him in running through 'the wall'. He would have us Christians become 'like Christ in his death'. Because Paul has discovered the power of the resurrection at work in his own life in the present. Like a runner who is surprised by a 'second wind' so Paul speaks from experience when he proclaims the truth of the resurrection. It is not only an event of the past ... or of the future. The resurrection is also a reality in the present. It is, in fact, the very energy that
causes Paul to strain forward to what lies ahead. It is the 'second wind' that causes him to be so
full of life and joy in his prison cell in Rome. It is the power that we were witness to in the life of a man like Bill Taylor. The resurrection is also the life that is welling up within us here ... in our straining forward as a congregation to what lies ahead ... in the commitment of more than twenty of our number to spend the year in daily learning and studying of what means to be of Jesus Christ.
Heaven knows that we don't know where we are headed. The future is anything but clear for the
church in general ... and for our church in particular. But this we do know ... that "Christ Jesus has made his own" . Knowing this may we dare to share his sufferings by entering unafraid
into the sufferings of the world around us. Knowing this may our life together be focussed on the goal ... on the resurrecting power of God made real for us and for the world in the Body of