A Sermon from Sherborne
Compline Address 4 – Rejoice in the Lord!
That I may gain Christ and be found in him. [3.1 – 4.1]: preached by The Reverend Jane Craw, Team Vicar, on Monday 12th March 2018
This evening’s talk includes a warning, a C.V., a race, an example and a blessing all wrapped up in joy, the hallmark of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This great letter speaks of the need for Christian unity, the person of Jesus Christ and all that he has achieved for us, as well as an appeal to live a life worthy of our calling. Chapter three takes us into both old and new territory and opens with the words: ‘Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.’ This is not only the opening theme of chapter three but it is also the underpinning message of the Letter from St Paul to the church in Philippi. As previous speakers have noted Paul refers to joy and not happiness. That emotion evaporates as easily as the morning mist but instead he calls us to rejoice, advocating real joy, joy unspeakable and full of glory, that anchor which holds us fast, even when the chips are down. Or, to use another metaphor, it is a spring that wells up in us, enabling us to know that all is well with our soul. It is something of the eternal and not the ephemeral.
Joy is one ingredient of the fruit of the Spirit and has the power to help us overcome in the face of difficulties. There is a story which goes like this:
Massena, one of Napoleon’s generals, suddenly appeared with eighteen thousand men before an Austrian town which had no means of defence. The town council had nearly decided to surrender when the old priest at the church reminded them that it was Easter and begged them to hold services as usual and to leave the trouble in God’s hands. This they did, and the French hearing the church bells ringing joyfully concluded that an Austrian army had come to relieve the place and quickly broke camp. Before the bells ceased ringing, all the Frenchmen had vanished. Joy had certainly sent the enemy packing!
No sooner are we immersed in this joy, Paul’s tone changes completely. The encourager becomes the protector. He writes: ‘Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh — even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.’ He is setting boundaries with the flourish of a paw like a lioness protecting her cubs. His desire is to save this church from distractions and divisions. Let us look for a moment at the list of those he sees as a destructive influence. First he cites ‘dogs’. I can assure you that he did not have in mind those fluffy, well-groomed, butter-would-not-melt-in-your-mouth sorts that we enjoy seeing at Crufts. Dogs at the time of Jesus roamed the streets, hunted in packs, snapping and snarling at all they met. The ‘dogs’ Paul refers to are the Jewish teachers who are so full of their own importance, and delight in perverting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul was utterly clear. With him there was no compromise: Christ alone, grace alone and faith alone. Second he mentions ‘evil workers’. These were the men who would snap at your heels, and bark out doctrines which focused on legalism and works and so discouraged those new Christians from throwing themselves on Christ and instead ordered them to imbibe a set of unachievable rules. Finally he attacks those who insist on circumcision. According to Jewish belief circumcision was required of the people of Israel as an outward sign that they were God’s chosen people, those with whom he had entered a special relationship. But to Paul, this outward sign is of no value. The real circumcision is not a mark in the flesh but instead it is a devotion of the heart and mind and life to God. The true Christian does not worship God with outward signs, forms and observances. The Christian’s devotion comes from the heart and simply obeys the two commandments: worshipping God and serving his or her fellow human beings.
He appeals to his audience not to have confidence in the flesh, although he admits if anyone has the right to flag up his credentials then he is the one to do so. Indeed Paul had every reason to be proud of his pedigree. Paul’s autobiographical information shows he is a full member of God’s covenant people. First he calls to mind those advantages he has inherited. He is literally an ‘eighth day one’ (octa hemeros in the Greek), confirming his circumcision. He is an Israelite by birth and has access to all the rights and privileges that that provides. He is from the tribe of Benjamin which is considered to be faithful to the covenant. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. For those who cared about ancestry and family, Paul ticked all the boxes. He was the crème de la crème.
His second set of credentials is concerned with his achievements. He was a Pharisee who practised strict observance of the law; he demonstrated great devotion to God as persecutor of the Church and he was above reproach according to a Pharisaic interpretation of the law. And so his personal narrative lacked nothing. He has excelled in faith, family and nationality.
But what does it mean then when we read that Paul regards all these points whether inherited or gained by achievement as ‘rubbish’? His change of heart occurred when he encountered Christ both in the Damascus road experience and in his subsequent learning which came from an intimate relationship with his Lord. Paul never did anything by halves. I rather suspect he did things very well or not at all. On meeting with Christ, who took on the form of a slave and humbled himself to death on a cross, his whole outlook changed. Of course he did not suddenly relinquish his religious heritage or stop being an effective religious leader but the difference was that he placed an entirely different value on them. His whole perspective altered. He had made an exchange and had traded his ability to keep the law in his own strength, to accepting righteousness that comes as a gift from God. It was a trade between righteousness that finds its confidence in past performance to one that finds confidence in future possibility. It begins and ends in God; it dismisses the need to strive and it is a process that we call grace. Grace is not enslaving but leads us into freedom, to an open place full of possibility. In fact, as we commit our lives to God, he shifts us from all that is comfortable and safe into the amazing future that he holds for us. Hold tight. When we release ourselves into God’s goodness, we release ourselves into his love and that is the safest place we can be.
We, like St Paul, live in the present but know that our present is a combination of our past life and our hopes for the future. Our Christian lives are very similar. But here lies the rub. We are no longer to find our life, our purpose, our worth and our identity in the past but in the discovery of who we are in Christ. We can only begin to understand these truths if we are prepared to rely on Christ, himself. I am not very good at ‘trust games’ – the ones where you close your eyes and fall backwards into the arms of the person who is standing behind you. I find it extremely hard to let go and do the trusting. But it is not until we let go and let God have his way that we will truly find our new identity in Jesus Christ.
If we are honest we only have the merest glimpses of who we are in Christ and paradoxically that is often when we recognise how incomplete we are. Paul tells us he wants to know Christ and to gain Christ. There is an insistence in him which reminds us of the Psalm which says ‘as the deer pants for the waters, so my soul longs for you, O God.’ The word ‘pants’ in Hebrew means yearning, longing that does not allow you to stop short. It pushes you with a desire that will not be satisfied until it finds the cold waters. I think this is the longing for Christ that Paul is talking about. As I mention these words I rather suspect there are some of us here who long to feel that whole-hearted desire to want more of God. We look around at other people who seem much holier, much more switched-on to spiritual things than we are and we feel that we will never attain such spirituality. I don’t think it has to be complicated. Paul says: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.’ If you want to get to know someone then you spend time with them. Getting to know Christ is no different. We find him in his Word, through prayer and by receiving his sacraments. His power is demonstrated in our midst when we see lives transformed.
But knowing Christ is not a one-off experience but a life-time adventure. He does not change us and then let us flounder in the world. We are a work in progress, his workmanship, in fact his work of art. Be encouraged you are Christ’s light in the darkness. You have been chosen before the foundation of the world. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made. You matter to God; you are his beloved. Of course, there is a sense of both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ in Paul’s letter. God’s work is complete; we simply have to discover all that that means. And that is the journey of a life-time.
But we must look at both parts of Paul’s request. He not only mentions the power of Christ’s resurrection but that we must also share in his sufferings. The cross and the resurrection go hand in hand. Like all things which have to do with resurrection, there first must be a death. If we are to know the power of Christ’s resurrection then maybe we have to let things go, to surrender all that is dear to us in this life. That means coming to the place where Christ alone is sufficient, where he is everything, even more than life itself.
Paul continues his letter and provides ways of being faithful and running a good race. The Christian life is not a 100 metre dash, but a marathon which traverses difficult terrain. Nothing must hinder or hamper our steady progress. We will have to cast off all that ‘heavy clothing’ which holds us back. It is not a spectator sport but one where we must be participants and one which demands our all. Sir Roger Bannister died on March 3rd this year and for me the enduring picture is that of this most driven of athletes where he completes his sub-four minute mile and has given his all. Drained of all energy he crosses the line. This was the Everest of athletic feats. The Christian life is like that. It demands ‘my soul, my life, my all.’
In order to encourage the faithful at Philippi, Paul sets himself up as an example. Human examples will inevitably have flaws and the words of Mahatma Gandhi ring loud in our ears: ‘I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’ To a certain extent, we may find ourselves agreeing with this sentiment. Human beings will always disappoint, even within the context of the Church. We may also meet people who reject the Christian faith because someone they have met, who professes to be a Christian, behaves in an unloving manner or is the source of some mishap or misunderstanding. Those who do not attend church often have a clear picture of how they expect Christians to conduct their lives. As a result we may turn that person to look at Jesus, his compassion, his love and his ultimate, unselfish sacrifice instead. But Paul suggests his audience should look at himself and aim to imitate him. This may seem like blatant narcissism and the most extreme kind of vanity. But instead, Paul longs for the folk in Philippi and us to imitate him in throwing off all those external trappings, titles and markers which focus on ourselves. In shedding this outward paraphernalia we can join in the single-minded pursuit of sharing in Christ’s suffering and knowing the power of his resurrection. So often we like to use our degrees, titles, birth-place or who we know as a way to present ourselves. Paul is saying strip all this away and I believe in so doing we will find our true identity in Christ. To describe ourselves as a follower of Christ or as a child of God roots our lives in the present but secures our hope for the future. Indeed what better titles can we possess?
So what does Paul mean when he encourages his audience to imitate him or if he is away, supporting another church, they are to follow his example seen in Timothy or Epaphroditus? It is interesting to note that here the word ‘example’ translates the Greek typos. ‘Typos’ refers to a blow which leaves an imprint, a bit like a stamp or a seal. And so, it came to mean an example or pattern. Paul is the typos, that mark which leaves its imprint on his fellow believers and is therefore worthy of imitation. But Paul himself is not the archetype. That is our Lord Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in his first letter to the Corinthians he says: Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
It is by setting aside all those things which matter so much to us that we discover the surpassing value of knowing Christ, the gift above all others. May we, as Christians in this town, be courageous in this step, this calling, to open our lives, to forget what lies behind, and to strain for that which lies ahead?
Finally, St Paul ends with the words: ‘Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.’ Paul makes the Philippians feel good. They are much loved and are his crowning glory. The Greek word used here is stephanos. That was both the crown of the successful athlete at the games but also the crown offered in joy when guests came to a banquet. This is not simply the way Paul loved the Philippians but the way in which God loves us. As we go away this night may we know that we have the strength in Christ which holds us fast and rejoice that we are his people crowned with his love and firmly held in his generous heart. Amen.