Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 4, 2020
18th Sunday after Pentecost
More than anyone other than Jesus, the Apostle Paul shapes the history of early Christianity—quite a surprise since Scripture introduces him as a young man who approves the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Later Paul is given permission by the high priest to pursue others who belong to “the Way” but on his journey to Damascus he encounters the Risen Lord. For three days Paul is unable to see until at the Lord’s bidding, Ananias arrives. Paul’s sight is restored, and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized. Once he regains his strength, he begins to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen.
Paul leads mission trips, writes letters of encouragement and correction to the churches, and performs miracles in the name of Jesus. He is also beaten, shipwrecked, and imprisoned. Over time, by the work of Christ’s own Spirit, Paul undergoes a holy transformation to become a powerhouse of faith and practice. God working! God transforming! How can we talk seriously about being made new, without talking about God? And if it is a model of faithful behavior we are after, the Apostle Paul surely fits the bill.
Through the lens of our epistle reading for today, let us consider what Paul might have to teach us about living a life of faith. First, he encourages us to ponder where we are now. Do we feel imperfect? If so, we are in good company because Paul feels the same way. He writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal…” When we become children of God, we are declared not guilty, and therefore righteous, because of what Christ has done. It is not our efforts at law keeping, self-improvement, or discipline that puts us in right standing with God. Furthermore, we know our complete perfection will not be achieved on this side of eternity. Even so, we are responsible for working toward wholeness, toward perfection as long as we live. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “The Christian life consists mostly of what God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is and does. But we also are a part of it. Not the largest part, but still part.” Interestingly, a mark of Christian maturity is to acknowledge our imperfection. It turns out, being imperfect is a good place to start because it is the only place we have!
Paul also invites us to reflect on where we have been. In his letter to the church of Philippi, Paul defends the rights of Gentiles to be Christians. He opposes Judaizers, who are teaching it is necessary to first become a Jew, to first be circumcised. For Paul, circumcision is of no value unless it is circumcision of the heart. Faith is what is essential. Claiming the authority that has been given to him, Paul reviews his credentials: Jewish by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure Hebrew, and in addition to these inherited privileges, he has excelled in everything Jewish. In essence, Paul says, “If you want to play the game of works righteousness, I can play, and I can win.” But in the next breath he acknowledges that none of his credentials give him reason for boasting—only Christ is cause for that. So, while looking back at where we have been has its merits, what is more important is where our next steps lead.
This brings us to our final point. Through the life of Paul, we are encouraged to take stock of our lives and consider where we want to go. To make his point, Paul uses the metaphor of a runner pressing on to win the prize, straining forward to what lies ahead. We can almost feel the heart pump, the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache. Is he contradicting himself and now saying that faith is through works? No! For Paul, faith involves running, wrestling, striving, and fighting. Trust in God’s grace does not make Paul less active, but rather sets him free to run the race with his eyes on the prize. “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but 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 in Christ Jesus.” Come what may, Paul presses on. He does not wait idly by for perfection to come to him. He pursues his goal while, at the same time, he recognizes that it will only be through God’s grace that he will ever reach it.
Christ is the blueprint for Christian behavior, and Paul, who models his own life after Christ, becomes a model for the church at Philippi. He becomes a model for us as well and, down through the ages, other models have followed. Now, it is our turn. Now it is up to us to demonstrate to the world what Christian behavior looks like. With the privilege of belonging to Christ comes tremendous responsibility because we are to be the hands and feet and compassionate heart of Christ for the world. And we will always be in process—such is the story of the life of every believer: we slip, we fall, but we rise again to join the race. We press on, urgently pursuing the goal—but, oh the prize—that glorious time when we will all be transformed into the likeness of Christ our Savior. Through Paul, who experienced a holy transformation, we witness the wisdom of taking the time to ponder where we have been, where we are now, and where we want to go. No doubt, the race ahead of us will have its wins and losses but, if we press on, the ultimate prize will be ours!
As Christians, we have sisters and brothers of the faith around the globe. But no matter the distance between us, whenever we gather to worship God—whether in person or virtually—we do a bold thing. We sing. We pray. We confess. We proclaim. We return a portion of our God-given bounty to God. We share the Sacraments. Then, when we depart from our time of worship, again we dare to do a bold thing. We dare to claim the power available to us for the race ahead. We dare to announce God’s love for all people. We dare to work toward peace and justice for everyone. We dare to imagine a world filled with people transformed by God’s grace and we dare to be a part of that transformation. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art FPC World Communion Sunday 2019