5th Sunday of Lent
Sometimes we misunderstand things, don’t we?
Like the little girl in Sunday school, who asked the teacher, “What is God’s name?” But before the teacher could answer, a little boy blurted out, “I know... I know... It’s Andy!”
The teacher was puzzled, and asked the little boy, “How do you know God’s name is Andy?” And without missing a beat, the boy said, “That’s easy! We sing about it in church! Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own!”
Sometimes we misunderstand things!
Paul the apostle said to the Philippians, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” I think when most people hear these word, they misunderstand. They think that Paul’s saying that if we strive more we can reach Christ. Or in other words, the efforts of our work... with enough “sweat equity”... if we just labor harder... we’ll finally do enough to gain God’s favor, or please God. But if you look at the context of the verses leading up to this the point is quite the opposite.
Just look at the 2nd half of verse 4: Paul said, “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” If anyone could have been saved by being a religious person it was Paul. He was born into a religious family, he had a religious upbringing and he was trained and educated to be a Pharisee! And a leader of the Pharisees, at that! He was also - what we’d call, devout - he lived a life of someone who was zealous about their religion.
Paul kept all the laws and did all the right things. Yet, when looking back at it all, he said, "whatever was to my profit (whatever gains I had), I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” He goes on, “More than that, I regard everything as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
In other words, Paul is saying forget all those credentials, all the accomplishments, all the work, the labor... it all amounts to nothing when compared to the grace of Christ.
Think about it! Think about who’s saying this:
Paul was a strong believer in God, and in following the God of the Bible. In fact, his belief was so strong... that it led him to persecute the early Church/Christians. He was convinced he was doing God’s Will - with all of his heart, soul and strength!
But that all changed, when he had a personal encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. After that he stopped persecuting the Christians and began preaching Christ. And he spent the rest of his life on the road... an evangelist/missionary spreading the Good News of the Gospel. He was beaten and imprisoned and shipwrecked and even stoned and left for dead at one point.
Paul is saying, that all that work and effort added up to ZILCH of his salvation - nada, nothing, zero - where as faith in Christ accounted for the other 100%. After all it is Paul who said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God...” (Ephesians 2:8).
Of course, we Christians talk about grace all the time. But too often - far, too, often - we also seem to be under the mistaken impression that our works still play a role in our salvation. I think it is because we misunderstand the nature of God’s righteousness and our righteousness.
Let's say we could set up a “scale of righteousness” - a device that could actually measure how righteous we are! The most righteous person who ever lived might be a 100 on the scale. The most despicable mass murderer is a 0. We might compare ourselves to them and say, “Well I am far from 0, not quite a hundred, but I am above average.” But, the flaw in our scale is that we can ONLY compare our righteousness against the righteousness of other sinners! Other people!
God is infinate, and holy, and perfect in all of his ways. Whether we’re a Zero on our scale, or 100... doesn’t matter, because both are unimaginably far away from the infinite holiness of God.
That’s why Isaiah 64:6 reminds us that “all our righteousness is like filthy rags before God.” We could never reach God with our righteousness. That is why God reached down to us, in Christ.
And that’s why Paul counts all his religious activity as loss for Christ. Paul said, “I consider [it all] garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
Paul's goal is to be in Christ. He tried to find salvation doing all the right things. It led him to persecution and murder of God's people. The only thing that saved him was faith in Christ. A righteousness not from keeping the law, but a gift from God. A gift that can only be received through faith.
It's like someone who has fallen into a hole. The sides of the hole are too steep to crawl out of. The person is trapped there. But if someone outside the hole were to reach down they could pull them out. The whole human race is in a hole of sin and we are not able to climb out of it. In Jesus, God reached down to pull us out. But we need to take Jesus' hand - that is faith.
So why does Paul talk about pressing on toward the goal? It is a question of what the goal is. The goal is not heaven. Paul says, “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.” Heaven is already promised because of Jesus Christ. The goal is the "call" of God in Jesus Christ. It's the call to follow Christ.
So yes we should strive to do the right things and serve God. But we are not striving for the prize of salvation. That prize has already been won. The prize Paul is striving for is to now live as much like Christ as he could, in response to the grace he’d so abundantly received.
When I was in high school I was in the band. I played the trombone, the tuba... and my senior year I was the drum major. Every year we entered marching competitions, and our band would be rated on how good the “drum line” was, or how synchronized the “color guard” or “majorettes” were.
At the end of every competition, after the performances were over, the awards would be given out. And when the “majorettes” received a superior rating, or the “drum line” received their trophy, we all celebrated together, as if we had all won the prize!
We do the same thing in sports, right? I doubt seriously that anyone in this room over the age of 50 has played a single down of football in 30 years! Yet, when our favorite team wins, we’re quick to say, “WE WON!” We claim the victory as our own! Even though the fact of the matter is we had nothing to do with it.
The trophy of Eternal Life has already been won. Our calling is to press on. We press forward to embrace and celebrate the One who won it for us. We press on to live a life which is in line with the calling of God in Christ.
“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, [let us] press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [each of us] heavenward in Christ Jesus...