Proper 22A

September 29, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 21:33-46

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 80:7-15

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Philippians 3:4b-14

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                We are still in that part of the liturgical year known as Ordinary Time.  Week after week the lectionary focuses our attention not on the great acts of God celebrated in the feasts of Advent, Easter and the like, but on our response to those salvific acts in the ordinary times of our daily lives.  Ordinary Time is a long strong call to grow as disciples of Christ.  A reading like Philippians 3:4b-13 is important because it reminds us of the centrality of Christ to that growth.  We could very easily drift off into a do-it-yourself discipleship, so Paul’s passionate words here are a corrective tug back to the Center.

                As I reflected on these words, especially those ringing words of verse 13 (“but one thing I do”), I recalled that famous scene from the movie “City Slickers.”  Now don’t roll your eyes at me.  I know very well that we’ve all used this so many times that it is almost hackneyed, but it is classic.  In this scene, Mitch, a city slicker played by Billy Crystal, is alone out on the prairie with Curly, the grizzled cowboy played by Jack Palance.  Curly is giving some life advice to the slick but clueless Mitch.  ”Do you know what the secret of life is?” asks Curly.  Then he holds up his right index finger and says, “This!”  Ever the wiseacre Mitch replies, “Your finger?”  Curly snarls, “One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.”  “But what’s the one thing?” asks Mitch.  “That’s what you have to find out,” growls Curly.

                The Apostle Paul has found his “one thing.”  Or as he will say later in this text, his One Thing found him and “took hold of me.”  In this splendid autobiographical testimony, Paul begins by recounting all the things he once thought were the secret of life, of success, of salvation.  For a long portion of his life, he put his confidence in “the flesh,” not meaning his body, but the whole constellation of qualifications and accomplishments that revolved around himself.  At one time in his life, Paul was just like the Judaizers who had now infiltrated the church.  If you had asked him what he had to do to be saved, how he knew he was right with God, he would have waved the plume of his pedigree as a full blooded Jew and pointed proudly to all the certificates of achievement in his trophy room.  But something happened to him and, as the old gospel song put it, his “trophies at last [he] laid down.”

                The seven items Paul rattles off in verses 4b-6 might not resonate with our contemporary congregations, so it might be helpful to think of their modern equivalents.  The one thing on which Paul now focused his life is more important than being an American/Canadian, than being a Republican/Democrat, than being Presbyterian/Baptist/Methodist, than being baptized/taking communion/serving as an Elder, than being in a Bible Study, than being highly moral and deeply spiritual, than succeeding at school/sports/business, than being a good spouse or parent.

    As important and good as all those things are, Paul says that he has now changed his priorities in life.  Thinking of his life in terms of a balance sheet, Paul says, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”  All those qualifications and accomplishments that once gave Paul confidence in the world and before God are now, in Paul’s new mind, an obstacle, a loss, even rubbish (the Greek is skubala, which is very much like Curly’s word, s***).

    How can that be?  All of those confidence builders were good things.  How can Paul say they are rubbish and turn his back on them?  Because of “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things….”   Knowing Christ is infinitely better than being a full blooded Jew who flawlessly lived by the law God gave to the Jews.  Even his best efforts to save himself didn’t gain him a thing.  Now Paul’s life is focused on one thing.  “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

    What can account for such a dramatic change in the life of such a straight laced, deeply committed man?  Of course, the answer is that Christ made himself known to Paul in a dramatic way on the Damascus Road.  On his way to destroy the church in Damascus, fueled by his fire to serve the one true God, convinced that Jesus was a blasphemous fake and his followers a dangerous threat to the one true religion, Paul saw a light and heard a voice.  When he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” he heard that heavenly voice say, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”  Jesus made himself known to a man who did not believe in him, taking hold of Paul and changing his life for ever after.  As a result of an epiphany or, more accurately, a theophany, Paul came to know Christ.

    That raises perhaps the central question of this text.  If Paul already knows Christ, how can he now say, “I want to know Christ…?”  If Christ has already taken hold of Paul and changed his life so dramatically, why would Paul talk about gaining Christ?  If he has been completely saved by Christ, what does he mean by being “found in Christ,” as though that were something he didn’t already possess?

    Let me answer those questions with a personal illustration and with a careful reading of the text.   My personal story has to do with knowing two Presidents of the United States in a personal way—President Nixon and President Clinton.  I don’t just mean that I know about them because I have read about them and seen them on TV.  No, I mean that I know them, because I met them both personally.  Admittedly, my encounter with Nixon took place at a Mother’s Day worship service in the White House when the Calvin Seminary Choir sang, and there were hundreds of others there, and my personal time with Nixon amounted to 10 words in 5 seconds in a receiving line.  And I’ll confess that my encounter with Clinton was at a banquet with 1,000 people, and my personal time with the President amounted to a hand shake and, “Hi, how are you?  Nice to meet you,” as he circled our table on the way out the door.  But I know two Presidents in a personal way because I did actually meet them.

    OK, I’ll admit that I don’t know them nearly as well as I know my wife.  That’s exactly what Paul is talking about—it is the difference between a brief (albeit memorable) encounter and daily contact; the difference between a casual acquaintance and an intimate partner; the difference between the way newlyweds know each other and the way veterans of 47 years of marriage know each other.  A modern word captures what Paul is talking about—“interactive,” an intimate, personal knowledge of Christ in which we interact with him on a daily, hourly, moment by moment basis.  That’s what Paul was aiming at in his life.  I want to know Christ so well that I live in constant interactive union with him.

    That may sound a bit mystical, overly pious and sentimental, along the lines of the famous old hymn that says “and he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own….”  But, in the last analysis, isn’t such a union precisely what the Christian faith is all about?  It’s not just about being forgiven, not just about being adopted into the family of God, not just having a place in heaven, not just about working at world change in anticipation of living in the new heavens and earth, but finally about being reunited with the God from whom sin separated us.  Isn’t the goal of forgiveness, justification, adoption, and transformation a union with God in Christ all the time?  Doesn’t the Bible end with Paradise restored, where the dwelling of God is with humans once again?  Paul simply wants that kind of union here and now, all the time.  He knows Christ, but he wants to know him more and more, so as to be found in him.

    I’m convinced that’s what Paul means, but a careful reading of our text shows that Paul means much more than a simple “he walks with me and he talks with me” in the garden alone.  No sooner has Paul shouted “I want to know Christ” than he spells out the effects of such deeper knowledge.  He has already talked about the objective benefit of being in union with Christ: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that (righteousness) which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”  By virtue of knowing Christ as my Savior and being thus united with him, I am objectively justified.

    But then in verses 10 and 11, we hear about the subjective benefits of union with Christ. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”  Paul is talking there about sanctification.

    Wanting to know “the power of his resurrection” is not first of all about being given the power to do miracles or even about Paul’s eventual resurrection bodily from the grave.  It’s about the power to overcome sin in his life, the power that will enable Paul to live a new life of holiness.  Paul is thinking here the way he does in Romans 6 where he focuses on the believer’s resurrection to new life because of his/her union with Christ, symbolized and enacted in baptism.

    In the same vein, “the fellowship of his suffering” is about dying to sin, “becoming like him in his death….”  Paul does not aspire to repeat the redemptive suffering of Christ; he knows that is finished.  But he does want to die to sin, which he knows will cause him great suffering.  And he realizes he can attain such sanctification only if he knows Christ more and more intimately.  His thoughts here are another version of what he said in Phil. 2:12 and 13, “work out your own salvation, for it is God at work in you both to will and to act….”

    His ultimate goal is to completely die to sin and live to God; that’s what he means by “and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead.”  He’s not talking there about the final resurrection of the body, but about his eventual complete victory over the sin that has killed the human race (Ephesians 2:1-4).  Only in deeper and deeper union with Christ can Paul (or we) achieve the perfection for which Christ saved us.  “I want to know Christ” not just so I can walk and talk with him, but so that I can become like him.

    Paul is very realistic about how difficult this is.  He knows that he hasn’t attained either the knowledge he desires or the life change it will bring.  But he isn’t discouraged about that, and he isn’t resigned to imperfection.  Rather, he is passionately committed to this one thing in his life.  Because this “one thing” of knowing Christ matters to him more than anything else, Paul has adopted one life motto. “One thing I do; forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

    Here is a God given opportunity to help our congregations (not to mention ourselves as preachers) think about the passions that rule our lives.  Curly was right.  The secret is one thing.  But what is the thing that drives our lives?  Or are there many, so that we are scattered and distracted, with the result that life feels as “vain and futile” as Ecclesiastes says it is.

    Paul is a great example of the difference between being single-minded and being simpleminded.  He was not a simpleminded person, incapable of deep thought or profound expressions or complex enterprises or magnificent accomplishments.  No, indeed.  He travelled the world with indefatigable energy and undaunted courage, accomplishing in a few troubled years what most will never do in a privileged lifetime.  Paul’s life was rich and full and exciting and complex and fruitful and painful because he had found his one thing.  It was Christ himself, and Paul was willing to devote his life to knowing Christ better.  Yes, of course, he was devoted to mission work, to Kingdom advancement, to changing the world, to the cause of Christ in all its length and breadth.  But he understood that the secret to accomplishing all of God’s good purposes in the world was to know Christ.

    So, he did not allow past failures or victories to slow him down or make him swerve off course.   And he did not allow the glittering images of the world to take his eye off his goal.  And he did not quit because of the exhaustion that overtakes a runner when she “hits the wall” in a marathon.  Rather, he pressed on, straining forward like a runner, with pumping arms and legs, pounding heart and gasping lungs, bulging veins and surging muscles, giving it his all.  All he wanted was to gain the prize of union with God in Christ, so that he could know Christ as Christ knew him.  And the only way to reach his goal and receive that prize was to know Christ better and better.  Circular?  Yes, but the truth.

    The wise preacher will press this goal upon people, while assuring them that Christ already knows them, has already taken hold of them, is already one with them, by grace, through faith.  In other words, as we preach this powerful text, let’s not allow folks to avoid the sheer power of it.  They (and we) need such a challenge.  But let’s not allow them to fall into the trap that once held Paul, namely, that it all depends on who we are and what we do.  Be sure to preach grace, too.

    Illustration Idea

                As I prepared to preach on this text some years ago, it suddenly struck me that I had no intention of doing anything with it personally.  I believed it was true.  I was deeply moved by it.  I thought my congregation really needed to hear it. But I had no plans to do anything different as a result of my encounter with it.  That’s when I ran across this famous story told by Soren Kierkegaard.  I said to my congregation.  “Do you want to know Christ?  Really?  How much?  Or are you like the ducks in a make believe land in which only ducks lived.”

    On Sunday morning all the ducks got up, brushed their feathers, and waddled to church.  After waddling down the church aisle and into their pews, they sat down.  The duck minister waddled in and took his place behind the pulpit.  He opened the duck Bible to the place where it spoke of God’s gift to ducks—wings.  “With wings,” said the duck preacher, “we ducks can fly.  We can mount up like eagles and soar into the heavens.  We can escape the confinement of pens and fences.  We can know the euphoria of complete freedom.  We must give thanks to God for such a great gift as wings.  And fly.”  All the ducks in the congregation agreed and quacked, “Amen!”  And then they all waddled home.

    As a result of our encounter with this text, will we soar or waddle?