Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 3: 1-14 Knowing Christ

I’ll never forget my scariest pastoral visit so far. It wasn’t in this parish. I was a student, sent out to do some visiting in another parish. The rector had warned me about a particularly fearsome dog. It would attack if you managed to get between it and its owner. Off I went, knees knocking and rang the doorbell. Woof, woof, woof! The dog had the loudest bark I’ve ever heard. It meant business. It looked hungry. So when the man opened the door, the dog made a move towards me and had to be held back. I edged my way into the house and we got to the kitchen table. All of a sudden, I became aware of a puddle of drool forming on my knee, as the dog was positioned between my legs, ready to pounce. The family realised, and had to drag the dog away to another room until I was safely away.

For some, (and for me that day), dogs are scary animals. Is that why Paul says in verse 2 to look out for the dogs? The fear of dogs should be nothing compared to this warning that Paul gives here in Philippians 3. There is a threat to the young Christians, but it doesn’t come from canines. They’re not to be alarmed by alsatians or petrified by poodles. Rather, the dogs mentioned here are people.

You see, Paul doesn’t give three separate warnings in the verse. Rather, it’s one warning given three times. The dogs are the evildoers are those who mutilate the flesh. Paul seems to be echoing Psalm 22:6, which we heard earlier - the repetition of dogs, evildoers and flesh mutilators (piercing in Psalm 22).

So who are these people, and what’s the problem? Paul is warning about the Judaizers - those who insist that in order to be a Christian, you first have to be a Jew. Or in other words, to be a real true Christian, you have to be circumcised. Believe in Jesus, yes, but you also have to keep the Jewish law. Jesus plus something else.

In our reading tonight, Paul shows that Jesus is enough. That we don’t need Jesus plus anything. That, as he says in verse 3: ‘we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.’

You see, Paul had had reason for confidence in the flesh. If being good enough was all you needed, then Paul was in with a shot. If obeying the Jewish law was the entry requirements, Paul was in the top class, the model student. In verse 5, he spells out his spiritual CV. Here are the things Paul could boast about: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ He’s a purebred Jew. He’s religious. He’s as good as you can get. He’s top of the class.

It’s all so impressive. Yet it’s as if everything that he has just talked about; all of his reasons for boasting; every reason he had to put confidence in the flesh; all that looks so much like a gain - now, Paul views it very differently. Look at verse 7: ‘But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.’ It’s as if Paul is doing his accounts. He tots up all his profit, but then changes the heading of the column and declares it all loss.

It’s all loss compared to just one thing. Only one thing outweighs all those other things he was previously proud of - ‘because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ Compared to knowing Jesus, everything else is rubbish, except that isn’t strong enough: doggy dodo.

After all those years of striving for righteousness - being right with God - through his own efforts under the law; Paul now realises that it’s rubbish, loss, worthless. The only thing that matters is gaining Christ, being found in him, with a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.

We can’t work for our salvation. We can’t earn it. We must receive it as a gift, by faith. This is the unchanging message of the good news of Jesus. Circumcision isn’t an issue for us now. No one is insisting that we have to be circumcised in order to be real true Christians. But there are other issues that some people try to insist on. The use of the KJV Bible. A particular mode of baptism. The way you should dress when you come to church. The way you should speak to God. I’m sure you might be able to come up with more. But in all these issues, Paul says that your own efforts are like a poopscoopa. The only thing that matters is knowing Christ.

And how do we do that? How do we know Christ? Verse 10 gives us a picture of what it means to know Christ. ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection...’ - we all want that, don’t we? The power of Jesus’ resurrection, in us, helping us, equipping us. And perhaps we want to stop there. But that’s prosperity teaching, not bible teaching. Because Paul continues - ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

The Christian life is one of Christ’s power, but also following in the path of Christ’s sufferings. We’re called to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him. It’s the path of Christian discipleship, because it is the way to share in his resurrection.

It’s a path, because we all, no matter how long we’ve been believers, there’s still some more way to go. Even the apostle Paul says that he isn’t there yet, that he hasn’t been made perfect. Through the rest of our life, we’re to follow this path, knowing Jesus better every day. We press on to make it our own, because Jesus has made us his own.

Knowing that Jesus has made us his, we can press on to receive these things for ourselves. We press on, forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what lies ahead - the upward call of God. When I was learning to drive, I can remember one day trying to reverse while looking out the front window. My instructor (a patient man who aged greatly during that experience), said that you wouldn’t think of looking out the back window when you were going forward. You look the way you’re going.

Paul would say the very same. Forget about any achievements. Forget any past performance that you think might impress people or God. Instead, look forward and look up. Like athletes, strain forward for the prize. Keep going.

The Judaizers wanted to add something to Jesus. Many want to try to bring something to the table, even just a little bit of effort. But Jesus plus anything means that Jesus isn’t everything. I wonder what your basis for being right with God is tonight. Is it your works? Your goodness? Or is it simply Christ. Nothing else counts. Nothing else matters. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 15th June 2014.

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