Monday, September 22, 2014
Sermon: Philippians 3:15 - 4:1 Citizens of Heaven
I wonder if you’ve ever heard the funny little poem, in which nothing quite makes sense:
One fine day in the middle of the night,
two dead men got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
drew their swords and shot the other!
It’s a bit like the minister who told the congregation to get down on your knees and thank the Lord you’re still standing! It sounds as if the two things don’t fit together. We get another example of it in tonight’s reading from Philippians. In verse 17, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to ‘keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.’ If they do this, then in 4:1, they will be standing firm. Walking, but standing firm!
While it sounds like something contradictory, we’ll see tonight that by the way we walk we can stand firm - as we live out who we are as Christians.
At the start of verse 17, Paul says a most remarkable thing. ‘Brothers, join in imitating me.’ He says, do what I do. Now I would suspect that there aren’t many of us, or even any of us who would be so bold as to write to a whole church and say, what you see me do, you do as well. We’re more likely to say, look at Jesus and copy him. But for Paul to say, imitate me - who does he think he is?
But we need to remember that this is one big letter he is writing. We tend to take the next little chunk without seeing how it fits into the flow of the letter as a whole. He didn’t just write this in a text message. This wasn’t an isolated phrase. Rather, it’s like one part of the road network that brings you from home to church - you need to take that corner, but it comes immediately after the hill, or whatever.
Last time, if you can remember back before the summer, we saw how Paul had compiled his religious CV, all the very impressive things he thought he could achieve; and how, in the light of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, all Paul’s achievements were counted as rubbish, dung. Instead, all that counts now is knowing Christ - the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings.
This is what Paul is urging the Philippians (and us) to do as well. This is how we should imitate him. Forget about any achievements or religious performance, and instead focus only on knowing Christ in his death and resurrection. But the Philippians might have been thinking to themselves, well, that’s ok for you to say, Paul, but you’re far away. How can we actually see what it looks like in practice, lived out?
That’s why he gives them a worked out example. ‘Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.’ Here’s a visual aid for you to watch and follow. Here are people in your church who walk this way. In those days, of course, there were no fancy cars, nothing but a donkey/horse, or else your own two feet. To walk became a picture of how you lived your life.
He’s saying to watch the people who live out the example of Paul, those who don’t put any store in their performance, who live to know Jesus. Cast your eye around the church family. Are there those you can think of who fit in this category? Paul says to watch them, and to walk this way.
In verse 18 he tells us why it’s important to do this. ‘For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.’
On first sight, you would think that these enemies of the cross of Christ are those outside the church. It’s obvious that they don’t live according to the way of Christ. But that’s not who Paul is thinking of. The Philippians wouldn’t be tempted to follow them - they wouldn’t need to be warned of them.
Rather, these are people inside the church, who are enemies of the cross of Christ. They appear to be Christians, they might talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Paul warns the Christians not to follow them. Verse 19 tells us why.
‘Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.’ They’re walking towards destruction. It’s almost as if Paul is showing us things in reverse - here’s where their path leads to, but take a step back to see how they live - their god is their belly - that’s what they worship, comfort, ease, pleasure. Take a step back, and you see that they glory in their shame, what it shameful, they actually take delight in, they think is great; and take a step back, where does it all start from? ‘With minds set on earthly things.’
It was CS Lewis who said that if you aim for heaven, you get earth thrown in as well, but those who aim only for earth get neither. This is the path that some in the church are taking - don’t follow them!
Paul doesn’t just stop with the negative, though. He doesn’t just give us what we’re not to do, not to follow. He also shows us the way to go, and it seems to me, it’s the complete opposite of what he has warned us of. Each point in the pathway to destruction is matched by a positive in verses 20-21.
Their minds may be set on earthly things, but our citizenship is in heaven. Our news has been filled with debates about citizenship recently. People in Scotland were deciding if they were only Scottish, or also still British. Citizenship is all to do with identity, where you belong. Our citizenship, our identity, our belonging is in heaven. And what is it we glory in? ‘And from it we await a Saviour.’ Jesus the Saviour is our glory - the one we look to and depend on. Jesus the Saviour, who died on the cross and was raised to new life. He is our God, the one we worship. And while their end is destruction, our end is gloriously seen in verse 21: ‘who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.’
The path of the cross leads to the exaltation of the resurrection. It’s the path that Paul had found in his own life, and it’s the path that he commends to us as well. So watch how others walk - and follow those who follow Christ.
It is in this way that as we walk, we stand firm.
This sermon was preached at the evening service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st September 2014.