Phil 3:2-11; John 17:1-8, 25-26
A sermon preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church (the first of three focusing on the congregation’s mission statement: “KNOW Christ. GROW more like Christ. GO to serve Christ.”)
Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi is one of his most personal. It’s written to a congregation that, unlike the congregations in Galatia and Corinth, really seems not to have given Paul much trouble. The Philippian Christians weren’t tossed this way and that in their loyalty, now toward Paul, now toward more recent teachers telling them something different and calling Paul’s message and authority into question. This congregation was remarkably supportive of Paul, both in his missionary work and in his imprisonment – and Paul trusted this congregation enough to accept their support, something he did not do in regard to the Christians in Corinth, since they seem to have been in danger of thinking thereby to put the apostle in their pocket. Indeed, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians exists because the congregation sent a little something to Paul through one of their members, Epaphroditus, who apparently also filled Paul in on what was going on in the congregation.
And so, in the course of addressing his friends in Philippi, Paul writes his most intensely personal testimony concerning his own experience of coming to Christ, the realignment of his values that experience provoked, and his driving passion ever since:
“Beware the dogs! Beware the wicked workers! Beware the flesh-cutters! For we are the circumcision, we who are worshiping in God’s Spirit and grounding our worth in Christ Jesus, and not putting our confidence in flesh – even though I have grounds for confidence in flesh. If anyone else thinks to have grounds for confidence in flesh, I have more – circumcised on the eighth day; belonging to the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born from Hebrews; in regard to the Law, a Pharisee; in regard to zealous commitment, a persecutor of the Church; in regard to alignment with the Law, blameless! But whatever things were once a credit to me, these things I have written off as a loss on account of Christ. Indeed, I put everything in the debit column when set against the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord – on whose account I have been debited in regard to everything, and I count all of it as trash, so that I might gain Christ, and so that I might be found in him, not having the righteousness that I could establish for myself in line with the Law, but having the righteousness that comes from trusting Christ, the righteousness that God provides on the basis of trust – to know him and the power of his rising from the dead and partnership with him in his sufferings, being made like him as he showed himself to be in his dying, if somehow I might arrive at the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:2-11, DST)
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Paul launches off into a rant against a group of rival teachers that have been active “out there” in his mission field. He took on teachers of this sort in Galatia; it is not clear whether he thinks, years later now, that they might show up in Philippi, or whether he is just using them as a good example of how not to “do” Christianity. Whatever the reason for bringing them up, their example is clearly one not to imitate. They haven’t discovered the surpassing value of knowing Christ; they still think that the fact of their circumcision, their being a part of the historic people of God, their being born and carved into the covenant of Israel is the high-water mark of religion, with Christ being a winsome add-on, but not a game-changing, life-changing, value-changing tidal wave.
Paul knows exactly where these rival teachers are coming from. In fact, nobody knows better the fulfillment that could come through being a Torah-observant member of the covenant with Israel than Paul – “circumcised on the eighth day; belonging to the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born from Hebrews; in regard to the Law, a Pharisee; in regard to zealous commitment, a persecutor of the Church; in regard to alignment with the Law, blameless!” So much, by the way, for the idea that the problem with the Jewish Law is that it was impossible to keep it. Paul seems to think he had done just fine on that score. The problem with the way of life that had been regulated by the Torah is that Paul discovered – only by virtue of having been filled by his experience of Jesus’ love and the Holy Spirit’s friendship – how empty, how poor, by comparison, his life had been. As he would put it, somewhat differently, in his second surviving letter to the Corinthians, “what had been glorious was shown to have no glory in comparison with the surpassing glory” of Christ (2 Cor 3:10).
Paul was willing to set all of that aside, to be stripped of all the security and status he enjoyed in his circles of Pharisaic Judaism: “But whatever things were once a credit to me, these things I have written off as a loss on account of Christ. Indeed, I put everything in the debit column when set against the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord – on whose account I have been debited in regard to everything, and I count all of it as trash, so that I might gain Christ” (Phil 3:7-8). Paul’s driving passion was now “to know him and the power of his rising from the dead and partnership with him in his sufferings” (Phil 3:10). It is important for us to realize that he is writing these words at least twenty years after his initial encounter with the living Christ. Two decades later, getting closer and deeper in his knowledge of Jesus and his experience of Jesus’ fellowship is still that “one thing” to which everything else takes a back seat.
Is that your passion?
Do you know Jesus well enough to know that you can’t get enough of Jesus? To want to know him more, and to want this enough that you make the room to know him more?
We have decided, by virtue of the opening clause of the mission statement that we adopted umpteen years ago, to keep the value of knowing Christ in the front and center of our lives together in this congregation: “KNOW Christ.” As I wrote in our January newsletter (but as I will repeat here because I’ve heard it said that not everyone actually reads the newsletter), this first imperative drives us toward a deeper knowledge of who Christ is and what Christ wants. Indeed, though I understand that we needed to keep the mission statement to catchy sound bites, we are really impelled to seek out a deeper knowledge of God in all three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This “knowing” is shaped by information, by learning more about our heavenly Father, the divine Son incarnate in Jesus, and the empowering and guiding Spirit, such as study of the Scriptures provides. But this “knowing” must also shape, be shaped by, relationship, by making room for regular, personal encounter with the God who encounters us. It was about the value of this informed, relational knowing of the Son that Paul wrote so passionately. Experiencing – Knowing – God is the bedrock of Christian life; experiencing – knowing – God together is the bedrock of Christian community.
What are you willing to “write off as a loss for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus,” our Lord?
Do you have the “surpassing value” in view as you come here to worship on Sunday morning? Paul was willing to sacrifice religion for relationship, specifically relationship with Christ Jesus our Lord. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about liturgy and the spiritually formative power of the traditions of Christian worship as we allow liturgy to shape us, as we embrace the various components of liturgy as the spiritual equivalent of a balanced diet or a complete weight training circuit. But the point of coming here this morning is not in the performance of the prayers, the hymns, the anthem, the sermon. The point is not in the form of what we do, but in whom we come to encounter, so that we can leave knowing about him, and knowing him, a little more. It is not in the “what’s next?” in the bulletin, but in the “how will I open up my soul even more to God in what’s next?” Don’t settle for the religion, but strive, at every point, after the relationship.
Paul didn’t just share his heart for knowing Christ Jesus because he was feeling warm and close to the Philippian Christians. He wanted to change something in their congregation. A chapter before this morning’s focal paragraph, Paul urges his friends: “In humility, think of one another as possessing greater dignity than yourselves; don’t look after what is in your own interest, but after what is in the other’s interest” (2:3-4). If you read on just a bit past this morning’s focal paragraph, you come across this topic again, and more pointedly: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche” – two leading women whom Paul considers co-workers – “to agree in the Lord, and I urge you, my genuine yokefellow, to help them” come to terms with each other rather than continuing to cherish their grudge and to foster division in the Body (4:2-3).
Paul’s sharing of his own testimony – his willingness to “write everything off as a loss for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” – has some clear implications for the disagreements his friends are having amongst themselves. “If you know the value of what you come together to seek out, you’ll recognize that whatever is getting in the way of knowing Christ together is just so much rubbish – and you’ll toss out your personal ‘trash’ for the sake of attaining, together, what is so much more valuable for all of you.” Let me move from preaching into meddling. The guys who keep their hats on in church. The blip in the sound system or mix-up in the screens. The blasted music director choosing yet another unfamiliar hymn. The inappropriateness of someone’s dress. The sixty-first minute of the worship service. The value of what you’re holding onto, if it’s anything like any of these things, pales in comparison with the value of what you could be reaching for, together, in this place. Are you willing to set it aside as something of no account, for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus and for the sake of not allowing yourself to distract yourself from laying hold of that greater good?
Paul, of course, was not just a seeker of Christ on Sundays. His passion for knowing Christ Jesus spilled all over his calendar. Granted, Paul was a bit of a fanatic when it came to knowing Jesus and making Jesus known, but let’s allow his example nevertheless to challenge us. What are you doing whenever you’re not making the time to know more about Jesus and to experience Jesus’ friendship and conversation? It’ll never be worth more, but is it at least necessary? Important? We will, none of us, probably ever be willing to count everything as so much rubbish for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, but are we willing at least to count some things as rubbish, and clear out some of the trash in our week, for the sake of seeking a fuller knowledge of him and seeking to know him more fully? What will your Monday, what will your Tuesday, say to God about how much you understand the value – the surpassing value – of knowing him, of the invitation God has given to you to know him, to be known by him, to know yourself as you are known by him?
Our most basic currency as mortals is not money, but time. I’ve found out over the years that I can pretty much always make more money, but I can’t make any more time. It’s our most precious commodity, and yet we will all spend the same amount of it every single day. There’s no saving it up, and there’s frankly no way to know when it will be used up. In the midst of his prayer on behalf of his disciples on the eve before his passion, Jesus said: “This is eternal life,” this is unending life, this is life without limits – “that they might know you, the only genuine God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (John 17:3). We step out of the constant dripping away of time, and into that life that knows no ending, at any point that we find ourselves in touch with the only genuine God and with Jesus Christ.
We’re careful bargain hunters when it comes to our money, but we can be terrible shoppers when it comes to our time – buying an hour on Netflix rather than an hour of eternity in the presence of God, buying an hour on social media feeds rather than an hour being fed by the Bread of Life, buying an hour of browsing in a mall rather than an hour of allowing the Holy Spirit to browse us, strengthening the work of Christ in us and relaxing the hold of the flesh over us, trading an hour for a manicure but reluctant to spend an hour on soul cure. Since we’re going to spend the same amount of our limited time every day, let’s be sure that we’re getting the best value for it.
Perhaps many of you already do what I am about to recommend, in which case, may God keep you fervently in love with him so as to continue to do so. To the rest, I would urge each of you (each of us, to be perfectly honest) to set apart – to sanctify – times during each day for growing in your knowledge of God, both your knowledge about God and your experience of knowing God, of being present with God. A staple for such times would be the reading of Scripture, combined with prayerful conversation with God, with the living Christ, inviting the Holy Spirit to illumine both the text and you in light of the text. It might also involve reading what those who have known God deeply and closely have written about knowing God deeply and closely – what we might call the “devotional classics” of the Christian faith. It would surely involve prayer, preferably using different resources so as to open yourself up to God in different and, therefore, more complete ways. In my own life, the Book of Common Prayer has been indispensable in this regard, but you could also turn to collections of prayers such as The Oxford Book of Prayer and to the texts of many hymns that are essentially prayers set to music. The benefit of such resources is simple: we do not know everything that we ought to pray for or pray about; we are not always disposed to pray for all those things that we do know we ought to be praying for. These resources expand our conversation with God; they expand the dimensions of our knowing God and experiencing God. And the most critical of all components – waiting in patient silence for God, for Christ, to show up.
But experiencing God need not – indeed, should not – be limited to those hours (though we need those hours if we are to remain in the awareness of God’s presence and companionship in other hours). The Triune God can be known in the midst of one’s everyday activities as well. A great devotional classic in this regard is The Practice of the Presence of God, the compilation of notes taken by a certain abbot during several visits with a kitchen monk named Brother Lawrence, together with a series of letters written by Brother Lawrence to an inquiring lay person. Paul came “to know Christ and the power of his rising from the dead and the fellowship of his sufferings” not only in private prayer, but in the thick of his missionary work, his travels, his imprisonments and beatings, his teaching in the house churches, his leatherworking in the commercial market. We can as well, if we keep our hearts and minds attuned to Christ and conversing with Christ, in the midst of all those activities and occupations into which we would invite Christ.
Our mission statement is our constant memo to ourselves: “Know Christ.” Keep writing off as a loss, and throwing aside as trash, everything that gets in the way of that pursuit. Keep spending your time in ways that reflect the all-surpassing value of knowing Christ. Amen.