Introduction: What is the mark of being a Christian?
If someone were to ask you about the essence of the Christian life, the day to day experience of being a Jesus follower, what would you say? As a pastor this question has haunted me for many years. I know that people will eventually listen and center their lives around the vision that I have of what it means to be a Christian. If I tell people over and over again that a real Christian goes to church twice, Sunday evening as well a s Sunday morning, then they will eventually come out to a Sunday evening service. If I tell them real Christians feed the homeless or attend small groups, people will listen. So, I had better be right. This question is central to the work of missionaries, or anyone who wants to tell someone of a different culture about Jesus. What, after all, is really central?
Transition: Paul describes his vision of the Christian life in Philippians 3. At first it seems like typical religious legalism. But a closer look will reveal that Paul is describing a life that is very different from that.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 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. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul says that he has lost everything, but he has not lost what we assume he has.
Paul says he has lost all things which makes us think, “that’s just like religion. Paul sounds like he has joined a cult and turned his back on everything he used to know and do. Now I must consider “loss” anything that was part of my own life and be this new person and hope that it is good enough.” That is how Paul sounds at first. But when you look at what Paul has turned his back on, it changes the focus.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
Notice that Paul turned away from religious observance not typical “sinful” behavior. He turned away from a devout life as a Jew, a Pharisee, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, all to be found in Christ. What does this mean? Paul knew that as long as he found his identity in being a good, religious man, he was focusing on himself and how worthy he was rather than the love of Christ and how much he needed that. Paul wanted the Philippians to know that the Christian life does not start by looking backward to religious observation or personal worth. That is empty. Being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is about living your life in the knowledge of what Jesus has done and experiencing how that has brought us into a real, living relationship with God.
Application – what might be keeping you from a moral vital, living relationship with God through Jesus? In my experience our barriers usually fall into three categories.
Religious identity – each generation needs to find the faith for themselves. Paul had to give up finding identity in his inherited faith, as important as than was. He really understood Christ when we identified only as a person in need of grace and not as one of God’s chosen people by birth
Ethnic or success identity – For some, the picture of success in America is a barrier to finding life in Christ. Consider the Smiths, who we honored today. They left everything when they went to Vietnam to translate the scriptures. Not only that, but they took their young baby son with them. Their parents had to give up both their children and this new grandchild and reorient their sense of what it meant to be successful. Sometimes we think that being a Christian is a piece of our life puzzle. Jesus is here to give us community or legitimacy on our terms. But Jesus is not a piece of the pie, he is the pie. We cannot fully appreciate what Jesus has done when we are trying to fit him into our lives.
Leaving behind guilt – Paul says he wants to have a righteousness not on his own, but based on what Jesus has done. The riches of Christ really appears when Paul understood that Jesus had made an atoning sacrifice for his sins as well as those of the world. Sometime we carry with us such guilt about our past that we don’t think Jesus can atone for it. We think Jesus has forgiven some of our sin but we need to pay for the really bad parts. In a strange way this is still living a life focused on ourselves rather than Jesus.
Paul wanted only to know Christ and he wants to leave behind the things that get in the way of that. But how does knowing and loving Christ change you?
Paul’s love relationship with Christ is the motivating factor behind his life
He wants his righteousness to come from Christ. He does not want to build an identity outside of Christ or make a case for his acceptance to the father on anything other than what Christ has done. He wants to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and his suffering. Paul does not talk about the Christian life being a series of rules to obey. He does not talk about waiting to get to heaven or even about changing the world. Paul talks about loving Christ. The more he knows and loves Christ the more God will change him. But how can that be? The answers is clearer when you consider how the people we love change us.
For good or bad we are changed by the people we love. Often we come to love the things they love simply because it is important to them. Take for instance a father who doesn’t like team sports. Suppose he likes hunting and fishing and being outdoor rather than following team sports or playing them himself. But suppose this father has a daughter who plays soccer. The more she loves soccer the more he will end up learning about the sport. One day he may find that he is actually a fan not because he likes the women’s national team but because he loves his daughter who is crazy for soccer. We are changed by our relationships which is why Jesus has come to restore our relationship with our creator.
Transition: This is also why Paul can say that he has not accomplished knowing Christ completely. If being a Christian was just about rules then Paul could score a 100% on good behavior. But in a relationship there is always room to change and grow.
Love keeps growing.
Paul has not attained a perfect relationship with Christ. He knows that will not happen until he is face to face with the Lord. A set of rules can be mastered but a relationship keeps growing. Paul is now an older man but he knows there is still more know about Christ. So until that final day Paul strives to know Christ and grab hold of that for which Christ grabbed hold of him. Look what he says:
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
When I first thought of preaching this passage I figured it would be about “finding your purpose.” Grab hold of that for which God grabbed hold of you.” But as I study what Paul is saying I don’t think he is thinking of grabbing hold of a task or even a spiritual calling. I think he is saying he wants to grab hold of Christ and urges us to do the same. As long as we seek to love Christ, our tasks will take care of themselves.
So the essential question for each of us is “what keeps us from a deeper closer, more loving relationship with Jesus Christ?” Is it our religious or self righteous persona, our sense of success or our guilt? Is it something else? The essence of the Christian life is knowing and loving Christ. That is what we strive to grasp.