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Sermon for 15 October

 
  


Philippians 3


My sermon title today is "Pressing On and Running Free”.  Walking with Jesus in faith is a challenge but it is one that we should be fully contented in and not burdened by.  In fact, there should be nothing freer, and more content-full, than this walk, in faith.  But for some reason, we allow ourselves to be robbed of that truth and we become weighed down and exhausted by it.


Paul frequently uses the analogy of an athlete in his letters.  He regularly speaks of running the race, fighting the good fight, and in the text today, "pressing on”.


In our mind’s eye we end up thinking of him as being fit, strong, super agile, and someone who would immediately make an impact when you saw them.  Paul, the super hero of the early church.


I have referenced this before, but in contrast to our natural assumptions, a second century writer described Paul as "a little man, bow-legged, thin-faced, hook-nosed, bald and with heavy eyebrows meeting in the middle”.  


Paul is never talking about physical fitness, he is talking about spiritual fitness.  And the passage that we have before us today is all about stretching forward, reaching for a goal, the call of God and his purposes for us.


But I want to make one thing clear, and this strand is throughout chapter 3:  This pressing on is supposed to be with a sense and knowledge of freedom.  It is not burdensome.  


If you are feeling the burden of God’s call today, it is not his call that is weighing on you, it is those things that hold you back from responding.



Paul gave the name to the "Damascus Road” experience – a moment of blinding revelation that turns one in one’s tracks.  

Jesus appeared face to face in front of Paul, one day, on his travels.  He was challenged directly for his behaviour.  


Paul turned around.  He walked away from power, position and wealth, and he chose to live the right way, the way Jesus wanted him to.


And Paul was very different.  Up until now, most of the leaders that Jesus has singled out have been simple folk.  Fishermen, in particular.   


Paul was a member of the wealthy elite and no doubt politically connected and driven.  

He was powerful, influential, probably someone that many both envied and hated at the same time.  Potentially, a very nasty individual. 


In fact, his role at the time of his conversion, was to hunt down and shut down Christian groups.


We believe Paul was probably a similar age to Jesus but as far as we know, did not encounter him before his death, even though it seems he was educated in Jerusalem.  


The first time we see Paul in the bible is when Stephen, one of the first evangelists appointed by the apostles, is dragged out of the Jewish temple and stoned.  


Paul, or Saul as he was known then, stood by and looked after everyone’s coats while they beat Stephen.  


What seems clear is that as the Christian community grew, Paul saw a chance to further his tough reputation by demolishing it.  


Stamping out this new faith was sure to build his standing further amongst the more influential citizens of the Roman Empire, of whatever religion.


And doing all he could to stamp out the Christians was exactly what he did until that Damascus Road trip.

Can you imagine the reaction of any that had contact with Paul professionally at the time he turned:  Total astonishment, a madness taking hold. 

And those who just knew of his reputation:  Total distrust, as suspicion that this was all a great deceit.


Over the next ten years or so, he pioneered church plants.  And we now find him in prison in Rome.

Paul was something of a father figure to the church at the time.  He had founded the church in Philippi and would have felt some oversight responsibility for the Christians there.  He is probably in his mid-50s when he wrote this. 


As well as understanding who Paul was, I think it is helpful to be reminded of the nature of this letter and of communication then.  We are picturing an age which is so totally different from our own.


As Hugh mentioned in his introductory talk, Epaphroditus personally brought Paul news of the church in Philippi.  This will have been one of Paul’s few foreign visitors.  


It would have taken Epaphroditus perhaps six weeks to make the journey to Paul in Rome.  He will have travelled by sea from this port in Macedonia, North East of Greece, all the way down the Greek coast, across the Ionian Sea, through the Strait of Messina, and up the west coast of Italy to Rome.


Epaphroditus was going to go back to Philippi, and probably other churches, with Paul’s response to the news.  But at the end of Chapter 2 we hear that Epaphroditus had been near death, and in fact, before he left had already sent prayers to him, so this postman is taking a long time to do his round.  


This letter may have taken weeks to prepare.  


Paul will have chosen his words carefully.  


And we should read it carefully.  


The man who wrote this letter had given up all he had in the world to commit to the Christian faith and he wanted to share his heart with the first church he founded.


Today we write letters quickly, often in a knee jerk manner, with a quick send button pressed before rushing off to another task.  


It’s too easy when we sit and look at the Bible to read a couple of chapters, snatch a few things that we like from it, and put it back down again.  


I’ve left you a hand out so that you can take a more careful look at each verse and consider more of what Paul is saying and what he is encouraging.

There is a reality TV show starting next week (October 19th) and I read a great article written by Helen Grumbelow in the Evening Standard, giving some colour behind the series. 

Five young women have been selected, presumably after a full interview process, and told that they are going on a "spiritual journey” ….and had imagined a yoga retreat in Bali.  

Instead they were to be confined to a nunnery off the A47 with a bunch of mature ladies in wimples.  The TV series is called Bad Habits, Holy Orders.

The story of their backgrounds is quite extraordinary and their behaviour in the early part of the stay is extraordinary too.


Let me read some extracts from the article:

"They are post-God: accountable only to the all-seeing, all-knowing Instagram.  They glory in their lives – fun, free and pleasured by the flesh; no reason not to if they are only going to end up as ash in their graves.  But if it makes them so happy, why are they so sad?”

".. on the first day at the convent, they show themselves to be fragile, prone to crying, crippled by their addiction to selfies and social media and keen to expose their bodies although they have not shown their faces without a mask of make up for years” 

"What no one in the TV production anticipated was how much this unlikely group would find solace in a religious order.  

Swaffham is their Damascus, to the point where each woman I speak to wishes that every young woman could have a nun experience”

"When life gets hard, " Gabbi, a lingerie model, says to me some months after leaving the convent, "I ask myself: what would the nuns do?”.  

Rebecca, as no one would have predicted, loved her session with the nuns in an old people’s home.  After she leaves the convent she gives up clubbing, starts a long-term relationship, returns to college to do a healthcare qualification and reconciles with her father, who says that her going to the convent had achieved all that he never could.  "You broke me,” he tells Rebecca.

There is only one word for the young women’s attitude to their transformation: evangelical.  If they do post on social media, it is to urge compassion, with the hashtag "love yourself”, which they thought up together at the convent.  It isn’t quite "love God” or "love thy neighbor”, but it means a lot to them all the same.  

 

The Damascus experience is critical to many of us to trigger a turning to Jesus and it was so to Paul.  

It is probably rare for a turning to Jesus to be so dramatic, but a turning, a decision, is always necessary.

But the Christian walk is about more than a conversion at a point in time.  The decision point is critical, but that is the start, not the end.

And as we journey, we may constantly find we need to let go of things that we value, that we cling to.  But as happened to the girls at the nunnery, those things that were being clung to, were rubbish.

In Chapter 3, Paul urges us to stay free, so stay unencumbered, to not look back, to look forward, to keep wanting more of Jesus.

Let me read my "translation” of verse 4-14, which is on the sheet in front of you:

  • I have had every reason to stand tall in the world but that is not what matters.
  • Nothing is more important than knowing Jesus.  I consider everything else as disposable.
  • My right-standing, my righteousness, before God is nothing to do with me, it is because of what Jesus has done for me.
  • I want to know the resurrection power of Jesus.  The power that brought people to life, that healed, that forgave, that transformed.
  • I am willing to suffer as Jesus did on earth if that is what is needed to know this resurrection power
  • I have not arrived, I have not completed all that he has for me to do.  I will press on.
  • I will forget all that has past, I will not let memories or other encumbrances slow me down.  I will not let success lull me into complacency.
  • There is a prize.  There is a goal.  I am shooting for heaven on earth.

Paul had his Damascus moment but he had to keep reminding himself of the truth he learnt then, keep reminding himself of where he was heading, and stay free of things that weighed him down.

That fundamental discipline of Paul, that comes through in this letter, is one that we need to practice too.  As each of us sits here today, what is it that holds us back?

  • Is it a fear of the unknown that prevents us following the call that Jesus might be laying before us?
  • Is it just busyness, that prevents us even thinking about what he might have in store?
  • Are we too preoccupied by our own personal needs to look to others?
  • Are we too worried and fearful about our own day to day existence?
  • Are we lucky to just survive day to day, without taking on anything else for anyone else?
  • Are you too hurt to think about looking after others?
  • Maybe you’re just not willing to consider a different path.


Jesus doesn’t ask us to forget about our hurts, fears, needs, desires, hopes.  He wants to heal us, meet our needs, and have us grow as people.

Hugh and Faye will pick this whole theme of God’s provision as we look in the next two weeks at Chapter 4, 

but if as you sit here today, 

gripped by something you know that needs to be dealt with,

weighed down by a burden you should be sharing  

then as you go for communion, 

hand those burdens over to Him who can deal with them best, and receive the freedom that He has for you.  


Come and pray with someone afterwards too.  You should be free in your Spirit to live life to the full, don’t be robbed of that.

For Paul. the need to keep handing things over to Jesus, to focus on freedom, and letting go, was a huge driver.


I suspect Paul’s constant sense of the clock ticking, wanting to keep running, was in part because had spent so much of his life fighting by the world’s metrics of power, wealth, and influence that he felt an enormous need to do everything he could for the right reasons


…but I think more than that, he knew that if he slowed down, if he didn’t keep moving forward, if he stopped, he would feel the old trappings start to sneak back up on him and he would miss some of what the Lord had ahead for him.


For Paul, there were physical sufferings at times, and he was certainly beaten, but the suffering was more likely a relentless assault on what he stood for and all that he was trying to build and nurture.

What Paul seeks to do in this letter to the Philippians, is to have his listeners let go of the past, let go of the encumbrances they feel, look beyond physical and human limitations, and think like Jesus, be driven like Jesus, and find the heart of God.


At the time when he wrote most about running, he was in prison.  He was in lock down.  He knew most about freedom when he had none himself.


What he felt was an urgency to promote the faith, to bring people to know Jesus, to encourage people to live as he knew they should live, and to pass on his passion.


I wanted to choose a single memory verse for us to take away and learn, but find this impossible.  We need to know the whole story of this chapter.  Take it home please, and chew on it.  Let us all dare to grasp it.

Posted: 15-10-2017 at 20:21
Tags:  Sermon  Simon
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