Paul, part 4: One Thing
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
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There’s a challenge. If Paul hadn’t got it all together, what about us? We’re going through a series on Paul in the New Testament. So far, we’ve looked at his road to Damascus experience which turned his world and his life upside down through meeting Jesus. We have looked at how he seriously looked at his message to the new groups of Jesus followers around the Eastern Mediterranean, and we’ve considered how his message of being in Christ seemed to be his central message.
Today we continue this thread as we look at this passage in Philippians 3. That reading that Bernie gave was from the message version. Focusing on that bits that was read to us a moment ago which said, “But I’ve got my eye on the goal.” The running, the songs that we sang earlier, the activities, link into my eye on the goal.
The more traditional versions of the Bible say things like, “One thing I do.” It’s another way of Paul saying, the important thing here is one thing. Someone asked me some time back to consider doing a series on what boiled down to what you do when life gives you lemons.
We know that life isn’t always as positive, perhaps as our worship songs suggest. We won’t often feel like coming to church or face up to whatever the next big challenge in life might be. When it seems that one thing after another brings us down. We can’t be bothered to get up again. We can’t finish the race, getting up and finish ing that race. Perhaps when that final demand bill comes through the posts. When we get a call from the doctors. When another phone call with sad news comes through. How do we cope when we just can’t sleep? What do we do with that stressful situation at work? Why should we continue to trust God when it all seems to be falling apart around us? This is part of that lemons series.
Today’s focus is not necessarily on how we pick ourselves up from the batterings of life. Rather that we do because obstacles in life do come and we all have those lemony times. We want to be as prepared as we can for them. Whilst also acknowledging that we all have baggage from what has been in the past. One of the things we are doing as a church in the week at the moment is allowing community groups to use our buildings.
Once a month, Mid-Cheshire MIND, a mental health and well-being charity comes to meet with local people who need to talk perhaps through some stressful situations and get some support for their ongoing mental health problems. They met last Monday. This group is called Bounce Back.
It’s precisely what Paul is doing having met Jesus. After his road to Damascus experience, he meets Ananias who prays for him. Before Ananias meets him, he has this conversation with God which goes a bit like this, from Acts 9, God says, “Ananias, I want you to go to see Saul. You’ll find him on Straight Street, Damascus. He’s seen you in a vision.” Ananias, “God are you really sure about this? I mean the reports I’ve heard about him aren’t especially favourable about us Christians. He was coming here to kill us after all, you do know this don’t you?” God, “Yes, yes, yes, that’s fine. This is the chap that I’ve chosen to be my instrument, to proclaim my name to the Jews and to the Gentiles, but it’s not going to be an easy ride for him, but you have to go now.” Ananias, “Oh great. Okay.” You can imagine him scratching his head and dragging his feet to Straight Street to go and find Paul.
Paul’s bounce back took rather a different turn to what he had expected. It was no easy ride. This is precisely how he introduces his no-confidence speech here in Philippians 3. No longer does he have confidence in the stuff that formerly ruled his life. The keeping of the Torah, the Old Testament Laws, how he thought that just because he had the sign of circumcision, h e was part of an exclusive nation which meant he had to hate all the other people groups.
Indeed, he cites here how his pedigree as one of the chosen people from Israel set him up to be one of the top dogs. Instead of lording his credentials over people, he now states that all this stuff is of no use at all. Once he had picked himself up off the ground, realized that it was God who had dusted him down, put him on his feet again and set him on a new path.
Paul’s experience of bouncing back took him to unexpected places and to say unexpected things. He didn’t stay paralysed in his old life. He didn’t keep sucking the old bitter lemons of life. Filled with the Holy Spirit’s, his task was to encourage and to teach and to point people to Jesus.
The people that Paul calls the barking dogs are those who think they’re saved because of their spiritual heritage. Those who talk about being the circumcision and who are ethnically separate from everyone else are the ones who think they are the spiritual top dogs. However, with the coming of the Messiah Jesus, all this is now nonsense. Yes, he says that his pedigree was one of the best from the Jewish faith, but all of this is nothing in comparison with knowing Christ.
In fact, when he compares it, the literal translation of the NIV worthless rubbish, dog dung, is more coarse in the Greek. Skubalon is the Greek. It can mean a range of any rotten or decaying things. To make the point, the King James version says this in its evocative language in verse 8, “I count all things but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung that I may win Christ.”
I do hope I won’t offend you now when I speak of two things here, winning and dung. As you can imagine, I was probably never very good, at school, at sport. Winning was something that came quite alien to me as a result. Especially when it came to PE. The thing I hated most about PE was rugby. Sorry, Stephen. As probably not the best thing to admit now that the Six Nations is on together with the number of people in the congregation who quite like rugby. Earlier, we were talking about how we deal with the lemons in life. PE was a huge lemon for me. One of the most hurtful things that sport did for me was that it heightened the knowledge that my feet wouldn’t play ball.
If there was an event at tripping over, I’d be really good at that. As a teenager, even though I didn’t like sport, it would have been nice to at least have been on a level playing field with my friends, but disability means sometimes you just have to learn to deal with the lemons in life, a s there was nothing that could be done about it.
I’m happily able to admit to getting down about the things that I couldn’t do because my stupid feet and legs wouldn’t allow me to do what everybody else did. When I was growing up, sport was my lemon. I wasn’t that interested but it also meant that I couldn’t be competitive in that way, even if I wanted to be.
The other thing I remember about doing outdoor PE, of course, is that people would sometimes let their dogs run on the field after school -- and dogs do doo -doos. Not a helpful thing when one is diving for a rugby ball or running around the 400-meter track -- and squelch. I hope you will forgive me for the picture I’ve just inserted into your mind. Thank you. The stuff that we found on the soles of our trainers, having been around the school field, that’s what Paul compares his former life to that of knowing Christ.
That is why it’s so important for him to tell his friends that knowing Jesus is the best thing. Having been at the cutting edge of Judaism for such a long time, Paul’s experience of Jesus made him believe that everything he lived for until then had just turned to manure. He no longer regards that the huge privileges he had known as a well-known scholar, as taking something to take advantage of. Rather, he was discovering that the true membership in God’s people lay in suffering and in death, with the hope of resurrection beyond. Lemons today, with the hope of something more palatable tomorrow.
Which leads me on to mention another thing I really didn’t get on with at school, apart from PE. You’ll be surprised, I didn’t get along with maths. My mind just doesn’t click that way. So I’m pleased, and I know it’s an irony, that God has put me in a congregation of engineers, and mathematicians, and logical people in this world.
I mentioned this here, not to be able to receive sympathy about how bad school might have been- because I actually really enjoyed school, I loved my education, but to point out that having spoken about manure in the same paragraph, Paul talks about maths in a profit and loss kind of a way. He explains that having lost the privileges of a high-ranking Jewish zealot, he has gained so much more: Jesus Christ. “Whatever were gains for me,” he says, “I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
You can imagine that I’m not much of a bookkeeper, but I know that, traditionally, income or profit goes on one side of the page and expenditure or loss goes on the other. Paul has discovered something important to put on the credit side in comparison with everything else he can imagine only to be a debit. That something, that someone, is Jesus.
For Paul, relationship with Jesus, being in Christ, as we looked at quite recently, was the most important thing now. Not just knowing about him, but knowing him, being in him, being committed to the ways of how Jesus works. No longer a legal contract to be bound by, rather a relationship to live in. A relationship that has resurrection and hope at the centre, but yet, a relationship that’s marked with suffering and death. That’s the centre of Paul’s message here, commitment and the faith to keep running, keep racing, keep plodding.
Those of you who are married here, you know the cost of giving up your own desires for the sake of your husband or your wife. You committed yourself, forsaking all others until death do you part. You know what it’s like to give yourself up for the other: compromise, discussion, facing fears and joys together. If you had it all over again, I’m sure you’d do a few things differently, but not to have taken the risk at all to have had years of marriage and rich relationship. I don’t think so.
There is suffering in every relationship, hard stuff to go through, to face together, and to get through it together, that’s commitment. Even when that mighty tough gets going, when the debit outweighs the credit, or the other way around. See, I’m not very good at maths. When the proverbial skubalon hits the fan, yet still you choose that relationship because it’s good, and right, and faithful, and love-filled, and it’s still all of those things when life gets lemony.
When people ask me how faith helps when life only gives lemons, I’m probably not the best person to answer because those of you who’ve had the blessing of long and happy lives and marriages can probably teach us, single people, a thing or two about those lemony times. I hope that the single folk and the younger folk can teach the married folk and the older folk about how that life can be too, not only because we are part of a rich community, but because at the centre of it is Jesus Christ. The one that Paul talks about wanting to know, even partaking in his sufferings.
That’s the commitment that Paul says is worth following. The lemony times, partaking in the sufferings of Christ. Are we still going to be lemony even with Jesus walking by our sides? What do we do with them? We walk close to Jesus, and as He embraces us, so we embrace Him because our resurrection is not yet here, so we continue to strive and drive on forwards.
How do we know if Jesus is there in those lemony days? Look around you. Although you can’t see Jesus, you can, because we’ve already explored that wonderful promise in Galatians 2:20, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” You see a follower of Jesus, you see Jesus living in them and through them.
When people say they love coming for a coffee here on a Thursday because of the friendly welcome, that’s Jesus shining through. When you receive, perhaps, a hug from someone you know who’s heaven-sent at that moment, you know that’s Jesus in human form. The church is the body of Christ. This is our status as followers of Jesus.
This being made right by faith that Paul speaks of in verse 9 is our status in front of God. Our lemony days are nothing to do with our falling in or out of favour with God. He loves us because of and in spite of our silliness and our sin. The way through is to keep following hard after that one thing, forgetting what is behind, straining to what is ahead.
In verses 12 to 16, Paul swaps his bookkeeping metaphor for an athletic one to press on towards that goal, as we saw earlier in the Forrest Gump clip [Link to YouTube clip of one of the running scenes from this 1994 film.>], he just kept going to press on towards that goal. The goal is to have Jesus with us. Not that he attains to get to Heaven, but that’s what we think this bit of the Bible might mean, but that he presses on towards the goal. We think that Heaven is that goal.
What if there’s another meaning that suggests that it’s living in God’s new world, with our new bodies? The thing we pray Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven. Both Jesus and Paul. I’m not saying it’s only a future thing, but it’s living in the present moment in the light of that future. Looking into verses 20 and 21, Paul writes about our citizenship being in Heaven, and that we await a saviour from there, Jesus Christ, from there. The waiting doesn’t mean hanging around until we go to Heaven, which is where we’re destined, more, I think it means that our citizenship on earth is to be a faithful group of people influencing the culture of today. That’s why, perhaps, sometimes life is lemony, because our lives may well be at odds with the culture we live in.
Tom Wright in his commentary on Philippians says this,
The Church is presently a colony of heaven, with the responsibility (as we say in the Lord’s Prayer) for bringing the life and rule of heaven to bear on earth.
We are not, of course, very good at doing this; we often find ourselves weak and helpless, and our physical bodies themselves are growing old and tired, decaying … But our hope is that our true saviour, … King Jesus, … will come from heaven and change all that. He is going to transform the entire world so that it is full of his glory, full of the life and power of heaven. And, as part of that, he is going to transform our bodies so that they are like his glorious body, the body which was … transformed … so that it became wonderfully alive again with a life that death and decay and … [skubalon] could never touch again.
[Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, SPCK, 2011]
So in closing, when we have those lemony days, when life is full of dung and skubalon, let us remember this is part of this world and this life. When it becomes too much for us to bear alone, we need to remember to not only look to Christ, but all the Christs around us in here and the now to be encouraged. We continue pressing ahead, forgetting what is behind because we have our eye on that goal, where God is beckoning us onward to Jesus ahead, ahead, ahead.
Let’s have a moment of quiet.
“Friends, don’t get me wrong,” says Paul. “By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward to Jesus. I’m off and running and I’m not turning back.” Lord God, would You help us? Even though we might not be experts at life having lived them so far, would You please help us to continue to have our eye on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith? Would You help us to live in the joy of knowing You? Amen.
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