Pressing on towards the Goal
Paul begins by asking Christians to ‘rejoice’. This reflects Jesus’ own words in the sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Jesus also advised his disciples not to rejoice because they had apostolic authority to heal and exorcise, but because their names were written in heaven. The psychology here seems to be that Christian rejoicing is rooted in God’s love for us and not in what we accomplish as a result of that calling. It is not our own egos that achieve anything for God but God’s making of us effective and profitable servants. Rejoicing amid persecution was a feature of Christian life for its first three hundred years and but it also appeared in particular cases throughout Christian history and sometimes in the awful struggles of the Reformation period. There are many persecuted Christians in Islamic countries throughout the world this very day. We pray they have the gift of rejoicing with it.
St Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) who was an extreme Christian, told his own followers that true rejoicing was to be found in rejection by people at house doors when begging for food. I am not comfortable with that predilection. There is a point when Christian commitment can become narcissistic and selfish in motivation and purpose. Paul was always pointing out the clear difference between those well motivated in Christian life and others who were much less so. Our Lord’s own example was not one of excessive rejoicing in difficulties but a quiet internal joy and forgiving acceptance and that seems somehow more balanced and human. He said to his disciples, “So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16 : 22).
There are members of the Roman Catholic group “Opus Dei” who wear certain clothes and accoutrements which inflict steady pain - this - following the mediaeval monastic tendency to wear uncomfortable hair shirts and practise flagellation in order to dampen natural human feelings and instincts. The prophet Isaiah mocked people who did such things in his day and questioned whether God really wanted his people to behave in such ways. “Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? (58:5).
Rather he said, share what you have with the hungry and the poor, act justly and fairly towards one another and that will please God much more than unnatural suppression of the human body. What really is meant is Christian fortitude in difficulties, disappointments and struggles. Adverse circumstances test our faith and our faithfulness. It is how we carry them that matters. It is having a sense of untouchable triumph within the soul that is meant. Have you really got that? It is no less than Christ Himself within you if you have.
Paul goes on to warn Christians about the destructive influence of Jews in Philippi who were intent on snuffing out the embryonic Christian congregation. He uses strong language. “Beware of those dogs”. Dogs in his culture were not household pets such as we have, substitute persons for our emotional welfare. These were strays, roaming about, undomesticated and dangerous to passers-by. “Dog” was a sweary word in ancient culture, an insult and a derogatory epithet. The word appears that way also throughout the Bible. Those described as such are barred from heaven in Revelation 22:15. In Matthew’s Gospel there is the interesting story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman. “Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once” (15-21 - 28). For a Jew like Paul to call Jews “dogs” was significant indeed and the measure of his anxiety about the danger they could cause his missionary achievements.
The problem was not that they attacked and murdered Christians, for example. It was much more subtle. They sowed seeds of doubt among converts to Christianity by insisting that physical circumcision be continued as a sign of election and God’s calling and favour. In other words, Christianity for them could survive as a sect of Judaism like Pharisaism. Paul recognised the acute danger that the distinction between Judaism and Christianity would be eroded and that Christianity would die out if this were to happen. His language was designed to ensure that Christians did not fall into this trap.
The crux of this could be explained by discussing the distinction between inward or spiritual circumcision and external or physical circumcision. Even in the Old Testament the point was made that external circumcision was not what God’s Covenant was all about. Leviticus talks about uncircumcised hearts. Jeremiah the prophet spoke about the uncircumcised ear which cannot hear the word of God. The consecration of the heart and mind and soul and strength was what made a true Jew, not the external physical mark. Paul reminds his readers of his own excellent pedigree as a Jew and former persecutor of Christians. He should know what he is taking about, he says. When I worked Kenya in the nineteen-eighties, some of our students arrived at College with tribal physical identification marks on their bodies. All Kalenjins had their middle bottom tooth missing. This was done in early teenage years by inserting a screwdriver and twisting it against the tooth until it broke. The Dinkas from Sudan had elaborate patterns on their bodies. This was skilfully done with a hook and razor. The hook lifted the skin and the razor cut the skin in such a way that the design was left on the body. And the pattern grew as the flesh expanded. These were important tribal identifying marks of adulthood. It is interesting that in our society today, such rites of passage and forms of identification have returned. Many wear tattoos. Some wear studs through parts of their bodies. Even branding is sought by some. Paul would disapprove. Whatever it is you are looking for, he would say, you will not find it by decorating your body in this way. What really matters is to adorn the soul with good living through Jesus Christ.
But lots of supposedly Christian Church people carry with them alternative views, alternative thoughts, alternative markings and bearings, alternative language and alternative interpretations. Their conversation often reflects not the Bible or Christian thinking but some other sphere of understanding. Sometimes, people’s Christianity is coloured and informed by their associations with these rather than with the Lord Jesus. Others put these alternatives in perspective and see a distinction in comparison with New Testament Christianity. For Paul, Jesus is the Saviour and for us this must be true also. We must not put our trust in anyone or anything other than the Lord Jesus Christ. We should not risk what Jesus has won for us on Calvary and in resurrection. Like Paul, we must press on to the end and to the fulfilment of our Christian faith.
Paul admits that he is not a perfect Christian. But he is getting there and his intention and goal is to be so. He has not given up and he is not compromising. He has not opted out and he has not become complacent. His motivation he says is “I want to know Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead”. Paul is not going to take anything for granted. He has turned his extreme personality towards Jesus Christ. His nature was always to give 110% as the footballers say. First it was orthodox Judaism - he gave it everything - then it was attacking Christianity which he did mercilessly - and finally it was serving Jesus Christ whom Paul gave his life for. That’s what it should be for us also. That is where the future lies for this congregation and parish. That is where the power and the blessings are to be found. That is where truth and salvation reside. That is where eternal life lies. Are you really on the way? Do you know it? Can you say so? With Paul? “I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus”. We don’t give that impression, do we? We are not that enthused. We are not that confident. Our hope is not strong. We are not that Spirit-filled.
Paul returns his thoughts to earth and to the Christian struggle. “For, as I have told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things”. That is a good succinct description of our society today. The meaning of the cross of Christ does not impinge or affect so many people’s daily judgment or values. What Jesus accomplished on Calvary is an irrelevance to many, an annoyance to others and a serious and hate-filled intrusion for some. There has been for years a determined political agenda to diminish and eradicate Christianity from the public life of our nation. There has also been a tendency for some to publicise, promote and parade their lifestyle choices and values in the face of others. “Their glory is their shame”, says Paul. Their pride is their shame. Personal destruction is certainly an option says Paul. Many tread that path. Good becomes bad and bad becomes good. “Their god is their stomach” probably refers to people who had no moral code whatsoever in Philippian society. Debauchery and gluttony were their habit. Maybe if you looked down on our society you’d say the same about us. Just see the latest Deliveroo advert on TV. And life seems to be dominated by temple like supermarkets into which we go as worshippers and consumers. Food was never meant to dominate our lives in such a way.
“Our citizenship is in heaven” says Paul. He was sure of that. So was the writer of “Amazing Grace” John Newton, who also wrote the words “Saviour if of Zion’s city, I through grace a member am, let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Thy name”. Paul contrasts this great expectation with his humble human circumstances. He can hardly wait for the transformation which indeed arrived for him not long after he penned these great thoughts and which it is our privilege to share this morning.