This was my sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity.
Keep your eyes ahead. The attitude of any person should never be dominated solely by the present, but also with a mind to the future. When you know what you’re doing, you’re looking ahead, you have goals, a vision, direction, a plan. This is critical stuff when trying to run a successful business. Families, too, benefit from having a sense of purpose and direction. So do clubs, small groups, ministries, and even local churches, each in their own way, benefit from keeping their eyes ahead toward a particular vision, goal, or calling. As Christians, we have a particular direction we ought to be facing, a vision or goal that we reach for. As we run the race of this life we fix our eyes on Jesus, the perfector of our faith. We are called to be like Jesus; and this is what our epistle reading this morning describes.
v17 Saint Paul makes a bold statement at the beginning of our reading; he says “imitate me.” If I told you all this morning to imitate me and my walk with Christ, you’d probably have mixed feelings. I trust there are things about me that you do respect, but I doubt any of you consider me to be perfect. Similarly, Paul was very much aware of his imperfections. Elsewhere he confessed himself to be a “chief” sinner. The more he grew in Christ, the more aware he became of his own sinfulness. Despite that, he was able to tell the Philippians to imitate him. And not just him, but also the examples of “us” – probably referring to his traveling companions, and the other Apostles at the time.
In the midst of our pursuit to follow Christ and become like Him, we are invited to look up to our fellow Christians, identify their good examples, and imitate them. This is part of the basis for why we celebrate the lives of certain Saints through history, particularly last week when we celebrated All Saints’ Day. Yes, we can get carried away with examples to the point of distraction from the prototype, Jesus himself. And that is part of the reason that in the Anglican tradition we only mandate the celebration of a handful of New Testament Saints, and leave the hundreds of others through history as optional celebrations.
v18 Returning to the Philippians text, Paul makes a contrast between himself and other Saints with other people who “live as enemies of the Cross.” There are two big things being pointed out here that I want to highlight. First of all, he said that these people live as enemies, not simply are enemies. This serves as a reminder of the reality of false brethren. Sometimes people claim to be Christians, but prove otherwise by their lifestyles. The Episcopal Church has just elected a new Presiding Bishop, the first African-American to take up that role. He has claimed to be an Evangelical and has talked a great deal about returning to the priorities of outreach, of preaching Christ, and so forth. But at the same time, he has applauded the efforts of his two predecessors who have done great damage to what’s left of that denomination through their false teaching and persecution of theological dissenters. His words sound Christian, but his life, sadly, betrays himself to be an enemy of the Cross just as much as those who came before him.
The other thing here is that Paul uses the phrase enemies of the Cross, not enemies of Christ. This is an important emphasis that what Christ did on the Cross is centrally important. Many people today claim to preach Christ but neglect the meaning of the Cross, and that is a fatal error. The sacrifice that Jesus made on the Cross for the sins of the world is the center of the Gospel story, and if you deny that, the whole Gospel unravels and all you’ve got left is a religion telling people to be nice to each other because “it’s the right thing to do.” It’s a good start, but it’s not good news. So the Cross is central to the Christian message and the Christian life. The Cross is our Way, just as Jesus is the Way. In the previous chapter of this epistle, Paul speaks of the Cross:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Just as Jesus went the way of the Cross – humiliation leading to exaltation – so are we called to follow Him through the same way. We die to self, we die to sin, and are raised to new life, nourished in that new life, and ultimately brought by the power of the Holy Spirit, to eternal life.
v19 Next, St. Paul gives further description of these enemies of the Cross. He writes that their life is earthly-minded, and leads to death. He points out that they live their lives controlled by earthly desires and passions rather than godly desires and passions. Their whole frame of reference, or world-view, is entirely earth-based. They’re like the Pharisee who asked Jesus “is it lawful or not to pay taxes?” This is an earthly question; they’re trying to pit God against Caesar as polar opposites, not understanding that to serve God truly means to respect earthly authority as subordinate to Him. As Jesus answered, we are to give to God what is God’s, and to the government what is the government’s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with money, or even taxes, but the Pharisee’s preoccupation with these things proved to be a distraction from keeping his eyes fixed upon God. This singular earthly-mindedness leads to death; only in Christ do we find the resurrection and the life.
v20 Instead of getting bogged down in the world’s concerns, we should look up, so to speak. Our citizenship is in heaven. You may have heard this verse many times before, but do take a moment to think about that. American citizenship is a great privilege – one that people come from all over the world to get. Living in this country is so desired, in fact, that undocumented immigration is rampant, which creates all sorts of economic and legal confusion. Do we have that same excitement and drive for heavenly citizenship? Is the Kingdom of God even better than the USA? The Gospel of Christ says a resounding yes! We have a homeland awaiting us, a city not made by human hands; Jesus has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. In the meantime we are to live as strangers, sojourners, aliens, foreigners in our earthly homelands. The Early Church had a very strong sense of this, especially when Christianity was unpopular or illegal. The way things are going in the Western world today, we could benefit from their experience as a marginalized people, and the heightened understanding of what it means to be strangers to our earthly homes.
v21 And then Paul wraps up this chapter by reminding us that Christ shall return and perfect his Kingdom on earth, particularly by making our earthly bodies like his heavenly body, and by establishing his rule over all things. This means that we will be like him – incorruptible, perfect, free from the effects of sin, sickness, disease, and death. This is our goal, our joy, our hope! It is to this perfection of self and perfection of creation that we keep our eyes fixed ahead. It is to the consummation of the Kingdom of God on earth that we look as the final piece of the good news.
Seek to make God’s desires yours.
As we think about Saint Paul’s teachings here, the main message I think we get is that we need to make God’s desires our own. His plan is to bring about salvation, health, perfection, wholeness, completion. When you think about the future, and make plans, and set goals, you should always keep in mind the ultimate future, plan, and goal: the establishment of the Kingdom of God in your heart and life, and in the entire world.
There’s a common phrase we use to encourage people, “you have your whole life ahead of you.” We should probably re-think what we mean by that. The older you are, the less it applies to you. Even someone as young as a college student has already made some life choices that may not be undo-able. Even if someone starts over in their twenties and abandons their college education in favor of a new field, there is still the legacy of that previous direction taken. Oftentimes there’s student debt, or cut ties, or simply lost time. But most importantly, when we talk about someone “whole life” ahead of them, we’re usually implying that this person can or should do what he wants to do with his life. Once again, it’s a saying that tends towards earthly-mindedness. Instead we might consider saying “God can still work through you,” or “use you,” and so forth. Rather than encouraging one another to pursue their own dreams exclusively, we need to help encourage one another to seek to make God’s desires our own.
By way of a positive example, I’d like to point out the Collect of the Day. It highlights holiness as a critical component of prayer. One of the greatest challenges in prayer is knowing what God wants, and aligning our wills with His. This prayer connects the fact that God is the author of holiness to the making of faithful and effectual prayer. Do you want to make good decisions? Do you want to be a faithful Christian? Do you want your prayer to be effective? Then seek and receive the holiness that God provides. God is, indeed, our refuge and strength, and that makes him very desirable to us in our times of need. But God is also the author of holiness, which is often not as much as fun, but equally important. Seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness. Strive to conform your life with teaching of Christ in Scripture, with the guiding power of the Holy Spirit. Then your mind will be more and more opened to God’s wisdom will. Then His desires will grow in your own heart. Then your eyes will be more firmly fixed on what is ahead.
Lastly, I’d like to remind you briefly of the stories we heard last week. St. Andrew gave up his life and business as a fisherman to be the first disciple of Jesus, one of the twelve apostles, and a missionary to a hostile world. His eyes were set upon the Kingdom of God, and thus he continued this ministry all the way to a diagonal cross. St. Francis gave up his rich family inheritance to help rebuild the Church by preaching the Gospel. He lived in earthly poverty for the rest of his life, but he knew he was rich in Christ. Margery Kempe didn’t give up her wealth, but she did focus her activities upon worship, prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, and good works. She was a blessing to others, and entirely smitten in love for Jesus, not letting her earthly goods distract her from the heavenly vision. These, and many other saints of the past and present, are fantastic examples for us. As Paul himself told the Philippians, “imitate me.” As I relate to you stories of the saints, and as we read together of the life of Christ, I tell you, imitate them.
Keep your eyes fixed on what is ahead: on God’s Kingdom coming alive in your heart and in your life. Your destiny, as a Christians, is to become a Saint with a capital S. Aim for that first, above all other goals. Sometimes that will make a radical change to your lifestyle in the world. Sometimes that will make a radical change to your interior life. Always, it will change you. And in the end, God by his grace will make us perfect. Thanks be to God.