Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Going On To Perfection

Philippians 3:12-4:1

 John Wesley, founding father of the Methodist movement, spoke extensively about what he called Christian Perfection.  This passage was probably one of the inspirations for his beliefs.  Wesley believed it was possible for believers to arrive at Christian perfection in this lifetime.  

 Now that might seem a little silly, but you have to hear him out.  When Wesley was talking about Christian perfection, he didn’t mean absolute perfection.  He meant more of a practical perfection, being perfected in love.  He meant a person could come to the place where they were so in love with God that they would not sin knowingly.  He didn’t mean that a person could ever be without sin in this life, but rather without intentional sin.  Sins of ignorance are always going to happen.  We’re always going to do the wrong thing from time because we don’t know what the right thing is.  We don’t have perfect knowledge.  

 But Wesley believed it was possible that, by God’s grace, a believer could mature to the point where they would never sin on purpose.  Many might discount Wesley’s ideas here.  I know the first time I heard of this idea, I said, “No way.”  But, if we say, “No way,” then are we not limiting God’s grace?  Are we not saying that God can’t do something in the lives of his people?  

 When I was ordained 8 years ago, I was asked the historical questions of the Wesleyan tradition.  One of those questions is, “Are you going on to perfection?” and the next was something along the lines of, “Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?”  I answered yes to both, because that was the correct answer.  But I believe the answer to be yes more now than I did then.  I am going on to perfection, and I hope you are, too.

 By the way, Wesley was always suspicious of anyone who claimed to have reached Christian perfection.  He denied that he himself had reached it.  And perhaps that’s part of going on to perfection, to recognize that you aren’t there yet.  

 Wesley sounds pretty similar to Paul in this regard.  Paul also said he had not yet reached perfection.  The Greek word for perfection is TELEIOS.  And again, it’s not so much the idea of absolute perfection as functional perfection, maturity, completeness, becoming all that one can be by God’s grace.  

 “I’m not there yet, but I’m pressing on, forgetting the past and moving ahead.”  There is an expression I’ve heard that fits here:  A car has a windshield and a rear view mirror because you need to know what’s ahead of you and what’s behind you.  But the windshield is much bigger than the rear view mirror, because what’s ahead of you is much more important than what’s behind you.  How true that is.  Where we are going in Christ is far more important than where we’ve been.  

 We should not live in the past.  We all have mistakes in our past.  If we live in them, that is not healthy or helpful.  We all have things in our past we’re ashamed of.  Paul was an accomplice to a mob murder.  If we live in our past, we can get weighed down with guilt.  

 We also should not live in the past in the sense of “resting on our laurels.”  Many churches do that.  They live in the past.  They can only talk about the good ol’ days that are behind them.  They can’t envision good days ahead of them.  The end of that road is nothing but death.  

 The mention of laurels is also appropriate to Paul’s metaphor here, which is a race.  Living the life of Christ-following is like running a race.  At the end of a race in the Greco-Roman world, the winners were “called up” to receive a wreath of laurels.  At the end of this race, we are called up to heaven.

 Now the image does break down at some point.  It breaks down because in a race, there is only one winner.  But in the life of Christ-following, all who run can be called up to the prize.  

 My experience with racing is somewhat limited.  I’ve been running for over 20 years now, but I’ve only ever participated in three races.  But I’ll share my experience with you:  We run better when we run together.  Two years ago I ran in my first, and possibly last, half-marathon.  While waiting for the race to start, I ran into an old friend, a young lady I had worked with at Jumonville many moons ago.  About four miles into the race, we found each other again.  We ran together for about four miles, and those were the four fastest miles I ran.  I slowed down for a minute to get a drink of water, and she got ahead of me.  I couldn’t catch back up, and I slowed down, a lot.  I had been on pace to finish in 1:50, but I ended up finishing in 2:05.  We run faster when we run together.  And the same is true of the Christian life.  We run it better when we run it with each other, encouraging and holding each other accountable.  

 Paul gives us a definition of perfection or maturity here:  “Be sure to obey the truth you already know.”  It is good to continue to grow in our knowledge and understanding.  But obedience is the most important thing.  The most important thing is to hold onto the truth we have and put it into practice in our lives.  Our attitude should be, “I may not have all the answers, but I have some of them.  And I do my best to live out what I know to be true.” 

 If we do that, then we can be an example for others to follow.  Paul encourages his readers, “Pattern your lives after mine.”  Now that seems like a pretty bold claim.  How often do we say things like, “Well, don’t follow my example.  Just follow Jesus.” 

 But at this point, somewhere around 60 AD, not all of the Gospels had been written.  And even the ones that were written, Mark certainly, and probably Matthew and Luke, were not yet in wide circulation.  If you wanted to tell someone else what a Christ-like life looked like, you really couldn’t send them to the Gospels.  But you could point them to the lives of Christians.  The word Christian means “little Christ.”  To be a Christian is to be a little picture of what Jesus is like.  

 Could you offer yourself as an example of Christ-like living?  If the answer is no, then perhaps you need to re-examine your level of commitment to Christ.  Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours.”  You are the only example of what Christ looks like that some people will ever see.  Some people will never read the Bible.  But they’ll see you.  Are you showing them what Christ looks like in your words, actions, and the way you treat other people?  

 As Paul reminds us, some who claim the name of Christ really live as enemies of the cross.  The cross is the supreme example of self-denial, thinking more of others than self.  To live as enemy of the cross is to choose the way of self-indulgence, and thinking of self more than others.  

 Paul is writing here about the Gnostic Antinomians.  The Gnostics believed that everything spiritual is good, but everything physical, including the human body was bad.  Most of them said that if the body is bad, then it doesn’t make any difference what you do with it, since it’s destined for destruction anyway.  This became a convenient excuse for antinomianism, living as if there is no “law” of good and evil.  

 Paul says of them, “Their god is their appetite,” literally, “their god is their stomach.”  Now the Romans were well known for gluttony, but Paul means this more

generally that they are ruled by their passions.  Whatever they want to do, they do.  And they brag about it.  Instead of being ashamed of their sins, they are proud of them.  And they have no thought beyond this life.  They are not living for eternity.  They are living for the here and now.  To live this way is to live as an enemy of the cross.  

 But we are citizens of heaven.  That is where our true citizenship lies.  

 Now there is a cultural thing here that gives deeper meaning to that sentence.  Philippi was a Roman colony.  Throughout the Empire, Rome established colony cities.  These were “little slices of Rome.”  All the citizens of a colony were also citizens of the city of Rome, even if they had never been there.  Most colonies were made up of retired Roman soldiers, who earned their citizenship after 21 years of military service.  Many of those soldiers had never set foot in Rome.  

 But in Roman colonies, the people lived like Romans.  They dressed like Romans.  They spoke Latin.  They had Roman laws.  They adopted Roman customs, both good and bad.  They lived like people of a place they may never have been.  

 Paul adapts this idea to the Christian life.  We have never been to heaven, but we should live like citizens of heaven.  We should speak and think and act like citizens of heaven.  Empowered by God’s Spirit, we should become citizens of the place we are going, not the place we have been.  

 And God’s power is sufficient for the task.  It’s the same power that raises the dead to glory.  It’s the same power by which Christ conquered everything, everywhere.  And that power is able to conquer the power of sin in us.  If Christ can overcome death, then he can overcome the sin in our hearts.  As strange as it may seem to say it, we can, in fact, go on to perfection in this life.  

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