Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Running Together

Philippians 3:12-4:1

 One of the things that the author says in the book Transforming Church that we’ve been reading for the Vision Team is that the Christian life is not simply a journey but a quest.  He explains that by saying that a journey is just a trip from one place to another.  You can go from here to there without anything really changing.  An adventure is something a little bit more; there’s a goal in mind.  But the goal might simply be to have an enjoyable experience.  But a quest is something more.  It has a goal, and not just any old goal.  A quest is something with great importance attached to it.  It changes the world.  And the person going on a quest is never left unchanged by it.  

 Well, by that definition, I would have to agree that, yes, a quest is a good description of the Christian life.  We have a world-changing goal in mind:  We want to see the world transformed by the grace of God.  It’s an important quest, because we believe that those who do not know Christ are spiritually lost.  And we will be changed by taking our part in this quest.  We are transformed by taking part in the work of God in the world.  The focus becomes not just the achievement of a goal, but also the progress that happens along the way.

 That seems to fit well with Paul’s words here in Philippians:  “Forgetting the past… I press on to the goal, to be all that I can be, all that God wants me to be, all that Christ has saved me for.”  Paul is using a racing metaphor; living the Christian life is like running in a race.  And it’s impossible to win a race looking over your shoulder.

 Should we really forget the past?  Should we obliterate it from our memory?  Pretend it never happened?  That’s not helpful.  It’s foolish to forget the past, because if we do we’ll forget the hard lessons learned from failure and the good lessons learned from success.  But we don’t want to live in the past.  We don’t want to dwell there.  As someone once said, a car has a rear view mirror, so you can see what’s behind you.  But the mirror is much smaller than the windshield.  And if you spend your time looking in the mirror, you’re going to crash!  

 We have a tendency to wallow in our failures, to dwell on them, to re-live them over and over again.  That’s not helpful if we truly believe that God has forgiven our sins and removed them from us as far as the east is from the west.  

 Nor is it helpful to dwell in our successes.  If we spend too much time re-living our successes, we become complacent, secure in who we are, not striving to be who God is calling us to be.  

 Either wallowing in our failures or resting on our successes is not helpful to us in pursuing our upward calling.  Now what is our upward calling?  

 It goes back to the racing metaphor.  After the race was run, then the winners would be called up to the podium to receive their “crown,” a wreath of laurels.  In like manner, those who follow Christ faithfully are called up to heaven, to receive their crown:  eternal life and the final transformation into glory.  

 Now the race metaphor is not perfect.  The very idea of a race implies competition.  Only a certain number will be called up after it’s over.  And there the metaphor breaks down, because we’re not in competition.  There’s no limit on how many will be called up, in spite of what some say.  We run this race in the context of Christian community.  And one of the things that I can tell you, as a runner, is that people run faster when they run with others.  One summer when I was in college, I worked at Jumonville, and one of my co-workers was also a runner.  Not all the time, but at least once a week, we’d run together.  And I would shave five minutes off my time.  It helped that he was faster than me, so I was always pushing to keep up.  But it’s true across the board:  We run faster when we run together.  

 Well, let’s talk about the goal that we’re reaching for, because the very word can be intimidating.  We are to press on to perfection.  You say that and people laugh!  But maybe we shouldn’t.  

 The Greek word used here for “perfection” was TELEIOS.  And it really didn’t mean perfection in an absolute sense.  As far as I understand it, it’s more perfection in a functional sense than an absolute sense.  TELEIOS means to be all that one can be.  To be as mature, as complete, as whole as possible.  In many of the religions of the ancient world, TELEIOS was use to describe those at the highest level.  Not a novice or an initiate or a beginner, but having attained all that one could attain.  I think that’s the better sense of the word here.  That’s how Paul’s readers would have understood it in their culture, so it’s the best starting point for us. 

 Now John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, also used that word perfection.  But he was careful to say that Christian perfection is not an absolute

perfection.  It’s not perfect knowledge.  And without perfect knowledge, it’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes.  

 Paul’s words here in verses 15 and 16 might be helpful:  “I hope all of you who are mature (perfect) will agree on these things.  If you disagree, I believe God will make it plain to you.  But we must be sure to obey the truth that we have already learned.”  Maturity is not absolute understanding, but rather a whole-hearted desire to obey what one has already learned.  Obedience to the truth that we already have is always more important than the questions that are still unanswered.  

 Wesley defined Christian perfection as a perfect willingness and desire to live and act in love.  But we can be willing to act in love and desire it and still sometimes fail to do so.  We might fail because of human weakness or because we simply don’t understand what is the best course of action.  Wesley taught Christian perfection, but he denied that he had reached it.  He was skeptical of anyone who claimed they had.  And many have suggested that a mark of Christian perfection is to know that you have not yet reached it.  

 Why strive for it?  Why strive for something we can’t reach?  Because striving for it reveals where our true home is.  It shows that our God is Christ, not our stomachs.  It shows that our home is in heaven, not on earth.  

 I believe verse 20 is one of the most powerful verses in Scripture:  We are citizens of heaven.  But to understand that, we have to know something about Philippi.  

 Philippi was a Roman colony.  That means that everyone who was a citizen of Philippi was also a citizen of Rome.  Most of the citizens of Philippi were retired soldiers and their children.  If a soldier served a whole career, which was 21 years, at the end, he became a citizen.  If he had children, they became citizens.  

 All throughout the Empire, Rome established colonies, cities in which the citizens of the city were citizens of Rome.  They did it to unify the Empire by having Romans live all throughout it.  These colonies were considered extensions of Rome.  The people who lived in them lived like Romans.  They wore Roman clothing.  They spoke Latin.  They had Roman law courts and jurisprudence.  They had Roman art and theaters.  They ate Roman food.  They had Roman morals, which weren’t very good.  They looked like Romans, they acted like Romans, they spoke like Romans.  Even though many of them had never been to Rome!  

 And that is a picture of the Church.  Philippians acted like people who belonged to a far off place they’d never been.  And in a like way, that’s just who we are.  We are to act like citizens of heaven, a place we haven’t been, yet.  We are to reflect the manners, the customs, the language, the morals of heaven, a far off place we haven’t been to yet. 

 The Greek word for citizenship is POLITEUMA.  It can also be translated as thoughts or affections or conversations.  Our thoughts should belong to heaven.  Our affections, our loves, should belong to heaven.  Our conversations should lead to heaven.  

 Our English word “Commonwealth” traces its origins back to the Greek idea of citizenship.  We know that word because we live the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  If you ever want to give someone a hard time, ask them how many states are in the United States.  If they say, “fifty,” you can be a know-it-all and say it’s really 46, because four of them, including Pennsylvania, are commonwealths.  

 Well, what’s a commonwealth?  Literally, it’s a common well-being or a public well-being.  It’s the idea that larger community is necessary for our best life.  Living in isolation is not the best situation for us.  Living in the Christian community, the Church, our commonwealth, is the best place for us to live out our faith.  As I said earlier, we run faster when we run together.  

 We can’t be everything that God is calling us to be, we can’t be going on to perfection, unless we are going on that quest together.  

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