By Patrick Vaughn
I’m not much of a runner. For me there is no intrinsic sense of enjoyment that comes from the act of running. It’s hard work and even though I know exercise is healthy, my body seems to be saying the opposite when I run. Ouch, this hurts! Even though it’s good for me and after a run I normally feel less tense, running is not my first choice when it comes to exercise. However, there are two things that in my mind make running better: a goal and company.
A few years ago, Kim Char organized a group of us to run the California International Marathon to raise money for our church’s World Vision partnership with Abaya, Ethiopia. I think Kim may have been the only one to do the whole race by herself, but there were a few relay teams from Faith. Training for my leg of the relay wasn’t all that fun, but the fact that we had a goal made it easier. Somehow the training was more worthwhile knowing that it might help dig a well or build a school. Training may not have been enjoyable but the race was; surprisingly running was enjoyable because it was in community. Running with a team and with thousands of others toward a single finish line, with people cheering us on and bands playing was energizing; it was fun. For me running is better when I have a goal and company along the way.
Paul uses two metaphors in this passage from Philippians he compares himself and his life of faith to a runner straining with every fiber of his being toward the goal that lies ahead. Then he uses the image of citizenship to talk about the Philippians and his relationship to God. This morning I want to spend some time thinking about these two metaphors and what they mean for our walk of faith. Or, maybe more appropriately our race of faith.
Running for Paul has a goal. He doesn’t specifically speak of running but the image is clear. Listen to verses 12-14 again and picture Paul as a runner in the race of faith.
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Twice he uses the phrase “I press on” in combination with “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what likes ahead.” I think of marathon runners in their last few miles in the Olympics straining with every fiber of their being , leaning forward toward the finish line, not focused on where they have been but wholly committed to the goal of finishing the race strong. Running to win the prize. It’s a great image for our walk of faith.
Paul, was a pharisee before he became a follower of Jesus. He was an enemy of the church. And, as a pharisee he put %100 of his effort into obeying God’s commands perfectly and growing in knowledge of the LORD. He was a legalist and scholar who boasted in his own religious achievements and his Jewish birthright.
Do you know what Paul thinks of all this, his impressive religious pedigree and resume after having his life turned upside down by the risen Jesus? A few verses earlier, he calls it all garbage, literally a heaping pile of dung. All his gains in the religious life, his studying, Jewish pedigree, and perfection in following the law of God is rubbish. This is why Paul says he strains forward forgetting what lies behind. Because what lies behind is of no importance anymore. Why?
Because the only thing of value in this life and the next is to know Christ. Paul through his own experience is showing the Philippians that if you lose everything but gain Christ then you have all that you need. Since his conversion on the Damascus road, Paul has put all his efforts into straining towards the goal of knowing Christ. Paul is running to know Christ. And he is telling the Philippians and us clearly that there is no other goal worth running toward but to gain and know Christ.
You can hear the depth of his desire when he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” His one aim, the finish line, is to know Christ and ultimately to be raised like Christ that is to be with Christ in perfect relationship through the resurrection for eternity. This is the goal Paul speaks of when he says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” But notice that the goal is characterized or qualified by the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. The goal is the prize and the prize is the call.
How can Paul’s heavenly calling be a prize? We often think of calling as vocation, as a task or maybe even a job. Calling often is spoken of in the church in terms of doing something or serving in a particular role. Calling in one sense is related to what you do, and it is a way of living into God’s will and purpose for your life. But, Paul has a wider and deeper understanding of calling. It isn’t just about what you do or how you live, but calling defines who you are and encompasses the whole of your life with God. It’s not so much about what you are doing but who you are being. Calling characterizes the goal toward which we run, because it is what empowers us to be able to run in the first place. Calling isn’t so much about what you are doing but who you are becoming in Christ.
This is why Paul says that somewhat confusing and seemingly contradictory disclaimer before the race metaphor, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own. . .” (Phil. 3:12-13). Huh? Do you make it your own or don’t you? How can you press on to make it your own and then say I do not consider that I have made it my own? Because, Paul recognizes and wants us to see as well that our running, our growth in faith, isn’t done on our own. The race began when Christ Jesus made Paul his own, when Christ Jesus made me his own. Your race of faith began when Christ Jesus made you his own. And ever since that day all of Paul’s running, my running, your running has been running fueled by resurrection power. The power that overcame the forces of sin and death and makes it possible for us to achieve the goal of knowing Jesus Christ fully and completely.
Calling isn’t just something we do, it is who we are. Calling begins when Jesus Christ claims you as his own and it finds it’s prize in the promise of our own resurrection when we will see Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, face to face. The goal of knowing Jesus Christ in totality begins with our calling in Jesus Christ. We can only take hold of Christ because he first has taken hold of us.
So how are we to run this race toward knowing Christ? We are to live cruciform lives. Lives that reveal the cross of Christ. This is why Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). Paul knows that running the race and being obedient to the call of Christ means that his life will be marked by the cross, which means it will be marked with suffering. To be claimed by Christ means your life will begin to look like his, because as his possession you are, we are, his body in the world. As medieval nun Theresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”
When we are filled with the compassion of Christ, our feet and hands will find themselves sharing in the suffering of others. Our hearts will break as God’s heart breaks, our soul will cry out for justice and righteousness as God cries out, our lives will find themselves at odds with the powers of sin and death in our world as Christ was.
You may ask, is this a bit of masochism, seeking suffering for enjoyment? By no means. Paul desires to experience Christ’s sufferings because of the power of the resurrection that guarantees his own resurrection. Resurrection gave Paul and gives us a new perspective on suffering and death. It is not something to be avoided, which is the tendency of our culture. In fact Americans spend millions of dollars a year to fend off suffering and death. As people called by Christ, who share in the power of his resurrection, like Paul, we live with a holy abandon in the present.
No matter what age you are, you know ultimately death and suffering cannot be avoided. Suffering finds us no matter where we are, whether it is on a personal, community, national or international level. Death lurks and waits for all of us. So we can either run the race in fear, seeking to save our own behind, and in the end lose our life. Or, we quit running on our own power and begin running on resurrection power. Because when we run on resurrection power we can see the goal, we can taste the prize, we find ourselves in the company of other runners who like us are suffering, who like us are tired, who like us doubt that we can make it, but who ultimately like us have one who has come to our side in Jesus Christ. He entered into our suffering, into our race and ran it for us completely so we too might finish like him in glory.
Paul makes this clear in the second metaphor of citizenship. Citizenship bears with it both a privilege and responsibility. Our privilege is knowing Christ. Our privilege is as verse 21 puts it to have our body of humiliation, that is our sinful, broken, decaying bodies, transformed into bodies that are conformed to Jesus’ body of glory, that is his glorious, perfect, eternal resurrection body. The privilege, the prize of our running, is to know Christ so completely that we share in his glory. What is glory? Why is that so good? Glory is God’s very being. It is the full weight of his goodness and love, and we one day by the power of Christ resurrection share in that glory, in God’s goodness and love. We will share in and be one with the divine relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is this privilege that both empowers and gives perspective to the responsibility of heavenly citizenship. For just as being a citizen of the United States of America brings with it certain duties and responsibilities that require obedience. For example, taxes. So does our citizenship in heaven call forth certain responsibilities and obedience.
We are citizens of heaven first. Paul’s writing as a Roman citizen to a Roman colony in Philippi. Roman citizenship was a prized status, and Paul is making clear here that like his many religious achievements Roman citizenship is rubbish as well. He reminds the Philippians their citizenship is in heaven and it is from there that they are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ instead of Caesar who was called both savior and lord for Roman citizens. This is a good reminder for us as well, that our citizenship is a heavenly one. Our loyalties and allegiances are to Jesus Christ first and above all. Just like the U.S. requires you to forfeit your American citizenship if you apply for citizenship elsewhere, as citizens of heaven we cannot hold dual citizenship. We are instead to see ourselves as a heavenly colony, an outpost of the Kingdom of God.
The main responsibility that comes with this citizenship is to live lives worthy of our calling. Omillionsur responsibility as citizens of heaven is to know Christ in his fullness, which includes his suffering. Our responsibility is to live cross shaped lives because it is in suffering that we intimately encounter Christ and more deeply know him. You know this if you’ve ever been on one of the summer mission trips, if you’ve sat and prayed with someone as they are dying, if you’ve comforted someone in loss, or cried out to God in your addiction or hopelessness. When we are confronted with suffering, sin and death face to face we quickly realize we are helpless, and it is in our helplessness that the power of the resurrection most often is revealed. And when resurrection power flows through us we both know Christ more intimately and we make him known. When resurrection power flows through us, we truly are an outpost of the Kingdom, a colony of Christ.
Before I wrap up there is one last thing to notice about this passage. Paul loves the Philippians. Just listen to verse 4:1 again, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters,whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Running is always better together. Citizenship is always communal. Knowing Christ draws us into community. We cannot know the power of the resurrection solely as an individual.
Thank you for running with me and for being fellow citizens of heaven. Following Christ has not always been easy. It was not easy to come here, but Quinn and I are so grateful that we strained forward instead of going backwards. We have had the privilege and honor of suffering and rejoicing with you, loving and being loved, serving and being served and ultimately to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ with you. My desire has been to know Christ (v.10-11) amongst you. When I have done this well it is because of Christ who has taken hold of me. All glory and honor must go to the King. Anything I have accomplished here that is good and true has been because of the power of the resurrection at work in me. So much joy has come in following God’s heavenly call to serve you as a pastor. Thank you for calling to do so.
I’d like to leave you with these final words from Paul to his beloved in Philippi: take heart and stand firm.
Take heart because our citizenship is in heaven. It’s not in Oakland or Sacramento, Faith Presbyterian or ChristChurch, PC(USA) or EPC, our citizenship is in heaven so although we will be apart we remain together in Christ who is our one Lord and Savior. Let us run he race together as outposts of the Kingdom of God wherever we find ourselves.
So stand firm. Stand firm in the Lord, persevere and press on toward the goal for the prize of our one heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Look forward to where Christ is calling you to more and more live as his resurrection people, empowered to live lives marked by the cross. Look ahead to how Christ is calling you individually and as Faith Presbyterian to proclaim God’s grace and mercy, justice and righteousness, love and peace. Rejoice in God’s faithfulness, in the ways that God has worked through our ministry together. Hold fast to the growth we have attained in Christ over the past 7 years, but let us never make an idol of it. May it never be grounds for complacency. Rather, above all strain ahead and seek to know Christ and the power of his resurrection so that on that glorious day of His return we might stand together at the finish line face to face with Him in glory. When we do, that will be our prize and the running will have been well worth it. Amen.
Next Step Questions:
1. What do you think the goal of the Christian life is?
2. Read Philippians 3:7-11. Do you think Paul is being too extreme by calling all his past achievements rubbish? Do you, like Paul, believe that any righteousness you have comes from Christ alone? (If yes, this means you can do nothing to establish or maintain right relationship with God on your own)
3. You may or may not have a specific conversion moment, but when was a time that you have experienced God calling you (making you his own Phil. 3:12)? How did that change your life?
4. How have people played a role in your race of faith? What difference does it make having fellow citizens of heaven?
5. Medieval nun Theresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.” Who or where is one place that you can be Christ’s body this week? Or as Paul puts it, How might you share in Christ’s sufferings this week by sharing in the suffering of others?
6. Honestly, is there anything you desire more right now than to know Christ? When we recognize that we desire something more than Christ, we are identifying an idol or false god. How might you put whatever that is in it’s right place? (In some cases it may be casting it out in others it may be just making it secondary to Christ rather than vice versa)