This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it refers to is Philippians 3:3-14.
When I was about 16, I was pretty unhappy. In hindsight, I probably had undiagnosed depression (it was diagnosed years later); but what I knew at the time was that I felt pretty worthless. Not smart enough, not pretty enough, and definitely not sporty enough to have any area where I felt I had value as a person.
That was a difficult time, because when you’re 16, you don’t have the life experience or perspective to know that how you feel right now isn’t how things are going to be forever. But I have a distinct memory of sitting on the beach one evening and deciding that I didn’t have to be worth something right now; as long as I could see that I was working on improving myself, that was good enough. It was good enough to be on the way, rather than having already arrived at a destination marked “fabulous.”
And while that didn’t fix my depression – or my low assessment of myself – I think that was a turning point in how I learned to live with those things. It was about openness to the future, rather than being defined by the past, or even the present. I think in terms of today’s educational buzzwords they’d talk about me having developed a “growth mindset.”
And in a way, in today’s epistle reading, Paul is also encouraging the development of a growth mindset. He draws a careful contrast between the things from his past – or his people’s past – which might be seen to define him; and the things held in trust for his future.
Here’s what I mean. He describes what he has been; an Israelite, a Torah-keeper, a Hebrew-speaker, a pharisee, a zealot. And he doesn’t say that any of those things are, in themselves, bad or wrong. But then he contrasts that with gaining Christ and being found in Christ, knowing Christ’s power and resurrection and becoming like Christ and – finally – sharing in the resurrection from the dead. These are the attributes he holds up as preferable, as being a much more sound basis for his identity, life purpose and so on.
But the thing to notice about this is that these are not things which he yet possesses (or at least, which he does not yet possess to the full) when he writes. His sense of what’s important in his life has shifted from past accomplishments to future promises.
You might remember that a few weeks ago I preached on another passage from this letter and explained that it is a “letter of consolation;” that Paul through this letter is arguing that the Philippians need a change of attitude and to become more joyful. This part of the letter is one plank in that argument; he’s telling them that if they’re unhappy with where they’re at now, they can rejoice in knowing that this isn’t how it’s going to be forever. God’s got better things in store. The best is yet to come.
I wonder if sometimes, our churches need to make a similar mental shift?
Where do we root our sense of identity? Is it in what we have been? Are the things which are important to us here that we are church members, Anglicans, progressive catholics, take up particular ways to serve, and so on? Note that I’m not saying any of those things are bad or wrong. But are they the point, or are they markers on the way to what it’s really all about; being Christ’s body, experiencing Christ’s power, being oriented to the reign of God and making that real and known in the world around us?
What I’m asking is where we focus our attention, and how we choose the priorities for our energy and efforts.
It seems to me that all too often, churches get caught up in focussing on the wrong things; pour their time and energy and money (and, let’s face it, angst) into parts of their life which will never make one shred of difference in mission. (I think, for example, of one parish I was in where epic battle raged for months over the question of how to serve morning tea). But this is fruitless, just as focussing on keeping Torah or speaking in Hebrew would have distracted Paul from any effective ministry in the Greco-Roman cities to which he travelled. And what we see from the letter to the Philippians is that’s a problem not just because it makes us ineffective Christians (although that’s bad), and not just because it tends to lead to conflict (also bad), but because it robs us of our joy.
When our sense of identity, our sense of purpose, and our priorities all align with a clear, Scriptural understanding of what God is doing in the world, and what the end result of all of that is going to be… that’s when we find the true joy of being Christians.
It does take work. It means actually knowing the Scriptures well enough to have a very clear sense of what the reign of God is all about. It might sound obvious, but we can’t know what it means to be found in Christ, unless we really know Christ.
It also means, not just knowing Christ, but having the ability to translate what we know about Christ, in the abstract, to recognise and participate in what Christ is doing in the world, in real and concrete ways. It means that if, for example, we talk about “justice,” we have a very clear sense of what justice means in the playground and the workplace and on the street. What it means in terms of policies for institutions, and priorities for individuals. How a sense of justice might inform our interactions with everyone from our local politicians to the folks seeking emergency relief at the vicarage door. And not only justice, but hope and faith and peace and all the fruits of the Spirit.
Because when we have that clear in our own heads, we can make our way through the world, confident that we are being who we are meant to be; more than that, growing into who God calls us to be! And that we are participating in bringing the future God intends into being.
And that’s where we draw our joy from. Anything else that we do, without doing that, is going to be a drain and a distraction, rather than a wellspring of joy and of life.
The good news for us here is that this is something already begun, in which we can continue to grow, and which will find its fulfilment. The future is open, and taking Paul’s growth mindset to it, we can more and more be part of the reign of God as it grows. We are not only the sum of what we have been or are right now; God has so much more, and so much that is better, for us to press into.
Paul told the Philippians that “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” What will straining forward to what lies ahead look like, for you, this week?