A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 3, 2022
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 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.
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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
We’re gathered here this morning for two purposes – first, of course, we’re here to praise God, to bring our lives before God’s love and unfailing acceptance, to be reminded once again that, even as we fall short of our own goals, much less God’s, we are still loved, still valued, still part of God’s loving community.
And secondly, we’re here to be refreshed and restored, equipped and sent out to live out that love and acceptance in our world.
That sounds easy, and sometimes it is. And sometimes it’s surpassingly difficult. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is talking with us about the difficulties of life. He, of all people, should have had it easy, he says. He belongs to the elite. He comes from the best of families. He’d taking all the right positions – religiously, politically – in every way. Think of him as someone from the best family in Middletown, someone descended from Colonial settlers, someone who drives a great car and has a summer place down on the Sound…. and maybe even someone who went to Wesleyan or Yale. Every single way that could be made easy for him, has been.
And yet, his life is one challenge after another. Not one of those important things has turned out to be important. Who he was born to be, doesn’t matter. How much money his parents had, doesn’t matter. What school he went to, what profession he undertook. . . not one bit of it mattered in the long run.
What matters, he says, is following Jesus. What matters is getting your foundation right, building your world on God, not on who you are.
Now, I know you’ve heard that before. But it strikes me that today, it’s helpful to remember that this isn’t a quick kind of thing, it’s not a once and done experience. We build our lives on Christ – and maybe we started in elementary school, building on a church school education. And that was good.
Some things never change. There’s very often someone who’s desperate to know the one right way to do something – maybe the right kind of dish soap, maybe the one right way to hold a vote, or the one right way to offer a prayer. Or someone who’s struggling with addiction, someone who’s hiding their adultery or deception. . . someone who thinks they have better taste, or better fishing skills, or something, that makes them a better person. . . In today’s portion, Paul is writing about thinking you’re better than anyone else. The key for us today is this line:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
He’s saying, to those who think they’re so important, that nothing else matters but one thing – following Jesus Christ. We are not good because we’re naturally good, but good because we attempt to follow the way of Christ. We’re not important to our community because we’re important, but because we attempt to follow the way of Christ.
Whether or not we suffer from self-importance, this is true for us as well: what really matters, what is the true north of our internal compasses, is following Jesus Christ.
Around the times of the Reformation, when Protestants began to see that there was more to know about being Christian than just memorizing the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, we began to develop question & answer series – called catechisms – to help us learn what we needed to know. One of the first, and one of the best, is called the Heidelberg Catechism (because that’s where it was written). It begins with this question and answer:
What is your only hope, in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
There it is again… what matters to us is Jesus Christ. It is Christ who leads the way, Christ who shows us how to live.
When our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors came to this land, they wanted to re-create the church of Jesus Christ in a way which would be more faithful to Christ’s example than what they had known in England. They weren’t sure what ways would be right, but they were sure that some things were wrong.
Over the years, we’ve discovered that some of their ideas were no more than reflections of how things were done in their day, but others really did create a way to draw closer to God while creating a more loving community. And always, we have learned, it is when we look to Christ that we are able to see our actions truly.
It is in looking to Christ that we find our true direction. Christ is our north star, Christ the one who calls us to check out all the options, to look at those alternative or different paths. It is Christ who helps us when we get so discouraged that we’ve not yet made all the changes we need to make in our lives, in our world.
We are not alone. We are never alone. Wherever we are, wherever we go, Christ goes with us. In the depths of the pandemic, when it all threatened to be too much, I’d listen to the anthem We Are Not Alone, sung by the Oasis Chorale, and be reminded that we do not travel this way alone. Christ is with us.
It is Christ who gives us the courage to let go of what worked yesterday, but doesn’t today. It is Christ who helps us see new ways, but ways that simply give us new paths to be the same faithful followers. Jesus doesn’t care what color our carpet is; he cares how we live out our relationships with one another and with our community.
We are not condemned to live all this out, depending on yesterday’s answers for today’s problem. The journey’s not done, but we are not alone.
In Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton-Patch” translation of the Philippians letter, Paul says:
Brothers [and sisters], I don’t think I’ve caught on even yet, but with this one thing in mind, forgetting everything that lies behind and concentrating on what lies ahead, I push on with all I’ve got toward the prize of God’s invitation to the high road in Christ Jesus. So then, let all of us who are mature set our minds on this. Even if you should see things somewhat differently, this too will God make clear to you. Let’s just live up to the progress we have already made.
Here’s our future. The questions aren’t settled, the answers aren’t clear yet. But the map is right there in front of us – It is nothing more or less than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The journey has begun, and now, as we do each month, let us join together to re-dedicate ourselves to following the Christlike path as we eat and drink the bread and cup of Holy Communion.
Let’s look forward to a faithful, if yet unknown, future in Christ.
© 2022, Virginia H. Child