Running out of Time
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 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 9 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. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Sermon Running out of Time
Good morning! I’m so glad to see all of you here today. It’s a good chance to share some really big news with all of you: I finally saw Hamilton.
Now I know, living so close to New York, that most of you folks have probably seen the show on Broadway several times, but, to a humble, country pastor from out in the provinces, this is kind of a big deal, even if I only got to see it on Disney+.
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of musicals, but I am a big history nerd and Hamilton is a really compelling show. The play captures the creative energy and drive of the Alexander Hamilton and it presents the tension between the ideas of independence and interdependence.
That is, a great many people saw the need for independence from Great Britain, but few people agreed on what a new nation should look like. Should the United States be a strong, unified nation with a powerful central government? Or should this be a confederation of independent nations that are only loosely affiliated? The play takes these debates out of the civics textbook and into musical theatre, with a score that teenagers would enjoy.
At one point, the character of Aaron Burr is stunned by all of the things that Hamilton is doing and writing. In a song, Burr asks the question: “Why does he write like he’s running out of time? Why does he write like he’s running out of time?”
This is what we call dramatic irony. If we remember our history books, we know that Aaron Burr will eventually kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel in Weehawken, NJ, but the characters in the play don’t know this. So, to Burr, Hamilton’s intensity and creative output are astonishing, but to us, it seems like Hamilton knows that his days are numbered.
I hear the same intensity in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and with good reason. Paul probably wrote this letter while he was in prison, quite possibly when he was in Rome, before he was executed. While Paul might not have known that he would be put to death, he had to know it was a possibility. That gives a sense of urgency to the letter, and we know that Paul is going to die, even if he does not.
In verses 11-14, Paul talks about attaining the resurrection from the dead, “straining forward,” and “pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I get a little uncomfortable when I hear these verses. It sounds almost like Paul is telling us that we can work out our own salvation—that we can somehow be good enough or virtuous enough to work our way into heaven.
I don’t think that’s what Paul’s really saying, but words like goal and prize convince us otherwise. When we hear these words, we’re tempted to think that salvation is something we can achieve. Sometimes we think that faith is something we can do on our own. Then we start focusing on the finish line. We try to figure out what we need to do to make it into heaven.
Maybe we focus on our own behaviors; we try to do more good things or fewer bad things. We look at the sins of other people and think, “at least I’m not as bad as that guy. I’m sure God will let me in!”
I call this the bear theory. You ever hear this one?
You’re out on a camping trip with a bunch of people and a bear wanders into your campground. To save yourself, you don’t need to run faster than the bear, which is good, because you can’t outrun the bear. No, to save yourself, you just have to run faster than one other person in the group.
In a Christian context, that’s like saying, if my faith is stronger than his faith; or, if I do a few more good deeds than her; or, if I commit a few less sins than him, then God will let me live eternally. These are the games we play when we think that faith is something we can do on our own. When we play these games, we’re not looking at Jesus. And we’re not following Jesus.
Paul is following Jesus. His goal is the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” His goal is to serve as a living witness to Christ, even to the point of sharing Jesus’ “sufferings by becoming like him in death.” He is willing to die like Jesus in order to share the story of Jesus.
To attain that goal, to get to that point in the story, Paul had to give up everything that he held valuable before he had his conversion experience. He set aside his position and his privilege as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He set aside all the authority he had gained by persecuting the early Christians. He set aside the righteousness he had earned under the Law of Moses. He set all of that aside so that he could follow Jesus.
In this letter, he is urging the congregation at Philippi to let go of the things that keep them from living into Christ’s call, that keep them from living together as a community of faith.
Last week, you heard Paul tell the Philippians to practice humility, to do nothing out of selfish ambition. Today he is telling them to let go of the privileges that keep them from following Jesus and living in harmony with one another. He’s not telling a bunch of individuals in Philippi to be more righteous than their neighbors. He’s telling them to focus on Christ’s example, as he is focusing on Christ’s example.
A successful community, whether it’s a congregation, a town or city, or even a country, has to find a way to get a bunch of loosely connected individuals to act in concert. This requires a delicate balance between independence and interdependence.
If we are to serve as an effective witness to the love of God in the world, then we have to focus on Jesus and follow like Paul. We have to humble ourselves. We have to give up the things that give us power and privilege. We have to let go of our own tendencies toward self-righteousness. And we have to let go of any old anger, hurts, or grudges within this congregation, so that we may love one another more fully.
Then we have to take that love out into the world. We have to share it with all the people who aren’t with us in worship today. We have to bear that love into all the dark places where Jesus leads us. We don’t have to charge into all the dark places, all at once, but we do have to set aside the fears that prevent us from acting and the privilege that prevents us from connecting with people. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember to focus on Jesus. Follow him. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!